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The date was set and preparations were underway. It would be a challenging mission, especially for 1934—a roundtrip flight from Washington, D.C., to Alaska with 10 of the Army Air Corps’ newest bombers, the Martin B-10. If successful, it could provide the air service with some much-needed positive news following an airmail fiasco from the previous winter, while also providing photo-reconnaissance of what was becoming recognized as a strategically important territory.

Lt. Col. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold would lead the mission. He had been taught to fly by the Wright brothers and was one of the world’s first military pilots. Later Arnold would be remembered as “the father of the Air Force” and his leadership of this difficult assignment foretold his future as commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. “Arnold was a visionary,” says Dik A. Daso, author of Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower and Architects of American Air Supremacy. “He had a way of seeing the technology and recognizing what it was capable of, then compelling his people to do it. You see that time and time and time again.”

The operation also focused attention on junior officers who would also play important roles in the approaching global conflict. These men—Ralph Royce, Malcolm Grow, Harold McClelland and others—flew the airplanes, led photo-reconnaissance missions, coordinated logistics and handled other key assignments. Many were later promoted to crucial commands as America fought the air war across Europe and the Pacific. According to a 2011 Air Power History article by Kenneth P. Worrell, the Alaskan flight “brought together a select group of airmen who in a few short years would rise to top air force leadership roles during World War II.” 

Hap Arnold (standing fifth from left) was a rising star in the Army Air Corps. Flight surgeon Major Malcolm Grow stands third from left with executive officer Hugh Knerr to his left. Major Ralph Royce stands to Arnold’s left. Communications officer Harold McClelland kneels second from left. (National Archives)

By the summer of 1934, the Army Air Corps was desperate for positive publicity. Earlier that year, a scandal had erupted over airmail contracts awarded during President Herbert H. Hoover’s administration. The new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, canceled those contracts and ordered the Air Corps to fly the mail until the government negotiated new agreements with the airlines.

That effort was a disaster, serving only to expose the Air Corps’ inadequacies. Most of the aircraft it flew were antiquated World War I bombers that lacked the rudimentary communication and navigation technology necessary to deliver the mail. Much of the flying happened after dark and during the extreme weather conditions of a harsh winter. Absent adequate avionics and pilots skilled in nighttime flying, the Air Corps suffered a series of tragic mishaps. In less than two months, Army aircraft had 66 major accidents—resulting in the deaths of 13 crewmembers. By the time private carriers resumed flying the routes that spring, the Air Corps’ reputation had suffered severe damage. Congress launched an investigation and called General Benjamin Foulois, chief of the Air Corps, and Lt. Col. Oscar Westover, the assistant chief of the air wing, to testify.

To recover from the debacle, the Air Corps brass decided to undertake a daring 8,290-mile roundtrip flight from Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska. In 1934, the American territory—not yet a state—seemed impossibly remote. Fairbanks was about 2,000 miles away from Seattle, Washington, and there were few transportation options to reach any point in Alaska. No highways connected this faraway land to the rest of the United States and just a few rail lines reached it via Canada. Of course, in 1934 nonstop air flights from the continental United States would have been difficult and dangerous.

After leaving Washington, D.C., the bombers would stop in Dayton, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, before continuing through Canada and on to the Alaskan territory. After it reached Fairbanks, the mission would conduct photo-reconnaissance of the far north. (Brian Walker)

At the time, many Americans viewed Alaska as a remote backwater with little strategic importance. One who did not was airpower advocate Billy Mitchell. In 1935, the former colonel would address Congress about the territory’s value. “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world,” he said. “I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”

In addition to focusing America’s attention on Alaska, the mission would showcase the Air Corps’ newest bomber: the Martin B-10. Looking like something out of a “Flash Gordon” comic, the oddly shaped aircraft sported greenhouse-like canopies and a bulbous nose jutting out beneath a glass-enclosed gun turret. It may have looked unusual, but the B-10 represented a revolution in aviation design. It was a huge leap forward from the Army’s existing biplane bomber, the lumbering Keystone LB series that had entered service after World War I. A monoplane with an all-metal airframe and a crew of three, the B-10 had an enclosed cockpit and rotating gun turret, and its twin 775-hp Wright R-1820-33 Cyclone engines gave it a range of more than 1,200 miles. It had retractable landing gear, an internal bomb bay and sleek NACA engine cowlings that reduced drag.

The B-10 emerged from the Baltimore, Maryland, company founded by Glenn L. Martin, an aviation pioneer and pilot who had set numerous flying records. Starting out as the Martin Model 123, which made its debut flight in February 1932, the airplane was tested by the Army as the XB-907 and then modified into the XB-10. The Air Corps was impressed enough to order 48 of the airplanes, and then an additional 103 of the upgraded B-10B.

In his upcoming book, From Vision to Victory: General Hap Arnold’s Journey Creating America’s Air Force, Robert Arnold, Hap Arnold’s grandson, notes the significance of the B-10’s advances. “At last, the Air Corps had a sleek, streamlined, 200-mile-per-hour, mid-wing monoplane that could really get up and move,” he recalls his father, the late Col. W. Bruce Arnold of the Air Force, as saying. “By God it was metal. It had retractable landing gear. Basically, it was a junior version of the B-17 yet to come. It was the whole future of Army Air Corps aviation right there in one airplane.”

Hap Arnold strikes a pose for photographers in the cockpit of the lead B-10. (National Archives)

The future did take some getting used to, though. Two of the Army airplanes that crashed delivering the mail were XB-10s, accidents that happened because the pilots forgot to lower the retractable landing gear.

The plans for the Alaska trip called for 10 B-10s to make the flight, with stops in Dayton, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Canadian cities of Winnipeg, Manitoba; Regina, Saskatchewan; Edmonton, Alberta; Prince George and Hazelton, British Columbia; and Whitehorse, Yukon. Initially, Westover was supposed to lead the mission, but he had to remain in Washington to deal with Congress in the wake of the airmail issues. So, in June 1934, Colonel Arnold was on his way to Wyoming for a fishing trip with his wife when he received orders to return to Washington and take charge of the Alaska flight. The last-minute notice, Arnold later commented, created “a great deal of unnecessary worry, labor and money. Months of warning should have been given to responsible authority instead of a few days.” 

In some respects, Arnold was a surprising choice as commander. On one hand, he was a respected military pilot with a solid record of success as an administrator in various Air Corps departments, as well as a commander of March Field in California. Arnold had won the very first Mackay Trophy for “most outstanding military flight of the year” in 1912 for a successful air reconnaissance mission he flew despite turbulent conditions. However, he had also run afoul of military brass as an acolyte of Billy Mitchell, who had been court-martialed in 1925 after accusing his superiors of “treasonable negligence” in the management of their duties. Arnold had testified for Mitchell at the court-martial and the Army responded by angrily packing him off to a post in the backwater of Fort Riley, Kansas. In the years since, Arnold had managed to prove his worth to Foulois and Westover, who saw his value as a leader and planner. 

One notice pilots saw on their instrument panels was a reminder to lower the gear before landing. Two B-10s flying the mail had come to grief because their pilots had forgotten this important step. both: (National Archives)

Indeed, the new mission commander immediately found himself drawn into a maelstrom of preparation and planning. “Arnold had experience in logistics from World War I,” says Daso, who is also executive director of the Air Force Historical Foundation. “He understood that a lot of calculations needed to be made in advance. He was the intellectual power behind the logistical deployment of all the supplies they were going to need for the flight.” Those supplies included making sure there was plenty of fuel, oil, spare parts and other materiel necessities for the airplanes and crews.

Arnold soon realized the intended start date of July 10 did not leave him enough time to prepare. He postponed the takeoff date. Foulois, his boss, was not pleased. Arnold stuck to his decision, writing to his wife, Eleanor “Bee” Arnold, that “I was holding the sack with regards to safety, hazard, success and risk. I in turn told them I would not say when I would start on the flight until the planes were ready.”

The trip was complicated by a longshoremen’s strike on the West Coast, which would hinder the delivery of supplies to Alaska. Canadian rail services couldn’t handle it all, so Arnold had to arrange additional sea transport. The U.S. Navy wasn’t inclined to assist its rival branch, so the Army located an old barge that could carry half the fuel.

In the meantime, departure was delayed by the installation and testing of new radios for the B-10s. The delay was worth it because the new equipment demonstrated just how important technology was for the future of flight. “This is the first distance flight where radio contact is maintained with the ground for the entire time,” Daso says. “It’s a gamechanger in avionics.”

The ten B-10s wait wingtip-to-wingtip before departing from Bolling Field. The Douglas O-38 observation aircraft that will accompany the bombers are at the end of the line. (National Archives)

The original plan called for 20 officers and 10 enlisted men. Realizing the need for ongoing maintenance, Arnold changed the roster to 14 and 16, respectively. “I prefer mechanics to joy riders,” he told Westover. Also, four officers and four enlisted men would support the fliers from four Douglas O-38 observation airplanes while an advance team of four went ahead to Alaska. The B-10s received extra fuel tanks to extend their range from 1,240 miles to 1,370, and were outfitted with cameras so they could conduct reconnaissance operations over Alaska.

The mission roster included a long list of future World War II aviation leaders. Operations officer Major Ralph Royce would go on to lead the very first bombing mission against the Japanese in the Philippines; communications and meteorological officer Captain Harold M. McClelland became known as the “father of Air Force communications”; and executive officer Major Hugh J. Knerr later ensured that U.S. forces had adequate supplies of bombs and bombers in Europe during the war. “A whole bunch of general officers pop out of this flight,” Robert Arnold says. “Typical of Hap, he begins accumulating them along the way so they can play major roles for him later.” 

Arnold also added Major Malcolm Grow as flight surgeon. He wanted the experienced military doctor along to make sure the men were handling the stress of the arduous journey. In addition, Grow had served in Alaska as post surgeon at Chilkoot Barracks from 1925 to 1927. During World War II, Grow received credit for developments that helped save the lives of bomber crews, including a new lightweight body armor. He later became the first surgeon general of the U.S. Air Force.

Arnold felt confident that he would be ready for a July 19 departure from Washington, D.C. That day, after ceremonies attended by Foulois and Elliott Roosevelt, one of the president’s sons, the B-10s left Bolling Field for Alaska. With Arnold at the controls of the lead bomber, the airplanes began roaring down the runway and taking to the air at 10:01 a.m. All 10 aircraft made a pass over Washington, D.C., then headed west for Dayton for refueling before traveling to Minneapolis for the first overnight stay.

The mission encountered problems almost immediately. Two of the Martins had mechanical difficulties and turned back for repairs. They caught up with the rest of the squadron in Minnesota later that same day. The rest of the flight went according to plan, except for an added day in Edmonton that Arnold ordered so maintenance crews had plenty of time to do necessary work. The only downside, at least according to the squadron commander, were the crowds gathered at each stop to see the unusual airplanes and the men flying them. “I’m getting goodwilled to death,” Arnold wrote in a letter to his wife.

Some of Arnold’s mechanics work on one of the Martin’s Wright R-1820-19 engines. During planning, Arnold reduced the number of officers slotted to participate and increased the number of mechanics. “I prefer mechanics to joyriders,” he said. (National Archives)

On July 24, the squadron landed in Fairbanks, where the mayor declared a two-day holiday in honor of the mission and presented Arnold with the key to the city. After a series of celebrations, the aircrews got down to the business of photographing Alaska from the sky.

There was only one glitch during the three-week stay in the northern territory. On August 2, two B-10s and two of the O-38 support aircraft were in Anchorage on a goodwill mission and to conduct photo reconnaissance. A pilot from one of the Douglas airplanes was at the controls of one of the bombers, which he had only flown a few times, and he turned a fuel valve in the wrong direction, causing the engines to quit on takeoff. (Arnold had committed the same error earlier in the journey, but at a higher altitude that allowed him to recover in time.) The B-10 made a forced landing about 100 feet from the shore in Cook Inlet. There was no major damage, except for immersion in the ocean. “We are salvaging the plane now,” the squadron commander wrote to Bee. “However, I doubt if the plane will ever be used again on account of the salt water bath.”

 The extra mechanics Arnold brought with him saved the day. They had the bomber back in service within a few days after salvaging it and rebuilding the engines. “They are a mighty fine bunch,” Arnold said proudly of his enlisted men.

The squadron left for the return trip on August 17, with Arnold leading the airplanes and pilots in a long flight across the Pacific Ocean to Seattle, much to the irritation of the U.S. Navy, which claimed its aircraft had jurisdiction over the seas. The team then hopped across the country, stopping at Salt Lake City, Utah; North Platte and Omaha, Nebraska; and Wright Field in Dayton before landing in Washington, D.C., on August 20.

During their stay in Alaska, the Air Corps airmen received many gifts, including a totem pole. They brought it back in one of the bombers, which nearly had to be dismantled to remove it. Alaska citizens also presented them with several sled-dog puppies, which the crews also took back with them. One of the pups made an unscheduled appearance at the formal return ceremony at Bolling Field. “[W]hatever military formality they had mustered disappeared quickly when a half-pint size Eskimo pup piled out of one of the big ships and broke into the crowd of officers,” reported the Washington Post

The canine incursion notwithstanding, the mission generated plenty of positive media coverage. “This is a public success, particularly after the airmail fiasco,” Robert Arnold says. “It is a big deal. Going to Alaska in those days was like going to the moon now. Airplanes just didn’t do things like that then. Hap always said he was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.”

The only serious glitch came when pilot error led to a B-10 taking an unscheduled bath in Cook Inlet. Mechanics were able to get the airplane airborne within days. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

The flight earned Arnold a second Mackay Trophy and the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1937. Some of his pilots expressed irritation that he alone received the medal. Knerr, in particular, held it against Arnold for decades. Only much later did he learn that Arnold had lobbied for all of his pilots to receive the honor, and had even gone up the chain of command to ask Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur to award it to his men. MacArthur denied the request.

Arnold was obviously on the rise. That fall, he testified about the Alaskan flight and other issues before the Federal Aviation Commission in Washington. Toward the end of his testimony, a committee member asked him a politically sensitive question: given the chance, could Arnold “straighten out” the Air Corps? The colonel paused, then said, “If I were given the authority, I am sure that I could.”

The die had been cast. Foulois, still reeling from the airmail debacle, retired as chief of the Air Corps in 1935. His assistant, Westover, replaced him and selected the newly promoted Brig. Gen. Hap Arnold as his second-in-command. When Westover died in an airplane crash in 1938, Arnold found himself at the head of the Army Air Corps even as the world was moving inexorably toward world war. Under his leadership, the Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces) evolved from a small branch of the U.S. military into the world’s leading air power within seven years.

In many ways, the Alaskan flight set the stage for what was to come. Hap Arnold’s reputation soared after the mission demonstrated his abilities as a leader and planner at a crucial moment in history. When Arnold died in January 1950, he was (and remains) the only man to hold the rank of five-star general in both the Army and Air Force.

“Hap was a man in a hurry and impatient,” says his grandson Robert Arnold. “He didn’t like failure but he was not a man set in cement. He talked about having character and the strength of your own convictions, but you also have to be able to see what’s going on and be able to adapt. That’s what made him different.” 

this article first appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine

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