Cockpit Chronicles: Alaska flying – then and now: Part 2

Continued from Part 1


In the twenties, the most popular map used for flying was a dogsled trail-map that showed the ‘roadhouses’ where mushers would rest and feed their dogs. For a pilot to rely on of these maps is ironic because early mushers justifiably weren’t happy to see the airplane arrive, as it posed a threat to their livelihood.

Noel Wien referring to a map inflight

As I pointed out earlier, modern airplanes are usually equipped with GPS, most of which include a terrain database that alerts pilots of any granite obstructions along their route of flight-a huge safety improvement.

Many planes are also equipped to display other aircraft traffic, which offers a tremendous peace of mind to pilots.

An Era Alaska Dash 8 flies between Kenai and Anchorage

Search and rescue

In 1924 and 1925, there were times when no other pilots were in the state who could come search for you should any mechanical problems force you down. That one critical part or a radiator that had burst meant that you had to try and walk to civilization.

Airplanes today are equipped with a 406 MHz ELT (emergency locator transmitter) that can be immediately pinpointed to within 2 kilometers by a satellite. This means a rescue is possible in just hours instead of days or weeks.


The going rate in the ’20s and ’30s was a dollar a mile, which meant that a trip from Fairbanks to Nome cost $520. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $6,248.

Today the 500-mile flight between those cities runs about $300. And Era Alaska has had $69 fares available recently for flights between Anchorage and Fairbanks-a distance of 260 miles.



The view in Alaska hasn’t changed much. And flying is still the best way to get a feel for how big the mountains and glaciers are and how much uninhabited land there is.

The harsh weather hasn’t relented either. Airlines are still flying in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees fahrenheit with poor visibility that is often coupled with high winds, something that just isn’t as common in the rest of the U.S.

Preheating the engines and cabin on a cold winter morning on the North Slope


The eskimo villagers today are similar to their ancestors. Sure they enjoy a bit more technology, including 4-wheelers and DVD players, but they still subsistence hunt and fish and many of the same families that first saw my grandpa arrive in an airplane in the mid-twenties are there today.

When we complain about how tough our lives are, it’s not uncommon for a grandparent to chime in with their stories from the past to give us a little perspective. I’d love for a few of my fellow pilots to have the chance to walk fly in my grandpa’s boots for a week. Although, I must admit, I don’t think I could have done the things he did.

Fortunately for me, much of my knowledge about what my grandpa accomplished in the early days of flying were gained from a book about him called Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot. I’m forever thankful that this biography exists, as it keeps me from complaining about crew meals and layover hotels.

Finally, I’m going to leave you with proof of Alaska’s beauty. But to show you, you’ll need to step into an airplane that’s more than 50 years old; an airplane that modern manufacturers just haven’t been able to replace. Special thanks to pilot Jeff Carlin for taking us along with him.


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.