Ferrell, Nancy Warren, Alaska's Heroes: A Call to Courage. Alaska Northwest Books. Softbound. 142 pages plus index. Black-and-white photographs. $13.95.

What makes a hero? Someone who puts themselves at risk in order to save others is the usual answer. But in order to publicly acknowledge unselfish acts, we need an award. In 1965 the State of Alaska Award for Bravery-Heroism was established. Since this is Alaska, many of the awards have been given for aviation and water rescues, although fire, vehicles, and public safety actions are saluted as well.

Nancy Ferrell, well-known Alaskan writer, is the perfect person to dramatize the stories behind the awards. She not only is a lively author, but personally interviewed as many participants as possible for each drama, thus adding a nice dimension to the account itself.

For example, the first skyjacking attempt in Alaska, which included the famous words "This plane is not going to Bethel" (the report that the passengers cheered lustily and started offering suggestions for other places is entirely apocryphal), turned out to be a tale of heroism on the part of the cabin attendant, the pilots, and ground crews. The cabin attendant felt sorry for the skyjacker and established a real rapport with him, to the point that when the hostage negotiator arrived in Vancouver he was startled to have the young attendant order the hijacker to stop waving his pistol and see him meekly obey. Ferrell followed this up with reports on the subsequent lives of the participants.

In 1988 seven hunters from Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island set out on a June walrus and duck hunt. Things went badly wrong, and the group drifted in the Bering Sea for 23 days before they made it back to the island. They saved themselves by using skills handed down for several thousand years, but it was a close call. The Alaska Air National Guard and even the Russians, although the Cold War was still frosty indeed, flew in the heavy fogs and winds of the strait for two weeks before admitting defeat. The author talked with the leader of the hunters years later about his ordeal, and found it had made him simply grateful for each day he lives.

A fisherman and his small son were doing some winter fishing in Sitka Sound in 1987 when a storm blew in. They took shelter behind Saint Lazaria Island but then the wind changed direction and the 70-knot winds slammed the troller ashore. The Sitka Coast Guard Air Station responded to the Mayday calls with a helicopter and rescue swimmer. The wind gusts and high seas repeatedly endangered the helicopter and the swimmer after he made it into the water. He lifted the father and son into the rescue basket, then was nearly killed himself by the swinging of the basket. The pilots needed every bit of skill they had to avoid losing the helicopter by flying so low. In fact, when the ordeal was over, the craft itself was terribly battered.

Although most of the accounts have happy endings, a few sadly resulted in the death of the rescuer. There is also one very odd record of a Fairbanks newspaper delivery boy who saved two very young children from their home fire on the army base and risked his own life repeatedly trying to save the baby upstairs. He got his award, but due to sparse newspaper coverage (the cause of the fire, the reason for the absence of the parents, and any subsequent investigation), a base fire, and loss of school records, plus the boy's common name, the then 13-year-old Jeffrey remained untraceable by Ferrell.

In summation, when you're feeling the world is full of rotten, selfish, greedy people, this is a great book to read.

D. L.