In 1923, then school teacher Ben Eielson talked a group of Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D, a bi-winged aircraft commonly known as a Jenny. Eielson proceeded to fly out of the local ball field, and soon demonstrated that an airplane could reduce the time it took to travel to remote mining camps from days—or even weeks—to hours. Even with a larger engine, it remained an open cockpit airplane, without a heater, which is pretty limiting for a cold climate like the interior of Alaska.
As more capable planes became available, the Jenny was sidelined and donated to the University of Alaska Museum in the mid-1930’s. It spent almost half a century in a warehouse, before being brought back to the public’s eye in 1981. At that time, it was fitted with a set of wings from a different type of aircraft, and suspended In the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport (FAI). When the terminal was reconstructed a few years ago, the Jenny was taken down, and became the object of a restoration project that started in 2007. Now, thanks to a volunteer effort by the Pioneer Air Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Technology Program and Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 1129, the Jenny sports new wings, built from scratch, a fresh coat of paint, and is aloft again over the baggage claim in the new terminal at FAI. The history of the airplane was recently summarized in a feature story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Another section of the paper recognized the team of volunteers who performed the restoration.
This airplane has earned its place in the history. Jenny’s flooded the market after World War I, and in many respects jump started civil aviation. It was affordable, and became a popular airplane for barn-storming, which is how much of the public was initially introduced to aviation. In Alaska, with fewer road-miles today than the state of New Hampshire, the Jenny showed the promise of aviation—even with its limited range and open cabin. A fuel tank was designed and added to the upper wing to extend the range. A set of skis were fabricated to make it functional during the winter months—thus starting the Alaskan tradition of modifying aircraft to make them more suitable for our conditions. That tradition continues to this day.
A picture in the News-Miner article showing two Jenny’s on Wickersham Dome caught my eye. In the mid-1920’s, Noel Wien was flying passengers to Livengood, a mining community fifty miles northwest of Fairbanks, when the water pump broke, causing Wien to make a forced landing. In a landscape nominally covered with forest or boggy tundra, the top of Wickersham Dome was about the only place he thought he could attempt a precautionary landing, with any hope of avoiding major damage to the aircraft. After getting the airplane on the ground, Wien and his two passengers walked the twenty-two miles to Olnes, the nearest mining camp, where they could use a phone to summon assistance. Since this was after break-up in the spring, walking conditions were terrible. It took them twenty hours to make the trek to Olnes. After returning to Fairbanks, a second Jenny with the necessary parts and a mechanic was pressed into service to make the rescue. On landing, a wheel was damaged on the second aircraft, but they had anticipated that possibility, and brought an extra wheel along. After making the necessary repairs, both airplanes took off successfully. This story is documented in Ira Harkey’s book, Noel Wien, Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot. In that time, before the gravel and paved runways we enjoy today, even the planned “landing fields” were hard on another part of the airplane–the propeller. It was a common practice to have an extra prop tied on to the side of the aircraft to be used, if necessary, for the trip home.
Earlier this year Alaska celebrated the centennial of the first powered flight, which took place in Fairbanks on July 3rd, 1913. The Jenny arrived in Fairbanks on July 1, 1923, almost exactly a decade after that first demonstration flight. Even with its limitations, I think it is fair to say that the Jenny claimed the prize as the first aircraft in Fairbanks to show the commercial potential of “the aviation.” Seeing the Jenny “fly” again is a fitting way to wrap up the Centennial of Flight in Alaska.