About four years ago, while living in Anchorage, Jodie Banks found something special at local thrift shop Bishop’s Attic. Rolled up in a box full of posters, it turned out to be an oversized -- 68 inches by 42 inches -- photograph printed on heavy Kodak photo paper with an unexpected subject. A few weeks ago, Jodie’s boyfriend Brian Williams contacted Alaska Dispatch and asked if we could help identify the man in the picture.
Two things stand out immediately: the aircraft and the man’s dress. Based on his clothing, he is more likely a mechanic than a pilot and Jodie’s initial investigations have led her in that direction. She explains:
Someone once told me they thought it could be Cecil Higgins ... I've searched several locations online for any info on him with little luck. The Alaska digital archives only have a photo of his wife Clara. I've put in a photo request at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Their list of photos in their collections mention him several times.
Cecil Higgins was an Alaska aircraft mechanic who grew up in Nebraska near pioneer aviator Harold Gillam. He arrived in the territory in 1923 along with Gillam and went to work eventually for the Bennet-Rodebaugh Airplane Transportation Company in Fairbanks. In 1930, Higgins became the first certified aircraft mechanic at Anchorage’s newly opened Merrill Field. He worked for several airlines over the years before leaving the aviation business after World War II. He died in Tacoma in 1990.
Based on the vintage of the man’s clothing and the biplane with its heavy skis, it's entirely possible Higgins is the man in the photograph. But there were many mechanics in Alaska in the 1930s and Jodie and Brian would appreciate any assistance readers could give them in revealing the photo’s secrets. For the two of them, who now live in Ketchikan, it’s first and foremost a “really neat photo” that hangs on their wall. But if they can uncover just how big a part of Alaska’s history they've stumbled onto, it would deepen their appreciation of this clearly unique piece of aviation memorabilia.
ETA: We have confirmation this evening that the gentleman is indeed Cecil Higgins. As it turns out, a copy of this photo is hanging in one of the restoration hangars at the Anchorage Aviation Museum. So there you go Jodie & Brian - a real piece of Alaskana is hanging in your living room!
Thanks to everyone who responded so quickly to help us solve this mystery and if you have any questions of your own about the state's aviation past, feel free to ask us here at the Bush Pilot blog.
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.