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!

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!