Sample Research Paper: History of Alaskan Aviation

Research PaperHistory
Apr 17, 2022

Alaskan aviation did not come until the 1920s, two decades after the invention of the first aircraft. The unpredictable weather and dangerous terrain made it difficult for would-be Alaskan pilots to fly through the state regularly. However, the introduction of the barnstormers and other courageous pilots to the state showed that the Alaskan terrain is a flyable zone. More pilots started to fly through the terrain and aviation companies established themselves in the state. The history of Alaskan aviation is rich with notable pilots who contributed to the development of the industry and state. This research paper will discuss Alaskan aviation history through the lives and contributions of these notable pilots.

Contribution of Aviation to Alaska

Before discussing the notable pilots in Alaska’s aviation history, it will be helpful to describe the contribution of aviation to the state. Alaska, concerning aviation, is a hostile environment that poses multiple threats to pilots flying through the territory. The region has high mountains, unstable weather, and wide spaces that will make a pilot’s job difficult (Decker & Kinney, 2013). The combination of high mountains and unstable weather increases the chance of plane crashes, which was a common occurrence during the early period of Alaskan aviation. The wide spaces between communities also made it challenging to navigate the area. However, solving these challenges allowed the state to gain access to a reliable form of transportation.

The introduction of aviation in Alaska allowed the steady transportation of goods and faster travel time. Isolated communities were able to access essential supplies, mail, medicine, and other services through small aircraft (Decker & Kinney, 2013; Dunleavy, 2022). The state’s geographical location also made it a significant part of military operations that involved aviation. Alaska hosts military facilities, such as the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Bryant Airfield, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska Air National Guard, and more (Dunleavy, 2022). Alaska aviation made the inhabitants’ lives easier and allowed the state to become an integral part of the International defense.

Introduction of Aviation to Alaska

Alaska first witnessed the display of aircraft in 1913, ten years after the invention of the first plane. Aviators James Martin and Lily Martin flew their Martin Tractor Airplane to showcase its power to an audience during the Fourth of July Celebration (Decker & Kinney, 2013; Mills & Phillips, 1969). The audience witnessed the plane reach over 45 mph and at an altitude of 200 feet. This was the first time that the Alaskan population saw an aircraft but it would not be until the 1920s before the state developed its aviation industry. It is also important to note that many early Alaskan pilots were barnstormers, aviators who are skilled in airplane stunts. This type of extreme sport required pilots to maneuver around tight or dangerous routes, which was a perfect skill in navigating the Alaskan terrain.

Notable Aviators

Noel Wien

One of the most important figures in Alaskan aviation is Noel Wien. Around 1924, he introduced the first airplane in Alaska that would offer services to the population. Wien utilized his open-cockpit Standard J-1 Biplane to transport passengers throughout the state and showcase his barnstorming skills (Aviation Oil Outlet, 2018). Wien was able to showcase the functionality of airplanes to the state and how they can provide opportunities to the population. In July 1924, Wien flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks, becoming the first pilot to fly between the areas. This was another notable feat since his successful flight indicated that air transportation is possible despite the unpredictable conditions in Alaska.

In 1925, Wien would again achieve another feat in Alaskan and global aviation. He transported two mining operators from Fairbanks to the Arctic town of Wiseman, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This successful venture became the first flight across the Arctic (Potter, 1956). He also became the first pilot to fly from Fairbanks to Seattle, Fairbanks to Nome, and through the Bering Strait. Along with these, Wien flew from Alaska to Asia in 1929 to deliver cargo from an ice-trapped ship. The successful mission garnered him the title “Arctic Ace” and “Lindy of the North” (Noel Wien, n.d.). In 1927, Wien and his brothers established Air Alaska, the first Alaskan Airline. These feats made Noel Wien one of the most notable pilots in Alaska as he holds the title for many firsts in the state’s aviation history.

Carl Ben Eielson

Carl Ben Eielson was a former U.S. Army member during World War I. He received training to become an aviator but left the service in 1919 to become a barnstormer. Many consider him the Father of Alaskan Aviation because of his impressive flights and contribution to the airline industry (Carl “Ben” Eielson, n.d.; Pletcher, 2022). When Eielson relocated to Alaska, he recognized that the state can benefit greatly from aviation services. He initially wanted to become a high school teacher in the state but the opportunity to establish an aviation industry overwhelmed his plans.

In 1924, Eielson began to take advantage of the opportunity and established his air services. He built a commercial air service that operates around Fairbanks and neighboring areas as well as the first airmail route in the state. Eielson flew the first airmail flight from Fairbanks to McGrath but experienced a crash upon landing. (Mills & Phillips, 1969). Unfortunately, the airmail service lost its government contract and this forced Eielson to close its operations (Pletcher, 2022). Despite the opportunities in Alaska and its aviation industry, Eielson decided to leave the state after the failure of his venture.

Eielson only went back to aviation when George Wilkins asked him to join a flight over the North Pole. The two pilots held test flights in 1926 and 1927 to prepare for a never-before-done flight. In April 1928,  Eielson and Wilkins flew 3,550 km from Point Barrow to Spitzbergen, Norway, accomplishing the first flight over the North Pole (Mills & Phillips, 1969; Carl “Ben” Eielson, n.d.). This flight, along with its preparation, also contributed to the aircraft design industry. Eielson and Wilkins developed an arctic-designed aircraft to accomplish the flight, showing that purpose-specific designs are credible.

Eielson’s death in October 1929 was a reminder of the dangerous Alaskan terrain and why aviation came late in the state. During this time, Eielson received a contract from Swenson Fur & Trading Company to rescue passengers and deliver cargo from an ice-trapped vessel. The bad weather in the area made it difficult for pilots to navigate which may have caused Eielson’s death. According to the University of Alaska, Eielson’s plane could have crashed for two reasons. The aircraft’s wing may have been too close to the ground or its altimeter may have malfunctioned. Despite the unknown cause of the crash, Eielson’s death became one of the many crashes in Alaskan aviation history.

Linious “Mac” McGee

Linious “Mac” McGee’s contributions to aviation lean on the airline industry. Unlike Wien and Eielson who performed impressive flights as some of their contributions, McGee focused on the business side of the industry. McGee was a barnstormer, like most of the early Alaskan aviators, who came from a humble background. During the Great Depression, he worked as a miner, driver, dishwasher, and other jobs until he gained the opportunity to establish one of the largest US-based airlines (Mac McGee, n.d). His efforts during the Great Depression and his relentlessness allowed him to take advantage of opportunities that helped him in trying times.

McGee and his partner Harvey Barhill established their air service through effective advertising and taking advantage of the fur industry. The two bought a three-seat Stinson aircraft to be the first company plane and advertised their company as an airline offering service and furrier (Mac McGee, n.d.). This allowed them to enter the fur-buying business as well as offer transportation between Anchorage and Bristol Bay. Unfortunately, the two dissolved their partnership in 1932, leaving McGee to tend to a financially-challenged business.

McGee utilized different tactics to save his company, McGee Airways, from bankruptcy. In these attempts, he pioneered the idea of having identical service airplanes to be able to use parts interchangeably (Mac McGee, n.d.). This concept still holds up today as modern airlines keep identical planes, which is also good for company branding. McGee also began to commission salespersons to find contracts and clients, allowing the company to have continuous operations. Unfortunately, McGee Airways was still facing financial issues and the growing competition in the Alaskan airline industry made the situation harder.

To prevent bankruptcy, McGee made a strategic decision that allowed him to save McGee Airways and become the top airline service in Alaska. He sold his company and seven Stinsons planes to the Star Air Service with a special condition; If Star Air Service cannot pay the $50,000 for the company and planes on time, McGee will become McGee Airways’ manager again (Mac McGee, n.d.). Star Air Service failed to pay the amount on time and so McGee became the manager, leading to the success of the company. Later, McGee would buy Alaska Interior Airlines which would then become Alaska Airlines in 1944. These successful ventures placed McGee as an influential figure in Alaska’s airline industry that opened up the state to the world.

Russel Hyde Merrill

Russel Hyde Merril was an aviation pioneer in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and a highly honored figure in Alaska. Merill was responsible for Anchorage’s current role as the state’s air center and the establishment of new air routes around the state. One of his earlier feats was in 1925, during a flight from Alaska to Seward with Roy Davis. This was the first flight to cross the Gulf of Alaska and the first commercial flight westward from Juneau (Merrill, Russel Hyde, n.d.). These flights were important in the establishment of the current air routes that provide a safe course for passengers and carrier planes.

In 1926, Merrill and Davis established the Alaska-Washington Airplane Company. Their operations included contracting fish packing companies in Bristol Bay and providing air service through different routes (Merrill, Russel Hyde, n.d.). It was also during this year that a group of businessmen established Anchorage Air Transport, Inc and hired Merrill as their first pilot. This made Merrill the first pilot of the first local airline company in Anchorage.

In 1927, Merrill accidentally discovered a new airline route from Anchorage to Nome as well as the Merrill Pass. During a flight from Nome to Candle, Merrill’s passenger-boarded plane crashed due to harsh weather conditions. Merrill and his passengers survived for more than a day until help arrived. Despite the failed flight from Nome to Candle, the accident showed that a flight from Anchorage to Nome was possible. Since then, Anchorage Air Transport began to offer the route to its clients (Merrill, Russel Hyde, n.d.).  With regards to the Merrill Pass, Merrill discovered the route while looking for a shortcut through the Alaskan Range. While Merrill and other pilots consider the pass a shortcut, it is still a dangerous route. There are many plane wreckage in the area, indicating its threats to an aircraft. Still, Merrill Pass was a viable route for emergencies and for skilled pilots who can navigate the dangerous terrain.

During November of the same year, Merrill would also perform the first night landing in Alaska. There was a medical emergency at Ninilchik and Anchorage Air Transport’s president asked Merrill to deliver the patient to an Anchorage hospital. With the help of Alonzo Cope, Anchorage Air Transport’s mechanic, Merrill made the first night landing (Merrill, Russel Hyde, n.d.). A few months later, in January 1928, Merrill tested the weight limit of his aircraft while carrying heavy loads of fur. This delivery was a challenging task since some of the load was obstructing Merrill’s vision. Despite this, Merrill delivered the goods and showed the limits of his plane. This achievement gave an insight into the limitations of carrier planes and how pilots can overcome them, even in an environment like Alaska.

Merrill’s contributions to Alaskan aviation allowed the industry to develop and make Anchorage the air center of the state. Merrill had other accomplishments, aside from the ones mentioned earlier, and the Anchorage community acknowledges him. In 1930, the Anchorage Woman’s Club installed a light beacon in the Municipal Airport to honor Merrill and help landing planes. They also moved to rename the Anchorage Municipal Airport to Merrill Field Airport (Merrill, Russel Hyde, n.d.). These actions show the appreciation of Anchorage to Merril and his lasting contributions to aviation.

Ingrid Pederson

Ingrid Pederson's contribution to aviation was her flight over the North Pole in 1963. Pederson was the first female aviator to fly over the North Pole which then allowed her to establish a career as a pilot frequenting the North Atlantic. She began working with the Norwegian government and other contractors until she eventually became the administrative director of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum (Ingrid Pederson, 2012). While Pederson was not the first person to fly over the North Pole, her achievement may have inspired many female aviators. The flight over the North Pole is also dangerous, requiring courage and skill that not all pilots possess. Pederson’s flight brought excitement to Alaska and showed that aviation is for everyone.

World War 2 and Alaskan Aviation

The invention of the airplane provided new avenues in military strategy that made aircraft powerful tools during wars. When World War II came, Alaskan aviation became an integral part of the U.S. military strategy. Alaska held a strategic location that was suitable for both defensive and offensive advances. Brigadier General William Mitchell even stated that the side that holds Alaska will win the war (cited in World War II, n.d.). This led to the U.S. Congress ordering the construction of naval bases around the state. Alaska became a fortified region, ready for potential attacks.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the country also bombed Alaskan territories to damage military facilities. The bombings hit the U.S. Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and U.S. Army Fort Mears in Alaska. The U.S. responded by establishing more bases in Alaska and sending troops to the area. However, the unpredictable weather condition and rough Alaskan terrain made it difficult for both ground and air forces to mobilize. This showed that the Japanese would have a hard time traversing the Alaskan terrain which became a natural defense for the state.

During World War II, PBYs or Patrol Bombers scouted the Aleutian region in Alaska and were important aircraft during the time. These weaponized aircraft can drop torpedoes, depth charges, and bombs (Our PBY Aircraft, n.d.). In June 1942, a Navy PBY took down a Japanese aircraft that attacked Dutch Harbor in Alaska. The United States reverse-engineered the Japanese aircraft to learn its design and features. The U.S. found out how inferior their aircraft design was and later incorporated Japanese designs to their aircraft, such as the U.S. Navy F6-F Grumman Hellcat (Mills, 1971). This discovery pushed not only Alaskan but also the U.S. aviation design to create better and more powerful aircraft.

Alaska also became an important supply route during World War II. Under the Lend-Lease Program, the state became one of three supply routes that pilots would take to deliver aircraft. These routes were necessary to avoid enemy detection as well as secure the integrity of the planes. Alaskan pilots, such as Bob Ellis, Kenny Neese, Bert Ruoff, Murrel Sasseen, and Clayton Scott, were some of the men under the delivery program (Mills, 1971). These pilots served as heroes during the war as they were able to deliver about 8,000 planes during the program. They traversed the dangerous Alaskan terrain while under the pressure of an ongoing world war.

Alaskan Tourism and Aviation

Since the Alaskan terrain was difficult to navigate, visiting the state was unappealing and exhausting. Visitors will need to endure long trips and voyages to reach their destination. However, tourism eventually became a major economic resource after the establishment of aviation in the state. In the 1960s, Anchorage became the fifth busiest center for freight and passenger traffic in Alaska (Mills, 1971). Businessmen established flying schools, sightseeing flights, and other aviation services that made the city a central hub for airway traffic in the state. This meant that people come and go through the city which was nearly impossible prior to the introduction of aviation in Alaska.

Today, tourism has become an integral economic sector for Alaska because of the strong aviation industry in the state. In the 2019 Alaska Airports & Aviation Annual Report, officials stated that the tourism industry will experience growth as passenger traffic increases. Most tourists reach Alaska by air travel, giving aviation services a key role in the economy. Any issue in the aviation industry can halt imports and exports as well as local operations. Alternatively, any innovations in aviation can improve the economic flow in the state, allowing faster air travel. However, the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic shifted the projection and forced Alaska to limit its aviation operations. As the pandemic slowly subsides, Alaskan aviation may go back to normal operations.

Conclusion

The history of Alaskan aviation is filled with notable aviators who accomplished feats and established the aviation industry in the state. They overcame Alaska’s hostile environment and discovered the potential of aviation. Pilots, like Noel Wien, Carl Ben Eielson, Russel Hyde Merrill, and Ingrid Pederson, braved the Alaskan sky to fly through dangerous and untested areas. They found various routes and shortcuts that would set the flight routes for Alaskan airlines, providing safer and more efficient travel. Figures, like Linious Mac McGee, pioneered concepts that would become standards in modern Alaskan aviation. Other Alaskan aviators would serve during war times and aid in the development of aircraft design. The history of Alaskan aviation showed that aviation was a significant part of the state’s culture and allowed it to become what it is today.

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Reference List

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