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Alaska's aviation story finally told in 'Arctic Flight' exhibit

Colleen Mondor
Pilot Don Sheldon during a Bradford Washburn-led Mount McKinley expedition in 1955.
Ward Wells Collection/Anchorage Museum
Reindeer being transported in a Wien Alaska Airlines airplane in Anchorage, with flight crew and reindeer herders in background, 1959.
Wien Collection/Anchorage Museum
Undated winter view of Wien Alaska Airlines airplane with musher and dog team in foreground.
Wien Collection/Anchorage Museum
Two U.S. Air Force General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters from the 343rd Wing, Pacific Air Forces, assigned to Eielson Air Force Base in 1991. The 343rd traced its history back to the first fighter units to arrive in Alaska in early World War II.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
George Hubert Wilkin's Fokker F.VIIA Alaskan, taking off from Fairbanks as part of the 1926 Detroit News-Wilkins Arctic Expedition. Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson were the first to fly over the top of the world in an airplane.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Aviators James and Lilly Martin with their airplane in Fairbanks in 1913. Theirs was the first powered flight in Alaska. Their airplane was shipped to Alaska from Seattle by steamboat.
Alaska State Library
In 1926 the Norge carried out the first powered flight over the North Pole. Here the airship is shown at Teller, where villagers referred to it as the "great flying seal."
Rasmuson Library Historical Photography Gallery/UAF
Harold Gillam, in the cockpit of his ski-equipped Waco. He was among the boldest of Alaska’s pioneer bush pilots, earning the nickname “Thrill ‘em, spill ‘em, no kill ‘em Gillam.”
FIC Collection/Anchorage Museum

What is an Alaska bush pilot? That's perhaps the most important question asked -- and answered -- at the "Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation" exhibition, which opened this weekend at the Anchorage Museum. Celebrating 100 years of Alaskan aviation history, the exhibit includes such artifacts as the 1928 Stearman C2B from the Anchorage Aviation Museum (which was dismantled and transported up three flights for display) that Harold Gillam flew in the search for Ben Eielson. There's also the first Alaska pilot license of Russ Merrill, for whom Merrill Field was named.

While there are biographical sketches on 100 bush pilot "legends", the focus is more on the actual work accomplished by Alaska aviators rather than tales of glory. As curator Julie Decker explained recently, this was by design.

"We are trying to tell how the airplane changed life on the ground; on the goods and services that have been dependent on the airplane and how that is part of Alaskan life."

While the bush pilot myth played a part in Alaska's image throughout the 20th century, and shows no signs of fading, Decker and Jeremy Kinney, curator from the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., wondered if aviation belonged primarily to state lore or if, in this case, "it really is different (in Alaska) from other places."

"We looked at places like Canada and South America, where the bush pilot history is similar, and found that yes, it is different in Alaska," says Decker. This is due to a myriad of environmental reasons, from terrain to weather to a plethora of unregulated landing sites -- but also because Alaskans need aviation so much. "We needed the airplane to deliver goods here, and still do; that has not changed much."

This focus on the economic engine that drives aviation is unique and will allow visitors to consider famous pilots such as Eielson, Merrill and Gillam, all of whom died while working, with a more prosaic viewpoint.

"The first flight in Alaska, in 1913, was a spectacle flight," says Decker. "But the pilots who followed came here because they did not want to participate in the spectacle; they wanted to earn a living. They were entrepreneurs and flying was their business."

Eielson in particular made it clear from his earliest days in Fairbanks that he sought to make Alaska the crossroads of the world, a vision that modern day cargo traffic through Anchorage has proven to be true. But while Alaska does suffer a bit from a stopover status for aircraft headed elsewhere, Decker found that the more she sought out aviation history in collections across the state, the more she was struck by how much it has permeated the way Alaskans live. This is perhaps best exemplified by a silk shirt on loan from the Carrie McLain Memorial Museum in Nome. (The exhibit also includes a tank from the Norge dirigible on loan from the Smithsonian.)

In 1926, the Norge landed in Teller after flying over the North Pole. As shocking as that sight must have been to village residents, they were still practical - making a shirt from discarded fabric. Even then, aviation was a means to an end for Alaskans; something to be appreciated and enjoyed but most importantly utilized.

The biggest question answered in the exhibit, though, is just what a bush pilot is. Decker feels she has found the answer and even though there is a level of cowboy mystique attached to the image, those who have actually occupied the job all had something in common. "You had to be doing it for a purpose -- transporting goods and services," explains Decker. "It's not a glamorous job; this is a gritty story, very blue collar." And while lives have been saved by the airplane, discoveries have been made easier, even mountaintops attained through its assistance, pilots have always been there because it is their job.

I asked Decker if she found anything unexpected in how Alaska's aviation history fit into the larger story of American flight. "When I spoke with Jeremy in the very beginning, I wanted to know if this part of aviation history had already been told; if what I was thinking about was something new. While bits and pieces of Alaska's history have been out there in places for a long time, I wanted to bring it all together in one place. He said that Alaska is the last story of aviation that has not really been told."

While "Arctic Flight" embraces the bush pilot myth, it seriously reminds visitors that aviation has first and foremost always been about work. Aircraft remain a vehicle into Alaska's wilderness, but the exhibit proves that Alaskans have long embraced aviation as a source of mail and freight, charters for basketball teams and funerals, safe passage to town as well as to hunting and fishing areas. The Anchorage Museum invites visitors to consider just how useful aviation has been to the state, and how necessary it continues to be to our economic survival.

"Arctic Flight" runs through Aug. 11.

Colleen Mondor is author of 'The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska'