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    Alaskan Aviation Essay (2791 words)

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    ALASKAN AVIATIONHave you ever looked real close at themaps of Alaska? The next time you see a map look for the little airplanesymbol in every little town and village in Alaska. That symbol indicatesan airstrip. That symbol also means that that is were some unfortunatebush pilot crashed and said, “This looks like a good place for an airstrip. “In the early days of Alaskan aviation it was not possible to call aheadand determine if a community had a suitable landing strip. The pilotsimply flew to the village and looked for a open spot to land.

    Acontrolled crash into deep snow usually resulted. Once aviation becameroutine, the landing strips were refined and smoothed, but those firstfliers had to land by the seat of their pants. The tales of Alaska are real, they arebold, and they are tall. However, none is taller and truer then thetales of the Alaskan aviator.

    Many people have come to Alaska seekingtheir fortunes in gold or furs or lumber or oil. Many have come toseek the adventure of the great outdoors. The aviator of Alaska camefor none of the above. They came because that is what he or she did. A breed unto themselves, their actions have painted a portrait of forwardthinking men and women who stepped forward in time to see Alaska’s future.

    That future being one in the air. Alaskan aviation has contributed significantlyto the lives of Alaskans. Many communities send and receive mail,receive groceries, provide emergency services, and maintain contact withthe outside world solely through the use of aircraft and the pilots whofly them. Alaskans have a unique relationship with the aircraft. Airplanes have enabled Alaskans to commute through their environment andconduct business in almost normal fashion. Alaska has benefited greatlythrough the use of aircraft and Alaskan aviators have contributed significantlyto the flying techniques used around the world.

    The aviation history in Alaska begins ironically,with a long, slow boat ride for an aircraft. After being off loadedat Skagway, the aircraft was hauled by the Yukon Narrow Gauge Railroadto Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. It then traveled down the Yukon riverand up the Tanana river to Fairbanks were the aircraft was flown for the1913, Fourth of July celebration (Mills and Phillips 13). Alaskahas never looked back from that first flight. In the summer of 1922, Clarence O. Prestdecided to fly from New York to Nome.

    All went well until Prest departedfrom Dawson City, Yukon Territory. After having engine trouble, Prestcrash landed on an isolated beach near Fort Yukon. Prest was transportedby a riverboat operator named Gilbert Cook to Tanana (Mills and Phillips16). Clarence O. Prest is the first name in a long and famous listof aviators that have crashed in the unforgiving terrain of Alaska’s wilderness.

    Ben Eielson began the commercial use ofthe airplane in Alaska when on February 21, 1924, he flew the first officialair mail flight in Alaska from Fairbanks to McGrath. Eielson, asluck would have it, crashed on landing and returned to law studies at GeorgetownUniversity Washington, D. C. (Mills and Phillips 16). Eielson wouldlatter return to Alaska to renew his sense of adventure.

    The first flight across the Arctic tookplace in 1925. Noel Wien transported two mining operators who wantedto travel from Fairbanks to Wiseman, an arctic town some 80 miles northof the Arctic Circle (Potter 80). Numerous aviation companies sproutedin Alaska. These companies began to ferry supplies and passengersto the towns and villages of Alaska.

    Operating primarily form Weeksfield in Fairbanks and landing strips in Anchorage, these companies rackedup a significant amount of “firsts”. Joe Crosson of the Bennett-RodeboughCompany made the first commercial flight from Fairbanks to Point Barrowand the first flight over Mt. McKinley’s 20,320 foot summit (Mills andPhillips 23). On April 16, 1928 Captains Carl Ben Eielson and anAustralian, George H. Wilkins, became the first aviators to successfullyfly over the North Pole.

    Their landing in Spitzbergen, Norway completeda 2,200 mile flight (Mills and Phillips 27). This also marked thefirst time that the knowledge of arctic aviation was used to specificallydesign an aircraft. The knowledge of Ben Eielson, which he had gainedon his previous flights in Alaska, contributed to the future design ofaircraft. Alaskan aviation matured quickly in 1929. The early barnstormers had had incredible luck walking away from crashafter crash, but in 1929, all that changed.

    In September of 1929,Russell Merrill departed on a flight from Anchorage to the Nyac mine nearBethel. He was never seen again. On November 9,1929 Ben Eielsonwas lost while enroute to Siberia. Ed Young was killed when his Fairchild71 crashed at Livengood.

    The last to find his fate was Ralph Wien. On October 12, 1930, Wien crashed at Kotzebue killing him and two priests. The Kotzebue airfield is named in his honor (Mills and Phillips 30). The tragic end of these great aviators marked the start of the great expansionof aviation in the Alaska territory. The demand for air travel continuedto grow and with that demand came better aircraft, safer airstrips, andmore experienced pilots.

    The 1930’s were an era of growth for theaviation industry in Alaska. Aircraft became the sole means of reachingisolated villages and lonesome trappers. This development encouraged greatexpansion. Alaskan Airways was formed.

    The first flight trainingschool was established in Alaska, Star Air Service (Mills and Phillips34). The events of the previous two decades had served to prepareAlaska for the largest single event in U. S. history. W. W.

    II saw aviation pushed to theforefront of military planning. Its use would greatly determine theoutcome of the war. Whoever controlled the air would control theground, and whoever controlled the ground would win the war. Alaskanaviators were at the forefront.

    The years of experience gained flyingthrough, over, and around the most hazardous terrain, gave the Alaskanaviators key advantages in their fight with the Japanese. Japan had renounced the Arms Treaty of1922. This development made all of Alaska vulnerable to invasion. Congress lobbied successfully for Army bases in Alaska and along the Aleutians.

    Bases and airfields were established at Fairbanks (Ladd Field), Anchorage(Elmendorf and Ft. Richardson), and Juneau (Annette Island Army Post). The Japanese attack that followed two decades later was hardly a surprise,however, the role Alaska was to play came as a real shock to those in Washingtonwho considered Alaska too remote to be of strategic importance. On June 3, 1942 Captain Tadao Kato launchedthe first of two attacks on Dutch Harbor.

    This attack was a diversionarytactic by Imperial Fleet Admiral Yamamoto who was attempting to draw forcesaway from his real goal of invading Midway Island (Mills 58). Thefollowing day a second attack was launched at Dutch Harbor. Followingthe attack, the task force that launched the attack disappeared into theAleutian weather, returning safely to Japanese waters. Dutch Harborsustained minor damage, but this attack was the first on American territory. Alaska’s first major contribution cameon June 4, 1942.

    During the second attack on Dutch Harbor a luckyshot from a Navy PBY brought down a Japanese zero. The zero was latterrecovered and shipped to the United States were it was disassembled andstudied. The test results from this deadly aircraft highlighted shortcomingsin U. S.

    aircraft design and many of the zero’s features were later incorporatedinto the incredibly successful U. S. Navy F6-F Grumman Hellcat (Mills 66). This was the first zero captured during the war.

    On June 6, 1942 the Japanese invaded Kiskaand neighboring Attu Islands. The Japanese force immediately setout to fortify their position. The first fortification was the emplacementof anti-aircraft batteries and machine-guns for defense of the skies. To engage an entrenched enemy requiresbombers and Alaska was in very short supply. The defense of Alaskarequired that supplies and aircraft be flown from factories in Californiato Alaska.

    With green pilots and flying over rough, unforgiving terrainat high speeds, many of these valuable aircraft failed to materialize inAlaska. Whole flights of Aircraft would disappear on their way. Two squadrons of B-26 Mauraders left California and one month later thefirst aircraft arrived in Fairbanks. When the last aircraft arrived,45 days after first leaving California, a total of 13 of the original 45aircraft had failed to reach Alaska (Mills 73). In defense of Alaska was the 11th Air Forceunder the command of Colonel William O.

    Eareckson. Eareckson, a formerArmy enlisted, was appointed to West Point and following his commission,dedicated his entire career to military aviation. He was assignedto the defense of Alaska in March 1941. Colonel Eareckson was givenorders to bomb the Japanese out of the Aleutians.

    This task was madeextremely difficult due to the constantly bad Aleutian weather that shroudedthe islands in a constant blanket of fog. To accomplish his mission,Eareckson experimented with several methods of delivering ordnance. Using a technique used during the PBY blitzes, he used a volcano as a visualreference point, then flying directly over the peak, made a timed distancerun with a stopwatch and compass, and dropped bombs on an unseen target. This became known as dead reckoning bombing or “DR” runs. Earecksonalso began using time-delayed fuses on his bombs that prevented the bombsfrom exploding under the low flying aircraft that had just dropped itsordnance (Garfield 106).

    His experiences in Alaska were to contribute significantlyto the air war in the Pacific. Having flown in the worst weatherimaginable, Col. Eareckson was more than capable of handling a few enemyfighters. Another unique aspect of the war in Alaskawas the Lend -Lease program.

    The Lend- Lease program was establishedto send supplies and equipment to the embattled Soviet Army. Therewere three primary routes used to accomplish this task. The firstwas a 13,000-mile route around Africa, up the Persian Gulf and across Iran. The second and least used, was a north Atlantic route which ran the NorthAtlantic to Archangel.

    This route was dangerous because of Germansubmarine activities. The third route was through Alaska. Foraircraft, this meant a flight starting in Great Falls, Montana and followingthe route of the newly constructed ALCAN (Alaskan- Canadian) highway. With refueling stops along the way, the flights traversed 1,900 miles andended in Fairbanks where the aircraft were turned over to Soviet pilotsfor the remainder of the flight to Russia. Throughout the war, nearly8000 aircraft were delivered in this method (Mills 73). Again thecontributions of pilots familiar with Alaska and its unforgiving weatherand terrain played a major role in the war effort.

    Many of Alaska’sbush pilots played a role in the lend- lease delivery system. Bushpilots Bob Ellis, Kenny Neese, Bert Ruoff, Murrell Sasseen and ClaytonScott ferried aircraft to Alaska. A major role was to be played by anotherAlaska bush pilot. Allan Horning, a former military aviator beforeflying the bush in Alaska, was ordered to active service as a guide pilotto select locations for army air bases throughout Alaska and the Aleutians.

    Elmendorf airfield was one of the locations chosen. Horning laterjoined the Civil Aeronautics Administration and prior to and during thewar was instrumental in promoting navigation aids, other safety featuresand regulating air traffic (Mills 81). The Alaskan Theater was officially closedwith the retaking of Attu and Kiska Islands. A constant cycling ofaircraft for bombing runs over the islands had kept the Japanese weak andwithout supplies for months.

    The bombardments by both the Navy andthe Air Corp had made it impossible for the Japanese to complete theirlanding strips. When the liberation of Attu began on May 11, 1943,the Japanese were without resupply capabilities and without any chanceof reinforcement. The Japanese were outgunned and outmanned yet theinvasion of Attu would go down in history as the second costliest battleof the Pacific Theater, second only to the blood shed of Iwo Jima (Mills93). The invasion of Kiska Island was another story.

    Havingbeen cut off with the retaking of Attu Island the Japanese command decidedto evacuate the beleaguered troops on Kiska. When the Army landedon August 15, 1943, they found only a dozen dogs to greet them. TheAllied Air Service had lost 471 aircraft in the Aleutian Campaign. The Japanese losses were 69 aircraft lost in combat and 200 lost due tofog or storm (Mills 104).

    July 10, 1943, saw a new development inthe war with Japan. Using Attu as a base to launch raids, the ArmyAir Force began to pound the Japanese Naval facilities in the Kuriles Islands. Bombing raids were limited, although the presence of hostile aircraft requiredthe Japanese to defend their islands with numerous aircraft and ships thatcould have been useful in other areas of the war. The bombing raidsconvinced the Japanese that the invasion of the Japanese mainland lie somewherein the near future.

    They attempted to prepare for an invasion whichnever materialized. A history of aviation in Alaska, especiallythe war era, can not be concluded without a detailed study of the contributionsto the war effort by the pilots and aircraft of the Navy PBY squadrons. These “flying boats,” were a reconnaissance platform which was used tolocate enemy forces. During the Aleutian campaign many of these aircraftbecame involved in offensive combat which they were ill equipped to do. Throughout the remainder of the war the PBY squadrons continued aroundthe clock operations as the watchful eyes of the north. The pilotsand squadrons were awarded numerous citations for valor and heroism includingthe Flying Cross and Air Medals (Freeman 177).

    Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchellsaid, “Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, andthis is true either of Europe, Asia or North America. I believe inthe future. He who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I thinkit is the most strategic place in the world. ” This was to hold truethroughout the war and into the 21st century. With the end to the war Alaskans quicklyturned back to their normal way of life. This included their continuedlove affair with the airplane.

    The wars residual effect was thatmany new innovations were left in place which encouraged and benefitedfuture fliers. These included but a not limited to airports, navigationalaids, radio communication, and up to date charts of most of Alaska, includingthe Aleutian chain (Mills 145). Tourism began to be a major economic resourcefor Alaskans. Aircraft allowed the sportsman, fisherman and explorersto reach places yet unexplored. Entirely new businesses began toemerge in and around the aircraft industry. Some of these new businesseswere flying schools, charter sightseeing flights, mechanics, parts andservices, fuel and oil sales.

    Anchorage soon became the air crossroads to the orient. International air carriers refueled for internationalflights over the pole or using the great circle route. In 1960, withthe dedication of the Anchorage International Airport, Anchorage becamethe country’s fifth busiest terminal for freight and passenger traffic(Mills 146). Alaskan aviation has also moved into thefuture with the introduction on the rocket.

    NASA’s Jet propulsionLaboratories use the hangars of Ladd Field, now Ft. Wainwright, to conducttests of the upper atmosphere. The research conducted aids in thefuture understanding of upper atmospheric wind and weather conditions. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks launchesand retrieves data from launches at the Poker Flats Research Range, just30 miles north of Fairbanks.

    The Poker Flats facility is the only non-federal,university owned and operated range in the world and the only high-latitude,auroral-zone rocket launch facility in the United States. More than1,500 meteorologic missiles and 236 major high-altitude sounding rocketexperiments have been launched by scientists and technicians. Studies areconducted by universities and agencies from around the world on topicssuch as the aurora, ozone layer solar protons the electric and magneticfields and ultraviolet radiation (http://www. pfrr. alaska. edu/~pfrr/PFRR/INDEX.

    HTM). These results enhance our understanding of the aurora borealis and theeffects that this phenomenon has on communication, navigation and otherflight related sciences. Alaskan’s have always had a deep love forthe aircraft and the people that fly them. With the invention ofthe plane, adventurers sought uncharted areas to explore and limits tobe pushed. This drive to go higher and faster has opened Alaska to thewhole of North America and the world.

    Today, thanks to the effortsof many pilots, Alaska’s remote villages and communities have emergencyservices at their disposal. They purchase needed supplies that holdthem over for the winter. They communicate with the outside worldand travel to lobby state government for changes needed in their environmentand towns for their continued well being. Aviation has broughtnew sources of commerce to towns that would have long ago disappeared. Tourism, Alaska’s third largest industry, is greatly indebted to the aircraft.

    Planes bring millions of travelers annually to the farthest reaches ofAlaska and with these travelers comes the needed income for thriving communities. BIBLIOGRAPHYFreeman, Elmer A. . Those NavyGuys and Their PBY’s: The Aleutian Solution. Spokane, Washington: Kedging PublishingCo. , 1984.

    Garfield, Brian. The ThousandMile War. N. Y. : Bantam Books, 1988.

    Levi, Steven, and O’Meara, Jim. Bush Flying. United States: McGraw-Hill, 1992. MacLean, Robert Merrill, and Rossiter,Sean. Flying Gold: The Adventures of RussellMerrill, Pioneer Alaskan Aviator.

    Fairbanks, AK: Epicenter Press, 1994Mills, Stephen E. , and Phillips,James W. . Sourdough Sky. Seattle, WA.

    : SuperiorPublishing Co. , 1969. Mills, Stephen E. .

    ArcticWar Birds: Alaska Aviation of WWII. Seattle, WA: SuperiorPublishing Co. , 1971. Potter, Jean.

    Flying Frontiersmen. N. Y. : The MacMillan Co. , 1956Wachel, Pat. Oscar Winchell:Alaska’s Flying Cowboy.

    Minneapolis: T. S. Denisonand Co. Inc.

    , 1967. USAF Museum. Aleutian Islands1942-1943: The Aleutian Campaign. [Online]available Http://www.

    wpafb. af. mil/museum/history/wwii/Cp10. htm,July 1998.

    Poker Flat Research Range. General Information. [Online] availablehttp://www.pfrr.alaska.edu/~pfrr/PFRR/INDEX.HTM,July 1998

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