By: Harriet Baskas
One hundred years after the first powered flight in Alaska, Anchorage Museum on Saturday opens a major exhibition celebrating the rich and remarkable stamp aviation has had on the Frontier State.
That history began as a spectacle. In 1913, several Fairbanks merchants got together to ship a biplane from Seattle to Alaska by steamboat. They then sold tickets so onlookers could watch two barnstormers fly the plane 200 feet above the ground at a lazy 45 mph.
Ten years after that first powered flight in Alaska, Anchorage officials declared a holiday so people could come out and help clear land for the city’s first airstrip.
“In the early days, Alaska was a very inaccessible, remote place, with very few roads and some dog sled trails crisscrossing the territory,” aviation historian Ted Spencer told NBC News. “With airplanes, though, mail could be delivered in hours rather than weeks. Remote village and towns could be connected. Life changed incredibly.”
The exhibit, Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, showcases photographs and artifacts — including leather and fur-lined outfits worn by bush pilots and the tires and handmade skis inventive pilots attached to bush planes to allow them to land on glaciers and frozen lakes.
Even empty fuel cans, fabric, crates and other flight-related items intentionally or unintentionally left behind had an impact in remote places. “Those items were used to make furniture, clothing and household objects that are still around,” said Julie Decker, the museum’s chief curator. “In Alaska, people are very practical.”
Bush pilots became heroes in small towns and villages, Decker said. “They were a connection to the outside world and they could deliver things to places where things could never get delivered before,” she said.
Pilots were also real-life Alaskan characters that had to be skilled in the air and on the ground. “They needed to be able to not only fly the planes, but fix them. And they needed to be able to survive in the cold and in the wilderness,” said Decker. “Imagine how tough and hearty they had to be in the early days of flying when the planes had open cockpits and it was 40 degrees below zero – on the ground.”
Other artifacts on exhibit include a Stearman C2B biplane flown by several legendary bush pilots, ephemera and memorabilia from a variety of former Alaska-based commercial airlines, a 1927 film clip from the first airplane to fly over the North Pole, and bits of airplane crash wreckage, including pieces from the 1935 crash that killed famed aviator Wiley Post and entertainer-humorist Will Rogers near Barrow, Alaska.
And while improvements in technology have made flying much safer than it was when that biplane first came to Alaska, Decker says “weather trumps all” and that flying small or large planes in Alaska can still present a formidable challenge.
“The state is just so huge, with all sorts of water formations, vast and rugged landscapes and extreme, unpredictable weather. Even with modern airplanes, GPS and radio communications, there are still crashes and planes still occasionally disappear,” Spencer said.
“Alaska is still a dangerous place to fly.”