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Fairbanks' most-iconic plane secures a permanent home

Colleen Mondor
Phil Schad, one of a group of people working to restore a 1923 Curtiss Jenny airplane, with a freshly painted rudder.
Courtesy Roger Weggel
A crew from UAF works on restoring a 1923 Curtiss Jenny, an early aircraft made famous by the barnstorming rage of the 1920s.
Courtesy Roger Weggel
Stan Zielinski and Al Renfroe standing in front of the finished fuselage. They are part of a crew working to restore a 1923 Curtiss Jenny airplane.
Courtesy Roger Weggel
A crew from UAF works on restoring a 1923 Curtiss Jenny, an early aircraft made famous by the barnstorming rage of the 1920s.
Courtesy Roger Weggel

Fairbanks residents are anticipating the return of their most iconic aviation artifact to Fairbanks International Airport this fall. The 1923 Curtiss Jenny flown by aviation legends Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson was removed when the terminal was expanded and it settled into a lengthy refurbishment under the care of the Pioneer Air Museum and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), FAI chapter -- Chapter 1129. Coordinated by member Roger Weggel, an airframe and powerplant (A&P) instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Jenny has been taken apart and reassembled with great care. But Weggel is quick to point out this isn’t a new plane.

This Jenny will never be museum quality. Rather, the Eielson/Crosson aircraft sports evidence of work done by all the men who took care of the aircraft the past 90 years, including highly regarded Alaska mechanics Jim Hutchinson and Frank Reynolds.

The Jenny was purchased as a surplus vehicle from the U.S. military in 1923 by city leaders. According to Jean Potter’s “The Flying North”, published in 1945, pioneer banker Dick Wood put up most of the money. It arrived in crates on July 1 with its 90-horsepower OX-5 engine and had its first flight only three days later with Wood onboard and Eielson flying. “Someone HAD to go,” News-Miner editor W.F. Thompson wrote later, “so Dick decided it might as well be him. It was disturbing however, he continued, “(to see) two of the best men in town, everybody’s friends, settin’ one behind the other in a rig not much wider than a canoe...”  Thankfully, the flight was successful, and on the wings of the Jenny, commercial aviation came to Alaska.

In the years that followed, the Jenny was involved -- like every other early aircraft -- in numerous incidents and accidents.

Eielson, who may be best known for flying the first airplane across the Arctic Ocean, soon began flying a Liberty-powered De Havilland for the postal service, and by the time of his death in a Hamilton Metalplane in 1929, the Jenny had likely seen several other pilots. Crosson, the pilot who made the first landing on Mount McKinley in 1932, flew it soon after arriving in 1926 (he related a story to Jean Potter about flipping it on landing when flying a miner 70 miles to a claim on the Upper Chena). At some point in this period, Weggel is certain that Crosson became the aircraft’s owner, and in 1931 was responsible for an engine change to the more powerful Hispano-Suiza, which is on it today. This was a common conversion at the time as the OX-5 was widely acknowledged not to be strong enough.

Hanging from rafters 

Over the next 10 years, the Jenny was flown by unknown pilots, although the technology was rapidly outpacing it. Jean Potter saw the Jenny in the company of Fairbanks mechanic/carpenter Frank Reynolds while researching The Flying North in early 1940s. She later wrote:

He took me once to the shed behind the college powerhouse where Eielson’s old Jenny is stored.

“There it is,” he told me, turning a flashlight into the gloom. “There’s Ben’s first ship. We wish we had room to show it better.”

It hung from the rafters, the narrow, tapering fuselage, with the flimsy wings tied ignominiously along its sides. The engine was gone. The paint was scratched and peeling. Reynolds looked as proud as if he were displaying a Superfortress.

“I’ve helped him take her up many times,” he said. “Two or three fellows would hold hands, you know, and the one on the end would reach out and spin the prop. Sometimes took a whole hour to get him going. ‘Contact,’ Ben’d say, ‘switch off. Contact, switch off.’ We’d have to pour ether in the gas. She was stubborn, that engine.”

The Jenny’s original wings were lost long ago, likely in a fire at Weeks Field when undergoing maintenance during the Crosson phase of its ownership. When the aircraft was cleaned up by some airmen and displayed for Eielson Air Force Base’s 10th anniversary in 1953, a set of wings that were stored with it from a Swallow TP were attached in their place. The Swallow was a biplane manufactured in Wichita by a company that employed such future aviation stars as  Walter Beech (Beechcraft) and Lloyd Stearman (Stearman Aircraft). After the military celebration the Jenny was placed back in storage at the university with the Swallow wings attached. There it remained for decades. (The engine was back with the aircraft at this time so must have been in use elsewhere during Potter’s earlier visit.)

It is clear that as much as Weggel and his crew know about the Jenny, there is a lot they never knew:

• How it came to be at UAF, and why it was stored there for so long?

• Is its ownership by the Museum of the North due less to provenance than an assumed responsibility brought by years of having the aircraft under university control?

$22,000 project 

When the decision to refurbish it was presented to the EAA, however, none of that mattered. “The decision was unanimous to fix it,” says Weggel, and so the group of volunteers got to work raising money ($22,000 to date, with a portion still in the bank) and bringing back to life this vital piece of the city’s past.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum provided original plans for the Curtiss Jenny, but it took nearly a year and a half before they could be located and forwarded to Fairbanks. The package included five 35-millimeter microfiche films that dated to the First World War when the Jennys were designed and built. The Eielson/Crosson Jenny likely was manufactured in California at the end of the war,  although no one can be certain. The propeller (not the original) is marked “War Department” and was made for the OX-5. For Weggel that is good enough. The prop is period correct, along with the engine and fuselage. However,  the wings would have to be made from scratch.

Every Wednesday for years a rotating group of EAA members and UAF students met and worked on the Jenny. They soon discovered evidence of work done in years past and made a decision to respect such alterations and let them stand whenever possible. “We left old repairs and modifications to areas of the fuselage, the landing gear and elsewhere” Weggel said. “We didn’t want the aircraft to be factory new; we want it to carry the mark of what it was part of and how it was taken care of by so many different people over the years. We want it to look like the plane that it was in Alaska.”

Remarkably, the Jenny has been restored to air-worthy condition, although due to its rarity and value (perhaps more than $400,000), it will never fly. But soon enough, it will be back on display for all to see with bright yellow and light blue paint. When that happens, Weggel and his crew will be able to turn their attention to a new project, a hoped-for restoration shop at the Air Museum in Pioneer Park and a build focusing on those Swallow wings. “They came off a plane Crosson flew,” says Weggel, “and we believe it was also flown by Sam White, the first flying game warden in Alaska.”

It’s another big project but as the group has proven, it’s up to the task. The legacies of Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson are safe with the Fairbanks aviation community.

“It’s entire flying life, this aircraft never left Alaska,” says Weggel. “It has always belonged here, to us.” And so the Jenny remains, in the place that knows her best and with an aviation community delighted to celebrate all she represents.

Colleen Mondor is a former dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based air carrier. Her book, The Map Of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, details her years working in the Alaska aviation industry. You can contact her at  colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.