Fairbanks celebrated the anniversary of the first air mail flight to take place in Alaska last week. The flight, from Fairbanks to McGrath, took place on February 21, 1924. Famed bush pilot, Carl Ben Eielson was at the controls of the DeHaviland DH-4 open cockpit biplane.
Eielson left Fairbanks at 9am with 164 lbs of mail. The temperature was -5F, no wind, sky was two-thirds overcast, with clouds at 4500 feet. The 280 air mile flight to McGrath took 2 hours, 50 minutes. In the past, a dog team had to travel 371 miles on the ground, usually hauling 800 lbs of mail each way, plus 100 lbs of equipment and dog food. The trip with the dog team, in comparison, took an average of 18 days.
“I carried 164 lb. of mail, a full set of tools, a mountain sheep sleeping bag, ten days provisions, 5 gal. oil (Mobile B), snow shoes, a gun, an axe, and some repairs. My clothing consisted of two pairs heavy woolen hose, a pair of caribou socks, a pair of moccasins reaching over the knees, one suit heavy underwear, a pair of khaki. breeches, a pair of heavy trousers of Hudson Bay duffle over that, a heavy shirt, a sweater, a marten skin cap, goggles, and over that a loose reindeer skin parka, which had a hood on it with wolverine skin around it. Wolverine skin is fine around the face because it does not frost. On my hands I wore a pair of light woolen gloves and a heavy fur mitt over that. I found I had too much clothing on even when I had the exhaust heater turned off. At five below zero I was too warm. I could fly in forty below weather in perfect comfort with this outfit and the engine heater. On my second trip I cut out the caribou socks, the duffle trousers, and the heavy fur mittens and was entirely comfortable.” — Ben Eielson
The return trip from McGrath started out at 2:45pm, late for February in Alaska. Due to the darkness, Eielson found himself 50 miles off coarse midway through the flight, he didn’t land in Fairbanks until 6:40pm. Eielson later reported that he thought the entire town of Fairbanks had been waiting over an hour at the air field for his return.
Upon hearing the news from the Post Master General of the U.S., President Coolidge sent Eielson a telegram that read, in part: “I congratulate you on the conspicuous success of your undertaking. Your experience provides a unique and interesting chapter in the rapid developing science of aerial navigation.”.
Photos come courtesy of the University of Alaska Archives