Alaska and the Airplane

For a century, each has shaped the other.

FIRST FLIGHT: James and Lilly Martin—both aviators—shipped their Martin Tractor Aeroplane from Seattle to Fairbanks, and on July 3, 1913, they introduced Alaska to the spectacle of powered flight. Onlookers watched as the biplane sped past at 45 mph and an altitude of 200 feet. Despite the theatrics, another decade passed before aviation took hold in the territory.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: With the arrival of the airplane, Alaska’s remote regions were finally within reach, and pilots routinely carried mail, freight, and passengers to formerly isolated villages. Bush pilot Linious “Mac” McGee helped transform commercial aviation when in 1932 he founded McGee Airways, one of Anchorage’s first air services. The company merged with Star Air Service two years later and, in 1944, became Alaska Airlines.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Flying in Alaska was as much about the ground as the air. The installation of skis on aircraft enabled take-offs and landings from snow, ice, and mud, making flying in Alaska a year-round activity. United Airmotive manufactured these Model 25B skis (above), intended for small aircraft like the Piper Super Cub.
STEARMAN C2B BIPLANE: The Stearman’s tough construction enabled it to land on wheels, skis, or floats, so it was perfect for Alaska’s rugged terrain. This aircraft, the centerpiece of the Anchorage Museum’s exhibition, arrived in the Territory in June 1928, purchased by the Arctic Prospecting and Developing Company of Fairbanks. In October of that year, Noel Wien bought the aircraft, which was flown by well-known bush pilots including Merle “Mudhole” Smith and Joe Crosson.
GLACIER FLYING: Joe Crosson pioneered high-altitude mountain flying, taking tourists to view Mount McKinley from the air. He also carried altimeters that measured the mountain's summit at higher than 20,000 feet above sea level and helped a team use the mountain's elevation for a study of cosmic rays. Accompanying Crosson on the 1932 Cosmic Ray Expedition was Edward Beckwith (possibly shown here with Crosson's Alaskan Airways Fairchild 71), a consulting engineer for General Electric. Crosson was so well known in the 1930s that in an Alaskan newspaper poll, the bush pilot was featured alongside Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Jimmy Doolittle.
CONNECTING THE LOWER 48: In 1940, Pacific Alaska Airways started regular airmail and passenger service from the contiguous United States to Alaska. The airline, which used the four-engine Sikorsky S-42 and a Lockheed Electra to complete the route, issued this first-day mail cover to celebrate the event.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE: On June 5, 1925, former barnstormer Noel Wien made the first commercial flight between Fairbanks and Nome, covering the 560 miles in seven hours and 40 minutes in a Fokker monoplane. Here Fairbanks mayor, Dr. F. Dela Vernge (in derby), hands Wien a letter for personal delivery in the Bering Sea city. The cost of the charter flight: $1,500.
HIGH-FLYING: Fashion During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces issued its “Alaskan Suit” to units operating in the region. The ensemble consisted of a wolf-fur-trimmed hood attached to a three-quarter-length B-7 jacket; shearling A-6 trousers; and a heavy winter AN-H-16 flying helmet, which kept the wearer comfortable in sub-zero temperatures.
RECYCLING CAN: Gasoline and oil were precious commodities for bush pilots, who often staged cans along their routes for refueling. Other products, like Ban-Ice, which prevented moisture in fuel systems from freezing, and Blazo Fuel, for portable heaters and stoves, increased the chances of survival. Creative bush pilots, as well as villagers, found innovative ways to use the empty cans and crates. Crates were turned into furniture, which came to be known as “Alaskan Chippendale.” The detritus of bush flying became part of everyday life in Alaska.

Can there be a more suspenseful man-against-nature story than the history of the airplane in Alaska? For 100 years, pilots there have contended with the hazards of mountain flying, the unpredictability of weather, and the vast, wild spaces to be crossed. Until only very recently, the scorecard has been uncertain: Pilots lost almost as many contests as they won.

From that history of risk and adventure in the nation’s largest state has grown a legend of larger-than-life heroes, the bush pilots who became famous for their daring, ingenuity, and foresight.

Barnstormer Noel Wien established Wien Air Alaska, pioneering commercial aviation in the state. Carl Ben Eielson, Alaska’s first airmail pilot, delivered letters and packages between Fairbanks and McGrath in 1924—until the post office, after a series of crashes, cancelled his contract and returned the job of mail delivery to dogsled teams. And bush pilot Joe Crosson, the first to land on Mount McKinley’s glaciers, was celebrated on radio, in advertisements, and in comic books.

In the foreword to a new book, Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight (by Julie Decker and Jeremy Kinney, Braun, 2013), James Pepper Henry, CEO of the Anchorage Museum, explains the persistence of the pilots who made their living and their reputations flying in Alaska: “It is a land so vast that approximately 83 percent of Alaskan communities are isolated from road service. Many of these communities rely upon small aircraft as a lifeline for supplies, mail, and emergency services. A unique ‘bush pilot’ culture has evolved in Alaska as a result of the heavy reliance on rural aviation as the only practical means of transportation and connection to and from the outside world.”

The book is a companion to the Anchorage Museum’s exhibition “Arctic Flight,” a celebration of the centennial of Alaskan aviation that runs through August 11, 2013. The above excerpt offers a glimpse at the history that unfolded in Alaska, a place where—still—the best practical means of travel is the airplane.

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