Photo history highlights arctic aviation

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

The high Arctic combines haunting beauty with a brutal climate that devours men and machines. Like the intrepid seamen who preceded them, aviators have braved almost unimaginable hardships to explore its secrets. But unlike sailors, aviators can travel farther, faster and bring back incredible birds eye vistas to armchair travelers.

One such aviator is Bruce McAllister, a magazine photographer who has turned his talents to creating beautiful books about the northland he loves. His previous book, "Wings Over the Alaska Highway," was well received, and now he has created "Wings Above the Arctic" to cover territory further north.

This volume, handsome enough to grace a coffee table, combines history, anecdotes and photographs both vintage and contemporary.

The images are particularly compelling. They range from sepia-tinted pictures from the 1920s to the author's own striking panoramas of remote land and seascapes. Included are a diverse gallery of planes, portraits of aviators and informal shots giving glimpses into exotic locales such as Siberian search parties and construction camps along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

McAllister shares the challenges of his craft:

"In the Arctic at subzero temperatures, photographers' hands and faces can instantly 'weld' to the exposed metal parts of a camera as they prepare to take a picture. It's not that easy to manipulate the camera in those conditions with gloves and face coverings," he says.

He wisely declines to be encyclopedic. Instead of trying to cover everything and everyone, he picks out a few colorful chapters and characters from the region's history while giving adequate background on how the focus of polar travel changed from exploration to military concerns to scientific investigation and oil exploration. Among the legendary pilots he covers are Richard Byrd, Charles Lindbergh and Alaskans such as Ben Eielson, Bill English and Bud Helmericks.

McAllister writes in his introduction, "This photographic history covers the period from 1926 to the present, capturing challenging aviation events that brought out the best in the pilots who braved the Arctic as it developed into a shortcut to everywhere, albeit a potentially dangerous route for those not willing to plan carefully."

Unlike many books on northern aviation, he includes the substantial contributions of the Canadians and Russians. Oddly, however, he doesn't complete the mix by covering Scandinavians, even though in passing he does mention some, such as Roald Amundsen.

McAllister worked with Russian archivists to obtain seldom-seen photographs of pioneer Soviet aviators. The end of the Cold War allows readers in the West finally to learn, for example, that Russians were the first to use an aircraft in the Arctic during a 1914 search for a missing ship, and that Valery Chkalov became famous in his homeland as "the Russian Lindbergh" for a 1937 nonstop flight from Moscow to San Jacinto, Calif., via the North Pole.

The book also discusses the World War II aircraft transport to Russia via Alaska and international efforts to rescue downed aviators, emphasizing that the camaraderie and respect among polar pilots transcended politics.

McAllister also interviews contemporary and retired flyers about their exploits and experiences, spicing his text with diverse viewpoints and compelling, firsthand narratives.

For example, Kotzebue flyer Ellen Paneok nearly died of an unusual mechanical problem during a frigid winter landing:

"The aircraft's muffler failed and carbon monoxide seeped into the cockpit," McAllister writes. "It got into her blood system and as she approached Barrow she could hardly feel her arms and legs. She couldn't breathe. ... Nobody realized how serious her condition was until she staggered into a heated hanger and passed out. Luckily, she survived the blood poisoning and serious heart palpitations; she was treated in the intensive care unit at the hospital."

Canadian Bob Gauchie tells of another remarkable, far longer ordeal. In 1967 his plane went down en route to Yellowknife, and both its emergency locator transmitters failed. No one could find him for nearly two months. He subsisted on meager supplies and a load of frozen arctic char, losing more than 70 pounds before his rescue.

The book also spotlights the rugged aircraft of the north, such as the Antonov AN-74, and challenges unique to the region, such as taking off from breaking or sinking pack ice.

The wide range of people and incidents featured sometimes gives the text a piecemeal feel, and some of the proofreading is sloppy. But the overall high quality of the content overcomes those rough spots.

McAllister does a masterful job conveying the adventure and attraction of Arctic flying. "Wings above the Arctic" is an attractive addition to the aviation literature of the north, with plenty to offer to both aficionados and those new to the subject.

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



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