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Alaskan Aviation


Have you ever looked closely at the maps of Alaska? The next time you see a map look for the little airplane symbol in every little town and village in Alaska. That symbol indicates an airstrip. That symbol also means that that is where some unfortunate bush pilot crashed and said, "This looks like a good place for an airstrip." In the early days of Alaskan aviation it was not possible to call ahead and determine if a community had a suitable landing strip. The pilot simply flew to the village and looked for a open spot to land. A controlled crash into deep snow usually resulted. Once aviation became routine, the landing strips were refined and smoothed, but those first fliers had to land by the seat of their pants.

The tales of Alaska are real, they are bold, and they are tall. However, none is taller and truer then the tales of the Alaskan aviator. Many people have come to Alaska seeking their fortunes in gold or furs or lumber or oil. Many have come to seek the adventure of the great outdoors. The aviator of Alaska came for none of the above. They came because that is what he or she did. A breed unto themselves, their actions have painted a portrait of forward thinking men and women who stepped forward in time to see Alaska's future. That future being one in the air.

Alaskan aviation has contributed significantly to the lives of Alaskans. Many communities send and receive mail, receive groceries, provide emergency services, and maintain contact with the outside world solely through the use of aircraft and the pilots who fly them. Alaskans have a unique relationship with the aircraft. Airplanes have enabled Alaskans to commute through their environment and conduct business in almost normal fashion. Alaska has benefited greatly through the use of aircraft and Alaskan aviators have contributed significantly to the flying techniques used around the world.

The aviation history in Alaska begins ironically, with a long, slow boat ride for an aircraft. After being off loaded at Skagway, the aircraft was hauled by the Yukon Narrow Gauge Railroad to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. It then traveled down the Yukon river and up the Tanana river to Fairbanks were the aircraft was flown for the 1913, Fourth of July celebration (Mills and Phillips 13). Alaska has never looked back from that first flight.

In the summer of 1922, Clarence O. Prest decided to fly from New York to Nome. All went well until Prest departed from Dawson City, Yukon Territory. After having engine trouble, Prest crash landed on an isolated beach near Fort Yukon. Prest was transported by a riverboat operator named Gilbert Cook to Tanana (Mills and Phillips 16). Clarence O. Prest is the first name in a long and famous list of aviators that have crashed in the unforgiving terrain of Alaska's wilderness.

Ben Eielson began commercial use of the airplane in Alaska when on February 21, 1924, he flew the first official air mail flight in Alaska from Fairbanks to McGrath. Eielson, as luck would have it, crashed on landing and returned to law studies at Georgetown University Washington, D. C.(Mills and Phillips 16). Eielson would latter return to Alaska to renew his sense of adventure.

The first flight across the Arctic took place in 1925. Noel Wien transported two mining operators who wanted to travel from Fairbanks to Wiseman, an arctic town some 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle (Potter 80). Numerous aviation companies sprouted in Alaska. These companies began to ferry supplies and passengers to the towns and villages of Alaska. Operating primarily form Weeks field in Fairbanks and landing strips in Anchorage, these companies racked up a significant amount of "firsts." Joe Crosson of the Bennett-Rodebough Company made the first commercial flight from Fairbanks to Point Barrow and the first flight over Mt. McKinley's 20,320 foot summit (Mills and Phillips 23). On April 16, 1928 Captains Carl Ben Eielson and an Australian, George H. Wilkins, became the first aviators to successfully fly over the North Pole. Their landing in Spitzbergen, Norway completed a 2,200 mile flight (Mills and Phillips 27). This also marked the first time that the knowledge of arctic aviation was used to specifically design an aircraft. The knowledge of Ben Eielson, which he had gained on his previous flights in Alaska, contributed to the future design of aircraft.

Alaskan aviation matured quickly in 1929. The early barnstormers had had incredible luck walking away from crash after crash, but in 1929, all that changed. In September of 1929, Russell Merrill departed on a flight from Anchorage to the Nyac mine near Bethel. He was never seen again. On November 9,1929 Ben Eielson was lost while enroute to Siberia. Ed Young was killed when his Fairchild 71 crashed at Livengood. The last to find his fate was Ralph Wien. On October 12, 1930, Wien crashed at Kotzebue killing him and two priests. The Kotzebue airfield is named in his honor (Mills and Phillips 30). The tragic end of these great aviators marked the start of the great expansion of aviation in the Alaska territory. The demand for air travel continued to grow and with that demand came better aircraft, safer airstrips, and more experienced pilots.

The 1930's were an era of growth for the aviation industry in Alaska. Aircraft became the sole means of reaching isolated villages and lonesome trappers. This development encouraged great expansion. Alaskan Airways was formed. The first flight training school was established in Alaska, Star Air Service (Mills and Phillips 34). The events of the previous two decades had served to prepare Alaska for the largest single event in U. S. history.

World War II saw aviation pushed to the forefront of military planning. Its use would greatly determine the outcome of the war. Whoever controlled the air would control the ground, and whoever controlled the ground would win the war. Alaskan aviators were at the forefront. The years of experience gained flying through, over, and around the most hazardous terrain, gave the Alaskan aviators key advantages in their fight with the Japanese.

Japan renounced the Arms Treaty of 1922. This development made all of Alaska vulnerable to invasion. Congress lobbied successfully for Army bases in Alaska and along the Aleutians. Bases and airfields were established at Fairbanks (Ladd Field), Anchorage (Elmendorf and Ft. Richardson), and Juneau (Annette Island Army Post). The Japanese attack that followed two decades later was hardly a surprise, however, the role Alaska was to play came as a real shock to those in Washington who considered Alaska too remote to be of strategic importance.

On June 3, 1942 Captain Tadao Kato launched the first of two attacks on Dutch Harbor. This attack was a diversionary tactic by Imperial Fleet Admiral Yamamoto who was attempting to draw forces away from his real goal of invading Midway Island (Mills 58). The following day a second attack was launched at Dutch Harbor. Following the attack, the task force that launched the attack disappeared into the Aleutian weather, returning safely to Japanese waters. Dutch Harbor sustained minor damage, but this attack was the first on American territory.

Alaska's first major contribution came on June 4, 1942. During the second attack on Dutch Harbor a lucky shot from a Navy PBY brought down a Japanese zero. The zero was latter recovered and shipped to the United States were it was disassembled and studied. The test results from this deadly aircraft highlighted shortcomings in U. S. aircraft design and many of the zero's features were later incorporated into the incredibly successful U. S. Navy F6-F Grumman Hellcat (Mills 66). This was the first zero captured during the war.

On June 6, 1942 the Japanese invaded Kiska and neighboring Attu Islands. The Japanese force immediately set out to fortify their position. The first fortification was the emplacement of anti-aircraft batteries and machine-guns for defense of the skies.

To engage an entrenched enemy requires bombers and Alaska was in very short supply. The defense of Alaska required that supplies and aircraft be flown from factories in California to Alaska. With green pilots and flying over rough, unforgiving terrain at high speeds, many of these valuable aircraft failed to materialize in Alaska. Whole flights of Aircraft would disappear on their way. Two squadrons of B-26 Mauraders left California and one month later the first aircraft arrived in Fairbanks. When the last aircraft arrived, 45 days after first leaving California, a total of 13 of the original 45 aircraft had failed to reach Alaska (Mills 73).

In defense of Alaska was the 11th Air Force under the command of Colonel William O. Eareckson. Eareckson, a former Army enlisted, was appointed to West Point and following his commission, dedicated his entire career to military aviation. He was assigned to the defense of Alaska in March 1941. Colonel Eareckson was given orders to bomb the Japanese out of the Aleutians. This task was made extremely difficult due to the constantly bad Aleutian weather that shrouded the islands in a constant blanket of fog. To accomplish his mission, Eareckson experimented with several methods of delivering ordnance. Using a technique used during the PBY blitzes, he used a volcano as a visual reference point, then flying directly over the peak, made a timed distance run with a stopwatch and compass, and dropped bombs on an unseen target. This became known as dead reckoning bombing or "DR" runs. Eareckson also began using time-delayed fuses on his bombs that prevented the bombs from exploding under the low flying aircraft that had just dropped its ordnance (Garfield 106). His experiences in Alaska were to contribute significantly to the air war in the Pacific. Having flown in the worst weather imaginable, Col. Eareckson was more than capable of handling a few enemy fighters.

Another unique aspect of the war in Alaska was the Lend -Lease program. The Lend- Lease program was established to send supplies and equipment to the embattled Soviet Army. There were three primary routes used to accomplish this task. The first was a 13,000-mile route around Africa, up the Persian Gulf and across Iran. The second and least used, was a north Atlantic route which ran the North Atlantic to Archangel. This route was dangerous because of German submarine activities. The third route was through Alaska. For aircraft, this meant a flight starting in Great Falls, Montana and following the route of the newly constructed ALCAN (Alaskan- Canadian) highway. With refueling stops along the way, the flights traversed 1,900 miles and ended in Fairbanks where the aircraft were turned over to Soviet pilots for the remainder of the flight to Russia. Throughout the war, nearly 8000 aircraft were delivered in this method (Mills 73). Again the contributions of pilots familiar with Alaska and its unforgiving weather and terrain played a major role in the war effort. Many of Alaska's bush pilots played a role in the lend- lease delivery system. Bush pilots Bob Ellis, Kenny Neese, Bert Ruoff, Murrell Sasseen and Clayton Scott ferried aircraft to Alaska.

A major role was to be played by another Alaska bush pilot. Allan Horning, a former military aviator before flying the bush in Alaska, was ordered to active service as a guide pilot to select locations for army air bases throughout Alaska and the Aleutians. Elmendorf airfield was one of the locations chosen. Horning later joined the Civil Aeronautics Administration and prior to and during the war was instrumental in promoting navigation aids, other safety features and regulating air traffic (Mills 81).

The Alaskan Theater was officially closed with the retaking of Attu and Kiska Islands. A constant cycling of aircraft for bombing runs over the islands had kept the Japanese weak and without supplies for months. The bombardments by both the Navy and the Air Corp had made it impossible for the Japanese to complete their landing strips. When the liberation of Attu began on May 11, 1943, the Japanese were without resupply capabilities and without any chance of reinforcement. The Japanese were outgunned and outmanned yet the invasion of Attu would go down in history as the second costliest battle of the Pacific Theater, second only to the blood shed of Iwo Jima (Mills 93). The invasion of Kiska Island was another story. Having been cut off with the retaking of Attu Island the Japanese command decided to evacuate the beleaguered troops on Kiska. When the Army landed on August 15, 1943, they found only a dozen dogs to greet them. The Allied Air Service had lost 471 aircraft in the Aleutian Campaign. The Japanese losses were 69 aircraft lost in combat and 200 lost due to fog or storm (Mills 104).

July 10, 1943, saw a new development in the war with Japan. Using Attu as a base to launch raids, the Army Air Force began to pound the Japanese Naval facilities in the Kuriles Islands. Bombing raids were limited, although the presence of hostile aircraft required the Japanese to defend their islands with numerous aircraft and ships that could have been useful in other areas of the war. The bombing raids convinced the Japanese that the invasion of the Japanese mainland lie somewhere in the near future. They attempted to prepare for an invasion which never materialized.

A history of aviation in Alaska, especially the war era, can not be concluded without a detailed study of the contributions to the war effort by the pilots and aircraft of the Navy PBY squadrons. These "flying boats," were a reconnaissance platform which was used to locate enemy forces. During the Aleutian campaign many of these aircraft became involved in offensive combat which they were ill equipped to do. Throughout the remainder of the war the PBY squadrons continued around the clock operations as the watchful eyes of the north. The pilots and squadrons were awarded numerous citations for valor and heroism including the Flying Cross and Air Medals (Freeman 177).

Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell said, "Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, and this is true either of Europe, Asia or North America. I believe in the future. He who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most strategic place in the world." This was to hold true throughout the war and into the 21st century.

With the end to the war Alaskans quickly turned back to their normal way of life. This included their continued love affair with the airplane. The wars residual effect was that many new innovations were left in place which encouraged and benefited future fliers. These included but a not limited to airports, navigational aids, radio communication, and up to date charts of most of Alaska, including the Aleutian chain (Mills 145).

Tourism began to be a major economic resource for Alaskans. Aircraft allowed the sportsman, fisherman and explorers to reach places yet unexplored. Entirely new businesses began to emerge in and around the aircraft industry. Some of these new businesses were flying schools, charter sightseeing flights, mechanics, parts and services, fuel and oil sales. Anchorage soon became the air cross roads to the orient. International air carriers refueled for international flights over the pole or using the great circle route. In 1960, with the dedication of the Anchorage International Airport, Anchorage became the country's fifth busiest terminal for freight and passenger traffic (Mills 146).

Alaskan aviation has also moved into the future with the introduction on the rocket. NASA's Jet propulsion Laboratories use the hangars of Ladd Field, now Ft. Wainwright, to conduct tests of the upper atmosphere. The research conducted aids in the future understanding of upper atmospheric wind and weather conditions.

The University of Alaska, Fairbanks launches and retrieves data from launches at the Poker Flats Research Range, just 30 miles north of Fairbanks. The Poker Flats facility is the only non-federal, university owned and operated range in the world and the only high-latitude, auroral-zone rocket launch facility in the United States. More than 1,500 meteorologic missiles and 236 major high-altitude sounding rocket experiments have been launched by scientists and technicians. Studies are conducted by universities and agencies from around the world on topics such as the aurora, ozone layer solar protons the electric and magnetic fields and ultraviolet radiation ( pfrr/PFRR/INDEX.HTM). These results enhance our understanding of the aurora borealis and the effects that this phenomenon has on communication, navigation and other flight related sciences.

Alaskans have always had a deep love for the aircraft and the people that fly them. With the invention of the plane, adventurers sought uncharted areas to explore and limits to be pushed. This drive to go higher and faster has opened Alaska to the whole of North America and the world. Today, thanks to the efforts of many pilots, Alaska's remote villages and communities have emergency services at their disposal. They purchase needed supplies that hold them over for the winter. They communicate with the outside world and travel to lobby state government for changes needed in their environment and towns for their continued well being. Aviation has brought new sources of commerce to towns that would have long ago disappeared. Tourism, Alaska's third largest industry, is greatly indebted to the aircraft. Planes bring millions of travelers annually to the farthest reaches of Alaska and with these travelers comes the needed income for thriving communities.


Freeman, Elmer A.. Those Navy Guys and Their PBY's: The Aleutian Solution.

Spokane, Washington: Kedging Publishing Co., 1984.

Garfield, Brian. The Thousand Mile War. N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1988.

Levi, Steven, and O'Meara, Jim. Bush Flying. United States: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

MacLean, Robert Merrill, and Rossiter, Sean. Flying Gold: The Adventures of Russell

Merrill, Pioneer Alaskan Aviator. Fairbanks, AK: Epicenter Press, 1994

Mills, Stephen E., and Phillips, James W.. Sourdough Sky. Seattle, WA.: Superior Publishing Co., 1969.

Mills, Stephen E.. Arctic War Birds: Alaska Aviation of WWII. Seattle, WA: Superior Publishing Co., 1971.

Potter, Jean. Flying Frontiersmen. N.Y.: The MacMillan Co., 1956

Wachel, Pat. Oscar Winchell: Alaska's Flying Cowboy. Minneapolis: T. S. Denison and Co. Inc., 1967.

USAF Museum. Aleutian Islands 1942-1943: The Aleutian Campaign. [Online] available Http://, July 1998.

Poker Flat Research Range. General Information. [Online] available pfrr/PFRR/INDEX.HTM, July 1998



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