The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article on the early bush pilots of Alaska, spanning the years between 1911 and the 1930s, a time when the pioneer pilots, utterly fearless and a breed apart, totally dedicated to their work, soared over the Last Frontier. They crossed an incredibly immense and all-too-often hostile landscape which tried to kill them as frequently as it left them in awe of its towering mountains, endless rivers, and pristine lakes. And yet the fliers stayed the course, wresting information about the inhospitable landscape and the hostile weather at every turn, information which helped their fellow pilots adapt and learn and persevere, for while the hardships were many, there was magic in the air over Alaska.
The article opens with the somewhat amusing observation that the first airplane in Alaska never left the ground:
Professor Henry Peterson, an accomplished pianist, piano repairman, and music teacher in Nome, fabricated the first airplane ever built in Alaska. Intrigued by the idea of flying, he ordered an engine and a set of plans and constructed a biplane of muslin cloth, light wood, and – rather fittingly – piano wire. The “Flying Professor,” as he was fondly known, named his plane the Tingmayuk, Eskimo for bird, and scheduled its first flight for May 9, 1911, near Nome. Unfortunately, as the Nome Nugget later reported, the good professor was “unable to defy the laws of gravity,” and his carefully crafted Tingmayuk faded into obscurity.
Carl Ben Eielson, 1924
Two years later, in July, 1913, some businessmen in Fairbanks hired pioneer British aviator James Martin and his wife Lily to provide the first aerial exhibition in Alaska with their Gage-Martin tractor biplane, which they freighted to Alaska via the White Pass & Yukon Railway to Whitehorse, where it was loaded onto a barge for the trip down the Yukon River to Dawson City, Eagle, Circle City, Fort Yukon, Rampart, and finally up the Tanana River to Fairbanks, a trip of over 2,500 miles. They put on an impressive airshow, but once they re-crated their plane and headed south, it would be seven years before another airplane graced the northern horizons.
That was the famous Black Wolf Squadron in June, 1920, selected by U.S. Army Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell and tasked with making a historic flight to demonstrate how the East Coast could be linked to Siberia and the Far East via an airway crossing Alaska.
Black Wolf Squadron, 1920
The article tells of Charles Hammontree and his Boeing C-11S, dubbed the ‘Mudhen,’ the first model designed by W.H. Boeing himself and the first plane to soar over the skies of Anchorage; Roy F. Jones, of Ketchikan and his biplane ‘Northbird;’ Carl Ben Eielson, who learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Corps; James S. “Jimmy” Rodebaugh, a senior conductor on the Alaska Railroad who saw the potential of aviation in Alaska earlier than most; and Noel Wien, who spent several decades building a pioneer airline with his brothers, Ralph, Fritz, and Sig, and watched it grow to provide flights to most of the world.
Joe Crosson and his sister Marvel, Russell Merrill, famed aviator Wiley Post – the first pilot to fly solo around the world – and the humorist Will Rogers, and even the legendary Charles Lindbergh and his equally legendary wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, all played roles in the early aviation history of Alaska. You can read the article, illustrated with over a dozen historic photographs, in the July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine.
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Other articles in this issue: Alaska’s first newspaper, The Esquimaux, which was published a little northwest of Nome; the Alaska Steamship Company, which became an Alaskan shipping monopoly; a 1916 horseback trip across the Kenai Peninsula by the dauntless world traveller Frank G. Carpenter; Alaska’s first commercially successful novelist, Barrett Willoughby, whose every book was about or set in Alaska, and two were made into movies; and an exciting childhood in the gold rush town of Nome by Irving Kenny, who saw it all first-hand!