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One Story, Two Museums: A Century of Alaska Aviation

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In early 2010, I received an e-mail out of the blue from Julie Decker, the chief curator of the Anchorage Museum, asking if I would be interested in co-curating an exhibition on flight and Alaska. Her idea was to bring together artifacts and archival materials from different museums into a gallery that told the story of Alaska and aviation during the state’s centennial of aviation in 2013. The idea was great and I jumped at the chance, which quickly developed into one of the best experiences of my career at the National Air and Space Museum. Our three-year collaboration resulted in the exhibition Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, which opened in Anchorage on February 9 and closes August 11, and the accompanying book, Alaska and the Airplane: A Century of Flight.

Arctic Flight

Arctic Flight includes artifacts, archival images, and films from the National Air and Space Museum, Anchorage Museum, Alaska Aviation Museum, the Alaska Heritage Museum, the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum, the National Park Service, the Pioneer Museum, and the Pioneer Air Museum. Photo by Don Mohr.

The history of Alaska during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is intertwined with the airplane. James V. Martin made the first airplane flight in the territory in his Tractor Aeroplane on July 4, 1913. Aerial Alaska emerged in two important ways during the 1920s and 1930s. The pioneers of flight used the territory as a byway as they flew around the world, over the North Pole, and expressed their visions of the airplane as a global technology. Air-minded Alaskans, embracing their own pioneer spirit, took to the air as bush pilots and started the airplane’s ascendance as the main form of transportation. During World War II and the Cold War, world powers fought over the Aleutians, built an aerial bridge to Siberia, and faced each other during decades of nuclear stalemate. The bush pilots created aviation empires that connected the rest of the world to an industrialized frontier that served villages, resource developers, and outsiders seeking adventure. Along the way, both women and Native pilots found opportunity in the air. One thing remained a constant throughout the century of Alaskan flying, the unpredictable weather and rugged terrain remained the great equalizer.


Wiley Post

Collaboration with researchers in Alaska revealed the circumstances behind this color tinted photograph held by our Museum and what it said about how dangerous it was to fly in Alaska. During the summer of 1935, Wiley Post and the famous American humorist, Will Rogers, ventured north to the territory. From left to right, Rogers, famous Alaskan musher Leonhard Seppala, Post, and famous bush pilot Joe Crosson stand near Post’s Lockheed monoplane on a floatplane dock on the Chena River near Fairbanks. Against Crosson’s advice, Post and Rogers pushed on from there and died in an airplane crash near Barrow. National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-44131), Smithsonian Institution.

Besides me, the Museum was involved in other ways. Our Archives provided many historical images like the one above. Photographer Eric Long documented the artifacts selected for Arctic Flight, which became the basis for the photo essays in Alaska and the Airplane.

Survival Equipment

Eric’s photograph of survival gear used by bush pilot Sam White during his long and successful flying career from 1928 to 1964 and now in the collection of the Pioneer Museum in Fairbanks is one of my favorites. Photo by Eric Long. National Air and Space Museum (NASM2012-01294), Smithsonian Institution.

The Collections Department assisted with Eric’s photography and prepared the artifacts that traveled on loan to the Anchorage Museum.

Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory

In the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Lauren Horelick, Lisa Young, and Stephanie Spence (left to right) clean a fuel tank from the airship Norge, which made the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean in 1926. Photo by Eric Long. National Air and Space Museum (NASM2013-09437), Smithsonian Institution.

Anthony Wallace

Anthony Wallace from the Collections Processing Unit traveled to Anchorage to assist with the move of the exhibition’s central aircraft artifact, a 1929 Stearman C2B, from the Alaska Aviation Museum to the Anchorage Museum. Ted Gardeline, on lift, and Anthonyare working to lift the C2B fuselage to the third floor gallery. Photo by Don Mohr.

Jeremy Kinney and Julie Decker

Jeremy Kinney and Julie Decker with the Stearman C2B at the opening of Arctic Flight. Photo by Don Mohr.

Co-curating an exhibition and co-authoring a book is a challenging process in itself. You would think trying to do that from over 4,000 miles away, with a few memorable research trips thrown in for good measure, would be nearly impossible, but the collaboration between the National Air and Space Museum and the Anchorage Museum was a grand partnership. We hope that the people of Alaska and anyone enthusiastic for the airplane will find the final product as exciting and worthwhile as we did putting it together.

Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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3 thoughts on “One Story, Two Museums: A Century of Alaska Aviation

  1. Jeremy:

    I live in the Aleutians, on Adak Island to be specific, back in the mid 80’s and spent many hours flying back and forth between the island and Anchorage on Reeves Aleutian Airlines.

    It was said that they had some of the best and highest paid pilots in the world because ot the hard weather and conditions that they had to fly and more importantly take off and land in. It seems we had gale fore winds almost weekly or even more often when I was there. The wind was always blowing and the flights never stopped. I can’t remember once that our small airfield was closed or the planes on it were grounded because of weather. I’m sure they were from time to time but I can’t place it if they were.

    Thank you for sharing,


  2. Pingback: Anchorage Museum – Flight, Portraits and more | Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Ltd.

  3. I am seeking a color “reference” image,description of the patch worn By Col. Hap Arnold and flight crews on the 1930’s era Mission flow in B-10 Bombers from Bolling AAFLd D.C to Fairbanks Alaska , it was worn on all the flight jackets of the crews and depicts a American Native Totem pole with a large bird sitting on top with wings spread on a round background with a thin outer border .
    Their aircraft carried a ‘similar” design but also had the state of Alaska added , the patch did Not have this and I seek the “Patch” design colors for the background area , I have the other colors .

    I hope someone can help with this , please contact me via this posting site and thank you !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Johnny Signor

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