General Aviation Month in Alaska

It is an honor to have Governor Parnell recognize the importance of aviation in Alaska!  Below is the proclamation, in its full wording, which outlines not only our dependence on aviation, but some of the challenges as well.  The final whereas also recognizes the centennial of flight.

In spite of the many challenges, it is exciting to see how far we have come in a hundred years!

governor parnell sealGeneral Aviation Appreciation Month

Effective Date: Sunday, September 1st, 2013

WHEREAS, 82 percent of Alaska’s communities are without roads and depend on aviation as a lifeline to provide year-round access for commerce, transportation, emergency medical service, and tourism; and

WHEREAS, Alaskan residents fly more than eight times as often as residents of other states on average; and

WHEREAS, Alaska has more private planes per capita than any other state. There are 855 registered airports and seaplane bases, including 405 public use facilities and 450 private airports in Alaska, housing 10,423 aircraft utilized by 8,202 registered pilots; and

WHEREAS, our state’s extreme climate and formidable terrain requires the highest vigilance of volatile conditions, training, resourcefulness, and maintenance of equipment; and

WHEREAS, the aviation industry generates $3.5 billion and over 47,000 Alaskan jobs annually, accounting for ten percent of the jobs in the state; and

WHEREAS, this year, Alaska celebrates a century of aviation history that began on July 3, 1913 in Fairbanks and which, against overwhelming odds, has steadfastly become the largest aviation system in the United States.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Sean Parnell, Governor of the State of Alaska, do hereby proclaim September 2013 as:

General Aviation Appreciation Month

in Alaska, and encourage all Alaskans to honor the achievements of general aviation in Alaska during the past one hundred years.

Dated: August 30, 2013

The Power of Youth

For pilots and aviation enthusiasts like me it is hard to imagine anyone not fascinated by aviation. The idea of zipping along above flight level one-eight-zero; feeling the squeez of heart-pounding, high-G maneuvers; or flying at tree-top level in a Robinson R-22 are a few of the adrenaline-charged images that come to mind—but these people do exist and like us, maintain strong personal opinions. Simply put, we can’t please everyone but for the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of those whose opinions are not yet cemented, nothing supports our aviation communities’ as much as local airshows and public fly-ins!

Although I was unable to attend Air Venture this year, I was privileged to be able to represent AOPA at the Wings Over Wiscasset Airshow in Maine on Tuesday, August 6—a day that oddly enough, marked my sixth-year anniversary of working for my beloved Pilot Association. The major draw for the day’s event was the magnificent aircraft herald-in by the Texas Flying Legends Museum like the awe-inspiring P-51D Mustang, FG-1 Corsair, the P-40K Warhawk, and US Congressman Sam Graves’ TBM Avenger. These aircraft are no doubt representative of a time in our history when American know-how reign supreme, propelling the nation to Superpower status.

A standard week day for most, community attendance was slow through the early hours but by 4 pm, the local event boasted an excess of 4000 people. Both young and senior alike crowded the flight-line to snap pictures with these aviation legends. Many also enjoyed the surprise visit paid by US Senator Angus King. With only smiles to be had, seasoned pilots light-up at the opportunity to share “war stories”—even if theirs takes place during private pilot training far from any battlefield.

As a father I can tell you, enticing our nation’s youth produces a multiplier effect worthy of repeating. While my one-year old may still be too young to ignite a self-propelled interest in aviation; children are no doubt conduits to their parents.  As anyone with children knows, we spend our free time following our kid’s curiosities—always trying to highlight the educational component to whatever task they’re engaged.  While not every child is destined to be the next Amelia Earhart or Chuck Yeager, their natural interest in all things new, fast, and (seemingly) dangerous, makes the connection to general aviation an easy bridge for parents to cross.

With this in mind, grab your family, friends, neighborhood kids (parental permission required) and Veterans; and head to a community aviation event near you—besides you never know who you might run into while planting the seeds of general aviation: http://pilothub.blogspot.com/2007/12/famous-people-with-pilots-licenses.html

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.

Book Review: The Bishop’s Boys

What was the world like when the Wright Brothers make the first sustained, powered flight?  Most of us are familiar with the year (1903) and the place (the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk), but what allowed Wilbur and Orville to accomplish this feat? How did they succeed where better funded efforts had failed?  The Bishop’s Boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom Crouch, answers those questions and literally transports the reader back to the decades before and after the introduction of powered flight—setting the stage for the airplanes we enjoy today.

This story is not a quick read, unless you do nothing else for a couple days straight.  The 529 page account is broken into three sections. The first introduces us to the Wright family–particularly Wilbur and Orville’s father, Milton, who had a profound influence on their lives.  Milton was a dedicated church man, who rose to the rank of Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren. In this capacity, he spent much time on the road. Also a devoted family man, he corresponded frequently with his wife and children, providing a rich source of material frequently quoted in the book.

The second section introduces us to the public’s interest in powered flight, which was bubbling over at the end of the 1800’s in the US and Europe.  We meet the leaders of the aeronautical movement, men including civil engineer Octave Chanute, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and Otto Lilienthal, the German engineer and aviation enthusiast.  Lilienthal had completed almost two thousand flights in sixteen different models of gliders in a five year period prior to 1896.  The exploits of these individuals, and more, made headlines in the popular press which fanned a fever already in the back of the Wright Brother’s minds.  It was the work of these pioneers that Wilbur and Orville turned to as they started their own investigation into the secrets of powered, heavier than air flight.  While the concepts of lift and drag had already been identified, even initial formulas derived to calculate them, the genius of the brothers was their decision to focus on how to control an aircraft in flight. The famed December 17 flight at Kitty Hawk is today identified as the milestone we associate with the start of powered flight, however put in context of the times,  the aircraft that flew that day was but a prototype that continued to evolve over the next several years toward the first “production” aircraft.

Wilbur Wright instructing a student pilot in Pau, France, passes over an ox cart.–1909.

The final section of the book covers the post Kitty Hawk period. While continuing to improve upon their aircraft design, Wilbur and Orville increasingly had to deal with the political and business world to gain acceptance of their invention.   The brothers attempted to cloak themselves in secrecy to protect the patentable aspects of their work, at the same time trying to sell their invention to the government and to interests in Europe.  The years that followed became the “patent wars” with more time spent in court defending their invention, and less in the shop doing what they did best—solving technical problems to advance aeronautical science.

While written in 1989, the book feels timeless. The author tells the story as it happened, with inclusions of quotes from the letters, news reports and documents of the day. The bother’s focus on developing a way to control an airship in all three axes (roll, pitch and yaw) set them apart from others attempting to achieve powered flight.  Fortunately for us, a wealth of documents and photographs survive–and are liberally sprinkled throughout the book.  This isn’t just a story for pilots.  Crouch, who happens to be the senior curator for the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum, also describes the social and political issues of that era. He goes into some detail on the patent war that stifled aeronautical creativity and innovation, and the controversy between the Wrights and the Smithsonian Institution. Tied to a major dispute over claims of the historical significance of Langley’s efforts versus the Wright’s accomplishments, this feud of almost thirty years duration came close to costing us our ability to look up the Wright Flyer that hangs prominently in the Air and Space Museum today.

When I next crawl into the pilots seat of my own aircraft, it will be with a much deeper appreciation of what the Wright brothers—and the other pioneers of their times—did to bring us the gift of flight!