While airplanes are a fixture of life for many people, they have a special importance in Alaska for several reasons. Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. and one of the largest subnational divisions in the world, and it is also sparsely populated and features rugged terrain, including mountains and tundra. It is also distant from the continental U.S. and boasts an extremely cold climate. These factors make traditional means of transportation impossible or impractical; as a result, airplanes are one of the primary means by which Alaskans get around.
The airplane has a special significance in Alaska, allowing easy transportation not only between major population centers, but between small towns that have no other link to the outside. This is a brief history of airplane travel in Alaska.
Airplane Travel in Alaska
Alaska’s large size, foreboding climate, and difficult terrain have traditionally made it difficult to traverse. The state’s native population is concentrated on the coasts for this reason, and the interior of Alaska remained largely unexplored and unmapped until the latter half of the 19th century. During the period in which Alaska was a Russian colony, Russian settlement and commerce was almost entirely limited to the coasts, and following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the city of Sitka, situated in the Alaska Panhandle, was the only place where American settlers chose to migrate.
The Klondike gold rush of the 1890’s inspired American and Canadian settlers to migrate into Alaska’s interior for the first time in history. During this period, overland travel was slow and largely limited to dog mushing teams due to a lack of roads, difficult terrain, and poor weather. The completion of the Alaska Railroad in the 1920’s was the first major land link between the Alaskan interior and the coast, but it only covered a small portion of the state.
During the 20th century, the Alaskan road network was gradually expanded, starting with the Alaska Highway in the 1940’s, the first land route connecting the state with the continental U.S. Further highway expansions in both Alaska proper and neighboring Canada linked cities such as Fairbanks, Skagway, and Deadhorse together, but many smaller communities remained isolated due to their distance from major population centers, permafrost preventing the construction of permanent roads, and a lack of economic incentive to connect towns of only a few dozen people. To this day, several of Alaska’s major cities, including the state capital of Juneau, have no road links to the U.S. or Canada, or even to other parts of the state. Additionally, in many parts of Alaska, car ownership is infeasible due to wear and tear caused by the state’s cold weather as well as poor roads making motoring dangerous for unskilled drivers.
It is for this reason that air travel became the preferred means of transportation in Alaska. The invention of aviation in the 1900’s did not immediately create a transport revolution in Alaska, but by the 1920’s, commercial firms saw the viability of the airplane as a means of long-distance travel, particularly after its use during World War I.
The first commercial airline in Alaska was Wien Air Alaska, founded in 1927 in Anchorage. In the 1930’s, air travel continued to expand in the state with the formation of Pacific Alaska Airways, McGee Airways, and Star Air Service. In 1944, McGee Airways and Star Air Service merged to form Alaska Airlines, which remains the state’s most popular airline service and is one of the most-flown airlines in the U.S. Other major airlines in the state include Wings of Alaska, Warbelow’s Air Ventures, Taquan Air, Servant Air, PenAir, and many more.
In addition to commercial airlines, Alaska saw a boom in independent pilots who offered their services without working for a larger corporation. These “bush pilots” form a vital plank in the state’s transportation network, offering ad hoc services between small towns, major cities, and everything in between. Such is the importance of bush pilots in Alaska that virtually every town, no matter how small, has an airport, a runway, or a dedicated water space for seaplanes to land. In many smaller Alaskan communities, bush pilots are often the only connection to the outside world, allowing Alaskans to visit other cities to meet friends and family or purchase vital supplies, as well as the delivery of mail.
The importance of air travel in Alaska is such that many airports and airlines are subsidized through the Essential Air Services program. Established in 1978 following the deregulation of the airline industry, Essential Air Services incentivizes airlines to serve communities that would otherwise not have air service due to a lack of profitability. While Essential Air Services operates in almost every state, the bulk of subsidized airports are located in Alaska.
It is worth pointing out that air travel in Alaska is somewhat riskier than in other states due to inclement weather hindering aircraft operations. Airplane crashes in Alaska, while uncommon, are a risk. Noted humorist Will Rogers died in 1935 when his plane crashed near Barrow, Alaska, along the northwestern edge of the state. In 2010, former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in history at the time, died when his plane crashed while heading to a private hunting lodge near Dillingham, Alaska. Despite the risks, air travel remains popular in Alaska due to a lack of options.
Air travel remains a fundamental cornerstone of transportation in Alaska. With road travel infeasible or outright impossible to many locations due to long distances, poor weather, and a lack of infrastructure, air travel allows Alaskans to journey from one part of the state to another with minimal hassle. Air travel is also vital in the delivery of mail and supplies to more isolated parts of the state. Even with improvements in infrastructure and transportation technology, it is likely that air travel will remain a significant part of Alaskan culture.