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Smithsonian solves Alaska aviation history mystery in 'Arctic Flight' exhibit

George Hubert Wilkin's Fokker F.VIIA Alaskan, taking off from Fairbanks as part of the 1926 Detroit News-Wilkins Arctic Expedition. Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson were the first to fly over the top of the world in an airplane.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Aviators James and Lilly Martin with their airplane in Fairbanks in 1913. Theirs was the first powered flight in Alaska. Their airplane was shipped to Alaska from Seattle by steamboat.
Alaska State Library
In 1926 the Norge carried out the first powered flight over the North Pole. Here the airship is shown at Teller, where villagers referred to it as the "great flying seal."
Rasmuson Library Historical Photography Gallery/UAF
Harold Gillam, 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.”
FIC Collection/Anchorage Museum
Pilot Don Sheldon during a Bradford Washburn-led Mount McKinley expedition in 1955.
Ward Wells Collection/Anchorage Museum
Reindeer being transported in a Wien Alaska Airlines airplane in Anchorage, with flight crew and reindeer herders in background, 1959.
Wien Collection/Anchorage Museum
Undated winter view of Wien Alaska Airlines airplane with musher and dog team in foreground.
Wien Collection/Anchorage Museum
Two U.S. Air Force General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters from the 343rd Wing, Pacific Air Forces, assigned to Eielson Air Force Base in 1991. The 343rd traced its history back to the first fighter units to arrive in Alaska in early World War II.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

With 137 million objects, artworks and specimens, it is to be expected that curators at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., known as “the nation’s attic,” might have some questions about items in their collections. This was the case for Air & Space Smithsonian curator Jeremy Kinney while selecting photographs from the archives to illustrate the Anchorage Art Museum’s Arctic Flight exhibit.

One image showed a group of four men, two of whom were Wiley Post and Will Rogers, which was presumably taken in Alaska during their famous 1935 trip. They were killed in a plane crash near Barrow on Aug. 15, after leaving Fairbanks earlier that day. One of those unknown men, standing in front of an aircraft, was also pictured in the second photo. Kinney hoped to obtain some information about the photographs while he was in Anchorage working on Arctic Flight, which he co-curated. As it turns out, the mystery photos were no mystery at all in Alaska.

“Along with Post and Rogers were Joe Crosson and [famous serum run musher] Leonhard Seppala,” says Kinney, laughing. “The picture was taken right before they left Fairbanks for Barrow.” Crosson was also in the second photo, presumably with one of his aircraft. “[UAF archivist] Dirk Tordoff knew them right away, mystery solved!”

As it turns out, Crosson was one of the bigger discoveries Kinney made while working on the Alaska exhibit. “He just keeps popping up in so many of the stories; he’s a key player in aviation history who’s no longer that well known beyond the state.”

The larger story of aviation in Alaska and how it relates to America’s aviation past is something that has always intrigued Kinney. The differences between how the industry developed in the Lower 48 and Alaska are something he could not help but notice as the exhibit came together. He explains:

Aviation is a distinctly American experience. Technology drove aviation in the Lower 48, especially out west where aviation advancements were driven to be faster and haul more by the demands of multiple industries. The military also used it to get ahead. But Alaska has its own story; it’s own different unique story with aviation, largely due to the remote locations of the resources and the harsh environments people were working in. You can write a history of aviation in the U.S. that tells the big picture ... but Alaska is a chapter like no other.

While Kinney can appreciate that “big picture” and how factors such as geography and climate impacted aviation’s development in Alaska in ways unlike the Lower 48, he also notes the deep intransigence of the bush pilot myth and the continuing need for the frontier ideal to all of America.

“There is a vision of the cowboy of the sky” - always male and white he notes - “that is huge outside Alaska. Alaska is the end of the road in so many ways and Alaska and the aircraft mean so much to so many.”

The literal and metaphorical “end of the road” has been part and parcel of frontier mythology since America’s founding, but it overwhelmed the aviation industry in Alaska only in the past 50 years. As air traffic in the Lower 48 moved beyond images of Lindbergh, Earhart, scarves and goggles, and into the “tray tables up and seat backs erect” commercial flying experience we have all become accustomed to, aviator imagery from the north became more and more appealing.

Alaska’s need for small aircraft kept the myth alive here much longer and even now, in the 21st century, it continues to be more powerful than ever. As Kinney points out however, there is a heavy dose of reality that nurtures that myth everyday.

“Right now,” he says, “Alaska is the dream of the airplane in every garage. It’s a place where flying is still seen as basic transportation; it looks like those futuristic visions from the 1950s. From Nome to Anchorage, everywhere I went I could see it -- people fly to go to Costco up there; that’s what we were promised and it’s happening in Alaska.”

His work on the Arctic Flight exhibit reinforced much of what Kinney already knew, especially in areas like the Aleutians and the heavy toll World War II took on the combatants as they fought a “...three-sided war -- against each other and Alaska’s harsh climate and terrain.” But it is how Alaska is still an important “waypoint” both in aviation’s future and past that impressed him the most.

“Aviation is integrated into that whole notion of the industrialized frontier, in the west especially when you think of mining. But in Alaska it’s not only that but also tourism and everyday; aviation is still [a vital] part of the state’s story.”

From a champion dog musher and the first pilot to land on a glacier standing side by side to Anchorage as a crossroads for international commerce, the state’s aviation story continues to evolve. What Jeremy Kinney learned here however is that one thing remains constant: aviation is still part and parcel of Alaskan life. “Alaska is almost a case study of aviation,” he says, and one hundred years after it first arrived, that shows no signs of changing.

Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight by Julie Decker and Jeremy Kinney accompanies the Arctic Flight exhibit and can be purchased from the Anchorage Museum or via bookstores statewide.

Dirk Tordoff’s book on Joe Crosson, Mercy Pilot, is out of print but available in many Alaska libraries.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com