The Anchorage Museum opens a major exhibit celebrating a century of flight

Mike Dunham
Pilot Carl Ben Eielson sits in the front seat of his 1918 Curtiss Jenny for this July 1923 photograph of him and LaDessa Hall Nordale in Fairbanks.
Pilot Don Sheldon during a Bradford Washburn-led Mount McKinley expedition in 1955.
Harold Gillam is shown in the cockpit of his ski-equipped Waco. He was among the boldest of Alaska’s pioneer bush pilots, earning the nickname “Thrill 'em, spill 'em, no kill 'em Gillam.”
Courtesy FIC Collection
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces issued the Alaskan Suit. The suit’s shearling construction and wolf fur-trimmed hood, combined with accessories such as a heavy winter flying helmet, kept the wearer comfortable in severe sub-zero temperatures.
Ward Wells Collection
Reindeer being transported in a Wien Alaska Airlines airplane in Anchorage, with flight crew and reindeer herders in background, 1959.
Photo courtesy Wein Collection
Inupiat pilot William D. English stands on the float of an airplane in the 1950s. English started his pilot career flying mail to Bush villages with Wien Alaska Airlines, Alaska’s first airline. Later he flew Wien’s commercial jets.
Photo courtesty Wien Collection
Pacific Alaska Airways initiated regular airmail and passenger service from the Lower 48 on June 20, 1940. The airline issued this first-day mail cover to celebrate. Louis Gilman mailed one to himself as a memento.

One hundred years ago, the sound of an internal combustion engine in the sky was first heard in Alaska when James and Lilly Martin sold rides to Fairbanks thrill-seekers. James had built the biplane himself. Lilly was the first woman pilot in England. Alaskans thought the gizmo was a hoot, but no one seemed to grasp the commercial potential.

Within 20 years, the gizmo's ability to go places where there were no roads made it indispensable to life in the territory.

On Friday, the Anchorage Museum opened an exhibit titled "Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation," a look at the lore and legacy of flying machines in the last frontier.

The show isn't so much about the principles of flights, said Anchorage Museum curator Julie Decker, but "about how flight changed the way of life in Alaska."

"Arctic Flight" features a number of historic photos and films capturing how airplanes in Alaska went from a novelty to the workhorse of arctic exploration to military necessities to a commercial fact of life. It includes items from aircraft piloted in Alaska by Wiley Post, Roald Amundsen, Charles and Anne Lindbergh and pieces of equipment associated with Alaska's pioneer pilots, from a piece of Carl Ben Eielson's Hamilton Metalplane to Ellen Paneok's parka. There's a shirt made from the skin of the Norge, the only dirigible to have gone over the North Pole, a section of the nose from the first DC-3 in Alaska and a wing from a warplane with Soviet markings that crashed near Fairbanks on its way to the Eastern Front.

Younger viewers may need to have some things explained, like the plumbers pot, a stove used to melt lead but adopted by bush pilots as a way to keep their oil and engines warm.

"I never saw so many plumber pots in my life until I came to Alaska," said Jeremy Kinney of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, co-curator of the exhibit.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the beautifully restored Stearman biplane borrowed from the Alaska Aviation Museum. Getting it onto the third floor was a trick, said Decker. "We couldn't get it into the elevator," she said. "We had to rig it up the stairs."

In the section dedicated to Alaska's airlines, you can watch an ad for now-defunct Wien Airlines showing the Stearman in flight.

It may be the oldest aircraft in Alaska to remain in flying condition, but it's not entirely alone. Kinney marveled at the old planes he saw parked near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and at Lake Hood. "If you like old airplanes, Alaska is the place to see them," he said.

One of the themes of the exhibit is anthropological, said Kinney. "It illustrates how air travel became part of the life of a community. It's a pretty exciting example of how people see a tool and adapt it for their particular use."

And it raises question, said Decker, like: "Do we still not have roads because of the airplane?"

Organizers were pondering how things may have shifted because of planes. On the one hand, they made travel between Alaska and the Lower 48 more practical and faster. On the other hand, Alaska remains a wilderness with scattered communities largely separated from one another, hobbled by distance and bad weather. One hundred years after the first flight in Fairbanks, perhaps there hasn't been that much change after all, Decker said.

Perhaps. But I once got drawn into an argument over what was the greatest invention of the 20th century. "The airplane" was my instant answer. Others said that was an old-fashioned choice. They thought cellphones, television or the Internet were surely more important.

I stand by my pick. Imagine for a moment a world in which powered flight never happened, either because it was physically impossible or because no one ever figured it out.

Now imagine what Anchorage and Alaska would look like in that flightless world.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.