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!

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.

Pre-Airplane
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.