National Geographic : 1922 May
THE FIRST ALASKAN AIR EXPEDITION BY CAPTAIN ST. CLAIR STREETT, U. S. A. S., FLIGHT COMMANDER MARCO POLO and De Soto must have enjoyed the same mingling of eagerness and apprehension that moved the four aviators designated by the United States Army Air Service to blaze the pioneer air trail from the na tion's capital to its furthermost possession at the northeast end of the continent. Like the pioneers who drove their prai rie schooners in '49 westward across un measured distances and through the con stant perils of ambushed enemies, so did we, in our pioneer flight to Alaska, come to look upon every forbidding stretch of landscape we passed as an ambush of danger, active or passive, depending solely upon the fidelity and dependability of our Liberty motors to carry us over and be yond. A spirit of romance and adventure dominated the individual pilots who par ticipated with me in that flight; but be yond the strict military reason which oc casioned this expedition, a more funda mental purpose existed in the minds of the aviators. Put into words, it was this: "Yesterday a month was required to reach the Yukon; if our expedition suc ceeds, it will prove that the Yukon is but three days distant-by airplane!" A FLIGHT WITHOUT PARALLEL Our airplanes were the well-known army De Havilands, similar to those we used in the war. They were equipped with the 400 horsepower Liberty motor, capable of propelling us through the air at the rate of 115 miles per hour. Each of us carried in the rear seat a tried and true mechanic, for we knew that we were undertaking a flight without parallel in the short annals of aviation. Reaching Alaska depended upon our abil ity to make our own repairs en route. Nome lay 4,500 miles away, over rough and uncharted country, beyond the Great Divide of the Canadian Rockies. Fogs and storms would be encountered; land ing fields must be located; engines and planes must be kept in the pink of condi tion, to avoid letting us down into some mountainous region far distant from the haunts of men. The consent of the Canadian Govern ment to fly over its territory had been cordially granted. Study of the govern ment maps, consultations with the weather bureaus, and reports from the cities and towns along the proposed route followed. It was determined to lay a course west ward from New York to Erie, Pennsyl vania; thence over Grand Rapids, Wi nona, and Minneapolis, west to Fargo and Portal, North Dakota. From this point we would be able to take the plunge into Canada over the fertile wheat belt of Sas katchewan to Edmonton and Jasper, in Alberta. Then would come the fearful jump over the Great Divide, which, if success ful, would lead us over the towns of Wrangell, White Horse, Dawson, and Fairbanks to the Yukon River and Nome (see map, pages 500-501). THE START On July 15, 1920, at midday, we stood at attention before our airplanes on Mitchel Field, New York, and received the parting instructions of General Wil liam Mitchell, our motors slowly turning over and our machines packed and ready for flight. My machine was Number i, with Sergeant Edmund Henriques as me chanic; Lieutenant Clifford C. Nutt, with Lieutenant Erik H. Nelson as navigating and engineering officer, had Number 2; Lieutenant C. E. Crumrine, with Sergeant James D. Long as mechanic, flew Num ber 3, and Lieutenant Ross C. Kirkpat rick, with Master Sergeant Joseph E. English as mechanic, Number 4. Precisely at thirty-three minutes after the noon hour our little flight taxied across the field and took off. The four motors were functioning beautifully as we climbed to 1,500 feet, circling the field and getting into formation. Turning westward, with spirits high, we set a course of 298 degrees on our compasses. Motoring through limitless skies should be regarded as a boon to humanity, a gift from science, annihilating time and dis tance, I thought to myself, as we roared swiftly along toward our first night's stop at Erie.