Today in Women’s Transportation History – 2008: The Passing of an Aviation Pioneer

Photo of Ellen Paneok courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program.

Aviation pioneer Ellen Evak Paneok died in Anchorage, Alaska, at the age of 48. She had been born in 1959.  (Accounts vary on whether her birthplace was in Alaska or Virginia.) Her parents were Bernice Evak Burgandine, who was of Inupiat ancestry and came from the town of Kotzebue in northwestern Alaska, and Ron Burgandine of the U.S. Air Force.

Paneok’s parents divorced when she was in the fifth grade. After the divorce, her mother ended up taking Paneok and her two sisters to Anchorage. The next several years proved to be especially rough for Paneok. After the state’s social services agency intervened to ensure that she and her sisters were adequately cared for, Paneok bounced around several foster homes and at one point was placed in a juvenile detention center.

It was during this time in her life that Paneok developed a strong passion for flying. A major source of inspiration for her was an aviation magazine that she read at age 15. Paneok grew increasingly determined to learn how to pilot a plane. Initially, she used a dividend made available to her under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to pay for flying lessons. When that source of income dried up, Paneok obtained additional money for the lessons by selling pen-and-ink drawings and scrimshaw that she created. Paneok was able to complete those lessons, often skipping classes at her high school in favor of flight training.

At the age of 20, Paneok became the first Alaskan woman of indigenous ancestry to receive her pilot’s license. She earned her commercial and flight-instructor certificates by the time she was 23.  After her elevated blood pressure disqualified her from pursuing an aerobatics career, Paneok became a bush pilot instead and in this capacity, she transported passengers, mail, and cargo to remote areas in Alaska not served by most other pilots. Paneok logged more than 15,000 hours of flight during her life and the cargo she delivered as a bush pilot included everything from dynamite to live wolverines. She became known as “Owl Eyes” because of her ability to see and fly in just about any type of weather.

Along with carrying out her duties as a bush pilot, Paneok worked as an operations inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and a statewide safety coordinator for the Alaska Aviation Foundation. She belonged to the International Organization of Women Pilots and the Alaska Airmen’s Association. Paneok achieved widespread acclaim as a female aviation pioneer and in 1997 she was an honored guest at the “Women in Flight” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. She regaled those attending this event with a story about how she once had to wait for an airstrip to be cleared of polar bears before she could land her plane there.

A few days after Paneok’s death in 2008, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska took to the Senate floor to pay tribute to the late pilot. “In aviation as in life, attitude influences altitude,” said Murkowski. “With an attitude like this, it is no wonder that Ellen will be remembered as a ‘heroine in aviation’.”

In 2012, Paneok was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Her legacy went beyond just airborne pursuits, however. Another one of Paneok’s passions during her adult years had involved talking with and motivating at-risk children in Anchorage and elsewhere in Alaska. “When you decide to do something, don’t let anyone or anything discourage you,” she would say to these individuals. “It’s up to you.”

For more information on Ellen Evak Paneok, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Paneok.

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