Survivor: Frank Heyl teaches others how to stay alive in extreme conditions
He started teaching survival during WWII and has never stopped
If you find yourself up a creek without a paddle, you want Frank Heyl in the canoe with you.
The 90-year-old Summerfield resident is an internationally recognized survival instructor, teaching classes all over the world and producing publications sold wherever people want to learn how to survive.
Heyl was the principal instructor and director for survival training programs for both the military and contract survival schools for 23 years, and during his 40-year military career, Heyl, a pilot, flew numerous medical-evacuation and search-and-rescue missions.
He didn't exactly chart a course towards this career but rather lucked into something he was good at, combining his initial interest in education with his military training to become the go-to survival instructor.
Growing up in Zillah, Wash., outside Yakima, where orchards flourished, Heyl's dad worked for a fruit company and was eventually transferred to White Salmon. Heyl said his first plane ride took place in a fabric-covered military airplane in 1935 when he was 11 years old.
Before graduating from Columbia Union High School in 1943, Heyl skipped school for two days to drive to and from Portland on the Old Columbia River Highway ("We called it the North Bank Highway") to sign up with the U.S. Army Air Force.
After graduating from flight school, Heyl flew B-25s on patrol, ferried aircraft around the country and became a flight instructor.
"There were too many pilots, so they were stacking up," Heyl said. "Here I was a new graduate, and I was turned into an instructor."
After a year in the service, he entered Lewis & Clark College to major in education and met his future wife, Alice Aston, on a blind date; she was attending Oregon State College and left after two years to work for an insurance company.
According to Heyl, 1951 was a memorable year: He graduated from college, got married to Alice and was called up to serve in the Korean War for a year.
This was when fate intervened and sent him on the path to becoming a survival instructor.
"Each Air Force squadron had to appoint a survival training officer, and I got the job," Heyl said. "Within a month, I had to go to the Air Force survival school, and I went on to attend 14 survival schools from Panama to Alaska to Scotland to Canada. I did my first and only parachute jump in Canada."
Heyl was sent to Japan, where he was a staff pilot, and Alice was able to join him. "She liked Japan, and I did too," Heyl said. "It was the best 18-month tour of duty - the planes had two nurses and hot coffee. It was the nicest flying I ever had."
Heyl joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves when he came back to the U.S. in 1954 and finally was able to use his education degree. He got a job teaching at Multnomah Elementary School in the Portland School District and started teaching fifth grade.
"I wanted to start in the first grade and work my way through the grades, but I was told that only ladies could teach first through fourth grade," Heyl said. "So I taught fifth, sixth and seventh but never eighth.
"First-year teachers earned $2,700, and it went up to $3,000. I only taught for four or five years and then became a full-time counselor."
The Alaska Sleeping Bag Company, based in Beaverton, hired Heyl to do research and development for not only its sleeping bags but also its growing line of cold-weather clothing.
Columbia Sportswear Company was one of its suppliers, and Heyl got to know Gert Boyle, now the chairwoman. (In 1948 she married Neal Boyle, who became head of Columbia Hat Company, as the company was then known. It started to manufacture products other than hats and became Columbia Sportswear Company in 1960.)
"Gert Boyle called me her little boy," Heyl said.
One of his jobs was improvising ways to test cold-weather equipment that was developed in the relatively balmy Portland area. "To test a new sleeping bag, we slept in it in a freezer in Lake Oswego with fans running," Heyl said.
When he left the Air Force Reserves as a lieutenant colonel, Heyl joined the National Guard, serving first as a flying safety officer and then as a combat aviation survival instructor. "I contracted for one year and stayed 14 years," he said.
He said he joined "because I wanted to fly helicopters."
Hyle added, "I had already flown six or seven other types of planes, including a B-25 bomber, a C-46 cargo plane, a C-131 that was a Medivac plane and one of the first to be pressurized, and a HU-16 amphibian plane called a Grumon Albatross."
Flying helicopters is very different from flying fixed-wing planes, and Heyl always kept in the back of his mind a statement made by one of his instructors: "Anything that screws itself into the air is not long for this world."
One of Heyl's innovations was creating decks of playing cards designed to be instructional, including one deck of survival tips and another based on edible and poisonous plants of the Western states.
Hyle was always doing more than one job at a time, plus he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, as his growing expertise in survival-related entities was called upon again.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, one of the world's largest pipeline systems, was built between 1974 and 1977 after the 1973 oil crisis caused a sharp increase in oil prices in the U.S.
The term "Alaska pipeline" refers to the 800 miles of 48-inch-diameter pipeline that conveys oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Aka.
The American Petroleum Institute hired Hyle to teach cold-weather survival to Alaska pipeline construction workers while he continued to work for the sleeping bag company, and he later ended up teaching survival classes in most of the states and in other countries.
"People started going to Alaska to work on the pipeline and needed to be trained in how to survive in those cold conditions," Heyl said. "The workers were coming in from warm-weather states like Texas and California, and they would turn around and head right back home or get hurt. I co-taught cold-weather survival with an Oregon City physician, Dr. Cameron Bangs.
"Everyone had to pass a test, and if you stayed alive, you passed the test and were issued a blue card. The year before we started teaching our classes, there were 246 cold-weather injuries among those working on the pipeline. A year after the classes, there were 21.
"A pipeline project manager initially told me, 'We want our people to have the same clothes as the Eskimos have.' That would have meant getting 40,000 polar bear skins and 80,000 seal skins, so it wasn't feasible."
Heyl also collaborated as a consultant with the American Petroleum Institute in rewriting and editing the pipeline safety manual, "Staying Alive in the Arctic," which became the standard for cold-weather survival training in Alaska and was later used in the Soviet Union.
In 1975, Heyl was appointed chairman of the Oregon Search and Rescue Council, which wrote the state's search and rescue training standards.
And Heyl started yet another new career after Loren McKinley, a former First Citizen of Oregon, one of the state's leading civic activists and executive director emeritus of the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, hired Heyl to be director of outdoor education at OMSI, where he was still able to carry on research and development in survival equipment as well as develop programs for kids.
"I designed kids' classes at OMSI and contacted very-qualified instructors to teach them," Heyl said. "I did very little teaching myself. I interviewed the teachers and signed them up.
"I pretty much kept doing the same work over the years. I just changed the heading on my stationary."
Although Heyl is now a nonagenarian, he hasn't slowed down: In 2010, he co-wrote a book with his friend Richard O. Woodfin Jr. called "Why Some Survive: Common Threads of Survival."
"It is based on interviews over 20 years with 117 people who survived incredible circumstances," Heyl said. "The youngest was a 4 ½-month-old girl who lived for five days in snow cave, and the oldest was a 76-year-old woman who fell into a creek. One story is about a woman who survived 58 days in the Arctic. Interestingly, on average women survive longer than men."
Heyl mostly volunteers his time now, such as presenting a program at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park at Fort Clatsop on Sept. 15 as part of its Autumn 2013 "In Their Footsteps" free speaker series. His talk was based on his book called, "Cold Weather Survival - A Way of Life," and according to the park website, his presentation included "riveting true stories of Northwest survival, including search-and-rescue situations."
In spite of all of Heyl's achievements, he said the high point of his life was meeting Jimmy Doolittle, a retired Air Force general, when he came to OMSI.
(Doolittle, also an aviation pioneer, earned a Medal of Honor for his valor and leadership as commander of the Doolittle Raid while a lieutenant colonel during WWII. The April 18, 1942, raid, also known as the Tokyo Raid, was the first air raid by the U.S. to strike the Japanese home islands during WWII. By demonstrating that Japan was vulnerable to American air attack, it provided a morale and opportunity for U.S. retaliation after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.)
"I was the greeter at OMSI," Heyl said. "I thought Jimmy Doolittle would be at least 7 feet tall and 300 pounds, but I was 2 inches taller than him."
On the home front, Heyl's wife Alice died three years ago, only eight months short of their 60th anniversary, just as they were in the process of moving from Lake Oswego to Summerfield. They have two children, Tom and Trudy, and three grandchildren plus step-great-grandchildren.