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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Land Sea Air  >  Aviation
The Black Wolf Squadron: Dawn of Airplanes over Alaska
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

The U.S. Army Service's famed "Black Wolf Squadron" left its mark on northern history in 1920, when four biplanes passed through the Yukon and Alaska in an attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of long-distance air travel. The New York-to-Nome Alaskan Flying Expedition, as it was known, involved a squad of four airmen with crewmembers flying wheeled DH-4 de Havilland biplanes. Powered by 400-horsepower, liquid-cooled Liberty engines, the planes journeyed across the continent, from Fort Mitchell in New York to Fort Davis in Nome, and back again. The pilots left New York on July 15 and returned in triumph on October 20, completing the 9,000-mile trip in 112 air-hours, albeit spread over three grueling months.

Author Budd Davisson wrote about the difficulty of the historic flight in the June 1998 issue of Flight Journal. In his article, "Footprints in the Wilderness," Davisson wrote, " . . . it took the U.S. Army's Black Wolf Squadron nearly six brutal weeks to fly four de Havilland DH-4s under the command of Capt. St. Clair Streett to the mostly log-cabin community of Fairbanks, Alaska."

The de Havilland DH-4 had seen action during World War I in daytime bombing raids, and during the postwar period, beginning in 1918, it was pressed into service for flying mail. One of those DH-4s is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. According to the museum, the DH-4 was a rugged plane, "ideally suited for the task of delivering mail throughout the United States."

"Altogether, more than 200 of these DH-4Bs were used in a pioneering role by the U.S. Post office over a period of eight years," reports the Smithsonian on its Air and Space Museum website. "After 1927, a number of air mail DH-4s were modified or rebuilt as forest fire patrol aircraft to fly long-range patrols over the expansive western wilderness. A few were transferred to the new airlines that took over the mail services in 1926-1930."

In fact, part of the Black Wolf Squadron mission was to deliver the first airmail in Alaska. The pilot of Plane No. 4, Lt. Ross C. Kirkpatrick, air-dropped a copy of the New York Times in Juneau, the first mail to arrive in Alaska via air. The newspaper had to be collected from the roof of the Brunswick Hotel. Later Governor Thomas J. Riggs, Jr., sent a letter of thanks, which is included among Kirkpatrick's collection of archival papers and photographs at the Alaska State Library.

On every leg of the journey, the airmen made history, it seemed, as the first to fly to Alaska from New York, the first to fly up Gastineau Channel, the first warplanes ever seen by many Alaskans. The sight of the World War I bombers overhead thrilled the residents of Wrangell, Juneau, Skagway, Whitehorse, Dawson, Fairbanks, Ruby, and Nome.

Considering the pioneering nature of their journey, the airmen amazingly suffered no losses and very few mishaps. At Whitehorse, pilot Lt. C. E. Crumrine blew a tire, and was forced to make temporary repairs - good enough to get him to Dawson - by wrapping rope around the wheel.

The transcontinental flight was conceived by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, who championed air travel in the Far North, calling Alaska the "Air Crossroads of the World," and even predicting that Japan would one day bomb Alaska.

Mitchell knew Alaska firsthand through his service with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1901 and 1903. He  had been sent to scope out a portion of the route for the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, or WAMCATS. By 1920, Mitchell had been promoted to Assistant Chief of the U.S. Army Air Service, later the U.S. Army Air Corps, and he was bullish on the capabilities of airplanes. His point was to prove that Alaska truly was accessible by air - by friends and enemies alike. This first military flight to Alaska marked the starting place for further aviation development, and within a few short years, pioneer aviators such as Carl Ben Eielson and Noel Wien, among others, had taken to the skies above Alaska.

In 1929, the men of the Black Wolf Squadron were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their historic flight.

The Crew:

Captain St. Clair Streett
Sgt. E. Henriques
Lt. C. E. Crumrine
Lt. C. C. Nutt
Lt. E. H. Nelson
Lt. R. C. Kirkpatrick
Sgt. J. E. Long
Sgt. J. E. English

The Route:

New York City, New York
Erie, Pennsylvania
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Winona, Minnesota
Fargo, North Dakota
Portal, North Dakota
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Edmonton, Alberta
Jasper, Alberta
Prince George, B.C.
Wrangell, Alaska
Whitehorse, Yukon
Dawson, Yukon
Fairbanks, Alaska
Ruby, Alaska
Nome, Alaska

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Gallery of Images
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Weeks Ball Field in Fairbanks
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The Black Wolf Squadron planes landed in Fairbanks
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The arrival of the biplanes
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The first Black Wolf Squadron plane
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The first airplane over Juneau

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