A Beginner’s Guide to Alaska’s Aviation Culture

Given Alaska’s sheer size and the vast amount of land that’s impassable via other modes of transportation, it’s no wonder that aviation should play such a huge role in our culture. Alaska was home to the earliest pioneers of flight, and after World War I, aviation became an integral part of everyday Alaskans’ lives.

For more than 100 years, our pilots have braved the hazards of mountain flying, unpredictable weather, and vast swaths of wilderness to unite our people, harness our natural resources, explore the terrain of America’s largest state, and provide countless adventures to residents and travelers alike.

In a land where approximately 83 percent of Alaskan communities have limited or no road service, our villages have grown reliant on aircraft for supplies, mail, and emergency responses. As a result of this reliance, Alaska has developed a strong “bush pilot” culture that’s unique to us and our way of life.

Early Pioneers

In 1913, Arthur Williams, owner of the Arcade Café, and R.S. McDonald, an editor of the Alaska Citizen newspaper, formed the Fairbanks Amusement Co. to sponsor the first airplane flights in Alaska. The company hired Lilly and James Martin to travel to Fairbanks from Seattle to fly their biplane over the town, and with that Alaska experienced its first flight. While nearly a decade had passed since the Wright Brothers took flight in Kitty Hawk, flight exhibitions remained unusual and there had been none in Alaska prior to 1913.

In 1924, Ben Eielson became Alaska’s first airmail pilot, delivering letters and packages between Fairbanks and McGrath. A few years later, he and the Australian-British polar explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins made the first transpolar flight across the Arctic in an airplane, as well as the first flight over a portion of Antarctica.

Joe Crosson, who arrived in Fairbanks in 1926, flew as part of the Wilkins polar expedition and was the first to both fly over the southern polar continent and make a landing on Denali (previously known as Mt. McKinley). He also helped Wiley Post complete his first solo flight around the world in 1933.

Don Sheldon, the most revered Bush pilot in Alaska history, earned a reputation as one of the only pilots who could effectively, and regularly, land a plane on glaciers. Commonly, his trips included moving equipment, supplies, and people, but he also performed many rescues during his tenure as a pilot. He saved mountain climbers and hikers in peril, but is perhaps most distinguished for his assistance with downed aircraft and lost military members. Don’s story is considered a major piece of Alaskan aviation history thanks to his unique understanding of meteorology, topography, and aerodynamics.

Inspired by Charles Lingbergh’s famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, Carl Brady became a pilot as soon as he could. He taught Air Force cadets how to fly and then after leaving the Air Force, started his own crop-dusting business in 1947. Thanks to Carl, Alaska experienced a lot of aviation firsts, including its first commercial helicopter and its first turbine-powered helicopter. In 1958, he founded Era Aviation and Era Helicopters. Carl had an innovative approach to aviation, even engineering makeshift skids for choppers so they could efficiently land in the snow.

Noel Wien became a legend when he flew an open cockpit biplane from Anchorage’s Park Strip to Fairbanks in 1924. Later that year, the pilot made the first bush flight to Livengood, Alaska in support of the mining operations located there, and later made the first flight over the Arctic Circle. In June of 1927, Wien officially launched Wien Alaska Airways, Alaska’s first commercial airline. In 1929, Wien made the first flight across the Bering Strait, flying nonstop from Nome to Asia to deliver furs for the Swenson Herskovitz Trading Company. Later that year, he sold Wien Alaska Airways to Avco. Wien was merged with two other companies to form Alaskan Airways, Inc.

By the 1930s, the number of commercial airlines in Alaska expanded to include Pacific Alaska Airways, Barnhill & McGee Airways, McGee Airways, and Star Air Service, the latter two eventually becoming the core of Alaska Airlines in 1944. As time went on, more airlines emerged to service more destinations. Ravn Alaska, which specializes in serving Alaska’s smaller communities, began its operations in 1948 as Economy Helicopters.

Alaska’s pioneer aviators were known worldwide for their bravery and skill and were widely celebrated on the radio, in advertisements, and in comic books. These daring heros, and those that picked up their mantle thereafter, are still discussed and remembered across the state and beyond.

Experience It

There is no shortage of opportunities to experience Alaska’s extensive aviation heritage. Several aviation-oriented museums showcase the planes, pilots, and personal histories that have shaped our culture. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage features more than 20 planes from different historical time periods, as well as a Hall of Fame that commemorates several of our most influential pilots.

The Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, north of Wasilla, explores our aviation history within the context of the equipment that helped open up our land for various types of development. In fact, many of our museums prominently feature aviation, as it’s an integral part of Alaskan life. Others include the Pioneer Aviation Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska Veterans Museum in Anchorage, Anchorage Museum, and more. Several books also detail Alaska’s early adventures in flying, including Jack Jefford’s Winging It! and Julie Decker’s Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight.

Another way to experience our aviation culture is to take a flightseeing tour, appreciating the natural beauty of Alaska with a birds-eye view of our glaciers, ice fields, fjords, rivers, and streams. Denali National Park and Preserve offers a flightseeing tour that encircles the peak of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain. In Juneau, flightseeing tours take visitors over the Mendenhall Glacier and the Juneau Icefield. In Ketchikan, a flightseeing trip to Misty Fjords National Monument allows visitors to watch dozens of waterfalls crash into the ocean.

But gorgeous scenery can also be observed by taking a small plane to one of our many remote villages in the Alaskan bush. Ravn Alaska and flies to 115 communities statewide, many of which are in rural Alaska, including Aniak, Bethel, Kotzebue, St. Mary’s, Unalakleet, and others. Ravn also offers affordable charter services for passengers hoping to visit the polar ice cap, travel to the Arctic to see the northern lights, watch brown bears fish for salmon in Katmai National Park and Preserve, or experience just about any other Alaskan adventure imaginable. From the sky, travelers can get an incredible view of the networks and lakes within Interior Alaska, experiencing the journey to these roadless communities in much the same way that our first pilots did in the 1920s.