Alaska’s Airplane Obsession

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The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:



The history of the exploration and development of Alaska in the 20th century is so closely aligned with aviation as to be nearly inseparable.

In a state where more than 90 percent of the land area is inaccessible by any other means, the airplane continues to be the primary, and often only, way to explore.

The state also boasts the highest per capita airplane ownership in the country at about 1.3 percent, and active pilots, again at about 1.3 percent. That’s more than triple the per capita rate of pilots for the next closest state on the list.

To document and preserve the state’s rich aviation history, the Alaska Historical Aircraft Society was founded in 1977 by Ted Spencer, and in 1985 its first plane, a PBY Catalina, was acquired. The warplane made an emergency landing at Dago Lake on the Alaska Peninsula in 1947 and couldn’t take off again because of the size of the lake. It was stripped of parts and later acquired by the museum. It was retrieved via an Army training mission and put on display for the museum’s opening in 1988.

Since then, the collection of airplanes and other aviation memorabilia has grown considerably. The museum’s current exhibits are housed in several hangars and on the grounds, with restored and static airplane displays – ranging from a 1928 Stearman c2b to a decommissioned Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 and a mothballed Air Force F-15 fighter.

This place is an aviation history buff’s go-to resource.

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The facility sits on Lake Hood, the busiest floatplane base in North America. As you approach, you see some of the outdoor exhibits: the PBY, 737 and F-15, and an old Army Huey helicopter, among others. On the shore is the old Merrill Field control tower cab, open to visitors; you can enter and go up to the second floor, get a great view of the lake and watch planes come and go while listening to the control tower over the piped-in audio feed.

Once inside the museum, you enter through the gift shop and then into an open conference room, where you need only look up to see the first two planes on display: a 1943 Taylorcraft L-2 and a 1929 Travel Air 6000 from Al Jones Airways in Bethel, perpetually simulating flight while suspended from the high ceiling.

Just off the conference room is the room where the first of several videos on aviation history is played, this one entitled “Alaska at War.” This film recounts the 15-month war in the Aleutian Islands, the only military campaign where both sides fought on soil of the current 50 states in World War II.

Continuing around the perimeter of the room brings you to the Alaska Aviation Hall of Fame, featuring photos and short biographies of aviation pioneers who paved the way for future Alaska flyers. Some of the names will be familiar to Alaskans – aviation icons such as Merrill, Wien, Eielson and Reeve; they were pilots whose names have been commemorated on airlines, airfields and even geographic landmarks.

One fact that becomes increasingly apparent as you wander through the museum is the number of defunct Alaska air operations represented. The list is impressively long, and only a few extant survivors such as Northern Air Cargo and Alaska Airlines have endured through the years, a testament to the harsh and unforgiving nature of defying gravity time after time in the remote north.

Wandering from room to room among the various planes you’ll find a multitude of interesting and diverse displays, including testaments to women in Alaska aviation, Alaska Natives, lighter-than-air craft, cockpits both real and simulated of interesting planes, and historical artifacts from all over the state.

There are also video booths showing historical and contemporary footage, and several flight simulators are available for use. Of these, all but one are included in the price of admission. And that one, according to staffer Mark Ransom, is well worth the dough.

“We use the War Thunder software on the total immersion, 3-D simulator, and it’s a very robust program,” he said. “You can fly a P-38, a P-39 or a P-51, and it’s a real kick in the pants; the pilots who visit can’t stay off of it.” At a charge of five bucks for five minutes, it’s definitely a bargain.

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But the real stars of the show are the airplanes. At any one time there are roughly 20 airplanes on display, and they are magnificent. Rejuvenated by dedicated technicians, they look like they just rolled off the assembly line. The glistening paint jobs and scrupulous attention to detail show these flying machines off to their best advantage.

The variety of aircraft on display is impressive. Many of them are glimpses into Alaska’s distant flying past, showing the logos and insignia of long-gone and short-lived local airlines. But others, such as the Piper PA-18 Super Cub, the Helio Courier and the Grumman Goose, are stand-ins for planes that, despite their age, are still flying all over the state and carrying people and cargo safely and efficiently to remote destinations.

So, one may ask, where do these flying works of art come from, and how did they all wind up here? Good question; glad you asked. Some have been restored by owners and donated to the museum, while others have been retrieved from crash sites and lovingly restored.

The restoration process involves years of painstaking work, tearing down an airplane to its component parts. The workers must then figure out which parts are salvageable, which can be found through their network of suppliers, and which will have to be fabricated from scratch.

There are currently three planes undergoing this process for the museum. There’s a Stinson L-1 being worked on at a warehouse at Merrill Field in Anchorage, and in the museum’s workshop there’s the original Fairchild 71, in which Bob Reeve made his famous glacier landings.

The current hot project is the restoration of a Curtiss P-40e Warhawk. This plane was piloted by Winfield McIntyre and shot down by a Japanese Zero in 1942 on Umnak Island in the Aleutians. The pilot was rescued but the plane was damaged beyond repair and later stripped of useable parts. It stayed in place on the island until 1998 when it was recovered by the U.S. Coast Guard and moved to the museum.

Since then the plane has been worked on by the museum’s cadre of volunteers.

“This plane has been stripped down to its bare bones for this project. The next major step is to have it sent to a shop Outside where it’s put into a jig and a new skin is applied,” said George Dorman, one of the people working on the plane. “That’s a level of expertise we just don’t have here.”

When asked for a guess on when the plane will be ready to fly, he quickly replied, “Thursday. Any time someone asks when a job is going to be done, that’s what we tell them. Of course we never specify which Thursday we’re talking about.”


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To make a wrecked airplane airworthy again involves a lot more than making it cosmetically perfect. The Federal Aviation Administration is pretty picky about that sort of thing, and the requirements for getting an old warbird into the air are extensive.

Ernest “Mitch” Mitchell has been in the aviation business since 1955, when, at the tender age of 15, he started attending A&P (airframes and powerplants) school in Tennessee. After a career in the Air Force and work in general aviation and for the U.S. Department of the Interior, he has been spending his spare time volunteering here.

Mitchell outlined the procedures required for certifying a plane, including going over the original plans and the Type Certificate Data Sheets and making sure that every part of the restored airplane conforms to the specifications used when it was first cleared to fly.

These sheets cover every part of the machine – from engine, propeller and instruments down to the seats and tires and everything in between. It’s a complicated process, which explains why the P-40 has been in the shop for 12 years so far, and is still a long way from completion. After all, it only takes enormous amounts of time, expertise and, of course, money to bring these machines back from the dead and make them fly again.

Mark Ransom outlined the mission of the museum.

“Our mission here is that an exhibit has to be Alaska specific and meaningful to Alaska aviation history. That makes for a very narrow focus, but it’s substantial enough that it takes the average visitor about two hours to tour the museum,” he said. Ransom also weighed in when asked what projects were on the horizon. “Everything’s on the horizon. There are crash sites all over the state with hundreds of planes to choose from.”

If ever there was a mission that will never be fully accomplished, it’s retrieving, resurrecting and restoring aircraft from their resting places in the Alaska wilderness. However, the staff and volunteers at the museum will give it their best shot to “Preserve, Display, Educate, and Honor the History of Alaska Aviation.”  ASJ