Pete Haggland at the Pioneer Air Museum in Pioneer Park is a local expert on the Fairbanks flight industry, and happy to talk with you at length about working at the airport as a 14-year-old (part of his father’s strategy to “keep me out of trouble,” he says) and the changes he has witnessed in the time since as a ground crew member of Pan American Airways, aircraft mechanic and restoration expert, and pilot with an air taxi business.
Perhaps in no other state are pilots held in such high regard as in Alaska. You can get to know the pioneers of this essential statewide industry by talking with Pete and through the exhibits, models, and memorabilia of the Pioneer Air Museum. You’ll find logbooks, clothing, maps, early flight instruments, and aircraft sporting skis and floats adapted to rugged Alaskan runways.
You can’t miss it—the museum looks like a round golden airplane hangar with a model aircraft from Air North mounted on beams outside in a simulated take-off. Inside, you’ll find a few of the earliest aircraft in the state from the 1930s and 1940s used in military, commercial, and bush flights.
All this is interpreted for visitors by local experts like Pete, who have lived and breathed the aviation industry for decades in Fairbanks, and shared it here since the museum opened its doors in 1992.
Pete can tell you about the time that Carl “Ben” Eielson and Hubert Wilkins (two early pilots) tried to fly across the Arctic Ocean and were forced to make an emergency landing because of engine trouble. They were stranded 150 miles from Point Barrow and had to make up that distance on foot, losing ground each night they slept from the shift of the ice. You can even see the wreckage of the plane that crashed in Siberia and killed Eielson and his mechanic while on a mission to transport furs for sale in New York.
You can also learn about Sam White, who became the first flying game warden in the country once he realized that flight was a much more effective way to traverse the wild lands of the state from 1929-1940s.
To get a sense of the city’s expansion and growth, use a map to observe the position of Fairbanks International Airport in relation to Weeks Field, a former airfield whose grounds now lay in the center of Fairbanks. Make sure to ask Pete how early bush pilots who passed through this airport kept their fuel from freezing at below zero temperatures, before modern heaters were installed on aircraft.
Don’t forget to inquire about a very special ping pong ball, left behind on a stopover by Howard Hughes in the midst of his famous round-the-world flight. His vessel was packed full of them for emergency flotation while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Would this method have worked in a pinch? We’ll never know, as he safely traversed the Pacific without incident.