Alaska's Heritage


Powered aerial flight comes to Alaska

During the thousands of years that humans occupied Alaska before the twentieth century, many of those occupants probably wished that some magic could lift them across streams and swamps and over mountain ranges. Later occupants probably wished for some magic that could carry them in hours between Alaska and other parts of the world. In the twentieth century, the magic appeared.

In December of 1903, two Ohio bicycle shop owners, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the first successful powered aircraft flight on a North Carolina beach. Although this first powered flight lasted only a few seconds, improved aircraft and engines followed rapidly.

First airplane flight in Alaska is at Fairbanks

Only a few years after that successful North Carolina flight, some merchants in Fairbanks decided that a demonstration flight there could pay for itself. They arranged for James V. and Lilly Martin to bring their airplane from Seattle for such a flight on July 4, 1913. The Martins shipped their crated airplane from Seattle to Skagway by ocean steamer and from Skagway to Whitehorse to Fairbanks by steamboat. This first appearance of an airplane in Alaska demonstrated how interdependent various means of transportation were and would be in the future.

Once at Fairbanks , Martin and his wife, who was England's first woman aviator, assembled their airplane. On the evening of July 3, Martin took off from a ball park and flew the plane over Fairbanks at an altitude of 200 feet and speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. Later the Martins lectured on flying at the Fairbanks opera house.

In all, the couple made five flights in three days at Fairbanks. During that time they tried unsuccessfully to sell their airplane. Since it could not be sold, they crated it up again and shipped it via St. Michael to their home in San Francisco.

Aviation begins to develop in Alaska after World World I

Although many improvements to airplanes were made in the following years, it was not until after World War I that significant aviation developments occurred in Alaska. Among the first of those developments were demonstration flights made by the United States military. In 1920, a flight of army bombers reached Alaska from Long Island, New York. This "Black Wolf" squadron of wheeled biplanes landed on tide flats at Wrangell, a ball park at Fairbanks, a sandbar at Ruby, and an old parade ground at Nome's Fort Davis. For the U.S. Army, the flight was significant because it demonstrated that the army could operate warplanes at long distances from their home bases. For Alaska, the flight was significant because it demonstrated that airplanes capable of carrying heavy loads could fly to and across Alaska.

Shortly after the Black Wolf squadron's flight, in 1922, aviator Roy F. Jones bought a surplus World War I navy flying boat and began commercial service between Seattle and Ketchikan. His aircraft, the Northbird, was capable of carrying three passengers at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. Jones began to fly cargo and passengers between Southeast Alaska communities, but crashed after two years. He survived, but the Northbird never flew again.

In July of 1924, Alaskan pilot Noel Wien founded Alaska's first scheduled airline at Fairbanks. That was also the year that Wien made the first non-stop flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage. He later was the first pilot to fly from Fairbanks to Nome, to fly across the Arctic Circle, to fly from Alaska to Siberia, and to fly an injured person to a hospital. Also in 1924, Fairbanks high school science teacher and pilot Carl Ben Eielson flew an experimental air mail flight between Fairbanks and McGrath. His several-hour, 271-mile flight one way supplanted a dog-team mail delivery route that took as much as three weeks. Another important aviation event in 1924 was a round-the-world flight made by four army aircraft capable of landing both on water and land. These float planes touched down at Sitka, Seward, Chignik, Port Moller, Dutch Harbor, Atka, and Attu on their 175-day, 26,503-mile globe-circling trip that began and ended at Seattle.

The territory begins airfield construction

The work of pilots such as Eielson and Wien demonstrated the public value of aviation. As a result, in 1925 Alaska's Territorial legislature authorized the Board of Road Commissioners to spend up to $40,000 of the total $250,000 territorial road budget on airfield construction. Between 1925 and 1927 crews scraped out a number of runways between 700 and 1,400 feet long and 300 and 600 feet wide. By 1927, the territorial government was maintaining 24 airfields.

While primitive by today's standards, these early airfields were adequate for the aircraft then flown. Where airfields were not available, pioneer pilots used natural runways such as beaches and gravel bars in rivers. Float planes could land anywhere there was a large-enough and sheltered body of water. In winter, ski-equipped planes could land almost anywhere that snow or ice provided a smooth surface.

Arctic and polar aviation begins

In these same years, pilot Joe Crosson made the first commercial flight to Point Barrow and Sir Hubert Wilkins, a British explorer, and Carl Ben Eielson made an unsuccessful attempt to fly from Point Barrow to Norway across the polar regions. Two years later, the men made a successful flight from Point Barrow to Spitzbergen, an island off the northern tip of Norway across the polar regions.

Wilkins and Eielson had demonstrated the possibility of trans-polar flights which could make the travel time from Alaska to Europe as short as the travel time from Alaska to the contiguous United States.

In the meantime, commercial aviation continued to develop within Alaska. By 1927, Wien was shuttling people and cargo to mines on the Seward Peninsula. In 1927 and 1928, the territorial legislature subsidized two annual air mail flights between the Alaska Railroad and the Seward Peninsula. This was to provide transportation in the spring when it was too late for dog-team mail and too early for boat mail.

Interest in aviation was high enough in the territory for a school of aviation to open at Fairbanks in 1928. The following year, Southeast Alaska aviators made the first non-stop Seattle to Juneau flight and also flew the first air mail from Alaska to Seattle. This was also the year that the first passengers were flown across the Gulf of Alaska. Eielson died that year. His plane crashed as he flew to evacuate passengers and furs from a trading schooner trapped in ice off Siberia's arctic coast.

In the 1920s, the U.S. Army demonstrated the possibility of long distance flights to Alaska and within Alaska, pioneer Alaskan pilots made flights throughout Alaska, commercial air service began to many points, and the first publicly-supported airfields were built. During the 1930s, all of these aviation developments were furthered and refined.

Commercial aviation expands In Alaska

In the 1930s, both local airline companies such as Wien's and Star Air Service (today's Alaska Airlines) and national airline companies such as Pan American Airways' subsidiary, Pacific Alaska Airways, expanded their Alaska service. Pacific Alaska Airways stationed weather observers at major communities and established a radio net from Fairbanks down the Yukon River and down the Kuskokwim River.

By 1932, there were 31 airplanes in Alaska. That year they flew nearly 800,000 miles and carried nearly 7,000 passengers and nearly 500,000 pounds of mail and freight. In 1934, the U.S. Navy published the first complete directory of Alaskan airports and the federal Civil Aeronautics Administration stationed its first inspector in Alaska. In just a few years, by 1936, the number of planes more than doubled to 71. The number of passengers carried rose to nearly 17,000. The amount of mail carried increased to nearly 300,000 pounds. The amount of freight carried increased to over two million pounds. Thirty per cent of all freight carried within Alaska moved by air. As the scheduled airlines developed, bush flying continued. Pilots such as Bob Reeve, who came to Alaska with experience flying over South America's Andes Mountains, operated charter aircraft to supply isolated mining camps.

New airplanes need new airfields

By the end of the 1930s, there were over 100 airfields in Alaska. Only four--at Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Nome--were adequate for the most modern aircraft of that time. One-hundred and fifty-five commercial aircraft in Alaska flew nearly six million miles and carried three and one-half million pounds of freight in 1938. This was also the year that federal control really came to Alaskan aviation. The Civil Aeronautics Act of the same year created a Civil Aeronautics Authority to regulate air traffic. Commercial airlines could only serve communities for which they were certified. To become certified, an airline had to prove that it had provided continuous and adequate service between one community and another from May to August of 1938. The result in Alaska was that many small air services were either forced out of business or had to consolidate with other companies. Aircraft charter rates were $40 to $80 for a six-place plane or an average passenger rate per mile of 18 to 20 cents. Typical freight rates were $1.10 to $2.04 per pound. Air travel was relatively expensive. The $68 dollar air fare from Anchorage to Naknek was as much as the Seattle-Seward-Anchorage boat and train fare. In the first eight months of 1939, air carrier revenue in Alaska amounted to nearly $900,000; 60 per cent of this was on credit.

In addition to its regulation program, the Civil Aeronautics Authority began a program of constructing airfields. By January of 1940 Alaska had 10 airfields with runways of 2,500 feet or more. This was also the year that Alaska was allowed to participate in the Federal Aid Airport Program which provided federal subsidies for airport construction. The Territorial Legislature passed an aviation fuel tax to provide the territory's share of the construction program.

World War II causes aviation development

Pan American Airways started Seattle to Alaska service in 1940. American participation in World War II delayed more such civilian airline service. The years of American preparation for participation in World War II caused a lot of military-related aviation activity in Alaska. Some of it had major implications for post-war aviation in Alaska. Included in this category was the appearance of Northwest Orient Airlines On the Alaskan scene. Northwest, which made supply flights to Alaska during the war, initiated scheduled service from Seattle to Alaska in 1946. In 1947, Northwest began to route its flights to the orient through Alaska. Flights to Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila flew north from Seattle to Anchorage, then west along the Aleutian Island chain. Shemya Island, developed as a wartime air-field, served as a refueling stop for the flights. It was in this period that Alaska Airlines pioneered Anchorage to Honolulu charter flights. Reeve Aleutian Airways also resulted from wartime aviation experience. Bob Reeve had flown charter flights to the Aleutians for the military during the war. After the war he capitalized on that experience by buying war surplus cargo planes and founding a commercial airline that served the region.

At the end of the 1940s, Congress authorized federal funds for major "continental category" airport construction at Anchorage and Fairbanks. Also in 1949, federal funds were authorized for improvement of the fields at Fort Yukon, Kotzebue, Seward, and Valdez, and for construction of the Palmer airport.

Helicopters, or rotating wing aircraft, joined fixed-wing aircraft in Alaskan skies after World War II. The first commercial helicopter activity in Alaska occurred in 1948 when Carl Brady, then of Yakima, Washington, received a contract to fly mapping missions over Southeast Alaska's Chichagof Island. It took 33 days to map the northern portion of the island using helicopters. It took seven years to map the southern portion of the island using ground and water transportation. More and more government agencies began to use helicopters for all sorts of work, and by 1956 Brady was able to open year-round helicopter operations at Anchorage's Merrill Field. In addition to moving mapping and surveying crews, helicopters also proved useful in shore-to-ship and offshore oil rig flights, medical evacuations, and, as better machines were developed, in heavy-lift operations.

Airlines now familiar to Alaskan travelers, and some that have now disappeared, operated in Alaskan skies in the 1950s and 1960s. Pacific Northern Airways operated between Seattle and Anchorage, while Alaska Airlines was certified to operate from Seattle through Anchorage to Fairbanks. Cordova Airlines, which had served Southcentral Alaska, and Alaska Coastal Ellis Airlines, which had served Southeast Alaska with flying boats and float planes, both merged with Alaska Airlines in the late 1960s.

Technology advances and airports improve

Improved technology caused a significant change in Alaskan air travel when jets were introduced for commercial service. Northwest Orient Airlines introduced jet service on its flights through Alaska in 1960. Alaska Airlines began the first commercial jet liner service between Alaskan points in 1961 and was followed closely by Pan American Airways and Pacific Northern Airways. Jets could fly over the weather that piston-engined aircraft had had to fly through or avoid by circuitous routes. They also speeded up travel. While an advanced model four-engined piston aircraft took six to eight hours to fly from Seattle to Anchorage, jets made the flight in three hours.

The new airplanes required better landing facilities, but Alaska's older airports were deteriorating. The Federal Aid Airport Act of 1958 had brought stability to airport funding in Alaska by providing federal subsidies of about $4 million per year. To match this, the new State of Alaska in 1960 issued its first general obligation bonds for airport construction. In 1962 the State Legislature, planning on the combination of federal and state money, authorized two airport construction programs. One, called the bush program, was for remote communities. The other, called the trunk program, was for larger settlements. The trunk program financed work at Barrow, St. Marys, Savoonga, and Sitka. The Sitka construction alone cost more than $6 million, more than either the airport at Anchorage or the airport at Fairbanks. It cost that much because a large part of the Sitka runway had to be created by filling in the waters between small islands in Sitka Sound. The Savoonga airport was notable because it allowed the last dog-team mail route to be retired, finishing a trend that had begun in 1924 with Eielson's air mail flight from Fairbanks to McGrath. The continuing airport construction also caused a change in air transportation patterns in Southeast Alaska. In the early 1970s, state-funded construction of airfields at Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Wrangell followed that at Sitka. It was then possible for wheeled planes, at first small twin-engined aircraft, and later jets, to replace the flying boats and float planes that had been a mainstay of Southeast Alaska transportation. The latter remained in service only to isolated villages.

As the 1980s began, Alaska had become one of the "flyingest" places in the world. Most people coming to and from Alaska did so on airplanes. Within Alaska, nearly as many airplanes were registered to private owners as were automobiles. Alaska had, in 1983, seven times as many aircraft and 72 times as many commuter aircraft as the average of the rest of the states. The majority of passenger traffic in Alaska and much of the mail and freight traffic was airborne. Air commerce carried the equivalent of 15 times the state's population each year. Alaska became a possible space shuttle location, when Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks was being considered as a possible emergency landing site for polar-orbiting shuttle flights.