Aviators mark century of Alaska flight

Photo/Courtesy/Alaska Air Show Association

A common list of the most significant events in Alaska history might, in no particular order, look something like this: the 1964 earthquake; the Klondike Gold Rush; discovery of North Slope oil and building the pipeline; the Exxon Valdez disaster; anything Sarah Palin.

Absent from the list is an event that continues to shape the state and perhaps has touched the lives of more Alaskans than anything else — the first flight in Alaska on July 3, 1913, in Fairbanks.

To mark the 100th anniversary of flight in the state that flies more than any other, Alaska’s aviation community has pulled together and organized the Alaska Aviation Centennial Celebration.

Jane Dale has led the coordination of the event for the Alaska Air Show Association, which, in a year without an air show on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, decided to organize another statewide party.

“It’s just like 1913, only 2013. In 1913, they were barnstorming; they were raising money; they were giving rides; they were wooing crowds,” Dale said. “We’re not doing aerobatics, but we’re doing the same thing.”

Flying the entire 1,000-plus mile route have been two North American Aviation T-6 Texans, used to train fighter pilots during World War II. A Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter; an ultra-slow flying Stinson L-13 observation aircraft; and the iconic 1931 Fairchild American Pilgrim have all accompanied the T-6s on different legs of the celebration.

The two-month long tribute to flight began in Cordova on May 9. Since then, the small squadron of World War II-era planes has made its way through Southcentral and traversed much of Western and Interior Alaska, with stops in nearly every area hub.

A flight to Barrow was canceled as to not interfere with the whaling season, Dale said, and a celebration in Galena scheduled for June 8 to 9 has been postponed as the Yukon River village recovers from severe spring flooding.

The barnstormers will be in Fairbanks July 4 to commemorate the first flight in Alaska by flying the original “racetrack flyby” over the city, the Tanana River and North Pole, said Dee Hanson, executive director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association and lead organizer of the Fairbanks event.

After the high noon flight on July 4, Hanson said the aircraft would be on display for aviation enthusiasts to get up-close and personal at the University of Alaska Community and Technical College site at the Fairbanks International Airport.

“We’re going to have a turn-of-the-century picnic with hot dogs, popcorn and ice cream,” after the flight, she said.

Hanson said she expects a third T-6 from Bellingham, Wash., to join the group in Fairbanks, too.

She added that the Centennial Celebration is a perfect fill-in for the traditional Air Force F-16 flyover the city usually has on Independence Day. The flyover was canceled due to federal sequester budget cuts, Hanson said.

The hope is for about 2,000 attendees, she said, many more than were on hand for the first Alaska flight 100 years ago.

For that flight, James Martin, who had hoped to sell his self-made Gage-Martin aircraft after the demonstration flights, sold only about 250 tickets, Hanson said.

“People realized they could just watch the flight from their roofs, so they didn’t have to buy tickets,” she said.

When Martin was unable to find a buyer for his plane, he crated it up and headed back home to the Pacific Northwest.

Hanson said a 50-plane group flight of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association will be ending their journey in Fairbanks on July 1, and she’s trying to convince them to stick around for the Centennial Celebration.

“Fairbanks’ airport, that week in aviation, is going to be very busy,” she said.

Dale said she expected the fighter planes to draw the most attention, but in Western Alaska, the Pilgrim, recently restored by the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, has been the main attraction.

“It came here (to Alaska) in 1936 and went out west to the Yukon-Kuskokwim area and it was a freight hauler. So, it’s been everywhere and everyone’s seen it. The folks in the villages have pilots that they knew locally that flew it. So there’s so much history there,” she said.

She added that the responses they’ve received in all the communities has been remarkable.

“We’ve had some wonderful, wonderful events. King Salmon was phenomenal. Dillingham. Then we go to Bethel and there’s like 600 to 800 people on the ramp,” Dale said. “Cordova — 400 kids on the ramp to meet us. Then the (Cordova Chamber of Commerce) had a wonderful dinner for us. Really, it’s just fun.

“The other thing about rural Alaska is they keep telling us, ‘We don’t ever get this kind of attention. Nobody comes out here and does something in rural Alaska.’ So they want us to come back. Wasilla’s very interested in us coming back and we haven’t even been there yet. It’s amazing.”

The traveling show will be in Wasilla July 5 and end at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum at Lake Hood in Anchorage July 14.

Dale said fundraising for the event has been a challenge, but local businesses have offered accommodations, advertisement and fuel that have made the events possible.

Chuck Miller, who owns the T-6s, the L-13 and the Zero has flown with the Centennial Celebration.

“The communities truly understand how important aviation is to them,” Miller said.

On top of the overwhelming support the group has received, Miller said he was struck by activity at the airports in Western Alaska. He said Merrill Field in Anchorage where he operates doesn’t compare.

“Bethel is the busiest airport I’ve ever seen. Kotzebue was unbelievably busy,” he said. “You wait longer to take off there than at O’Hare (in Chicago).”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

06/27/2013 - 7:44am