The Gulkana airport

The Gulkana airport is seen sketched here with Mount Sanford in the background. In 1948 a Northwest Airlines plane, on a flight from Shanghai to New York City, crashed on the mountain, killing all aboard. From descriptions of the crash site, I think it is located near the top of the steeply-walled glacial cirque (in shadows) just to the left of the peak. 

Immediately preceding and during World War II the Civilian Aeronautics Administration (CAA was the predecessor to the FAA) built and upgraded airports across the United States as part of a national defense program.

Theresa Kraus’s 2020 book, “Civil Aviation Policy in Alaska, 1913-2018,” reports that during the early 1940s the CAA made improvements at 11 Alaska airports and constructed an additional 14 airfields. The airfield at Gulkana, shown in the drawing with Mount Sanford in the background, was constructed in 1942 as part of the program.

In addition to constructing airfields, the CAA installed aviation-communications infrastructure as well as weather stations. Once those facilities were completed, Alaska pilots could receive hourly reports on weather conditions. By the end of 1943, the CAA had established a rudimentary air traffic control system in Alaska.

Combined with a string of airfields built across western Canada in 1941, the newly-expanded Alaskan airfield system provided an air-transport system buffered by mountains from potential attacks along the Pacific coast.

Part of this system was utilized as the “Northwest Staging Route,” through which thousands of aircraft were ferried from the United States to the Soviet Union. The system was also vital in ferrying supplies and personnel to Alaska for the territory’s defense.

Four civilian airlines — Pan American, United, Western and Northwest — were pressed into service to fly the new route. According to Stan Cohen’s 1988 book, “The Forgotten War, Volume Two,” during the war the airlines flew well-over 15 million miles, and Western and Pan American together flew over 11,000 tons of supplies and over 77,000 passengers to Alaska. After the end of the war civilian airlines continued to use the Canada-Alaska air route.

During the war the U.S. Army and Navy had built installations across Alaska, most in the Aleutian Islands. Military airfields at Shemya and Cold Bay in the Aleutians became key links in establishing the first North Pacific “Great Circle” air route between North America and Asia.

Before the war, flights between North America and Asia generally followed a westerly route funneled through the Hawaiian Islands. Aviation experts knew that a route over the north Pacific would be shorter, shaving about 2,300 miles off the distance between the eastern U.S. and Asia. However, the region’s difficult flying conditions, coupled with Russian and Japanese reluctance to grant landing rights, stymied efforts to establish the route.

World War II changed that. The Canada-to-Alaska air route, coupled with military air fields in the Aleutians and a post-war Japan amenable to international cooperation, meant a Great Circle route was practicable.

In the summer of 1947 Northwest Airlines, which had gained considerable experience flying in the Aleutians during the war, became the first civilian airline to offer North Pacific Great Circle service.

Less than a year later, in March 1948, the worst disaster in Alaska aviation history to that point occurred when a chartered Northwest Airline’s C-54 (a military variant of the DC-4), on a Great Circle flight between Shanghai, China and New York City, crashed on Mount Sanford, killing all 30 people on board.

Having just refueled in Anchorage, the plane was flying over the Copper River Basin headed for Canada. Cruising at 11,000 feet on a clear and calm night, it inexplicably slammed into the south face of the 16,237-foot-tall mountain. Residents of nearby Glennallen reported seeing a fire on Mount Sanford at about the time of the crash. Reports on the accident hypothesized that the Aurora Borealis (unusually bright that night), or localized clouds forming over the mountain may have contributed to the accident.

Improvements in aircraft safety and fuel efficiency have reduced the importance of the inland Canada-to-Alaska air route for commercial aviation. However, the route is still popular with private pilots.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• “Civil Aeronautic Board Investigation Report - File No. 1-0025.” Civil Aeronautics Administration. 7-28-1948

• “Civil Aviation Policy in Alaska, 1913 – 2018.” Theresa L. Kraus. Federal Aviation Administration. 2020

• “NWA Plane Missing Over Alaska with 30 Aboard.” In the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 3-13-1948

• “The Forgotten War, A Pictorial History of World War II in Alaska and Northwestern Canada, Volume Two.” Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing.1988