The earliest people to live on the land now called Alaska arrived by foot on the Bering Land Bridge. Thousands of years later, a riverboat carried E.T. Barnette, the accidental founder of Fairbanks, up the Chena River. Within a quick decade, automobiles arrived in the growing mining camp and the first successful flight in the state lifted off from a ballpark in Fairbanks. A whole new era of transportation had taken flight in Alaska—and it was here to stay.
A century later, aviation remains integral to the everyday life of Fairbanksans. Resident’s frequent use of air travel has been likened to that of New Yorkers hailing yellow cabs. As former Mayor Les Nerland of Fairbanks put it, “The skies are our most practical highways.”
That first flight in the ballpark was by a pilot from Seattle hired to demonstrate his airplane at the annual Fourth of July celebration in Fairbanks (this year, Fairbanks celebrates the centennial of the first flight). It wasn’t until Carl “Ben” Eielson, an adventurous young pilot, moved to town in 1922 that air travel started in earnest. He flew as the sole pilot for the Farthest North Airplane Company, and made the first air mail delivery in the state.
“Fairbanks was the central point of aviation in Alaska to start with,” Pete Haggland, Owner/Curator of Pioneer Air Museum in Pioneer Park, says of the early days. “You had quite a population here in the summer with all the gold mining. And of course, people would come up and want to go out to the creek because that’s where they were mining.”
Noel Wien, the namesake of the main branch of the public library in Fairbanks, was able to commercialize the pioneering flight work of Eielson. Wien piloted the first flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks—now an oft-traveled route for Fairbanksans on business or pleasure.
In addition to early pioneers, the military and government played a major role in building critical infrastructure and encouraging aviation developments throughout Alaska and in Fairbanks. Congress established an airport at Ladd Field (now Fort Wainwright) in 1940 for cold weather training and testing. Military operations reached their height in Alaska during World War II, when Fairbanks became the primary stopover for airplanes being transferred to the Soviet army as part of the Lend-Lease agreement. American pilots flew 7,924 planes from the lower 48 to Fairbanks, handing them off to Russian pilots to fly across the Bering Sea (a bronze statue commemorates this effort in Griffin Park in downtown Fairbanks).
The first airport built on the site where you now stand was finished in 1954 to the tune of $5 million by the federal government, but could only be reached by a two-lane dirt road named after the owner of a hog farm at the end. The original terminal had a popular restaurant where families and friends would watch airplanes take off and land. Passenger and cargo traffic through the new airport surged during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from 1974-1977. The terminal you arrived in today was renovated in 1984 and again in 2009. The grounds have expanded with the construction of an east ramp catering to small planes used by private pilots and bush air services.
Fairbanks has maintained its hold in the aviation world as a convenient northern stopover between far-flung destinations, and an essential transportation hub for Alaskans. If the past is any indication, the future of aviation in Fairbanks will be fueled by the pioneering spirit and inventiveness of its residents.