ALASKAN AVIATION ALASKAN AVIATION Have you ever looked real close 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 were 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 the 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.
W. W. 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 had 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, …