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IT WAS the idea of Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, father of the U.S. Air Force and, already in 1920, a firm believer in the importance of air power: Have an Army Air Service squadron fly from New York City to Nome, Alaska, and back.
The aeroplane of choice for this New York-to-Nome Alaskan Flying Expedition was the de Havilland DH-4B. This American-built, Liberty-engine, two-place biplane had evolved from a “Flaming Coffin” during World War I into the long-haul workhorse of the U.S. Post Office Department Air Mail Service, 1918-1926.
The original DH-4 earned its “Flaming Coffin” nickname, perhaps unfairly, by virtue of its fuel tank located amidships between its two open cockpits. As one authority noted, all early aircraft were prone to catch fire. A 1919 revision of the DH-4 moved both cockpits aft of the tank; other changes included plywood replacing the linen for fuselage covering.
The Black Wolf Squadron of the Alaskan Flying Expedition consisted of four DH-4Bs, each with a pilot and airman. Their starting point on July 15, 1920, was Fort Mitchel, just outside New York City. Erie, Pennsylvania, about 400 miles away, was their first stop.
Others at similar distances were 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 Territory; Dawson, Yukon Territory; Fairbanks, Alaska; Ruby, Alaska; and Nome, Alaska.
An attempt to use Google Maps yields several “We could not calculate directions….” Back in 1920, the Black Wolf Squadron had advance parties traveling overland to the stopovers. Often they found it necessary to carve landing fields out of virgin forest.
One aspect of the squadron’s mission was public relations along the U.S./Canadian border and into Yukon Territory and Alaska.
For many people along the route, this was the first sighting of an aeroplane. To see a quartet of them would have been remarkable.
Another aspect was inauguration of air mail service to Alaska. Just about midway on the 400-mile stint between Wrangell, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, they passed over Juneau, Alaska’s capital since 1906.
As the Black Wolf Squadron flew over, one of them dropped off a copy of The New York Times. It was retrieved from the roof of Juneau’s Brunswick Hotel.
The squadron reached Nome, Alaska, on August 24, 1920, a little more than a month after their New York departure and logging 50 hours of flight time. Noted the squadron’s commander, Captain St. Clair Streett, sour-dough settlers “could not believe we had covered the distance from New York in 50 hours when they had spent 18 to 20 months reaching there by way of the Yukon in the gold-rush days.”
Then they turned around and flew back—but not alone. On the squadron’s return visit, the good people of Fairbanks gave them what’s described as “two sled-dog pups.” The photos show more like teen-age huskies, not puppies. Initially, the dogs traveled in a box at the feet of one of the airmen. It’s said at first they barked like crazy and tried to chew at everything. After Whitehorse, though, they got to be great travelers.
The Black Wolf Squadron arrived back in New York on October 20, 1920, a bit more than three months after their departure. Their 9000-mile flight had taken 112 hours in the air, an average of 80 mph.
No doubt Billy Mitchell was especially pleased. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013