Winging It: Where Alaska’s aviation system came from

A lot of my time is spent advocating for the aviation infrastructure that we count on to fly around Alaska.  Airports, nav aids, weather stations, Flight Service, weather cameras, etc. are all things that we use and often take for granted. But where did they come from?  If you are at all interested in that question, check out Jack Jefford’s book Winging It,  originally published in 1981, but more recently released in paperback.

winging it coverJack Jefford came to Alaska in the fall of 1937, to take a job flying for Hans Mirow in Nome.  Like many pilots of the time he learned to fly by shear persistence. Jefford kicked around the mid-west trying any way he could to make flying into a career—including a stint as a barn-stormer—before coming north.  Travel to and from Alaska at that time was by ship. Once arriving in Nome, the airplane was pressed into almost around-the-clock service transporting miners to the creeks for the short summer season.  Aviation was all by visual reference, when the weather allowed.  “City” airports were located at the larger communities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Bethel. In-between, the airports literally were “fields” or gravel bars; frozen rivers, lakes and sea-ice in the winter months.

Pre-1940, radios were just starting to be installed in airplanes.  Not the VHF radios we know today, but HF radios initially requiring the pilot to learn Morse Code.  Even that was greatly appreciated, Jefford explains, when he crashed in the mountains east of Nome in severe winter conditions. The distress call he tapped out in code eventually brought local natives on dog teams to his rescue, ending his six day ordeal.

In the spring of 1940, Jefford made a change that corresponded with a huge growth spurt in aviation infrastructure development. He was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (precursor to the FAA), as an Airways Flight Inspector just as the country was headed into World War II.  This was the start of his government career which “…would span thirty two years and over twenty thousand flying hours.” It put him in the cat-bird seat during the establishment of the initial airway structure that linked Alaska to Seattle, and connected the communities across the state.

The Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands certainly kicked military activity into high gear. A number of Jefford’s stories involve building the airports and airways down the chain.  The federal DLAND (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense) Program started in 1940, and poured $400 million into the development and improvement of military airfields across the nation.  Over two dozen airports in Alaska were constructed or improved under that program, many of which would later be turned over to the Territory (and eventually the State).  Jefford spent considerable time shuttling engineers and equipment between these construction projects.  Airstrips constructed under the DLAND program included King Salmon, Cordova, McGrath, Galena, Northway and Moses Point, to name a few.

At the same time, radio ranges to establish IFR airways were under construction.  These were low-frequency ranges that operated with dots and dashes to define the different “beams” leading to the station.

Not only did Jefford help site these facilities and transport the teams in to construct them, his job included flight checking and hauling the supplies to the technicians, specialists and families that staffed the network of facilities. Some of the most compelling stories center around rescue missions.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

One memorable event took place on December 11, 1950.  The CAA manager at the Illiamna station, also a relatively new private pilot, crashed his Piper Clipper near the small community of Nondalton, on the shores of Lake Clark– badly injuring himself and his passenger.  The military flew a doctor to Illiamna, who was transported by dog sled to treat the injured pilot and passenger. He reported that the pilot was in critical condition, not stable enough for dog sled transport, and in need of air evacuation to Anchorage. Snow and icing, severe enough to force a military rescue helicopter to retreat, thwarted an earlier rescue attempt.  Departing from Anchorage in the FAA’s DC-3, Jefford encountered moderate icing as he crossed the Alaska Range but made the approach into Illiamna, which was reporting a 500 foot ceiling and less than a mile visibility. He managed to land and waited for conditions to improve.  Reports from the doctor advised that the injured pilot probably wouldn’t survive the night if he couldn’t get advanced medical attention.  After testing the snow cover on the unplowed crosswind runway at Illiamna in a truck, Jefford asked the residents of Nondalton to put out an array of gas lanterns on the lake ice in front of the village.  The flight crew calculated how many minutes they could fly the north leg of the low-frequency range before arriving at Nondalton, knowing that beyond were the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Jefford took off and flew the prescribed number minutes before being forced to circle back—without seeing any lights. On the second try he extended slightly, and just as he started his turn back, a crew member spotted the lanterns, allowing them to land on the unconsolidated snow. The deceleration in the unpacked snow made for a very short landing roll, requiring all of Jeffords talents to keep the Dug from nosing over.  After loading the patient and doctor, it took multiple attempts before they were able to get airborne, and make the trip back across the mountains to Anchorage.

This book is not a traditional biography, but was developed from many hours of tape-recorded stories Jefford told over a five year period.  It reads as though you were listening to the master story teller himself.  He and the CAA/FAA employees of that era transformed Alaskan aviation, allowing the development of more reliable service.  Low frequency airways gave way to VOR-based airways that are now the “legacy system” we are watching transition to space-based navigation.  Even though Alaska still has a sparse network of infrastructure in comparison to the lower-48 states, it is good to look back and appreciate what aviation was like in earlier times.  A big THANK YOU to Jack’s daughter Carmen Jefford Fisher, who with the assistance of her husband Mark and the late Cliff Cernick, made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Jack Jefford’s stories—and have a greater appreciation for the men and women who developed aviation system we rely on today!