April 22, 2013
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 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 an 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 than the tales of the Alaskan aviator. Many people have come to Alaska
seeking their fortunes in gold, furs, lumber or oil. Many have come to seek the adventure
of the great outdoors. The aviator of Alaska came for none of those. They came because
of their love of flying. 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 where the aircraft was flown for the 1913, Fourth
of July celebration (Mills and Phillips 13). Alaska has never looked back from that first
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. Eielson would later 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
up” in Alaska. These companies began to ferry supplies and passengers to the towns and
villages of Alaska. Operating primarily from Weeks field in Fairbanks and landing strips
in Anchorage, these companies racked up a significant amount of "firsts". Joe Crosson of