Most Alaskan’s know that the first powered aircraft flight in Alaska took place in 1913, as a demonstration at that year’s Fourth of July celebration in Fairbanks. And that commercial aviation started a decade later when pioneer aviator Ben Eielson talked several Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D “Jenny.” Eielson proceeded to fly from the local ball field, sometimes cutting weeks off the travel time to remote mining claims. But when did we start to develop the airfields, communication and weather stations to support this new mode of transportation? Who did the work? I recently spent a few hours at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Rasumson Library looking for answers to these and other questions.
From air fields to airport system
As “the aviation” first started to develop, airplanes literally operated from fields. A ball-field in Fairbanks. Hay fields in other places. Since Alaska did not achieve statehood until 1959, the initial efforts at dealing with aviation as a system fell to Alaska Territorial government. Aviation is included in the 1929 Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior, mentioning that “At the present time there are 44 landing fields in the Territory and three transportation companies operating a total of eight commercial airplanes.” At the time individual communities raised funds to develop an airfield, expecting to receive matching funds from Alaska’s Territorial government. In Valdez, the city not only raised money, they put sweat equity into the project by clearing the land, even before there was an aircraft to base there!
A series of reports of the Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission helped document aspects of this history. In 1929, the Territorial Legislature appropriated funds administered by the Highway Engineer to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.” The report went on to say, “In a short time the problem of communications became too complicated for the Highway Engineer, and subsequently in 1937 the Legislature established the Territorial Department known as the Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission.”
1937 Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission
The Commission, comprised of the Territorial Governor and one commission member from each of Alaska’s four judicial districts, initially oversaw the installation of weather stations, and collected statistics on aviation activity, which were detailed in a series of annual reports. A supervisor was hired to coordinate this activity. The commission’s initial role was “supervision and promotion of aeronautical and communications within the Territory…” even then, not to duplicate or conflict with federal regulations.
The first report covering 1937-38, filed by Supervisor G.E. Goudie, describes coordinating with both the federal CAA and the FCC. In that period, the commission managed to stand-up weather stations in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Observers at these locations recorded weather reports, issued eight hourly weather broadcasts daily and wired reports to the Weather Bureau. Work was underway for a station in Ketchikan. In addition, “radio ranges” for navigation were in planning stages for these locations.
Territorial operation of these stations was to be a temporary measure, until the CAA could obtain funds to take over the “Alaska Program.” Alaska was already behind the rest of the country in the development of infrastructure. In addition to weather and aviation communications, the use of this communication network included emergency messages, often involving need for medical assistance or transport. These were credited with saving numerous lives across the territory.
New aviation regulations for Alaska
As the United States geared up for war, the military temporarily took over operation of some of the territorial radio stations, and aviation operations in general. Even at that time, people were looking ahead to the need to expand, as manufactures announced planned production of aircraft to support “private flying.” From the 1942 report, “Numerous manufactures have recently announced planes, suitable for use by the average citizen and within the reach of his finances, to be manufactured after the war.” In anticipation of that surge of air travel, the commission worked on safety rules, “…requiring certain safety provisions be carried out thereby reducing the possibility of increased costs to the territory in the conducting of searches…” This generated a territorial requirement for Alaskan aircraft to carry emergency rations, in a regulation adopted March 22, 1943. That report also contains territory-wide maps shows the commercial air routes, areas authorized for “irregular routes” and radio stations in use at the time.
Toward a full Department of Aviation
From the inception of the Commission in 1937 into the early 1940’s, the focus had largely been on establishing weather stations, radio networks, and the collection of aviation statistics. In a later article, I plan to outline the next steps in development, which include an increased focus on airports, eventually leading to the establishment of a full-fledged Department of Aviation in the late 1940’s. A big thank you to the staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library for their assistance locating the reports that document this history!