Flight to the starsL the 1934 Air Corps Alaskan expedition.

Author:Werrell, Kenneth P.


Officers who achieve flag rank are a small and select group. The interwar Air Corps officer corps was small and with the massive expansion of the air arm during World War II, a good number of these officers who served in the war pinned on stars. These men advanced to flag rank through a combination of ability, ambition, aggressiveness, connections, and luck, although being at the right place, at the right time certainly helped. In 1934 the Air Corps brought together a score of its officers, presumably their very best, for a special operation. This assessment of their ability was borne out by their further service, for within a decade, most were generals. This operation was the 1934 formation flight to Alaska.

In 1934 Alaska was an even more exotic place than today, an American territory many miles from the forty-eight contiguous states and boasting a population of just over 59,000. (1) The vast territory was probably of little interest to most Americans, although some saw it as a northern wasteland and others as a great treasure storehouse. It was also perceived as an important strategic location, especially in the aviation age, particularly valuable for potential bases in the Pacific to counter the growing threat of the one perceived rival in the region, Japan. Air power advocate William "Billy" Mitchell made much of Alaska seeing it as a key to an aviation future, and crucial to the U. S. in what he saw as a coming conflict with Japan. (2)

Aviation figured prominently in the exploration and development of the far north. The first flights across the North Pole were in 1926, the second of which in the airship Norge landed near Nome. (3) Therefore, it was not surprising that both U.S. military services saw aviation as a part of their plans for operations involving Alaska.

The U.S. Navy had dispatched aerial surveys to the northern territory beginning in 1926. In 1934, it sent three expeditions north, the first consisting of six fleet submarines and two tenders bound for Alaskan ports as far west as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. (4) There were also two Navy aviation efforts that year, one that consisted of six float planes that departed San Diego in April headed for the Aleutians, and returned to San Diego in August. (5) The other employed patrol bombers (flying boats) in a flight that summer. This expedition was seen, at least by some, to compete with a contemporary Army Air Corps flight to Alaska. (6)

The Army also was interested in Alaska and was involved in aviation operations in the far north. In 1920, Billy Mitchell pushed for a flight from the forty-eight states to Alaska via Canada. On July 15, four DH-4Bs, the World War I workhorse, departed Mitchel Field, New York, on this mission and reached Nome on August 23, after fifty-four flying hours and about three dozen stops. The airmen managed to avoid any major mishaps, but were hampered by mechanical problems, poor weather, and maps that were frequently inadequate or inaccurate. The return was uneventful with the aviators arriving back in New York on October 20, having logged some 112 flying hours. (7)

Four years later, the Army aviators flew another memorable formation flight that involved Alaska, an around-the-world flight. It began from Seattle on April 6, 1924, and refueled at five Alaskan locations on its westward flight. Certainly this was to showcase the airmen, but also was flown to test an air route to Alaska and obtain information on possible locations of bases. Two of the four original aircraft returned to Seattle on September 28, 1924, to complete the 26,300-mile, 175-day flight. (8) In July 1929, Ross Hoyt flew a Curtiss P-1C pursuit plane solo from New York to Nome and crashed in British Columbia on his return, having flown 6,000 miles of the planned 8,500 mile route. (9) Five years later the Army airmen mounted another expedition to Alaska.

Air Corps Plans

The first six months of 1934 were not good for the Air Corps. A well publicized scandal involving the air mail led President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel the airlines' air mail contracts and order the Air Corps to carry the mail. The resulting operation resulted in over sixty accidents and a dozen deaths. This experience revealed severe Air Corps deficiencies, the poor state of the Army's air arm, and was a major public relations embarrassment. (10)

This failure prompted the Alaskan flight. Although it is unclear--and undocumented--the idea for the flight probably originated in the headquarters of the Air Corps. (11) An expedition to Alaska was intended to capture the public imagination by covering a considerable distance, over wild territory, made even more noteworthy as it would consist of a formation of the most advanced bombers in the world. The Washington Post wrote that "Sympathetic observers believe that the successful completion of this hazardous mission will go a long way to disprove the charges that ... the Air Corps is 'inefficient.'" (12) There can be little doubt that this flight was about image, although the Air Corps stated that the official mission was to 1) test the practicality of sending an air force to Alaska, 2) photograph strategic and landing areas in Alaska, and 3) formulate a plan for the defense of Alaska. (13) The Air Corps designated Washington as the start and finish point, a location that would garner more attention and have greater symbolic meaning than any other. Ten bombers would fly to Fairbanks, conduct photo reconnaissance missions, and then return. (14)


The Martin B-10

The Air Corps' newest bomber, the Martin B-10, would help make this flight notable and newsworthy. It was an aircraft on the cutting edge of aviation technology in sharp contrast to the World War I vintage aircraft near the end of their operational lives aircraft employed in the earlier Army and Navy Alaskan flights. The B-10 evolved from an Army design directive issued in December 1929. When Martin's first attempt to fulfill this requirement proved inadequate, the company reworked the design and incorporated most of the elements that were revolutionizing aviation and added two new features that would become standard on bombers, gun turrets (in this case a forward turret) and an enclosed bomb bay. (15) The bomber made its initial flight in October 1932 and demonstrated superior performance. It was the fastest bomber in the world, able to exceed 200 mph, and almost as fast as the fastest U. S. fighters of the day. (16) The B-10 earned Martin the prestigious Collier Trophy (perhaps the highest aviation award) for the greatest aeronautical achievement of 1932. In January 1933, the Air Corps awarded the company a production contract. Fourteen planes were built as YB-10s for service evaluation and saw well-publicized service in the 1934 Air Mail operations. (17) The Air Corps now had an advanced aircraft, a tool that offered them many opportunities.



The Alaskan flight would be led by Lt. Col. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold. Maj. Gen. Oscar F. Westover, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff and second in command of the Air Corps, had been scheduled to lead the flight, but at the last minute Arnold got the job. (18) No explanation is to be found in the documents for this change. Perhaps Westover's lesser experience in heavier-than-air aircraft compared with Arnold's (he earned his wings a decade after Arnold), was a factor. More likely the situation in Washington where the Air Corps was under a cloud following the Air Mail fiasco and the Air Corps chief was under fire from congress for contracting policies, account for the shift.

Arnold was well qualified to lead the operation. He was a 1907 West Point graduate, one of the early military flyers, who had been taught to fly by the Wrights. He already had achieved considerable distinction as the first recipient of the highly regarded Mackay Trophy in 1912, and had risen to the rank of colonel in World War I, although he did not see overseas service. Arnold was associated with the flamboyant, controversial, and maverick Billy Mitchell, which may have hindered his career. However, he performed well in the 1934 Air Mail episode, where he demonstrated many talents, including a keen appreciation for public relations. (19)

Arnold was to lead an operation that was hastily thrown together. He relates that following the air mail assignment, he and his wife were en route to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a fishing trip when they were intercepted in Salt Lake City by "a barrage of telegrams and telephone calls [that] summoned me back." Arnold later observed that the flight's hurried timetable created "a great deal of unnecessary worry, labor, and money. Months of warning should have been given to responsible authority instead of a few days." (20) This rush could be attributed to a desire to quickly restore the Air Corps' reputation, but certainly was driven by the limited season when flying could best be conducted in Alaska.

Arnold took command of the operation on June 25. He insisted on a number of things, most already decided: handpicked crews, modification of the bombers, and a sound logistics base along the route. (21) After consulting with the Chief of the Air Corps on the 27th, Arnold altered the mix of personnel who would fly the aircraft from twenty officers and ten enlisted men to fourteen and sixteen, respectively, to permit more mechanics to accompany the flight. Another four officers and four enlisted men would support the B-10 fliers, and two other officers would serve as alternates. These officers were clearly exceptional as their later careers make clear. (22) There were a number of would-be participants as newsmen and "a politically potent veterans' organization functionary" attempted to join the expedition. Arnold vetoed these, telling Westover "I prefer mechanics to joy riders." (23) Arnold recognized that the enlisted men were working hard on their tasks and...

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