Sunday, April 5, 2015

Old Pan American hanger is a piece of Fairbanks' hidden history


 
Pan American Airways hanger at Weeks field in the early 1940s

The Pan American Airways hangar shown in the drawing is part of Fairbanks’ hidden history. It was once used by Pan Am at Weeks Field (located where the Noel Wien Library is now) which was Fairbanks’ original airport.


According to Dermot Cole’s book, Fairbanks, a Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds, Weeks Field began as a baseball diamond called Exposition Park. Years before it officially became an airport, however, it was used as a landing field. In 1913 it became the site for the first airplane flight in Alaska when local merchants brought a husband-and-wife flying team and their airplane to Fairbanks for demonstration flights. The plane arrived in Fairbanks in a crate, and after the flights, it was crated back up for return shipment to the Lower 48.


In 1920, the baseball diamond again was used as a landing field when a flight of four U.S. Army bombers, the Black Wolf Squadron, visited Fairbanks during a 9,300-mile round-trip flight from Mitchell Field, New York, to Nome. In 1923, it was the site where Ben Eielson made his first flights in his Curtiss-Wright Jenny.

As the site was used increasingly as a landing field, the city decided serving the needs of aviation should be the site’s primary function and established Weeks Field. The Territory also was realizing the importance of aviation, and in 1925 the Territorial legislature authorized the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) to add airfield construction and maintenance to its list of responsibilities. By 1927, the ARC was maintaining 24 airfields.

Several small regional air carriers were based out of Weeks Field during its earliest years. In 1932, Pan American Airways moved into the Alaska market, buying out Alaska Airways and Pacific International Airways and merging them into a Pan Am subsidiary called Pacific Alaska Airways (PAA). According to a 1991 article in Alaska Business Monthly magazine, the acquisitions provided PAA with facilities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome; and airmail contracts to deliver mail to communities in the Interior, on the Kenai Peninsula and in Western Alaska.

The next year PAA constructed a modern hangar in Fairbanks. As PAA and other carriers expanded and brought larger aircraft into Weeks Field, the airport’s runway was lengthened. A gravel runway eventually extended westward from Gillam Way almost as far as the present location of the Fairbanks Curling Club on Second Avenue. In 1941, the name PAA was phased out as the carrier became the Alaska Division of Pan American Airways.

PAA and Pan American used larger aircraft such as the Lockeed Electra for regularly scheduled service between larger communities. Smaller planes such as the Fairchild Pilgrim 100B (NC 7-42N) shown in the drawing were used for flights to smaller airfields in rural Alaska.

These sturdy little planes sometimes are called American Pilgrims since American Airlines purchased most of them. The planes were well known for their short field capabilities, and many of them eventually migrated to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. Only 26 Pilgrim 100As and 100Bs were manufactured, and the sole surviving airworthy Pilgrim is located in Anchorage at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

By the late 1940s, community expansion in Fairbanks was beginning to envelop Week’s Field. That and the need for even longer runways and expanded facilities to serve newer aircraft brought about the development of Fairbanks International Airport.

By 1951, the new airport was operational and Weeks Field closed. Within months of the field closing, the old control tower burned down. The old Pan Am hanger was acquired by a partnership of Fairbanks residents, and in 1959 was re-purposed into what you see today, the Arctic Bowl bowling alley.

Sources:

  • “Abandoned and Little Known Airfields in Alaska.” Paul Freeman. Abandoned and Little-known Airfields website. 2003
  • “Alaska’s Heritage: Chapter 4-12: Air Transportation.” Alaska Humanities Forum website. 2015
  • Fairbanks, a Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds. Dermot Cole. University of Alaska Press. 1999
  • “New Bowling Emporium is one of Largest in Alaska” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 9-28-1959
  • Photos and information on Pacific Alaska Airways Pilgrim 100Bs, on Ed Coates Civil Aircraft Photo Collection website.
  • “Tales of Pan American World Airways.” Kate Ripley. In Alaska Business Monthly. July 1991

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