Monday, January 20, 2014

1942 GMC truck and Northway Airfield - part of Alaska's aviation history



 
Old GMC truck near Northway in early winter 2011. This truck was used by the Civil Aeronautics Administrations at the Northway Airfield.

The vehicle in the drawing is a 1942 GMC dump truck sitting on a hillside at about 1620 Mile of the Alaska Highway. Stenciled on the door is “Department of Commerce, Civil Aeronautics Administration.” The CAA was the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, and this truck (probably surplus Alaska Highway construction equipment) was undoubtedly used at the Northway airfield just a few miles away.

Northway’s airfield was one of the links in the “Northwest Staging Route,” through which thousands of aircraft were ferried from the U.S. to the Soviet Union during World War II. Although it was used during the war’s lend-lease program, the airfield was actually built a year before the aircraft ferrying operation came into being.

Canada entered World War II in September 1939. The Canadian government was primarily concerned with the war in Europe and the Atlantic, but it did begin planning for a series of airfields stretching from northern Alberta to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. 

According to Stan Cohen’s book, “The Forgotten War,” after the Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defense was created in August 1940, Canada authorized construction of airfields at Grande Prairie, Alberta; Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, British Columbia; and Watson Lake and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. These airfields were to “provide protection, permit aircraft to be deployed rapidly…in times of emergency, and allow men and supplies to be moved into the region by air.” Canada constructed the airfields during 1941, the same year the Northway airfield was built.

The United States began beefing up its northern defenses in 1940. As part of this build-up, the CAA built emergency landing fields across the territory. Air fields were built or improved at Nome, Naknek, Galena, McGrath, Bethel, Big Delta, Tanacross, and Northway. (The hanger built at the Tanacross airfield is now the Big Dipper ice arena here in Fairbanks, and the airfield near Big Delta is now Fort Greely.)

Work on the Northway airfield started before construction of the Alaska Highway, so the site of the proposed airfield was as isolated as the nearby Athabascan village of Northway, after which the airfield was named.

The nearest road and airstrip were about 60 miles to the south near the headwaters of the Nabesna River, at the Nabesna Gold Mine. The Nabesna landing strip became the staging site for shipping supplies to the new airfield. Supplies were trucked from Valdez to the mine, and then hauled by tractor to the landing site.

The Morrison Knutson Company (MK) was the primary contractor, and it sub-contacted with pioneer Alaska aviator Bob Reeve and others to airlift supplies. Beth Romulo describes the operation in her book, “Glacier Pilot.”

The first task MK faced was blazing a rough airstrip at the proposed airfield. Reeve flew two engineers into the Native village of Tetlin on Tetlin Lake (southeast of present-day Tok) then chartered a motorboat down the Tetlin River and up the Tanana and Nabesna Rivers to the construction site. They hired 20 Athabascan laborers who hacked an 800-foot airstrip out of the wilderness.

With the airstrip in place, Reeve and other pilots began an almost non-stop airlift of supplies. Between June and October of 1941 they flew about 1,000 tons of supplies and 300 workmen to the new airfield. In addition, MK ran a cat-train along the Nabesna River to haul in scrapers and other heavy equipment. By the end of 1941 the airfield was operational.

It is still used today. U.S. Customs has an office at the airport, and small private airplanes entering Alaska from the Whitehorse area in Canada must land there.

Sources: 

  • “The Forgotten War, Volumes One and Two.” Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 1981, 1988
  •  “Nabesna Gold and the Making of the Historic Nabesna Gold Mine and Town.” Kirk Stanley. Todd Communications. 2005
  • “Glacier Pilot; the story of Bob Reeve and the flyers who pushed back Alaska’s air frontiers.” Beth Day Romulo. Henry Holt. 1957

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