Bush Pilot Hall of Fame

Meet the pilots who created the Alaska bush pilot legend.


Russel Merrill

(Alaska Aviation Museum)

Of the several pilots who pioneered flying in Alaska, perhaps the one who led the most romantic life is the one whose death at an early age remains mysterious. Iowa native Russ Merrill earned his wings on March 12, 1918, from the U.S. Navy, then worked as an engineer in San Diego and found a business partner, Roy Davis, who owned a Curtiss Model F Seagull flying boat. The two young men went to Seward, Alaska, to begin a flying service, and in August 1925 made the first flight across the Gulf of Alaska and the first into Anchorage. A couple of airplane crashes later, they parted company, and Merrill got a break: Newly formed Anchorage Air Transport was ready to hire. For a young man who had come west for adventure, ATA was the answer to a prayer. Working for the company, Merrill was the first to see from an airplane a vast area of Alaska. He was the first to fly to Kodiak Island; the first into Seldovia, a fishing village on the Kenai peninsula; and the first pilot to work as a fish spotter. Merrill found the shortest route through the Alaska Range, the mountains between Fairbanks and Anchorage; today the route is called Merrill Pass.

Four years later, after several small regional airlines, including Anchorage Air Transport, had consolidated into Alaskan Airways, Merrill took off from Anchorage on his third flight of the day to deliver supplies to a mine in Bethel. He was never seen again. Weeks later, in Cook Inlet, which forms the Anchorage coastline, someone found a piece of fabric from the Travel Air he was flying.In 1930, the airport in Anchorage was named Merrill Field.

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