Tag Archives: flying

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


Thunder Mountain Crash

A de Havilland Beaver (DHC-2), flying out of Talkeetna on a flight seeing tour of Denali National Park, tragically crashed near the summit of Thunder Mountain on August 4. The crash site is roughly 14 miles from Denali’s peak.

There were four tourists from Poland on board, as well as the pilot. Initially, word spread that several people on board survived the crash, but that is not the case. All five in the de Havilland perished.

Heavy cloud cover hampered efforts to reach the site in the days right after the crash. The National Park Service eventually was able to send out two crews in helicopters. The first was to check for survivors, and the second was to evaluate the scene for possible recovery. Park rangers were dropped by cable to the broken Beaver, which lay precariously on the mountain side.

After accessing the risk, The National Park Service came to the conclusion Friday, that any attempt to recover the five bodies in the plane would put the rescue crews in too much danger. One look at the photos show why. The Beaver is broken behind the wing, and the tail section is pulling the entire plane down. It’s a 3500 foot drop to the glacier below. Since the crash, 30 inches of snow has fallen, driving up the risk of avalanche.

On Friday, I spent some time downtown, and overheard several tourists complain about the NPS decision. I get why they thought that way, but I respectfully disagree. The risk to a recovery crew would be too great, and as tough as it is to hear it, NPS made the right call.

Photos credit: Denali National Park & Preserve


Spot the Sheep


Dall sheep in Denali NP via Super Cub


Back off Skylar!

Flying really has gotten to be a pain in the ass.

I should have drove.



Denali

Denali from air

Denali, as seen flying into Fairbanks. Until Saturday night’s snowfall, The Mountain had been unusually social, showing itself off in the clear, subzero air.


Sunset at 30,000 ft

Sunset at 30K
Sunset above the Interior, flying into Fairbanks


Ernest Gann

Ernest Gann

A happy birthday to the famed aviator and author, Ernest Gann. Gann was born in Lincoln, NE on this date in 1910. He learned to fly in the early 1930’s and by the end of that decade was flying DC-2’s for American Airlines. In 1942, like many American pilots, Gann was absorbed into the Air Transport Command to assist in the war effort.

DC-2
The Douglas DC-2

Gann would turn his adventures of flying into a second career as an author. He wrote over 26 novels, of which 21 would become best sellers. He also wrote the screenplays, adapting 11 of his novels for both film and television. When I first moved to Alaska, I came across my favorite of Gann’s books: Fate is the Hunter, and I gobbled up any of his books that I could find. Some of his other literary works include: Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, Soldier of Fortune,and The Antagonists.

The High and the Mighty cover

Flying magazine lists Gann #34 on their list of 51 Heroes of Aviation. Ernest Gann died in 1991.


Harpooned 

I was standing at the conveyor belt holding my hiking boots in one hand, while my laptop still lay in a plastic tray. 

TSA: “Is this your backpack?”

Me: “I sure hope so.”

TSA: Is that a large, empty, glass bottle?

Me: I nod. It’s a growler. 

TSA: Right answer.

Me: It’s the only answer. 

TSA: Most people would say: ‘I don’t know what’s in the bag’.

Me: That would be the wrong answer.