Centennial of Flight in Alaska

This Fourth of July marks 100 years since the first powered flight in Alaska.

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

It happened during the Fourth of July in 1913, in Fairbanks.  Early day aviator and inventor, James V. Martin and his wife Lily, (also a pilot) made the lengthy trip from Seattle to demonstrate what would come to be known as ‘the aviation.’  Sponsored by a group of local businessmen, the bi-winged Gage-Martin aircraft, with a 60 horse power motor, was crated and transported by ship through southeast Alaska to Skagway, transferred to the White Pass Railroad for the trip to Whitehorse and loaded on a stern-wheeler for the long trip down the Yukon to Tanana, The final leg up the journey was by another riverboat up the Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks.  According to aviation historian and University of Alaska Film Archivist Dirk Tordoff, the journey was made in just over twenty days—with good connections—which was quite efficient travel at that time.

The plan for Fairbanks was to make demonstration flights out of the local ball field, as part of the Fourth of July festivities. This timing was good, Tordoff asserts, as that holiday was the only time in the short summer season that the miners (which WAS the economy of the day) took time away from their diggings to celebrate.  The riverboat companies cut their fares in half, allowing miners from across the region to attend the holiday festivities.  So an audience was guaranteed. Tickets sold for $2.50 a head would cover the cost of the aerial demonstration.

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913.  (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Devil and details
But like most things in aviation, the devil is in the details.  Martin’s aircraft required high-octane fuel that had been ordered, but didn’t arrive for several days, forcing him to operate on low-octane fuel. The poor engine performance required securing the tail with a spring setup, which was released by his wife when full power was developed, and even then he barely made it into the air.  Another problem: it was a bad wildfire year, and the smoke in the area was thick enough that visibility was a factor (something that still plagues Fairbanks aviators on occasion).  Consequently, during his test flights on July 3rd, he only managed to climb a few hundred feet, and stayed over familiar landmarks, right over the city itself.  This allowed the population of the town, about 3,500 people at the time, to realize they didn’t need to buy a high priced ticket (almost 60 bucks in today’s dollars), but could easily view the show from their own roof or wood pile.  A series of five flights were made between July 3-5, according to Tordoff. While thrilling for Fairbanksians, it was a commercial disaster for the businessmen.  The further plan had been to sell the aircraft in Alaska, but given the limited performance, there were no takers and the plane was taken apart and shipped back to Seattle, where it disappeared from the historic record, Tordoff told an audience in Fairbanks recently.  While a commercial failure, this event signaled the start of aviation, which over the next few decades would significantly alter transportation in Alaska, with airplanes displacing mail routes otherwise served by dogsled, and transporting miners in two hours over a distance that previously took weeks to cover. This flight occurring just as the first successful climb of Mt. McKinley was completed—which required a combined total of almost 1,500 miles of dogsled, snowshoe, hiking and river travel—make the contrast of how airplanes have changed Alaska particularly noteworthy.

Commemorating that historic ‘waypoint’

AACentennial-PosterRecognizing that a century has passed since this event, the Alaska Airshow Association has organized an ambitious plan with a group of warbirds and other vintage aircraft to make the rounds of many Alaskan communities.  They started in Cordova on May 9th, and are scheduled to appear in Fairbanks to celebrate the actual first flights on July 4th.  They, and other vintage aircraft from Fairbanks, will launch just before noon and fly over celebrations in Ester, Fairbanks and North Pole before returning to the airport for further festivities.  This flight is timed to ‘parade’ over Pioneer Park at noon as part of their Fourth of July ceremony.

Back on the East Ramp at Fairbanks International Airport, The Alaska Airmen’s Association is coordinating an event in conjunction with the Airshow Association to treat the public to free hot dogs and popcorn (food you would find a hundred years ago), an opportunity to see the airplanes “up close and personal” and to meet the pilots.  At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Facility, 3504 South University Avenue, a museum display about the centennial will be set up for viewing, youth activities are planned, and did I mention the free hot dogs?  Pilots will sign commemorative posters, and talk about the aircraft they are flying.  The finale will be at 3 p.m. when the aircraft take off and fly a race track pattern around the airport, before heading south to their next destination.  If you are in Fairbanks (or want to fly in for the occasion), come out to enjoy the fun, and reflect on how far aviation has progressed in 100 years. Or just to enjoy a free hot dog!

Fairbanks Aviation Day Draws the Public to Aviation

Neither wind, nor snow, nor record low temperatures stopped the public from turning out to see airplanes and learn about aviation at Fairbanks International Airport on Saturday, May 18th.  As Mother Nature provided what we hope was the last covering of snow for the season on Friday night, a cold front moved through and brought bright sunny skies on Saturday morning.  As the doors opened at 7 a.m. the temperature hovered at a chilly 22 degrees, with a brisk 15 gusting to 20 knot breeze dropping the chill factor to just above zero.  In spite of that, people poured in adding up to almost 1,500 visitors for the day.

Kids waiting to “take off” at the hands-on  Air Traffic Control activity. Photo by Claire Halvarson

Kids waiting to “take off” at the hands-on Air Traffic Control activity. Photo by Claire Halvarson

The cold temperatures probably contributed to making the EAA Pancake Feed a very popular activity, that raised over $2,500 for aviation scholarships and safety programs.  Older kids quickly signed up for a free Young Eagles flight, while younger children were attracted to the mini-airport (70 by 30 feet in size) where air traffic controllers issued them an N Number and instructions to taxi, take off and land.  A total of 167 youngsters “flew” in this airspace during the day.  The most popular event of the day was a face-painting table, supported by volunteers from the Cooperative Extension Service’s 4-H Program.

In spite of Mother Nature, over the course of the day almost 1,500 people came out to learn about aviation, including looking at the two-dozen display aircraft. Photo by Claire Halvarson.

In spite of Mother Nature, over the course of the day almost 1,500 people came out to learn about aviation, including looking at the two-dozen display aircraft. Photo by Claire Halvarson.

Checking out the flight engineers position on the FedEx 727, donated to UAF’s Aviation Program. Photo by Kevin Alexander.

Checking out the flight engineers position on the FedEx 727, donated to UAF’s Aviation Program. Photo by Kevin Alexander.

Outside, in the bright sun and bitter breeze, twenty three airplanes and a helicopter were on display, ranging from Everts Air’s immaculately restored 1929 Travel Air, to the FedEx Boeing 727, recently donated to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Program.  Many people had never had the chance to walk through a cargo aircraft, and very importantly on this occasion—it was warm inside!  Delcourt Aviation organized the aircraft display, which gave the public the opportunity to get an up-close and personal look at an impressive array of working aircraft.  The airport fire department complemented the display with a variety of crash/fire/rescue equipment. Due to the storm the day before the event, David Delcourt and Joey Smith got up at 3 a.m. to move the lighter aircraft to the display area. Now that is dedication!

The UAF Community and Technical College’s Aviation Program moved into its new home on the East Ramp only a few months prior to this event.  Transforming the hangar, work tables and class room into an aviation exhibition was no small feat, featuring sixteen exhibitors, a theater for aviation mini-seminars, scale model airport with runways and taxiways, and a dining area for the pancake feed.  While a few outdoor events were cancelled due to the weather, no one seemed to notice as they got free luggage tags from Alaska Airlines, talked with flight instructors, took airport tours guided by airport ops staff, learned about flight-seeing opportunities this summer, and listened to aviation historian Dirk Tordoff tell the story of the first powered flight in Alaska, 100 years ago.  The weather also limited the number of Young Eagle flights. Only 35 kids got to go flying during the day, but another 80+ signed up for a “rain check” flight when the weather improves.

It is hard to measure the impact of an event of this nature. Seeing the look on the younger faces after they “flew”—either in a real “Young Eagles” airplane, or made a simulated flight over the FAA’s mini-airport, suggests a bright future for aviation.  Exposing the younger set not only to the prospect of piloting, but to air traffic control, airport management, aircraft maintenance and other professions related to our industry was huge! It took a team of people holding bi-weekly meetings for several months to plan and organize the event.

It also required sponsorship.  Many organizations stepped up to the plate, and provided both cash and in-kind support, which provided things such as the use of the UAF Hangar, insurance coverage from the Alaska Airmen’s Association, CAP Cadets directing traffic to parking areas, shutting down a maintenance shop to move display aircraft, to name a few.  In addition, it took over $5,000 of cold, hard cash to afford the radio, newspaper and online advertising necessary to reach the public, which came from the sponsors listed below. Your membership in the Alaska Airmen’s Association, AOPA, EAA, the Fairbanks General Aviation Association and other aviation groups as well of your support of the corporate sponsors, flight schools, maintenance facilities is essential to hold events like this across the state—which quite literally, gives us a future!

A big THANK YOU to the organizations and individuals that supported this event.  Platinum: Flint Hills, Alaska Aerofuel Inc., Gold: 5th Avenue Design & Graphics, Air Arctic, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Alaska Airlines, Alaska Airmens Association, Delcourt Aviation, Era Alaska, Everts Air, Experimental Aircraft Association, Fairbanks International Airport, FAA, Nana Management Services, North Pole Coffee, Northern Alaska Tour Company, Odom Corporation, ProFlite of Alaska, Tamarack Air, Twigs Alaskan Gifts, UAF Community and Technical College Aviation Program, Warbelow’s Air Ventures, Warbelow’s Flight School, Silver:  A&W Wholesale, Civil Air Patrol

Note: This article was reprinted from the June/July 2013 issue of Alaska Airmen’s Association’s Transponder.

Bolingbrook, IL Mayor Announces Aviation Appreciation Month

Earlier this month, coinciding with Bolingbrook – Clow International Airport’s Cavalcade of Planes, the Mayor of Bolingbrook, Illinois, Roger Claar proclaimed June 2013 to be Bolingbrook – Clow International Airport Aviation Appreciation Month.

The proclamation cites the Village’s significant interest in the future of the airport, its businesses, users, and on airport tenants including the Illinois Aviation Museum located on the airport.

The proclamation continues by noting the economic impact the airfield has on the local community including its total economic impact exceeding $13 million annually including more than 130 jobs.

Special thanks to AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Grant Prellwitz for his continued dedication to the airport and AOPA!  If you are in the Chicago area, stop by 1C5 and enjoy the rich aviation heritage at the airport and say hello to Grant!


Airport User/Tenant Associations- You Probably Don’t Know How Much You Need One!

Admit it-  attending public-meetingscity council, county commission, airport board or other public meetings has the same allure for you as preparing a federal tax return by hand.  Lengthy agendas, droll topics about non-pertinent issues and a litany of more enjoyable things to do with your time all conspire to make attending public meetings low on most everyone’s priority list.

But what about when something significant at your publicly-owned airport suddenly impacts you and your fellow users… in a big way?  Have you been engaged?  Are you up to speed?  Do you know the key decision makers and the information and drivers behind their proposals or actions?  If something is planned that you don’t support, can you influence a different course?  Too often, the answer for most aircraft owners, pilots and airport users is “no”.

Prior to joining AOPA, I was fortunate to have enjoyed an airport management career that spanned more than two decades at large and small airports owned by cities, counties and independent airport authorities (“airport sponsors”, in the industry parlance).  As a public official charged with effectively and efficiently managing a publicly owned asset, I always strived to operate the public’s airport in a transparent, informative, engaging and collaborative manner.  I can tell you firsthand that the vast majority of airport professionals endeavor to do the same, and take great pride in providing a safe, efficient and well-planned community airport asset.

Unfortunately that is not universally true, and some airport sponsors and the staff they employ don’t always take the effort to engage their constituents on issues, proposals and plans that affect them and the airport they use.  So what is an aircraft owner, pilot or airport tenant to do?

The answer is simple.  If you don’t have an airport users/tenants/pilots association, start one.  And do so even if you have the best airport manager you could wish for, and certainly before a significant issue affects you and your fellow aviators.  A well-organized, consistently engaged users association is well worth your investment in time and resources, and will provide many benefits:

  • A voice.  The ability to weigh in proactively on key airport decisions with the organized voice of many is critically important.  Remember-  if you’re based at a public airport, you have a say in how it’s managed, operated and improved.
  • Education.  Airports, like aircraft, are complex machines driven by a multitude of unique requirements, standards and FAA regulations often not familiar to pilots and airport tenants.  Knowledge is power, and being engaged is a great way to learn about the unique vagaries, constraints and opportunities at your airport, and how they affect you as an airport user.
  • Collaboration.  Collaboration and cooperation between the airport sponsor and airport users is a powerful tool.  Trust me on this- it’s much easier for an airport to accomplish great things when users and the airport are working together.
  • Weight.  A unified voice can provide airport users with significant influence when weighing in with airport sponsors and elected officials on airport issues.  While some airport managers are pilots, many are not, and a pilot perspective on airport issues is always valuable.
  • Communication.  Creation of a proactive, defined and inclusive communication channel between the airport sponsor and airport users allows for effective dialogue on issues before  they become critical.
  • Community Engagement.  The ability to proactively engage the surrounding community on pressures against the airport that arise from noise, overflights, emissions and other airport impacts.  Having a group of well-organized pilots weigh in at a public hearing on a new housing development right off a runway end can be far more impactful than one airport manager reciting FAA land use recommendations.
  • Fun!  Lastly, a users association can be fun!  Many airport user/pilot/tenant associations have refined into social, pilot-centric communities as well.  Is there a more enjoyable way to discuss your airport’s future than in a hangar over a beer and burger?

So if your airport does not have a users/tenants/pilots association- I would strongly encourage you to connect with your fellow pilots and organize one.   There are many great examples out there, including the Reno-Stead (Nevada) Airport Association, and the Grand Junction (Colorado) Airport Users and Tenants Association.  And whether you have one or not, stay engaged at your airport.  Take the time to get to know your airport manager and elected officials.  Attend key public meetings, workshops and design charrettes that affect your airport’s future.  Help host an airport open house.  Get out and talk to the non-aviation groups in your community about the value of the airport and the importance of general aviation.

And above all, insist that elected officials, airport board members and airport staff at your airport are consistently transparent, engaged and communicative with you and your fellow users, pilots and tenants.  Remember-  it’s a public airport and it belongs to you.

Aviation’s impact on Alaska: Looking back 100 years…

We take aviation so much for granted that it is hard to imagine life before airplanes appeared on the scene. A century ago, two events took place in Alaska that help illustrate just how profound some of those differences really are.

On March 13, 1913 three men in heavily loaded dog sleds departed from Fairbanks, intent on climbing Mt. McKinley.  After mushing down the Tanana River to Nenana, the party grew in size to six, and continued the 170 mile trip to the gold mining community at Kantishna.  They backhauled supplies pre-positioned the previous fall by riverboat, and advanced toward the Muldrow Glacier, on the north side of the mountain.  On April 9th the group arrived at what would be their base camp, just short of the glacier.  Unlike modern climbers, the party took several days to collect firewood (a source of fuel for heating and cooking) and to hunt caribou and sheep.  The game meat was cooked and mixed with butter, salt and pepper to make pemmican, shaped into “two-hundred baseball sized orbs” and allowed to freeze.  This locally manufactured food, along with rice and bread, would provide much of the energy needed by the four members of the team that would attempt the summit.

Book Cover3(1) These details, and much more, are recounted in Tom Walker’s new book, The Seventymile Kid. The story is an excellent read, that kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I am not normally a fan of mountain climbing stories. Along the way, I became fascinated with the logistics and modes of travel used getting to, and retreating from the mountain.  From the descriptions in Walker’s book, and a little research on the side, I decided to try mapping the route with the help of Google Earth.  The journey started the fall before when Harry Karstens (the Seventymile Kid), hauled 4,500 pounds of supplies from Fairbanks by riverboat to as close as he could get, just before rivers froze up for the season.

I won’t spoil the story of the climb for you, but will say that none of the expedition members were seasoned mountain climbers, and they faced a number of predicaments that required every bit of pioneering skill, creativity and stamina they could muster. Following the climb, the team came off the mountain on June 9th. By this time, snow had melted and the party walked about 60 miles to a boat that had been stashed the year before. They floated about 300 miles to Tanana, on the Yukon River, where “commercial” transportation (steam powered riverboats) was available.  It wasn’t until early July that Karstens made it back to his home in Fairbanks.

Map of the routes traveled by foot, snow shoe, boat and dog sled to accomplish the 1913 ascent of Mt. McKinley. Use link in text to access map directly.

Map of the routes traveled by foot, snow shoe, boat and dog sled to accomplish the 1913 ascent of Mt. McKinley. Use link in text to access map directly.

Google Earth’s distance measuring tools revealed that the party had traveled about 966 by boat; almost 100 miles on foot (hiked, snow shoed or climbed); and over 400 miles by dogsled.  By these calculations, that added up to 1,468 miles traveled to conquer Mt. McKinley the first time!  And these are just the round-trip distances, with no allowances for the relaying of gear cached on the river, or the numerous shuttles during the climb itself. This map is online if you wish to examine the route in more detail.

Post Airplane

Visitors inspect the Base Camp at about the 7,000 foot level of the Kahiltna Glacier, where most modern climbers are transported by airplane to start their journey up Mt. McKinley (Denali).

Visitors inspect the Base Camp at about the 7,000 foot level of the Kahiltna Glacier, where most modern climbers are transported by airplane to start their journey up Mt. McKinley (Denali).

Today, almost 1,200 climbers a year attempt to scale Mt. McKinley.  The lion’s share of these depart from the town of Talkeetna, on the south side of the mountain, in a wheel-ski equipped airplane. They make the sixty mile trip in about half an hour, arriving at “Base Camp” on the Kahiltna Glacier—already a third of the way up the mountain, elevation wise.  The climb is nominally a two week trip before being flown off the mountain.  A little different from the three month duration of the Karsten-Stuck Expedition, that started in Fairbanks a hundred years ago.  While many things have changed during that century, the airplane is perhaps most responsible for shortening that trip.

I mentioned that there were two events that year.  About the time Karstens was returning to Fairbanks, James and Lily Martin were in town, and between July 3rd and 5th made the first powered airplane flights in Alaska in a 60 horsepower Gage-Martin biplane.  As we approach the centennial of that occasion, events are scheduled to recognize that milestone in Alaskan aviation history.  Stay tuned for more on this historic milestone!


Post Script:

A modern view up the Muldrow Glacier, taken June 1st, where the descendents of the 1913 expedition plan to ascend. The peaks are shrouded in cloud to the left.

A modern view looking up the Muldrow Glacier, taken June 1st. The descendents of the 1913 expedition plan to ascend the glacier on the way to the peaks, shrouded in cloud on the left.

To commemorate this expedition, the University of Alaska Museum of the North has created an exhibit, Denali Legacy, 100 Years on the Mountain, that documents the climb, contains the journals of the four men who scaled the mountain, and numerous artifacts of this historic effort.  In addition, descendants of the climbing party plan to start a memorial climb on June 8th, following the original route up the Muldrow Glacier, but taking advantage of the road into the park–and a Park Service bus–to put them with hiking distance of the glacier.  Fairbanks Daily News Miner columnist Dermot Cole provides an overview of the planned climb.

June is Aviation Appreciation Month in Nevada

On May 17, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval issued a proclamation declaring June to be Aviation Appreciation Month in Nevada. The Governor’s proclamation states, in part, “The continued vitality of aviation, aerospace, aircraft manufacturing, educational institutions and aviation organizations is important to the daily function of our society,” and, “The aviation industry will continue to play a vital role in the economic and social well being of the State of Nevada.”
AOPA supports these goals. We actively worked for passage of two bills introduced in the Nevada Legislature. Senate Bill 270 would have provided an appropriation to the Nevada Fund for Aviation to be used to match federal Airport Improvement Program grants at general aviation airports. Senate Bill 385 would have provided personal property and sales and use tax abatements for qualifying aviation businesses.
AOPA supported these bills by letters, email, and in person. I testified in support of SB 385 during a Senate Committee on Revenue and Economic Development hearing on April 2. The following day I testified in support of SB 270 during a Senate Committee on Finance hearing.
Unfortunately, the 2013 Nevada legislative session ended the evening of June 3 without the legislature taking final action on either bill. We are already discussing strategy about bringing these measures back in the next session, which convenes in February 2015.