In 1913, a group of Fairbanks merchants shipped an airplane from Seattle to Fairbanks via steamboat. A pair of Lower 48 barnstormers flew the biplane 200 feet above Weeks Field, putting along at 45 miles per hour.
The merchants sold tickets to the show: The flight was considered nothing more than a spectacle. Those Alaskans had no concept of how the technology of air would completely alter life on the ground.
On the 100th anniversary of that historic flight, the Anchorage Museum opens Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, an exhibition that tells compelling stories of survival, adventure and ingenuity. The exhibition is co-curated by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and features objects from the Smithsonian and several Alaska museums, including the Alaska Aviation Museum and Pioneer Air Museum.
Historical artifacts, video footage and photographs reveal the state's remarkable aviation history, including its pioneer bush pilot era. From their open-air cockpits, Alaska's early pilots faced some of the planet's most inhospitable weather and challenging terrain without maps or accurate weather information. Airplanes broke the isolation of communities previously accessible only by boat in summer or by dog team in winter. Bush pilots became conquerors in the air and heroes on the ground.
Because of its strategic location as an aerial byway, Alaska played an important role in World War II. As a result, the federal government helped fund 50 Alaska airports and thousands of miles of navigational airways.
Arctic Flight illustrates the state's early aviation history through artifacts including wreckage from the Will Rogers/Wiley Post crash of 1935, a military-issued electric flight jacket from World War II, and the exhibition's centerpiece, a 1920s Stearman C2B biplane. Film footage includes a 1927 clip of the first airplane to fly over the North Pole and newsreels of the World War II campaign in the Aleutian Islands. Children can play pilot in a replica antique cockpit and conduct experiments that explain the physics of flight.
Today Alaskans fly 30 times more per capita than other U.S. citizens. In rural Alaska, people still greet airplanes, anxiously awaiting mail, fresh food and a glimpse of the pilot. Air traffic is at the center of the state's economy and lifestyle, whether it's a commercial airline delivering cargo, the U.S. Air Force moving a family to Anchorage, or a flightseeing service offering tours of Mount McKinley.
This exhibition demonstrates how, in just 100 years, airplanes have evolved from frivolous spectacle to crucial part of the Alaska way of life.