Book offers attractive views of Denali aviation

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2004

Bruce McAllister offers a triple treat to book lovers. He is a good writer, a wonderful photographer and an expert on aviation history.

His latest volume is "Wings Over Denali," highlighting the unique aerial adventures associated with the continents highest peak.

The flyers McAllister features describe Denali as a place combining awesome beauty with frigid cold, fickle weather, poor visibility, high altitude and treacherous drafts. These conditions place special demands on pilots and equipment.

"Aircraft play a critical role in moving people in and out of this magnificent park: transporting climbers, rescuing them, taking tourists on breathtaking aerial tours of the park," he writes in his introduction. "The glacier pilots who have flown Denali and who play this critical role are members of a small and select fraternity there are only a few dozen glacier pilots in the world."

The author takes a broader approach than the title suggests. He chronicles, as expected, landmark flights such as Matt Nieminen's and Cecil Higgins' first trip over the mountain's summit in 1930 and pilot Joe Crosson's accomplishments as the first to measure the peak's elevation, in 1931, and to land on one of its glaciers, in 1932. But his background subject matter also includes pioneering flights throughout Alaska's Interior, such as Noel Wien's trial run from Anchorage to Fairbanks in 1924, and a chapter devoted to the history of Talkeetna.

Part of the book profiles individuals who shaped modern aviation around Denali. These include Terris Moore, the University of Alaska Fairbanks president who took to the air as often as his duties permitted, famed aerial photographer and mountaineer Bradford Washburn and noted Bush pilots such as Talkeetna legend Don Sheldon.

McAllister deserves special kudos for including individuals other than pilots whose support has proven vital to flyers' success and passenger safety. These include flying rescue teams, base-camp managers and mechanics such as Jim "Hutch" Hutchison. Based in Fairbanks for decades, he earned a sterling reputation among the state's most famous aviators.

"That he could weld in extreme arctic temperatures in high winds was nothing short of miraculous," McAllister writes.

"... He worked on almost every make and model aircraft that surfaced in Alaska beginning in the 1920s, including exotic and ungainly aircraft like Cunningham Hall, Lockheed Vega, Travel Air 6000, Boeing 247, Stinson Tri-Motor, and DC-2, 3, and 4."

McAllister also includes information about helicopters, especially their prominence in modern search-and-rescue missions on the upper slopes.

The images, by a variety of photographers spanning nearly a century, add just as much to the book as the text. Vintage pictures show old biplanes, early camps and flying pioneers such as Wien, Crosson and Wiley Post. More recent images show rescue teams in action, work and play at the mountain's base camps and, in a starring role, eagle's-eye views of the great mountain itself.

McAllister, who lives in Colorado, has produced several handsome volumes illustrating the history of aviation. He seems to have a happy bias toward topics of special relevance in Alaska. Past titles are "Wings Across America" (about air mail), "Wings Over the Alaska Highway" (about aviation's role in establishing the highway) and "Wings Above the Arctic" (about airborne polar exploration based in Russia and Canada as well as Alaska).

Like the other books in the series, "Wings Over Denali" presents an appealing mix of attractive images past and present combined with a lively text blending profiles, anecdotes and regional history.

The drawback is that the book whets the readers' appetite, but ends too soon. Some of the photo captions and events alluded to beg for more information. Expanding and adding more details and anecdotes would have made a good book even better.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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