Black Wolf Squadron touches down in Nome

Fairbanks residents inspect one of the planes from the U.S. Army Black Wolf Squadron in September 1920 during the squadron’s return flight from Nome to the Lower 48.
Fairbanks residents inspect one of the planes from the U.S. Army Black Wolf Squadron in September 1920 during the squadron’s return flight from Nome to the Lower 48.

Soon after the end of World War I, Brigadier Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell organized a flight of four De Havilland DH-4B aircraft from Mineola, New York, to Nome. The general wanted to show that airplanes could play an integral part in the nation’s defense.

The Alaska flying expedition was named the Black Wolf Squadron. The group set out from New York on July 15, 1920, to “demonstrate that we could establish an airway to Alaska and Asia,” according to Stevens.

Due to a multitude of stops, inclement weather and a few mechanical problems, it took a month for the planes to fly across America and Canada. The squadron landed in Wrangell on August 14.

The pilots then had a couple more stops on their way to Nome, including layovers in Fairbanks and Ruby. One pilot made a side trip after the planes left Wrangell, and became the first ever to fly over Juneau. He dipped down over the city and dropped a package to Governor Thomas Riggs.

The Black Wolf Squadron finally touched down on the old parade ground at abandoned Fort Davis, three miles east of Nome at the mouth of the Nome River, at 5:30 p.m. on August 23. The citizens of Nome had readied a strip 400 yards long and 100 yards wide for the event.

The squadron had traveled 4,500 miles in 55 hours flying time, proving that air travel to the northwest corner of America was possible – and that air transportation in Alaska could become more than a dream.

The four airplanes arrived back in New York on October 20, 1920, three months and five days after their departure.

Then Clarence Oliver Prest decided to fly from New York to Nome in his biplane named Polar Bear II in the summer of 1922. All went well until Prest departed from Dawson City, Yukon Territory. After having engine trouble, he crash-landed on an isolated beach near Fort Yukon.

Prest, who had failed a year earlier to fly Polar Bear 1 from Mexico to Siberia – an idea conceived in a darkened saloon with friend “Mort” Bach – was transported by riverboat operator Gilbert Cook to Tanana and then made his way to Fairbanks. Prest became the first in a long and famous list of aviators to crash in the unforgiving terrain of Alaska’s wilderness.

Early Alaska aviators could not call ahead and ask if a community had a suitable landing strip for their new-fangled flying machines. The adventurous flyboys simply looked for open spots to land.

A controlled crash into deep snow usually followed.

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