We Alaskans

Despite myths, 'Alaska's Skyboys' takes a measured look at pilots of the north

Alaska's Skyboys

By Katherine Johnson Ringsmuth; University of Washington Press; 2015; 237 pages

Author Katherine Ringsmuth balances popular history and academic research in her fascinating new book, "Alaska's Skyboys: Cowboy Pilots and the Myth of the Last Frontier."

Focusing on the pilots of the eastern region, Ringsmuth writes of their exploits in the Wrangell, Chugach and St. Elias mountain ranges and the towns of Valdez and Cordova. By her own admission, this is only a small geographic part of the Alaska aviation story, but it is a critical one, full of intriguing characters whose adventures more than fill the pages.

Ringsmuth is concerned with more than recounting mercy flights and life-and-death struggles against the elements. As she outlines in her introduction, the author seeks to understand how the bush pilot myth came to be:

Contributing to the bush pilot's heroic persona was the magical machine with which angel-like fliers not only defied the laws of nature, but made it accessible in unprecedented ways. "No technology is more important in Alaska than that associated with aviation," wrote historian Roderick Nash. "The Bush plane is Alaska's covered wagon."

In his romantically titled "Cowboys of the Sky," writer Steven C. Levi exclaimed: "It was the airplane that brought Alaska into the 20th century."

Yet he describes such transformative and progressive change using nostalgic expressions. He calls the bush pilot "the unsung hero of the north," who, by overcoming mountains, glaciers, frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards, became "the stuff of legends.

"These 'Cowboys of the Sky,' " insists Levi, "make Alaska what it still is today." To Alaskans everywhere, aviation was a natural extension of the pioneering days of the gold rushes -- indeed, Alaska's own manifest destiny.

Those inhabiting Levi's legendary Alaska would surely agree that it is an exceptional place. Most would describe bush pilots as self-reliant, individualistic, defiant and daring individuals. The perception of Bush pilots as modern-day cowboys of the North, who embody the frontier spirit of Alaska, remains a powerful narrative.

For many Alaskans, the names Ringsmuth mentions will be familiar: Bob Reeve, Harold Gillam, Merle Smith and UAF's "flying president" Terris Moore are still remembered. Other aviators such as Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson make cameo appearances, as Ringsmuth covers history from the trailblazing bush pilot years, to aircraft's incorporation into the mining industry, the territorial war effort and the midcentury mountaineering and scientific achievements made possible with assistance from planes and pilots.

While Ringsmuth, who teaches history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is owner of the public history consulting business Tundra Vision, cannot resist repeating some hair-raising flying stories (they did happen after all!), she is measured in her analysis of aviation's economic impact on pilots and their communities. These men -- and they were overwhelmingly men -- were certainly brave, but the author is clear to point out they were smart businessmen, too. They spotted business opportunities and they pursued them. That people labeled them heroes in the process was an unexpected bonus.

Much of Alaska history is wrapped in myth and the state has shrewdly embraced its often-legendary status. There's little doubt that Americans need a frontier; it is part of our national makeup that shows no signs of fading.

Alaska pilots never sought to be considered "cowboys of the sky," but as the author shows, it happened nonetheless. Ringsmuth's thoroughly engaging look at the development of this phenomenon is a fascinating peek at how uniquely American the Alaska bush pilot truly is.

Freelance writer Colleen Mondor can be reached at colleen@chasingray.com.

Colleen Mondor

Colleen Mondor is the author of "The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska." Find her at chasingray.com or on Twitter @chasingray.