The Flying North
by Jean Potter
Last published in 1983, with a revised, retrospective preface by its author, then known as Jean Potter Chelnov, The Flying North is an interview-based chronicle of the pioneer days of bush aviation in Alaska, focused on nine airmen who lived the adventure. When the book was first written in 1945, the Territory of Alaska was still 14 years away from being a state; yet in her 1946 preface, Potter described Alaskans as “the flyingest people under the American flag and probably the flyingest people in the world.” She added that “By 1939 the small airlines of the Territory were hauling twenty-three times as many passengers and a thousand times more freight, per capita, as the airlines of the United States.” The “per capita” has to be taken into consideration—the United States’ largest territory was still sparsely populated and spread over a hostile landscape. The challenges of navigation with little margin for error in unforgiving weather conditions contributed to Alaskan aviation’s swift evolution into an indispensable means of moving people and supplies.
Potter’s writing, edited by Dashiell Hammett, tends to favor a straightforward, journalistic approach. What lends The Flying North color are the characters themselves, and their stories. Exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit that launched most such enterprises was the Alaska Aerial Transportation Company, started in 1924 by Jimmy Rodebaugh, who boasted that his Standard trainers with their Curtiss OX-5 engines replaced with 150-hp Hispano-Suizas would “be able to take at least three passengers,” adding, “If you travel with them they will land you at your workings in minutes whereas otherwise it would take days.” Rodebaugh’s outfit soon expanded into the Fair – banks Airplane Company, which prospered despite competition.
Few outside of Alaska and Canada may be familiar with Ben Eielson, Archie Ferguson, Jack Jefford, Fred Moller or Noel Wien. But anyone interested in the hair-raising aspects of civil aviation’s formative years will find The Flying North a good way to get acquainted with some fascinating folks.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.