Can there be a more suspenseful man-against-nature story than the history of the airplane in Alaska? For 100 years, pilots there have contended with the hazards of mountain flying, the unpredictability of weather, and the vast, wild spaces to be crossed. Until only very recently, the scorecard has been uncertain: Pilots lost almost as many contests as they won.
From that history of risk and adventure in the nation’s largest state has grown a legend of larger-than-life heroes, the bush pilots who became famous for their daring, ingenuity, and foresight.
Barnstormer Noel Wien established Wien Air Alaska, pioneering commercial aviation in the state. Carl Ben Eielson, Alaska’s first airmail pilot, delivered letters and packages between Fairbanks and McGrath in 1924—until the post office, after a series of crashes, cancelled his contract and returned the job of mail delivery to dogsled teams. And bush pilot Joe Crosson, the first to land on Mount McKinley’s glaciers, was celebrated on radio, in advertisements, and in comic books.
In the foreword to a new book, Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight (by Julie Decker and Jeremy Kinney, Braun, 2013), James Pepper Henry, CEO of the Anchorage Museum, explains the persistence of the pilots who made their living and their reputations flying in Alaska: “It is a land so vast that approximately 83 percent of Alaskan communities are isolated from road service. Many of these communities rely upon small aircraft as a lifeline for supplies, mail, and emergency services. A unique ‘bush pilot’ culture has evolved in Alaska as a result of the heavy reliance on rural aviation as the only practical means of transportation and connection to and from the outside world.”
The book is a companion to the Anchorage Museum’s exhibition “Arctic Flight,” a celebration of the centennial of Alaskan aviation that runs through August 11, 2013. The above excerpt offers a glimpse at the history that unfolded in Alaska, a place where—still—the best practical means of travel is the airplane.