Tag Archives: ben eielson

Pioneer Air Museum

Fairbanks, Alaska

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Pioneer Air Museum

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The “Huey”

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.

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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.


Ben Eielson’s Curtiss JN-4D


Ben Eielson’s “Jenny 1”, on skis, in 1968

Ben Eielson was a school teacher in 1923. He convinced a group of Fairbanks businessmen to invest in a war surplus Curtiss JN-4D biplane for $2400. Within a week, Eielson had turned a profit giving demonstration flights over Fairbanks.


The Jenny today at Fairbanks International Airport

People were quickly convinced at how the airplane could benefit Alaskans. Eielson, his investors, and the Curtiss Jenny started the Farthest North Airplane Co. and air transport within the state was underway.

The Jenny was pretty beat up after only a few years of flying in Alaska and was retired. Somehow the University of Alaska received the biplane as a donation around 1945, but no one knows who donated it. It is now part of the Museum of the North’s collection.

The plane has hung from the ceiling of Fairbanks International since 1981, but for years it had the wrong wings. The University received the plane without wings, so wings from a Swallow were installed, which bugged the airplane savvy locals. A restoration was undertaken, complete with correct wings, in 2007. The Curtiss is only missing two engine pieces to fly again: a water pump and magneto. Parts which are almost impossible to find today. The restored aircraft returned to the airport in 2013; 90 years after Ben Eielson first flew it above Fairbanks.


Alaska Air Mail


Map of the first air mail flight in Alaska

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.


A mail DH-4 fitted with skis on the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska; March 12, 1924

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.


Carl Ben Eielson

“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