More a curiosity than a harbinger, the story of aviator James Martin’s first flight to Alaska

Part of a chase weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about the history of Anchorage or Alaska or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The entire culture and long history of airplanes in Alaska can be traced back to a simple and humble origin. Long before Anchorage became the air hub of the world, before all the bush pilot stories, and decades before the creation of an independent air force, there was a financially disastrous series of air shows in 1913. in Fairbanks. Back when planes were called planes, James Martin made the first powered flight in Alaska, a stunt that did nothing to predict the future.

Aviation history in Alaska prior to Martin’s flight in 1913 is minimal. On July 4, 1899, John “Professor” Leonard performed a hot air balloon ascent in Juneau, followed by a planned parachute jump. The following year, he is in Nome. A photographer joined him on some of the climbs, resulting in the first aerial photography of Alaska.

The first plane in Alaska was a complete failure. Henry Peterson, also known as “Professor”, built a simple biplane in Nome based on plans ordered by mail. On May 9, 1911, eight years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Peterson towed his ski-equipped plane to a flat area outside of town for its first test. The large crowd watched eagerly as the professor opened the throttle. The engine roared as much as the little engine could, but the plane refused to move. Attempts to push the plane also failed to produce flight. Subsequent tests were also unproductive.

In 1912, aviator James Martin gave a speech at the Seattle Press Club, which caught the attention of two Fairbanks businessmen, Arthur Williams and RS McDonald. Williams owned the Arcade Café and McDonald edited the Alaska Citizen newspaper. Together they formed the Fairbanks Amusement Co. with the initial grand idea of ​​bringing Martin to Alaska for a series of exhibits. To be clear, Williams and McDonald planned the thefts as a business enterprise first and a civic enterprise second. Profit was the main motive. Some notoriety for Fairbanks would be a nice bonus.

Martin (1885-1956), a Harvard University graduate who organized America’s first international air meet, had spent the previous years touring the aircraft show circuit in the Lower 48. The press acclaimed him constantly described as Captain Martin, not for just any soldier. service, although he served in the merchant navy. Instead, early pilots carried on the naval tradition, the way anyone in charge of a ship would like to be called a captain.

In these early days of aviation, pilots were also frequently referred to as “birdmen”. Media coverage of Martin’s trip north included amusing article headlines like “Martin demonstrates birdman abilities”, “Birdman in action” and “Arrangements are complete for three birdman flights “.

An advertisement using the name and likeness of aviator James Martin to sell clothing

The aerial display in Fairbanks was part of the July 4, 1913 celebrations. Although Martin’s honorarium was not announced, Williams and McDonald reportedly paid dearly for the privilege of his presence, plus $500, approximately $15,000 in 2022 after taking taking inflation into account, for the use of the exhibition centre. The fairgrounds, then primarily used for baseball games, became Weeks Field, the city’s main airfield until 1952, when the new international airport opened.

Fairbanks’ initial reaction was a mixture of intrigue and doubt. Many residents did not believe the theft would actually happen as promised. Williams and McDonald transferred final payment for Martin’s appearance to the Northern Commercial Co., or NCC, which held him in trust. George Coleman, director of the NCC’s Fairbanks office, told local newspapers, “This will dispel any doubt that may exist in the minds of Fairbanks residents regarding the credence of the proposal.

Accompanied by his wife and fellow pilot Lily Irvine Martin, Martin traveled by boat from California to Skagway, then took the railroad to Whitehorse. From there they boarded the steamer Alaska on its maiden voyage for the American-Yukon Navigation Co. to Fairbanks.

The plane, an open-cockpit Gage-Martin biplane with an eight-cylinder Hall-Scott engine, was partially reassembled at Pioneer Dock and then towed to the fairgrounds where the wings were attached. A temporary hangar, a frame covered with tarps, is erected on the ball field.

James and Lily worked together, preparing the plane for its historic flight. Crowds followed their every move, and many curious onlookers were free for their guidance, which might not come as a shock to longtime Alaskans. One man, who had probably never seen a plane before, told the Martins: “Forgive me for seeming to interject, but I don’t know if you know it or not, but part of the plane here is broken.” The Martins assured him that the part was, in fact, a brace and not an actual component of the aircraft. Another night, a drunken man loudly asked passers-by where the Martins were staying, as he needed to tell them how to fly an airplane.

A Martin Airplanes advertisement in Aerial Age Weekly dated December 29, 1919

The first flight was scheduled for July 3, 1913. Williams and McDonald’s charged $2.50 for adults and $1 for children, or about $75 and $30 in 2022 dollars. Children under the age of six were admitted free.

This exhibition began somewhat ominously. The Martins had been unable to obtain gasoline of the quality needed and were forced to use lower octane fuel. So when Captain Martin started the engine for that first airplane flight in Alaska, he coughed, spluttered, and died. However, on the next attempt, it took off without a hitch and flew over the city. Nine minutes later, he leaps back over the grandstand to the cheers of the crowd and lands lightly. After a brief wait, he leaves and returns after seven minutes. There were no tricks, curls, rolls or dives. A plane simply took off, turned south and came back.

Due to the number of wood burning appliances, there was heavy smoke in the air and Martin’s visibility was poor. Spectators in the park had difficulty following the plane as it flew away. Yet the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the plane soaring “as magnificently as a monster bird”, a comparison which somehow must have had more positive connotations a while ago. century. Contemporary accounts placed the maximum speed between 45 and 60 miles per hour with a maximum ascent of 400 feet above the ground.

When Captain Martin first took flight, around 250 people were inside the fairgrounds. Unfortunately, for the organizers, around 2,000 more people watched from outside the park, without having to pay for a ticket. As the Daily News-Miner noted, “Only a small crowd of people were present at the park at each of the two exhibits, although the buildings, rooftops and other vantage points were swarming with people unwilling to pay entry. .”

Fairbanks was then about 10 blocks wide, and most residents realized they could see the historic feat about as easily from outside the park as from inside. Martin made three more short flights to Fairbanks, twice on July 4 and once on July 5. McDonald’s and Williams have lowered ticket prices for the final exhibit to just one dollar for everyone. Paid attendance has not increased markedly with roughly the same ratio of paying customers to outside onlookers.

Daily News-Miner editor WF Thompson lamented the result, calling it a “disgrace and disgrace” for the young town. He strongly criticized the profiteers “who wanted to profit from their first aeronautical exhibition at the expense of the promoters”. He concluded, “It will be a long time before anyone here spends a lot of money bringing an entertainment business into Tanana just for what they can get from paying people.” Williams claimed to have lost $1,000, or about $30,000 in 2022 dollars, in the case.

Faced with the logistics and costs of shipping the plane to their home base in California, the Martins offered the machine on the spot to the highest bidder. When no takers appeared, they stripped the plane, crated it, and shipped it downriver to St. Michael, and from there to San Francisco.

To most Alaskans in 1913, Captain Martin and his biplane were curiosities, more like a sideshow than a harbinger of the future. While some had ambitious plans for airplanes, few could have foreseen the role and importance of airplanes decades later, let alone today. And there’s certainly more money to be made with airplanes today than over a century ago.

Key Sources:

“Air shows are very successful.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 3.

“Aviator Sending a Plane North.” Fairbanks Daily Times, May 31, 1913, 3.

“Aviator will come north.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 16, 1913, 1.

Cole, Dermot. “The first air show in Alaska proved to be popular, but the sponsors lost out.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 1, 2013, B1.

“The crowds offer help and advice to the airman.” Fairbanks Daily Times, June 27, 1913, p. 3.

Dalton, Mike. “Pioneer flight 54 years ago.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 30, 1967, 9.

“Deposit Money; Airman must surely come North.” Fairbanks Daily Times, April 26, 1913, p. 3.

“James V. Martin Scrapbook.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

“Last flight tonight.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 4.

Martin Airplanes advertisement. Aerial Age Weekly, December 29, 1919, p. 425.

“Martin has demonstrated his abilities as a birdman.” Citizen of Fairbanks, Alaska, July 7, 1913, p. 5.

“The spirit of sport.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 5, 1913, 2.

Stevens, Robert W. Alaska Aviation History, Volume One 1897-1928. Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990.

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