Last summer, back in the days when I was volunteering to self-isolate, I was out at a lake cabin and happened to see a wildfire gets its start from lightning.
The following day, a pair of water scoopers showed up at the lake. They would fly overhead, bank around the lake, skim across the top of the lake, picking up their load of water, then take off again to fly back to the fire. The two aircraft made the roundtrip from fire to lake to fire, all day long.
The flight to Newtok took us across a vast expanse of seemingly endless white. As far as one could see, from one horizon to the other, nothing but white. Out here, the wind is an artist, leaving mesmerizing patterns in the snow. Even in the air with two other people, I could feel the grip of isolation.
Earlier in the month, four children became lost in blizzard conditions out here, when they went out on a snow machine. It was not hard to imagine losing your bearing, especially when the wind picked up. The kids were found, huddled around the youngest to keep him warm. They were flown to Bethel with severe hypothermia, but they were alive, against long odds.
Newtok through the windshield
That’s the village of Newtok, with the airstrip dead ahead. It’s located on a bend in the Ningaluk River. River erosion and the melting of the permafrost is taking a huge toll on the village, forcing a move to a new location.
I had the opportunity to travel out to Newtok, Alaska this month. Newtok is a Yup’ik village on the Ningaluk River, on Alaska’s southwestern coast.
I flew to Anchorage, only to have the Ravn Air flight cancelled due to mechanical issues. The next day, the flight did leave Anchorage for Bethel, but the flight to Newtok was called off due to heavy winds, and drifting snow across the Newtok airstrip. Day three proved to be the charm, as the Grant Aviation flight left Bethel for Newtok.
One of Grant Aviation’s aircraft waiting for the winds to die down.
Of the five of us, three went in the aircraft pictured above. I flew out in a much smaller Cessna with the pilot and one other passenger. I can’t say enough good things about the people with Grant Aviation. A class organization all the way through. Even though Bethel is not an inexpensive place to find oneself stranded, I had a good time there. Taxi rides are $5-8 per person, per ride, depending on distance, and take out food seems to dominate the options.
Our pilot getting ready to leave Bethel
The Cessna took a little less than an hour to get from Bethel to Newtok, flying 120 knots, at 2000 feet above the ground.
It had been several years since I ventured into the Air Museum at Pioneer Park. Since they were experimenting with winter hours, I decided it was time to head back over there and see what was new.
Under The Dome: Inside the Air Museum
The Pioneer Air Museum houses a fairly extensive collection of aircraft and other artifacts mainly pertaining to Interior Alaska and Arctic aviation.
Ben Eielson Display
The first major display is on Ben Eielson, the famed aviator and Alaskan bush pilot. Eielson learned to fly in WWI, with the U.S Army Signal Corps. After the war, a chance run-in with Alaska’s territorial delegate to Congress, led to Eielson heading to Alaska to teach. By 1923, Eielson had started the Farthest North Aviation Company. Eielson was the first to fly air mail in Alaska, and the first to fly from North America over the North Pole to Europe.
In 1929, Eielson and his mechanic died in a plane crash in Siberia. The cargo ship Nanuk was frozen in sea ice off North Cape, and Eielson was contracted by expedition leader Olaf Swenson to fly out personnel and furs. The plane crashed in a storm, cruising at full throttle into the terrain. A faulty altimeter is the suspected cause of the crash. Parts of Eielson’s recovered aircraft is on display at the museum.
1935 Stinson SR-JR
This bright red Stinson SR-JR, the Spirit of Barter Island, came to Alaska in 1940, and was flying the Interior out of Fairbanks in 1953 for Interior Airways.
The Stinson in artwork
This SR-JR carries four passengers, has a cruising speed of 110mph, and a range of 450 miles. It was an Interior workhorse, and well known in the Fairbanks area. The image, “I Follow Rivers”, can be found on t-shirts around Fairbanks to this day.
Stinson V77: Peter Pan
The Stinson V77 is the Navy version of the SR-10 Reliant. “Peter Pan” flew the Kuskokwim and Yukon River mail runs. The Stinson Reliant was a favorite of bush pilots, as the aircraft was equally at ease landing on wheels, skis or floats. In 1949, “Peter Pan” made the flight from Bethel, Alaska to Boston, Mass. It is back in Alaska, on loan to the museum, from the bush pilot’s family.
1943 P-39 Wreckage
The P-39 Airacobra was a common sight in Alaska’s Interior during WWII, as it was a mainstay of lend-lease aircraft to the Soviets. This P-39 only made it to Fairbanks in pieces, as it was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft 60 miles east of Fairbanks. Both pilots survived the crash.
1942 ST Type Ryan PT-22
The PT-22 was used for flight training all over the globe. Over 14,000 Air Corps pilots trained in the PT-22. This particular PT-22 came to Fairbanks in 1956 after it was retired out of the military.
Manufactured by Bell Helicopter in 1966, this UH-1H “Huey”, saw combat in South Vietnam. During a mission in 1969, this UH-1H was hit by a rocket propelled grenade while landing. After the war, it came to Alaska, and was transferred around the Alaska Army bases, finally landing at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. It was retired in 1993, and is on loan to the museum from the U.S. Army. The “Huey” is still maintained by Army personnel.
Thomas Ackerman photo
A visitor to the museum several years ago, recognized the Huey’s ID number as the one he flew during the Vietnam War. Sgt Thomas Ackerman was a crew-chief and gunman on this UH-1H. He supplied several photos of the Huey, during its time in Vietnam, to the museum, including the one above. Thomas Ackerman died of Agent Orange related cancer in 2004.
This Beechcraft Model 18 aircraft was manufactured in 1943, and used as a military trainer during the latter years of WWII. After the war, it was bought by Air North for both cargo and passenger transport in Interior Alaska. The aircraft is now on display outside the Pioneer Air Museum in Fairbanks.
The smoke comes in from a new fire started by lightning
I knew it before I even went outside the cabin the next morning. I had left a window open to experience the thunderstorm, and now I could smell the repercussions.
Sure enough, when I walked down the boardwalk to the lake, the hills across the water were barely visible due to the smoke. No doubt the lightning from the storm the previous night had started another wildfire. No where in Alaska is safe from the smoke this summer.
It was around noon when I heard the buzz of the planes coming in. Two single engine aircraft flew directly over me at a height of only a few hundred feet. Under one wing, in all capital letters, was the word FIRE.
For the next six hours, the two planes skirted the lake, landing in a bay on the far end on their floats, filled up their tanks on the run, then took off again in the direction that they had come. The fire must have been close, as the raven flies, because the interval between water fills was only 10 minutes.
I went back out to fish, but hesitated from crossing the lake. I had hit the trout fairly hard the evening before on the other side of the lake, but I didn’t think I could cross in 10 minutes in the canoe. I ended up fishing my side until evening, when the flights stopped.
The Niagara Aerospace Museum is located in the old terminal of the Niagara Falls International Airport. Because the Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft corporations played such a huge part in the aviation history of the Buffalo/Niagara area, those two companies are well represented within the museum.
The P39: “Miss Lend-Lease”
Arguably the centerpiece to the museum is this Bell Aircraft P39Q “Airacobra”. The P39 left Niagara Falls on December 26, 1943 bound for Russia due to the Lend Lease program. Talking to the museum volunteers, the P39 went through Ladd Field in Fairbanks before crossing the Bering Sea. The P39 then went missing in action during November of 1944.
In 2004, the P39 was found in Lake Mart-Yavr in northwestern Russia. Bell Aircraft took recovery of the aircraft in 2008, the pilot’s remains were given a military funeral, and the plane’s logbook was recovered and preserved. Over 4500 Bell P39 Airacobras were sent to Russia during lend-lease, along with 2500 Curtiss-Wright P40 Warhawks and 2500 Bell P63 King Cobras. Russia’s top ten aces during WWII flew P39 aircraft.
The plane has been nicknamed “Miss Lend-Lease” by the museum. Two local Niagara women, who worked at Bell Aircraft during the war, wrote hidden messages in the P39 when they worked on its assembly over 70 years ago. They have been discovered, and are now on display next to their P39.
P40 Warhawk mural
More than 16,000 P40 Warhawks were built at the Curtiss-Wright Buffalo plants. On September 11, 1942, a P40 on a test flight, caught fire. The test pilot parachuted safely to the ground, but the P40 mysteriously turned back and traveled two miles before plummeted through the Curtiss-Wright Plant roof, killing six workers at the scene, while eight died of their injuries later. 43 others were wounded, mostly with burns.
The Curtiss plant was torn down in 1999, but a plaque honoring the victims who lost their life due to the P40 crash is still displayed at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. The one in the photo above is a copy of that plaque, located at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, within the Curtiss-Wright section.
A replica of a Curtiss “Jenny”
The Curtiss “Jenny” above is a replica, on display showing the wings without their canvas covering. 10,000 Curtiss “Jenny” aircraft were produced in Buffalo between 1914 – 1917.
Apollo EECOM Station
Thanks to Bell’s involvement in the space program, there is quite a display at the museum on the Apollo missions. The EECOM Station above, was used throughout the Apollo Programs, but played a particularly vital role in the Apollo 13 Mission.
The Agena 8081 Rocket Engine
The Agena rocket engine saw 360 mission flights, with a reliability record of 99.7%. It had action in the Ranger Mariner, Gemini and Nimbus Programs. It was used extensively to launch the Lunar Orbiter space probes, which preceded the successful Apollo missions.
The Cunningham-Hall Aircraft Company produced aircraft such as the GA-36 in Rochester, NY during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. This particular GA-36 was found languishing in a field at a small airport in Michigan. It was acquired and restored by volunteers at the Amherst Museum.
Admission to the museum was $8 for adults. Parking is directly in front of the old terminal, where passenger drop off and pick up used to take place. The volunteers were very knowledgeable and eager to talk about their collection.