Simanaitis Says

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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.


Brig. Gen. William (Billy) Mitchell, 1879-1936, had served in Alaska with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1901 and 1903.

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.


One of the Black Wolf Squadron’s DH-4Bs, as modeled for Microsoft Flight Simulator.

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.


An excellent source: The Alaska Flying Expedition: The U.S. Army’s 1920 New York to Nome Flight, by Stan Cohen, Pictorial Histories, 1998. Both and list it.

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.

Route of the Alaskan Flying Expedition, round trip, July-October 1920.

Route of the Alaskan Flying Expedition, round trip, July-October 1920.

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.

Imagine the excitement of the squadron's arrival!

Imagine the excitement of the squadron’s arrival! This and other images from

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.

Buzzing Juneau.

Buzzing Juneau.

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.”

At Fairbanks

At Fairbanks’ Weeks Ball Field.

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 dog

The dog in my de Havilland DH-4B is modeled after Kenwood, my late husky/malamute. He would have loved the adventure.

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,, 2013

7 comments on “NORTH TO ALASKA—BY AERO

  1. sabresoftware
    March 31, 2013

    Just thought that I’d mention that Blatchford Field (more recently the Edmonton Municipal Airport and even more recently the City Centre Airport) where they probably would have landed, is being closed down.

    Scheduled jet service was stopped quite a few years ago in an attempt to allow the Edmonton International Airport to grow into a destination airport instead of having two feeder airports to a hub in Calgary.

    For a number of years small plane (10 passengers or less) scheduled services to northern communities and corporate jets continued to use the airport, but now one of the runways is already shutdown, and the entire facility will follow in a few more years.

    Six proposals were sought for redevelopment of the airport lands, several of which looked like potential future slums, but the selected proposal I believe includes features that will recognize the historical past of an important part of aviation history in Western Canada and the north.

    At least with the demise of the Edmonton Indy (which used one of the runways and part of the apron area for the track) there is no longer an issue of finding a new home for the race.

    Still, sad to see a part of our history disappear.

  2. Bill Kupchin
    May 1, 2013

    I am going to try to refry the route in 2020 if I can generated enough support. We have started a club celebrating Alaska Aviation based from Gen. Billy Mitchell’s Black Wolf Squadron. Any inputs or assistance will be fully welcomed. Especially if you know of a DH-4B sitting around.
    It will be tough to use all the original airfields of course. Sad to see Blatchford Field closing down. Keep the aviation spirit alive is a challenge but definitely needed.

  3. Bill Kupchin
    May 2, 2013

    Great post! We have just started an aviation enthusiast club here in Alaska trying to preserve that adventurous spirit from the days of Billy Mitchell’s vision. I am also looking to fly the same route (as close as possible) coming up in 2020. It will hopefully be in a DH4B if one can be located. Thanks for your assistance in getting us on the right track. Hoping to keep aviation history alive! Check out as we develop.

  4. Kerry Guenter
    November 27, 2013

    A strut from one of the Black Wolf Squadron airplanes is on display at the Bulkley Valley Museum in Smithers, BC, on loan from the Hazelton Museum. The strut is painted an olive green colour and has the number 8 in gold leaf near the bottom. It was donated by a pioneer family from Hazelton, BC.

  5. Frederick W Beseler
    January 7, 2019

    My grandfather provided gasoline for the Black Wolf planes at Winona, Minnesota. I didn’t know this until my dad told me after Grampa Fred passed away in 1976. He was an electrician in Winona for many years.

    • Richard Crumrine
      May 3, 2021

      Fredrick …. my grandfather was one of the pilots that flew The First Alaskan Air Expedition in 1920.
      Very much appreciated 100 years ago, … from ” grandaddy Crumrines”” grandson !

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This entry was posted on March 6, 2013 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , .
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