Airfield emerges from Anchorage wilderness

In 1923, Anchorage residents cleared land between Ninth and Tenth avenues so newfangled flying machines could land near town.
In 1923, Anchorage residents cleared land between Ninth and Tenth avenues so newfangled flying machines could land near town.

More than 90 years ago, Anchorage residents prepared to usher in a new form of transportation. Bush pilots, flying open-cockpit planes, needed a place to land, so the community dedicated an area “outside” of town as its first airstrip.

Townspeople turned out in force in the spring of 1923 to clear 16 acres of land between Ninth and Tenth avenues and C and L streets, which had served as a firebreak to keep fires from coming into Downtown Anchorage from the south. The May 27 issue of the Anchorage Daily Times reported the event:

“Men whose hands had not been soiled by anything heavier than a pen for many years, grappled the mattock or the axe and shook the kinks out of their flabby muscles. Ladies with rakes and other implements cleared away the small debris while others piled it upon the small mountain of stumps ready for the torch.”

The airstrip was put to use for the first time a year later, when 24-year-old barnstormer Noel Wien took off in his J-One standard open-cockpit biplane on July 6 and followed the railroad north. Although the gutsy aviator encountered thick smoke from wildfires near Healy that hampered his visibility, he landed safely at Weeks Field in Fairbanks.

Anchorage’s first local airline made the new airfield home soon thereafter. Anchorage Air Transport Inc., formed by Art Shonbeck, Oscar Anderson, Gus Gelles and Ray Southworth in 1926, used the strip for several years with its chief pilot, Russ Merrill, making countless successful take-offs and landings.

But some aviators, like well-known bush pilot Merle Sasseen, also had a few mishaps.

Sasseen, who had survived three crashes in as many months, two of which while landing on the “runway” at the out-of-town field, had to fill out a detailed federal report to describe his last accident. The final, crucial question on the form asked him: “General ability as a pilot?”

While most pilots lost no time responding to the ego-challenging question and filled in the blank with “Excellent,” Sasseen was weighed down with chagrin at his third aviation smashup in a row. He studied the question.

“General ability as a pilot?” he asked.

Then, after scratching his head, he wrote: “I used to think I was pretty good, but lately I’ve begun to wonder.”

Bush pilots used what’s now called the Park Strip, or Delaney Park, as an aviation field for about seven years. It then became the town’s first golf course. But even after the completion of Merrill Field in 1929, spring breakup occasionally forced pilots to use the more solid town strip.