National Geographic : 1940 Oct
Our Air Frontier in Alaska BY MAJOR GENERAL H . H. ARNOLD Chief of Air Corps, U. S . Army N OT ALL the outlying "ramparts we watch" are tropical or semitropical. Alaska, mighty northwest territory, reaches far beyond the Arctic Circle. It pre sents many new and tricky problems for those charged with the Nation's defense, particularly airmen. Alaska has leaped almost overnight from the Stone Age to aviation. By air is the logi cal way to travel between its widely scattered cities. But air transport in the far north is still studded with question marks. Winter temperatures of 60° below zero in some parts of Alaska's interior call for new types of clothing and tent hangars. Sudden cold fogs quickly coat plane wings with ice. Spongy tundra makes landing fields expensive and difficult to build. Metal bomb sights, machine guns, and plane controls need special adjustments in the intense cold. The Rus sians and the Finns faced some of these prob lems last winter, but Alaska presents many of its own. Since the United States bought Alaska for $7,200,000 in 1867, little money has been spent on its defense. Little was needed until the airplane proved that the air route of the future between the Orient and the Americas would follow the great circle via Alaska. In recent months ships, men, planes, guns, and other materials of war have been rushed north to strengthen this strategic outpost. Runways and hangars are being built. Tent cities have sprung up. Weather stations and beacon points are being erected, and harbors dredged. New land and naval bases in con struction dot the map of Uncle Sam's northern most domain. Almost as much money is being spent on the air defenses of Fairbanks alone as the entire purchase price of Alaska. Altogether, more than $25,000,000 has been appropriated for Army and Navy works in the Territory. Inspecting Our Alaskan Defenses To see some of these developments, espe cially those under the wing of the United States Army Air Corps, I made an aerial inspection tour of central and southern Alaska in July. In a little over a week I flew 10,000 miles, inspecting, on the ground or from the air, Fairbanks, Circle, McGrath, Talkeetna, Ta nana Crossing, Anchorage, Seward, Iliamna, Cordova, Yakutat, Juneau, and Sitka (map, page 490). While the United States sweltered last sum mer, our sturdy Army Transport Douglas C41 carried my staff and me in 27 hours' flying time to a land where glaciers glisten in the sun and clear streams of ice-cold water flow into deep pools which reflect snow-capped peaks. Our plane left Washington at seven o'clock in the morning, made stops in Chicago and Bismarck, North Dakota, and arrived in Spo kane for the night. Next morning we headed north, and, after three hours' flying, we were in Prince George, British Columbia. An hour for fueling and customs clearance, and our plane was off for Whitehorse, in Yukon Territory.* Turning northwest from Whitehorse and following the long meandering course of the Tanana River, we broke through a dark wall of forest-fire smoke and there, spread out 8,000 feet below, was Fairbanks, near the junction of the Chena and the Tanana (page 493). A noticeable scar on the landscape southeast of the town marks the new air base being carved from hills, trees, and tundra. Its 7,000 foot runways form the head of a great arrow that points straight to the thriving little city two miles beyond. Following an Air Corps Trail As we landed on the long two-way strip of the commercial field, the citizens of Fairbanks came up to greet us. For me it was a happy reunion with those who had welcomed an expe dition of ten Army bombers I led to Alaska in 1934, following the air trail blazed by the Army Air Corps in 1920.t Then we mapped a large portion of Alaska and spent several weeks in Fairbanks. The city at midnight was still light as day, for the sun had set but an hour before. It was merely behind the Arctic Circle and re appeared within an hour. Street lights are not turned on in the summer time in Fairbanks. There is no need. We had spent only a few hours in Alaska before it was evident that it is one thing to decide that national defense requires air bases up near the Arctic Circle, with air units sta tioned there, and quite another to accomplish these results. * See "Today On 'The Yukon Trail of 1898,' " by Amos Burg, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1930. t See "The First Alaskan Air Expedition," by Cap tain St. Clair Streett, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, May, 1922.