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1926 aerial survey of Southeast Alaska improbable but successful

Colleen Mondor
The members of the Alaska Aerial Survey Expedition, taken in Southeast Alaska, 1926. US Forest Service

In the summer of 1926, while battling cloudy skies and low level fog, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted an improbable but successful aerial survey of Southeast Alaska. It managed to photograph 10,000 miles of the territory, generating 17,280 negatives. Information gathered by the mission galvanized multiple industries in the region including forestry, mining and fishing which, in particular, was on its way to developing a significant relationship with aviation.

In 1926 Alaska’s aviation industry had barely been born. Ben Eielson had flown and lost the first air mail contract in 1924. Russ Merrill and Roy Davis made the first flight over the Gulf of Alaska only one year before. And future famous pilots like Bob Reeve, Joe Crosson, Bob Ellis and Shel Simmons had yet to make their marks. But as reported in the 1929 publication "Aerial Photographic Surveys in Southeastern Alaska," using aircraft to survey the territory was a logical choice. Although topographic mapping of Alaska had been conducted by the Geological Survey for nearly 30 years, progress remained slow-going and extremely hazardous with some regions still stubbornly inaccessible. Photographing by aircraft presented endless possibilities; it just needed to be tested.

Organized by the U.S. Navy, the Alaskan Aerial Survey Expedition got formally underway when the tender Gannet, on loan from the air carrier Langley, departed the Seattle area on June 5. The Gannet was accompanied by a 140-foot barge which housed photographic laboratories and crew quarters. Interestingly, there was also a loft for carrier pigeons -- the report does not explain how they were used, though their presence led to the barge being referred to as the "Pigeon Roost."

There were 112 Navy men assigned to the expedition with Captain Charles W. Call, a civilian who was familiar with the area, also hired as pilot for the season. The Geologic Survey was represented by R.H. Sargent who had conducted several surveys of Alaska in previous decades including the lower Matanuska Valley in 1909 and a reconnaissance around the Talkeetna Mountains in 1906. Sargent was tasked with determining which areas would be overflown and also preparation of the flight charts.

The navy used Loening amphibious aircraft as they were equipped with both landing gear and floats. Dating to 1923, the Loenings included multiple designs over the years alternately utilizing Liberty and Wright engines and capable of carrying multiple passengers. Originally, the plan was to operate four aircraft, but one of them crashed, injuring the pilot and crew while en route from San Diego to Seattle. Two of the remaining aircraft were fitted with mountings for cameras and had observation hatches cut in the fuselage that could be opened after the aircraft took off. The third aircraft was fitted with radios and also intended for use in emergencies.

For the map-making photographs, the aircraft used three tri-lens cameras which took three pictures at the same time and thus provided surveyors with a larger area of land surface to review. There were also single-lens Fairchild mapping cameras, a movie camera and smaller cameras for “general work.”

The Loenings arrived in Ketchikan on June 9th with the Gannet and barge a day behind. The expedition remained there for two months. After moving on to Wrangell and then Juneau, where it was based until September 10, the expedition received assistance from the Pacific American Fisheries company in the use of cannery buildings at Gambier Bay and Hoonah Bay. The Gastineau Mining Company also donated space on its dock and buildings near Thane. Gastineau also provided water during the group’s entire stay in the Juneau area.

The names of the aircraft pilots, other than the officer injured in the crash, were not recorded in the final report. Working closely with public weather stations and private individuals across Southeast (who collectively provided daily reports from 22 locations), the group managed to successfully fly for 90 days.

Most importantly, the survey’s need for accurate weather information compelled meteorologists to track the area’s conditions on a scale never before attempted. Weather balloons were sent aloft twice a day from the ship and, in addition to the 22 daily local reports, they were also provided information from the Weather Bureau in Washington.

Analyzing this data showed that conditions did not vary dramatically from one location to another in Southeast as had been previously believed. According to the survey report, “After 10 days of such records it was obvious that a change of station was unlikely to prove advantageous, and the matter was not considered further.” This data, and the thought process behind it, would contribute greatly to future flights in Southeast.

When the expedition left Alaska, its surveyed area included islands such as Wrangell, Admiralty, Revillagigedo and Annette, the Cleveland and Lindenberg peninsulas and Chickamin River. Pictures were made for the Fish Commission, the International Boundary Commission, the Bureau of Public Roads, the Federal Power Commission, the Governor of Alaska and more.

While many groups were impressed by the use of the aircraft, it was the fishing industry that would most fully grasp its far-seeing potential. In the years to come aviation and fishing would develop multiple partnerships, not the least of which would be spotting schools of fish from overhead, as if taking pictures from the sky.

Research assistance was provided for this article by Jim Mackovjak of Gustavus who is working on a history of the codfish industry in Alaska.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com.