Palmer Airport to be Renamed in Honor of Local Pilots
November 7, 2015
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  • Thirty years after their dramatic deaths, Palmer pilots Warren “Bud” Woods and Randy Thom will be honored for their service to the city and the state.

    On Oct. 27, the Palmer City Council agreed to change the name of the Palmer Municipal Airport to the Warren (Bud) Woods Palmer Municipal Airport, and the Palmer Flight Service Station to the Randy Thom Palmer Flight Service Station.

    Mayor DeLena Johnson, who remembered Woods’ epic rescue of two women from Denali in June of 1976, said support for the name change at the second and final council meeting on the issue was overwhelming.

    “I’m not sure I’ve been in any council meeting ever that the audience stood up and gave a standing ovation at the end,” she said, recalling the applause after passing the resolution.

    Though not every attendee present in support of Woods testified at the meetings, several spoke of the deceased on both occasions. The emotion in the room was palpable, Johnson said.

    “It was like it had just happened,” she said, of the 1986 crash that took the lives of the two men.

    In the past

    Frontiersman reporting at the time revealed that Woods and Thom were killed when their twin-engine Caribou airplane crash-landed in Lime Village, near Bethel. On approach, the nose of the aircraft allegedly turned up and the plane slid backwards before coming to rest. (One pilot recently speculated that the crash was caused by a trim system malfunction, likely involving the jackscrew, which controls stabilization in the tail of the aircraft. Such an accident occurred 15 years ago on Alaska Airlines Flight 261 from Mexico to Seattle, detailed on the FAA website.)

    On March 25 of 1986, then-mayor George Carte signed a resolution that read, “the City of Palmer will forever be indebted to Mr. Warren ‘Buddy’ Woods for his unheralded dedication to aviation and the City of Palmer Municipal Airport,” among other things.

    Woods’ widow, Christine Woods-Soulak, said they’d been married 25 years when Buddy was killed. As an employee of Woods Air Service for as many years at that time, she agreed with the speculation on the cause of the crash.

    “Randy had no control over the plane,” she said.

    Watching and listening to people stand up and talk about her first husband at city hall recently, Woods-Soulak said, brought the memories flooding back.

    “It’s been hard listening to all these people that are still coming forth telling stories of Bud, (but) after 30 years, still to be remembered is heartwarming,” she said by phone Wednesday.

    The man himself

    Though best known by some for the Denali rescue, Woods-Soulak said Buddy felt that he was just doing his job.

    “He never set out to be a hero, he just set out to do a job and I think that’s what I admired most about him,” she said.

    Woods-Soulak received a letter signed by at least 10 state representatives telling of what inspired others about the man she loved.

    “Buddy Woods was one who believed life was too short to not enjoy your work,” she read. “His word was as good as cash in a village across the state. … He flew by the seat of his pants in airplanes that were an extension of his arms and legs. … He was a hero to people who didn’t know him, and a friend to those who did.”

    Palmer Airport Advisory Commission Chairman John Lees (also owner of New Horizons Telecom, Inc.) is one who calls himself a friend.

    Lee was traveling during the writing of this story, but despite that and his general hesitancy to talk to reporters — a trait he shared with Woods, Woods-Soulak said — he agreed to comment by phone on the renaming of the airport.

    “He was a remarkable pilot,” Lee said, reflecting on their 20 years together as friends and fellow businessmen.

    Where most professional pilots have some combination of skill and good instincts, Lee said Woods “weighed heavily on instinct.”

    “He knew what was gonna happen,” Lee said. “He was always calm, never excitable … really methodical about everything he did.”

    These characteristics may have made the circumstances of his death even more shocking to some, but Lee, like Woods-Soulak, said it wasn’t something anyone could have anticipated.

    The addition of Woods’ name to the airport, however, has been a long time coming, he said.

    “It’s only fitting,” Lee said. “He’s just the right guy for the honor.”

    The ‘understudy’

    Lee said the same goes for Thom, who will be forever memorialized at the newly named flight station. Though he didn’t know the 23-year-old as well as Woods, Lee called Thom the older pilot’s “understudy,” so devoted and skilled was he at his job.

    Thom’s sister, Kristy Thom Bernier, wrote an email to City of Palmer secretary Sandra Peterson in support of the renaming of both facilities. In the email, Bernier described her brother as someone who “had not reached legendary status” (like Woods) by the time of his death, but was passionate about flying, despite having lost a friend in a local plane crash several years earlier.

    A graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical in Florida, Thom “looked up to Buddy Woods and took in as much as he could from a man who was an inspiration to him,” Bernier wrote.

    Bernier called flying with her older brother one of her “greatest joys,” and flying over glaciers, one of his.

    “I have so many fond memories of the time I spent there (at the airport) with Randy. I often spend time there, watching the planes take off and land and remembering.”

    Brett Robinson, a corporate pilot based in Anchorage, said he too has many fond memories of his best friend.

    Robinson said he and his brother Eric grew up with Thom, each of them graduating from Palmer High School in 1981 with Woods’ son, Warren. The four of them had “a great passion for aviation,” Robinson said, and bonded in Jim Booth’s air crossroads class at the high school before heading off to Embry Riddle together.

    When Thom died, Robinson was working at a Portland airport, but received the news from his dad within a matter of hours.

    “It was a tough day,” Robinson said.

    As was the day the resolution passed, he said, but it was also a joyous day.

    “I was really glad to see the mayor pass this deal and recognize and honor both guys,” Robinson said. “It’s just a real moving thing.”

    Mayor Johnson said new signs for the airport and flight station will be in the works as soon as a designer is contracted. A dedication ceremony is tentatively planned for this spring.