Wed, April 17, 2013

Wrangell Mountain Skyboys: Making History above the Copper Belt

Lee Ramer and his dog team and Gillam’s Swallow biplane in
the saddle of Bremner pass in the early 1930s. Bertha Ramer
Collection, McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum,
McCarthy, Alaska.

By Katie Ringsmuth

The Wrangell Mountain Skyboys are represented by pilots whose names are recalled today by even the youngest Alaskans: Harold Gillam, Merritt D. “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, Merle “Mudhole” Smith, and Bob Reeve, “the Glacier Pilot.” Their competitive rivalries brought reliable air service to eastern Alaska, and eventually formed the primarily stops along a regularly scheduled flight route called, “The Copper Belt Line.”
To Alaskans, these 1930-era bush pilots stood shoulder to shoulder with the sourdough as the new face of the Last Frontier. Although they brought steadfast and safe air service to the Far North, for a nation plagued by economic despair, Alaska’s aviators were presented by the day’s writers and reporters as cowboys, blazing trails in fixed-wing biplanes, defiantly ushering in Alaska’s Manifest Destiny.

Merle Smith poses in front of his Stearman C2B biplane in
McCarthy in 1937, his first year flying the Copper Belt Route.
Courtesy of the Cordova Historical Museum, 95-46-45.

To the average factory worker or farmer, the stories of Alaska aviation conjured up alluring pictures of vast terrain over which flew bold and romantic flyers to whom adventure was mundane. To someone tied to a machine or daily farms chores, Alaska appeared a land of freedom. This familiar story not only echoed the past, but reinforced it. Scribes themselves rarely flew and most lacked a working knowledge of the physics of flight. The challenge of accurately describing aviation was like trying to explain magic in print. By using a simple, non-confusing, and universally understood nineteenth century narrative to explain the complexity of twentieth century modern flight, authors and journalists were able to put into words—to describe to non-flyers—the indescribable.
But the real Alaska Skyboy was more than a frontier myth…

Cordova pilot Herb Haley lands on top of Mount Wrangell
at 14,000 feet. Courtesy of Charles “Buck” Wilson, Fairbanks, Alaska.

Want to know more about these daring flyers who established aviation in the Wrangell-St. Elias mountain region? Then visit the Anchorage Museum this summer to view the Wrangell Mountain Skyboysexhibition, a supplement to Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation, currently on display until August 11. The exhibition is curated by Katherine Ringsmuth and runs from May 3 through August 25. Collaborators include the National Park Service Alaska Region, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and the Wrangell Mountain aviation community.