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Story Time with Aunt Phil: The first flight in Alaska

By Laurel Downing Bill 11:18 AM July 3, 2017


As Alaskans gear up to celebrate the Fourth of July, there will be many who chose to fly to their cabins, favorite fishing holes and secret getaways to spend the holiday.

Alaska has six times as many pilots and 16 times as many planes per capita than any other state in the union. As one looks out across Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base, there is little doubt that Alaskans and airplanes go hand in hand. And they have for more than 100 years.

Man’s first journey into Alaska’s skies happened on July 4, 1899, when Juneau’s residents were treated to a spectacle as “Professor” Leonard ascended to 1,000 feet in a hot-air balloon that he designed.

After Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, powered and sustained human flight in 1903, many Alaskans imaginations took flight, too. In 1911, Henry Peterson of Nome ordered a set of plans and a motor from Outside. He built Alaska’s first airplane inside a warehouse. On May 9, he towed his Bleriot monoplane to an open area and attempted to get it moving. But, the plane never got off the ground.

The first actual flight, in Alaska skies, happened after Arthur Williams, owner of the Arcade Café, and R.S. McDonald brought aviator James V. Martin north in the summer of 1913. They thought they’d make a hefty profit with a Fourth of July air show.

Martin and his wife, Lily, crated up their Gage-Martin biplane and boarded a ship in Seattle bound for Skagway. They and their cargo next traveled via the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad to Whitehorse, then they put everything into a boat and wound their way down the Yukon River to Tanana and followed the Tanana River to Chena and up the Chena Slough to Fairbanks, arriving on Saturday, June 21.

While the Martins assembled the plane and gave lectures on aviation, the promoters sold tickets for the flying event – $2.50 for adults, $1 for children over six, about $62 and $25 in today’s dollars. The air shows were a resounding success, with Martin making five flights between July 3 and July 5.

The promoters didn’t make much money, though, because most of the spectators viewed the show from their own rooftops and woodpiles and didn’t buy tickets to watch the shows from the makeshift airfield at the racetrack in Exposition Park.

At the end of the exhibition, Martin offered to sell the airplane. But, with no takers, he and his wife disassembled the craft and shipped it back to the Lower 48.

(The next event that brought planes to Alaska featured the Black Wolf Squadron in 1920 – but that tale is for another Alaska Story Time!)

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