ALASKANS, engrossed in their constant colonial preoccupation with problems of bigness and farness, naturally were very quick to make the plane their own, and Alaska to-day has more fliers and more landing fields in proportion to its population than any other section of the world. Alaska already has double the number of landing fields possessed by the whole United States ten years agoand more are spreading out their acres throughout the Territory, almost overnight; for we act on the old saying, ” Build the bird-house and the birds will come.” And they do.
In the winter any lake or river bar is an ice way and snow-levelled savannahs are potential landing fields, making every corner of this space accessible to every other. The Fairbanks airport alone has two runways, each more than 2,000 feet long by 400 feet wide, equipped with a night beacon and flood lights. This is a drastic and swift change of affairs from the day not long ago when Ben Eielson made his first flight with mail, to McGrath on the Kuskokwim. Late that dark winter afternoon we suddenly realized, when we heard that muffled sound of wings above is, that Ben could not possibly see the ball park in that light. We neighbors rushed out and built bonfires, so that when he dropped down from the sky (with only about a pint of gasoline to spare!) he made a perfect landing on his home-improvised skis. Captain Martin, leader of the Army roundthe-world air expedition, said of Ben Eielson and his early Alaskan flights: ” You can take it from me, that boy has a worse game to play than ours. In the army world flight there are four machines and eight men and we have supply bases scattered all along the route, with accurate maps of the whole course; but Eielson is flying alone, in a strange country, without facilities for repairing his machine. We have to hand it to him; one slip and he’s gone.”
Aviation in Alaska has followed the pattern of high romance, though in cold fact it is a direct out-growth of the flight of American army aviators from New York to Nome, now rated as one of the greatest feats of aviation history. That day the army fliers came is marked in indelible red ink, upon any true Alaskan’s calendar, for this flight set our Fairbanks business men to thinking. As a former mayor of our town puts it: “We visioned the tremendous economies in time which could be effected by use of the airplane, in travelling over our vast stretches of snow and ice and over the marshy Central Alaska in summer, when other forms of transportation, except by boat, are next to impossible.
” We decided to buy an airplane for ourselves, but first we had to have some one to fly it. Casting about, we found a young science teacher in the Fair-banks High School. His name was Ben Eielson. We found he had been an army flier during the war. He agreed to fly our plane, and so became the father of aviation in Alaska. It was this same Eielson who piloted Sir George Hubert Wilkins on his flight across the Arctic ice from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, for which he has been awarded the Harmon Trophy.
” Since those first flights of Eielson from the Fair-banks flying field Alaska’s interest in aviation has grown rapidly. Today a network of airways criss-cross the country. A veritable fan of lines radiate from Fairbanks. There are 74 graded airports in Alaska for the use of airplanes in summer. In the winter flying with skis, an airplane can land wherever the snow or ice is smooth, and, as Central Alaska is mostly flatlands, such landing places abound.”
Eieison’s pioneer flights in 1923 with an army Jenny, locally owned, proved conclusively what could be done in making victory of space. The next step was an air-mail contract, under the terms of which Eielson made 600-mile round trips all the late winter of 1924., to McGrath and back. Each round trip was completed the day it started, and he was never once halted by the weather, whereas before this time Kuskokwim mail had taken from 12 to 60 days in transit, with dogs. Eielson flew a total of 4,800 miles in 50 flying hours on this test contract, his regular route being around Mt. McKinley with that great ” home of the sun” as his constant air beacon.
When the Eskimos at Point Barrow first saw an airplane, upon the arrival of the Detroit Arctic Expedition, they called it The Devil. When the expedition next returned, Eskimo children were found playing with model planes constructed of the hide and bones of walrus and seal ! We old Alaskans, too, are learning swiftly to accommodate ourselves to these new ways and to blaze new trails among the hillocks of the air. The first commercial flying company in Fairbanks had ” one small Waco, four poles and a tarpaulin across the top for equipment,” as Bennett said. The new hangars are of double-walled lumber with sawdust between the walls, as our house is built, and have furnace heat, a garage and repair shop, apartments for aviators and mechanics, and commercial flights range out to the four points of the compass and for every conceivable purpose. For our airmen of Alaska aren’t skylarks or stunters, tumbling about the cloudy billows for the fun of it. Nor are they great war-birds of prey, intent on swooping in a fatal death-pounce upon hapless land victims. They are messengers of trade and mercy and communication, and nothing stays themnor height nor depth nor tundra waste nor topless peaks nor brittle miles of frostaloft in the laps of the gods.
We have not overlooked this strategic, economic, commercial, present, actual form of northern space-conquering. We have a new ” Company of Gentlemen Adventurers,” for airmen of the North are now actually ” trading into Hudson Bay.” And Alaska herself is a silent partner in the enterprise for, a million years ago or so, she decided to be air-minded and began her patient preparationslaying out landing fields, spreading out rivers and bars and wide winter-smooth, level snow fields, to rest the coming moose-ptarmigan upon their trans-polar flights. Surely, as Adams said in speaking of New England, geographic factors are relative, not absolute : ” Countries may be said to be habitable, or uninhabitable, distances to lengthen or shorten, heights to rise or fall, according to the measure of man’s control of nature at any given time.”
Seven pilots and six mechanics are stationed at Fairbanks alone, and a glance at the opposite map will show you better than any verbal description the air-mesh of commercial aviation in which Alaska’s once elusive space is daily being caught and tangled.
The planes used in the Interior are fitted with wheels in summer and skis in winter, while the planes operating on the coast are of the pontoon type. Air-ways weather service has been extended throughout the Territory, with headquarters at Fairbanks under a forecaster and meteorologist, and weather reports from all radio stations are now coming in twice daily.
Commercial aviation in Alaska has taken such swift leaps and strides because it does not here compete with a web of railroad steel or fine radiating motor roads, but with toiling dog teams, outboard motor boats on meandering, timber-snagged, bar-filled rivers, and tremendous stretches that are for the most part literally trackless. Let the malemutes howl! The old winter mail route to Nome took fifty-six days, but now the dogs may take a vacation. Some Outside people are romantic about the dog teamswhen their own mail service does not take fifty-six daysand will perhaps be sorry to hear that we now have actual prospects in Alaska of a proper mail serviceby air, which is the reasonable and sensible Alaskan route. Speaking of the proposed new air-mail service, a Fairbanksan says:
Our people cannot understand why it is that, al-though our airplane companies are eager to perform this service and for the last three years have been equipped to handle it quickly and efficiently and at no greater cost than is now being paid, they have had no opportunity to do so except in emergency cases when all other means of transportation have failed.
As far as I have been able to discover, the Postoffice Department officials who have immediate charge of the Alaska service are to a great extent influenced by the romantic history of the dog teams and the sentimental idea that they must be preserved and fostered. There has always been too much romancing about Alaska. Alaskans are a practical people and are as eager to participate in the advantages of modern scientific developments as people elsewhere.
We will always have dog teams up here. They have played a wonderful and vital part in the pioneering of the Territory and they will be used for years to come in their proper sphere. Their heroic exploits are a part of our intimate history, but from a romantic standpoint they appeal to us in about the same way as I imagine the Indian canoe and paddle of the Potomac and the rolling roads that once brought casks of tobacco to Georgetown appeal to the romantic sensibilities of Washingtonians.
Forward-looking Alaskans rejoice at this new era in communication, for we know what that service will mean. Serum is now carried swiftly in times of epidemic, doctors are fetched in speed to the disabled in far-lying camps, fortunes in furs are brought to Fairbanks almost weekly by the planes in early spring from Arctic posts and from Siberia, and the purr of the air motor is now heard in a land that sounded only to the pat of the wolf-padded husky. Wilkins and Eielson flew to Point Barrow and re-turned to Fairbanks in the brief space of 34 hours, on the second preliminary flight with base supplies for their Arctic Expeditiona trip that by the tundra route would have taken months. Mountains mapped as 5,000 feet were found to be nearer 10,000, and to verify the course a note was dropped on one little settlement asking the people to spell off the name of the town. ” With remarkable perception,” Wilkins said, ” two persons immediately rushed to the river and stamped out the word ALATNA in the snow.” It was on the first trip to Barrow that two Eskimo women fainted from fear and excitement at their first sight of a plane, and suffered hemorrhages of the eyes, nose and mouth; but on the second trip all the natives realized by now that planes were material things and not evil spirits, and gave them a warm welcome.
Passengers are carried to Kantishna now by plane, and Jack Tobin, Kantishna miner, was landed recently within 200 yards of his own cabin. The trip was made in late June, ” in the dead of night “-the sun shining brightly all the time since they flew at 3,500 feet. Operating from Sitka, a cannery company is using planes to locate salmon runs. The Gorst Air Transport was the first to cross the Gulf of Alaska from Juneau to Cordova and later to Seward. Flying from Teller, Noel Wien took up a reindeer herder to check the position of a widely-scattered herd, saving two weeks of hard foot-work and obtaining much more exact information. Hunters are locating moose and caribou from the air, and the upper reaches of the Noatuk and Kobuk are being prospected by Swallow bi-plane. Two, three, four at a time, scattering to all points of the compass, airplanes rise from our Alaskan fields today and we think it no more strange to use them than city people do to take a taxi, and don’t even stop to watch them go. One trapper runs a 250-mile line by plane. Miners go by plane, get their sup-plies by planeincluding light machinery and drill parts. They reach places the dog teams never even found.
Camps 100 miles from Fairbanks have a standing weekly order for supplies by plane. Many of the dredge crews and cooks for outlying camps are taken out to work by planeultra-modern ships with heated cabinswhile autos and ” cats ” do the heavier freighting. Frank Yasuba, Beaver merchant, wires in that ham and eggs are both ” all,” at the Flats, and Bennett wings away with them, for prospecting is minus without your breakfast ham and eggs! With all other transportation and communication flagrantly inadequate, the planes are heaven-sent chariotsto sailors marooned by ice or wreck, to the wounded and sick far from doctor and hospital, to biological and geological surveyors, to judges, bishops, mining engineers and fur farmers.
Ask any experienced flier to name the essentials of successful flight and what will he say? ” Good air conditions, dependable weather, lack of mists and fogs, no violent winds, many natural emergency landing places.” What has he described if not Interior Alaska? No wonder airmen are ” crazy about it here,” for they find air conditions ideal; and it was not in our loved inner land but on fog-ridden Siberian coast, Ben Eielson fatally crashed. Then, too, most Alaskans are mechanics by second nature, instinctively geared, motor-minded, ear-tuned; so, with the Icarus mind already in place, it’s not at all hard for them to turn this innate aptitude to flight. It goes with the grain. Airmen, it is said, must think in hundredths-of-a-second speed, but swift decision has been for a generation the a-b-c of all Alaskan schooling. The minds of Alaskan pioneers have been constantly over-leapingconstantly thinking, not in local terms, but in the haunting pull of ” what lies behind the ranges.” That which was once thought. high-flown, can now be overflown.
Psychologically speaking, there is that “total giving of one’s self to the air,” as a ski-jumper does the thing that aviators consider so essential; and total giving of one’s self to the environment is, as we know, a notable characteristic of the North. Then, too, the best sea-going races have been found to be, in general, the best air-goers; and a large proportion of Alaska’s present population are either Scandinavian and British descended, or they are children and grandchildren of those Yankees who combed the Seven Seas, built and manned their own whaling and trading vessels, and swung around the Horn when California gold fields called. The seaman’s pale blue eye, wind-wrinkled at the corner, is typical of the Alaska pioneerthe man with the quiet unruffled head who is apparently a tremendous chance-taker with the elements, but is in reality taking no chances at all, moving with cool and calculated sure control. The air appeals to the eagle-hearted as well as to the eagle-visioned.
Aviation is more appropriate and more necessary to a country like Alaska than to a country like modern New England, already settled and with its many roads and railroads. When the rest of the United States was developing its waterways, Alaska was as yet unknown to us. When the rest of the United States was building its trans-continental railroads, Alaska was the newly bought ” Seward’s Ice Box “and that was in the day when men did not connect refrigeration and motors! No one thought of polar bears and walrus as travellers on railroads. So Alaska almost skipped and missed the patient, long-drawn, steamboat age, has had to fight hard to get even a be-grudged sample of the many blessings of the railroad age, and has jumped to-day almost full-panoplied into the airplane age. The trails of the wild quadrupeds, which after long ages became the trails of toiling bipeds, echo now to the drone of the great man-locust on his homing wings. And almost before Alaska has become an integral part of national American thinking, it is becoming a very vital part of international thinking, through the agency of this new vehicle that is able to lope past meridians and longitudes as easily as old Dobbin used to make the turns on the soft dirt roads to town. Aviation has made Alaska the real Northwest Passage.
A study of the world’s map shows clearly the strategic position Alaska occupies as far as all-land air routes to the Orient from America are concerned. In the last year an overland project has been put forwardthe proposed International Highway connecting Mexico, the United States, Canada, Alaska, and eventually Asiabacked by Alaska’s Governor and her Delegate to Congress, by Yukon Territory and British Columbia officials, by world-famous road engineers and world-famous aviators. Planned as a motor road that will follow in its northern swing very much the old line of the Western Union International Telegraph trail of long ago, the 2,000 miles from Seattle to Fairbanks need only a few links to make it a reality. Even more important than motors upon it is the fact that the ribbon of this road (set back 200 miles behind the coast range, where the snowfall is light and the way free from the mists and fogs, coastal storms and frequent winter mishaps of the Inside Passage) would be essentially a guide to airmen winging north and Asiaward. If the right of way through forested area should be cut t00 feet wide, this would provide emergency landing fields; necessary gas, oil and equipment supply stations as well as towns would spring up in favorable places; and road houses, farms, and telegraph stations would be established. Seattle, Vancouver, Frazer River, Prince George, Hazleton, Telegraph Creek, Stikine River, Atlin, Whitehorse, Fairbanksthis international route provides a grandiose summer tourist way and a safe year-round air way.
Only 750 miles of the 4,000 between Mexico and Alaska’s Interior remain to be built, of which 200 each lie in Alaska and Yukon Territory and 350 in British Columbia; and while some parts of the United States may look on 750 miles of road as ” a considerable,” in the broad vision of the North it is a mere ” link ” soon, we believe, to be welded, for this part of the route is mostly old pioneer trail over which cattle have been driven in the past. Branch roads will undoubtedly be built to several seacoast terminalsPrince Rupert and Ketchikan, down the Stikine to Wrangell and Petersburg, down the Taku Valley to Juneauand a winter road is already built from Whitehorse to Dawson. The Dominion has been very liberal in the construction of roads to her far northern mining camps, and it is to be hoped that Uncle Sam will follow his northern neighbor’s lead in this matter, for Canada is pushing the International Highway project with vigor. And echoes of the old Scotch pioneering days of Hudson Bay still persist in the North, though working now in a new medium. An engineer of the Alaska Road Commission presented the first practical plans for this daring but eminently feasible project, and his name is Donald MacDonald! The plaid of Caledonia is still being thrown upon the lonely ways of the Northwest.
Sturdy Roman roads made Roman law possible in the land of the Angles, wide metalled French roads spread the Code Napoleon into the farthest Pyrenees and Cevennes. The best way I know to make united Americans of this colony of yours, is to give us more roads and extend by them the circle of American law and tradition, American commerce and transportation and intercommunication. For The Rule of the Road is very much more than a mere traffic phrase. A road is a code. It means convention in both senses of the word, a coming together of people in both spirit and body. Rubber will roll over these roads, Alaska farmers and tourists riding in Uncle Sam’s twenty million autos will alike employ them, while above their guiding threads the motors of the air will shuttle back and forth to weave that web of get-togetherness between all peopletoday’s ambassadors of actual good will.
The Russians are doing great things in airways just across the Straits, and Russia’s military air force is said to be as large as England’s. She has connected Baku, Teheran and Moscow by air as well as Kabul. The Soviet Government maintains air service around the White Sea where, four or five months of the year, ice is moved by sea currents and there are fissures through which ships may pass,if they can find them,and airplanes signal these by radio, and sea-borne traffic is thereby greatly helped. They also report on seal herds and schools of whales. In fact, U. S. S. R. is written largely on the northern air, and over country very similar to ours. There are Russian airplanes to-day in Samarkand, the capital of Tamerlane. Asia across the Straits is rising on red wings. But there is no blood red upon the fuselage of Alaska’s planes, and our mutual air contacts with Asiatic Russia have been those of boon and not of banebeneficent rescues or time-and-moneysaving flights between the all-but-touching continents.
The distance from Alaska to Liverpool by present routes is 9,000 miles, whereas by air it is but 4,000 across the Arctic Sea. In summer it is light here twenty-four hours of the day, when ” more heat per square mile is received from the sun within the Polar regions than at the Equator.” Certainly low temperatures do not interfere with summer trans-polar air journeys. If you want to know what modern Russia thinks of polar air flight and the strategic position of Arctic lands, then look at her defiance in holding on to little Wrangell Island against the protests of both England and America. Consider here the paradox of history! Russia, which once sold all Alaska for a song, now takes her stand on lonely Wrangell Island in the Arcticutterly useless except as an air-stationand snarls defiance at the world, refusing to be dislodged.
A British naval commander has this to say : ” The focus of naval power has moved to the Pacific Ocean, and, owing to the manner in which land and water are distributed over the surface of the earth, the area to be patrolled in the Pacific is three times that which had formerly to be patrolled in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The cost of constructing and maintaining sufficient seagoing vessels to cope adequately with this extra work would be likely to impose on this country a greater economic burden than it could bear; but if the development of air-ships were suitably and promptly undertaken, they could perform at an immensely reduced cost the reconnaissance duties that are necessary to control great ocean spaces.”
The present page of history needs readers who think, as did the Yankees of a century ago, in terms of the Pacificpeople not afraid to face our world in terms of vast continents and seas. America has been noted in the past for a ” bold enterprise in the pursuit of gain and a keen scent for the trails that lead to it,” as Admiral Mahan once remarked. But northern-leading trade lanes are being blazed through air to-day, which America will either definitely control or be as definitely debarred from, ac-cording to our own immediate generation’s appreciation of this Arctic problem.
The sister hemispheres are linked here at the north. Once there was a starry canopy, and an earth that was flat. Columbus negated that when he failed to sail over the rim and plunge into nothingness. The Seven Seas were once thought to be inhabited by fearsome monsters, but at last there remained unknown and unsurveyed only the Sea of the North and then the Norge came and took even that ultimate mystery from us. Today a U. S. naval officer can say:
” Communities situated on the great trade routes become great hives of human toil. . . So it will be with Alaska. No other civilized community is so strategically situated to become the pole route’s great and only service station. Ice-buried Greenland; Canada blanketed by a vast and barren archipelago; Russia and Siberia with the natural cruelty of their desert steppeswhat chance have they to compete with a land of plenty or a people with a will, as marks our own Alaska? Let the Arctic traffic begin to flow and, like Chicago, Alaska must spring to wealth.”