Aerial photography: a time machine

Cameras and airplanes have been used together for many years.  The vantage point that an airplane provides—the ability to look down from above—is a powerful perspective when it comes to seeing patterns in the landscape.  One simply can’t get this view from standing on the ground.  While exciting to experience in flight, it is even more powerful to capture with a camera and bring this view back to earth.  Now one can examine the landscape in detail, take measurements, create maps and make all kinds of interpretations.  Geologists use them to help prospect for oil. Foresters determine the volume and location of wood resources. Biologists map animal habitat. The list goes on…

A fundamental property of a photograph is time.  The fraction of a second the shutter is open freezes a little slice of time, which turns a photograph into a record of the past from the instant the shutter closes.  So it was with much interest that I recently opened the August 25th edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner to discover an oblique aerial photograph taken over my home city (Fairbanks) some 70+ years ago.

A few days later, I was contacted by the Fairbanks metropolitan transportation planning organization, who had also seen the photograph, and wanted to locate a recent image from a similar vantage point for comparison.  A couple weeks later the weather cooperated, and I managed to bring camera and airplane together to orbit over Fairbanks and attempt to replicate the photo from the late 1940’s.  Then the real fun began, in comparing features from the two images.

Viewing 74 years of change

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1393.

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1939. Sources: Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Archive Source: Aerometric.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Fairbanks, Alaska in 1939.  Some research helped put a more precise date on the old aerial.  It was taken on June 17, 1939, and the negative of this image (frame 3224) is still in the archives at Aerometric in Anchorage.  [Coincidentally, this image was taken just a month after AOPA was incorporated. AOPA will be celebrating it’s 75th anniversary next year.]

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two images is the Chena River, which bisects down town Fairbanks. In the 1939 photo it much larger than today.  Even though the old image is black and white, the light tone of the river is because it was filled with water laden with glacial silt. At the time, this stretch of the river was a slough of the much larger Tanana River, whose main channel flows a few miles south of town (see map below).  Modern flood control structures upstream today (hopefully) keep the glacier fed Tanana river water out of the Chena, leaving it a smaller, but clearer river. And making the town to be less susceptible to flooding.

Then sporting a population of something over 3,000 people, Fairbanks has obviously grown with houses and buildings filling in where fields or undisturbed land once prevailed.  Today downtown Fairbanks has a population over 30,000 and the surrounding metro area is just shy of 100,000.  In the background of the 1939 picture, just on the southern edge of town is Weeks Field, the city airstrip.  As with airports at many communities then and now, the town grew up around the airport, eventually forcing it to move.  Today, the stretch of land that was Weeks Field is occupied by Lathrop High School and the Noel Wien Library on one end, extending to Growden Memorial Park, other ball fields, and the Carlson Community Activity Center on the other.

Looking ahead
In the upper right corner of the modern photograph—barely visible—is the northern edge of Fairbanks International Airport.   The map (below) is part of a 1952 USGS topographic map which at that time depicts Weeks Field as well as the newly constructed “Fairbanks Airport” that would grow to become a major transportation hub for Fairbanks and interior Alaska, responsible for over 2,000 jobs and a total economic impact of about $225 M annually to Fairbanks and the State of Alaska.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Comparing these two pictures certainly made me appreciate some of the changes that have taken place over time.  Photographs and images taken from the “aerial perspective” can be powerful tools to study the present and appreciate change through time.  In thinking about the next 75 years, we will need to remain vigilant to ensure that future growth at Fairbanks doesn’t threaten the viability of the airport, which fortunately has a good buffer of land around it today.  I hope someone acquiring an aerial image 75 years from now will be able to report that we were good stewards of our towns and airports for the generations to follow!

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