Copiously illustrated book traces Alaska Airlines' colorful past

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 1, 2012 

Last year 17.8 million passengers flew on Alaska Airlines. That's about 20 times as many people as actually live in Alaska.

It's a fact of life on the last frontier: If you're going to travel somewhere Outside, the odds are high that it will be with the carrier that has the name of the state on the side of its planes.

Newcomers may think it's always been that way. It hasn't -- as illustrated in a new book by Cliff and Nancy Hollenbeck titled "Alaska Airlines."

For old-time Alaskans, the book is a walk down memory lane. For newer arrivals, it's a history lesson. For plane buffs -- and just about anyone else -- it's aeronautical eye candy.

The history of commercial aviation in Alaska is full of carriers that no longer exist. Some were big national outfits. Others were local firms that had reasonable success as long as the veteran bush pilots who founded them were around to run things.

But most were tiny, fleeting enterprises with few assets and lots of red ink, limited to regional service in corners of the territory. Small time operators with big dreams. Upstarts.

But a handful flourished and survived long enough to merge with or be absorbed by other companies. Hakon Christensen's Christensen Air Service merged with "Mudhole" Smith's Cordova Airlines. Alaska Air Transport joined with Marine Airways to form Alaska Coastal Airlines, which then merged with Ellis Air Lines. Lavery Airways, Pollack Air Services and Mirow Air Service were bought by Alaska Star Airlines.

Eventually, these upstarts worked themselves into Alaska Airlines. The Hollenbecks have pulled together hundreds of photos documenting all of them and their place in the airline's past. Images include a number of period publicity shots, advertisements, brochures, schedules, route maps, tickets and other memorabilia.

"Alaska Airlines has a pretty good archive," said Cliff Hollenbeck. "But we also went to museums in Fairbanks, Juneau, the Ketchikan Museums, the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage and private collections."

"We didn't manipulate any of the photos," he added, with a hint of pride in his voice.

Though not emphasized in the book, the collection coincides with the 80th anniversary of the airline's founding.

The company's roots go back to 1932, when Linious McGee started a one-plane business to haul furs from Bristol Bay to Anchorage. The book opens with antique pictures of his black-and-silver Stinsons. McGee's innovations included radio communications and running a fleet of similar airplanes that could swap out parts.

"He was on the brink of financial disaster most of the time," says the book.

Similar tales accompany the separate sections on each of the 20 or so companies that were eventually absorbed into Alaska Airlines, along with pictures of pilots, passengers and aircraft of yore -- Fairchilds, Bellancas, Sikorskys, Constellations.

The name "Alaska Airlines" became official on May 2, 1944. Flying DC-3s (some on skis) and other war surplus aircraft, the company became the largest air charter operator in the world for a while, taking assignments that other companies found too chancy. Like the Berlin Airlift, the secret evacuation of Jews from Yemen to Israel ("Operation Magic Carpet") and the rescue of Chinese refugees after the communist takeover. An Alaska Airlines charter was the last plane out of Shanghai before Mao's army swept in.

The airline began non-scheduled service between the states and Anchorage in 1947 and received permission for a permanent direct route in 1951, the same year an Alaska Airlines DC-4 made the first commercial flight over the North Pole. In 1953, the company moved its headquarters to Seattle, which had already become the hub for its planes.

With the end of World War II, the age of marketing had arrived. The planes of Alaska's passenger fleet were dubbed "Starliners" and had a star painted on their noses. The first stewardesses appeared on Alaska flights. Mountains and totem poles were featured on company literature in an attempt to lure tourists.

The vintage advertising promotions are the fun part of the book. Chapters are dedicated to periodic rebranding under the auspices of colorful CEOs. Company president Charlie Willis kept beer on tap in his office and a draft beer bar in the coach section of the line's one and only jet. Stewardesses wore parka-like jackets with real fur ruffs. Passengers could play bingo or watch some of the first in-flight movies.

In the 1960s, "Golden Nugget" service featured aircraft interiors trimmed in gaudy red and gold Gay '90s decor with stewardesses in long, Victorian gowns and male attendants in vests and straw boaters. It was supposed to conjure the experience of the Gold Rush. Then came the "Golden Samovar" era, with attendants in Cossack costumes rolling a giant Russian tea-maker down the aisles in an attempt to promote travel to the Soviet Union via Alaska. The airline bought its own ski resort, Alyeska, and tried to turn it into a luxury destination complete with an outdoor swimming pool.

More recent promotional campaigns are also covered, including the wildly-painted fuselages depicting salmon, champion athletes and Disney characters.

The book provides a solid way to settle arguments. There are some who doubt that the original Alaska Airlines logo showed Siberia and Kamchatka. (The airline's effort to capitalize on Alaska's proximity to the Russian Far East has been a recurrent and somewhat quixotic quest over the years.) Or that PBY Catalinas were used for domestic passenger service. Or that Lockheed "Hercules" transports were available to civilians. Or that Alaska places like Fortuna, Nyac, Chisana and Baranof were once real towns with enough of a population to have regularly scheduled air service.

But here are the pictures to prove it.

Cliff Hollenbeck worked for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and Anchorage Times before taking a job with now-defunct Wien Consolidated Airlines. That's where he met Nancy, whose father was a pilot for Pacific Northern Airlines, at one time the biggest air carrier in Alaska (which merged with Western Airlines, which merged with Delta Air Lines). The husband-wife team have since collaborated on award-winning films, books and marketing materials related to the travel industry.

"Alaska Airlines" makes no attempt to quantify the company's missteps and triumphs over the years. (There are plenty of both. Prolific details about the company's history can be found in Robert Serling's "Character & Characters: The Spirit of Alaska Airlines.") It is, after all, a picture book. But the pictures tell quite a story.

"They've always been really innovative, marketing-wise," Cliff Hollenbeck said of the company. "It was only in recent times they got it together on the business side.

"They're pretty successful now, and I have to believe a lot of that came from the pioneer spirit they had in the old days. In spite of themselves, they kept on going."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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