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Merrill Field

Anchorage Aviation History & Development

An examination of aviation development in Anchorage reveals a remarkable growth steeped in history and tradition. In 75 years Anchorage has grown from a meager railroad construction site with no aviation facilities, to a major player in today's air commerce system with five controlled airports and over twenty uncontrolled airports within the municipality. Anchorage's five controlled airports are all located within a seven mile radius of downtown. These airports recorded over 707,000 takeoffs and landings in 1990. This activity rivals that of the nation's major cities such as Chicago, whose O'Hare Airport (the world's busiest) recorded 790,000 operations. To understand the dynamics and importance of aviation to the growth of Anchorage, we need to explore the past, the present, and the future.

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson appointed the Alaskan Engineering Commission to construct a railroad from the Ship Creek landing to the coal fields in the Matanuska Valley. This construction brought an influx of labors which promoted the planning and construction of the present town site.

Although Alaskan aviation originated in Fairbanks in 1913, Anchorage quickly became the "Air Crossroads." Anchorage's illustrious aviation history began disastrously with the crash of its first airplane. C.O. Hammertree, an Anchorage World War I aviator and machine shop operator, shipped a Boeing seaplane to Anchorage.

The Boeing arrived April 24, 1922 aboard the Alaska Steamship Company's freighter "Juneau". After the plane was reassembled and Cook lnlet was clear of ice, Roy Troxell flew the Boeing Seaplane a few hundred feet into the air, circled the inlet, and crashed on the mud flats. Roy Troxell was not killed but Anchorage's first plane was demolished.

By 1923 Anchorage had grown to Ninth Avenue. Thwarted in their efforts to develop Anchorage as a marine shipping outlet, businessmen turned their attention to aviation. With only his imagination, and the United States Army's aerial pathfinding expedition from New York to Nome, Arthur A. Shonbeck led the crusade. With only wilderness beyond Ninth Avenue, Shonbeck organized and lead the entire town to clear a field of trees, stumps, and moss. This strip of land became the nine-hole golf course and an airstrip for bush pilots. Today this strip of land is the Delaney Park Strip. On July 4, 1924 to commemorate the golf course/airstrip, Noel Wein performed as a stunt flier. He named his airplane the "Anchorage" in honor of the occasion.

Wein and mechanic Bill Yunkers arrived in Anchorage the spring of 1924 and were hired by Alaska Railroad conductor, James Rodebaugh, who visualized the potentials of commercial aviation. Rodebaugh also purchased two Hisso Standard J1 biplanes.

The planes were shipped to Anchorage where Wein and Yunkers assembled one of the planes. Wein made several trial flights from the golf course and installed an extra gas tank. In July of 1924, Wein and Yunkers departed the golf course following the Alaska Railroad made the first nonstop flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks.  Meanwhile, Shonbeck was determined to make aviation a serious Anchorage business, and organized the city's first airline. In 1926 he founded Anchorage Air Transport Inc. The new airline flew freight and passengers to the various bush villages. Shonbeck hired an adventuresome young pilot named Russel Hyde Merrill as the company's first pilot.

Russ Merrill was the second pilot to fly from the "Lower 48" to Alaska; however, he was credited with many firsts. His initial flight was made in a Curtiss F Flying Boat (pictured below). This was the first flight across the Gulf of Alaska. This was also the first commercial flight westward from Juneau. In November 1927 Merrill became the first pilot to cross the Alaska Range and fly over the remote Kuskokwim River. In an unsuccessful attempt to fly through Rainy Pass, he probed farther south and discovered a second pass. This pass, now known as Merrill Pass, opened a shorter, quicker air route to the lower Kuskokwim area.

Later that same year Merrill received a Signal Corps radio message to fly to Ninilchik and airlift a school teacher, near death from a gunshot wound, to Anchorage. Merrill, with his critically wounded passenger, circled and re-circled Anchorage at night trying to distinguish the landing field on the park strip. When the citizens realized his plight, they set bonfires around the field and used automobile lights to help indicate the direction. Merrill executed a smooth landing, thus making the first night landing ever in Anchorage.

On September 16, 1929, Russ Merrill lifted his heavily loaded, float-equipped, Travelair into the air on what was to be his last flight. He was flying heavy machinery to the Nyac Mine near Bethel. Merrill never made it. Later that fall some fishermen found a piece of the airplane fabric on the beach of Cook Inlet. Where, why, when and how the popular Russel Hyde Merrill crashed remains a mystery.

By 1929 both Anchorage and its aviation demands were growing so rapidly that the golf course/park strip could no longer safely accommodate the aviation needs of the city. The park strip was being surrounded by residential development. This created numerous conflicts with the surface traffic, power poles and the activities of the local population. This also created the demand to relocate the landing facilities. A petition was circulated requesting the acquisition of land and matching city funds to construct a suitable new landing strip for Anchorage. As a result of this petition, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution stating that air transportation was an asset to Anchorage; that Anchorage would logically become the center for commercial aviation in Alaska and would make a "wonderful base for the US. Army and Navy aircraft;" therefore, air routes and an airfield in Anchorage was a necessity. The Chamber requested and the City appropriated $2,000 to help fund the construction costs.

Mayor J.J. Delaney wrote a letter to the Commissioner of General Land Office in Washington D.C. requesting full title to the property which is now Merrill Field. In this letter he requested the federal government's immediate and active attention towards an aviation field. Extended mail service within Alaska and between Alaska and the states, as well as the possibilities of aviation services between the United States and Asia, Alaska, particularly Anchorage, would become the way point or hub for such international commerce.

As the results of Delaney and the Chamber's efforts, Aviation Field was cleared, plowed and available for use by August of 1929. From this point on, Anchorage became the leader in air traffic operations and passengers carried within Alaska.

An active Anchorage Woman's Club pushed a resolution to name "Aviation Field" in honor of the late Russel Hyde Merrill. This resolution passed and on April 2, 1930 Merrill Field received its current name. The Women's Club continued to be active and by the following year the city council erected a steel tower with a rotating beacon. This allowed for the utilization of Merrill Field during adverse meteorological conditions and night operations.

Merrill Field became extremely prominent within the aviation community. It became the busiest facility within Alaska and one of the busiest aviation facilities in the world. By the summer of 1931, all aircraft operators were advised to discontinue their use of the Park Strip. Merrill Field was the aviation facility for Anchorage.

Merrill was a first-rate aviation field; the best in Alaska. It consisted of two runways, a north/south and an east/west. Adjoining the south end of the north/south runway was an additional strip to accommodate the ski equipped aircraft during the winter season. Boundary lights were installed to facilitate the night and unfavorable meteorological landings.

Aviation continued to grow, and by 1935 six airlines were operating off Merrill Field. Merrill was now handling over 25 percent of Alaska's air traffic. Aviation became more sophisticated, and by 1939 the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) installed and commissioned a Low Frequency Range Station at Merrill Field. Jack Jefford was the first pilot to fly the Low Frequency Range Approach to Merrill. The increased aviation activity influenced the 1940 city ordinance restricting the use of Merrill Field to only those aircraft and pilots certified by the CAA. By the end of the summer 1939, Merrill's north/south runway was increased to 3,260 feet and the east/west runway to 3,940 feet.

During the 1930's rumors ran rampant concerning the establishment of military air bases in central Alaska. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and City Council organized a campaign to convince the officials in Washington that Anchorage would be the ideal selection. They formed an aviation commission which prepared a report listing 22 reasons why Anchorage would make an excellent military headquarters and defense site.

In July 1934 Lieutenant Colnel Henry H. Arnold arrived at Merrill Field with ten Martin B-10 twin-engine bombers (pictured). It was a spectacular sight as many Anchorage citizens had never seen a military airplane, let alone ten. They circumnavigated Anchorage in formation and then, one by one, landed at Merrill Field. While in Alaska, Colonel Arnold was to photograph and survey various proposed military sites. Colonel Arnold and his executive officer, Major Hugh Knerr conducted interviews with the local pilots to accumulate information on air routes, weather, equipment, instruments, charts and navigation aids. The Anchorage pilots provided Colonel Arnold valuable information for winterizing the aircraft and power plants.

During the three days the bombers were in Anchorage, they were involved with the daily photography, instrumentation and survey flights. One such routine flight left an indelible impression on the Anchorage residents. After the plane had lifted off the west runway, retracted its gear and gained about 200 feet in altitude, both of its engines quit. The pilot nosed the bomber down and turned towards Cook Inlet. He landed the plane in the unusually calm water and the crew was rescued by a gas boat from the City Dock. After the tide had receded, the bomber was dragged through the mud and hoisted to a dock to dry.

Colonel Arnold's report to his superiors strongly emphasized the strategic value of Alaska. However, at times the wheels of government can grind extremely slow, especially when the President and Congress were dealing with the depression. They had little time to worry about the military or strategic value of Alaska.

Three major factors lead to the change in the military's attitude toward Alaska. The first being the easy, rapid and successful crushing of Poland and Spain by Hitler's Luftwaffe. Secondly, Japan refusing to renew the 1922 armament limitations treaty and their invasion of China. And thirdly, the sudden realization that Russia was only 40 miles from Alaska. These factors forced the military leaders to re-evaluate Billy Mitchell's Air Superiority Theory. As part of his theory, Billy Mitchell stated, "Alaska is the most central place in the world of aircraft, and that is true either of Europe, Asia or North America, for whoever holds Alaska will hold the world and I think it is the most important place in the world."

In the spring of 1939 President Roosevelt withdrew 50,000 acres between Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains from civilian settlement. This land was allocated for military bases. The War Department then appropriated $12.8 million to begin work on an air base four miles from Anchorage. This became Elmendorf/Richardson Base, the Air Corps at Elmendorf and the infantry and support at Richardson. The base separated in 1950 and became what we know today as Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Base.

In April of 1940 the 4th lnfantry arrived at Merrill Field with 774 enlisted men and 30 officers. Their function was to establish a tent city and construction site for what is now Fort Richardson. At about the same time, Major Everett Stanford Davis arrived at Merrill Field with the Eleventh Air Force in obsolete Martin B-10 bombers. He established his headquarters in a wanigan. Shortly thereafter, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. of the Alaska Defense Command arrived. He established his headquarters in a tent at the Elmendorf construction site, while basing his aircraft at Merrill Field.

Together Davis and Buckner proceeded to conquer the problems involved in establishing air operations. They had to build the defense force from scratch, creating garrisons, airfields, communications and supply lines. This was a difficult task, since all supplies, including food, had to be transported from Seattle via ship.

Davis worked closely with veteran bush pilots who were training his men in cold weather flight and aircraft maintenance. Buckner hired Bob Reeve and other bush pilots to fly supplies and materials to the various military outposts. In 1941 Bob Reeve alone flew over 1,100 tons of equipment and 300 men from Anchorage to various outposts.

Buckner was constantly pressuring Washington and the Army for newer, faster, larger bombers and fighters. This fell mostly upon deaf ears, since the demand was in Europe. However, in February 1941, Buckner did receive twenty P-36s. By August, only nine were operational. This was the result of aircraft accidents, aircraft fatigue and the lack of aircraft replacement parts.

The Elmendorf north/south runway construction was completed on June, 1941 and the runway became operational on June 27. At this time the military air activity was transferred from Merrill Field to Elmendorf. The lost of military traffic didn't impact Merrill Field. In 1942 it recorded more traffic than La Guardia Field in New York.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor startled the world, and electrified Alaska. Within hours tight security, blackouts, and mass military control was instituted. Rumors in the "Lower 48" already had Alaska as a Japanese conquest. Buckner's defenses flew into action. With Elmendorf as the center of operations, the Eleventh Air Force was alerted and moved out towards the Aleutian chain.

Six months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese attacked the American bases on the Aleutian Islands. They were bombing Dutch Harbor, and occupying Attu and Kiska Islands. This action forced the U. S. Government to recognize the threat upon Alaska and its importance to the United States. Therefore, it began sending aircraft and supplies to Alaska. The route taken was from Great Falls, Montana to Edmonton, Whitehorse and on to Fairbanks. At Fairbanks some aircraft continued on to the northern theater for the Russians, while the rest flew on to Elmendorf. Throughout the war, Elmendorf was the nerve, troop, and supply center for the Aleutian Theater.

With the threat of war and the rapid military growth, Anchorage became more concerned about its vulnerability to any Japanese attack or sabotage. In February of 1942, the city passed a resolution to assume control of Merrill Field's management and security. An aviation committee was established. They hired an airport manager and required the police department to provide security guards. Some of this cost was levied upon the local operators.

Throughout the war years Merrill Field operations continued to increase. This increase in traffic saw the removal of the old beacon tower and a new wooden tower (pictured) was commissioned.

At war's end many military personnel remained in Anchorage and Alaska, while others left only to return with their families. This provided considerable growth to both the city and the aviation industry. Prior to and during the war, aviation proved to be a vital and popular mode of transportation. After five years of war the military produced many residuals for the civilian aviation industry. The military left pilots, airports, navigational aids, radio communications and updated charts. Almost over night new modern light weight aircraft made their appearance on the Anchorage scene. Soon sportsmen, mountaineers, explorers, naturalists and photographers left their humdrum life to explore Alaska. This opened a whole new avenue for aviation and Anchorage wanted to become the hub.

In 1946 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) announced its study for future Alaskan aviation patterns and the feasibility of a North Pacific air route. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce started a campaign to sell Anchorage as part of this proposed North Pacific route. The shortcut between Europe and the Orient via the Arctic route made the journey from New York to Tokyo two thousand miles shorter than the Central Pacific route through San Francisco. Twenty Anchorage businessmen chartered an Alaska Airlines DC-3 and flew the proposed route to Chicago. They were so well received they continued onto Washington and told their story to President Truman.

On August 1, 1946, the CAB announced that three new air routes would converge in Anchorage. President Truman had signed the order in June when the Anchorage delegation was still in Washington. Now that Anchorage was designated the junction point for international air routes, airlines were requesting routes through Anchorage. Northwest Airlines received the direct flights between Seattle and Anchorage, Anchorage and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago and New York via Canada. Anchorage also became the North American terminal for the Great Circle Route to the Orient. CAB Chairman, James M. Landis, estimated that 75 percent of the Orient travel would pass through Anchorage.

With all of this activity, Merrill Field was rapidly growing and needed help from the CAA. In 1947 the city council requested, and the CAA built and manned, a control tower. By midsummer Merrill Field had a paved 3,960-foot east/west runway and a 3,260-foot gravel north/south runway, 125 based aircraft, and approach lighting. The East/West runway was lighted, a localizer was installed and used by both Elmendorf and Merrill Field.

Even with these improvements expansion of Merrill Field was limited. The City of Anchorage had reached Merrill's boundary and began to surround it. Merrill Field was unable to increase its facilities to accommodate the large transport planes. The safety concern of having the larger transport planes flying over the city making an approach into Merrill Field became another issue. Consequently, another delegation of Anchorage residents traveled to Washington and convinced the federal government to construct an international airport in Anchorage.

In May 1948 congress authorized the Administrator of the CAA to procure lands, let contracts for design, construction, improvement, maintenance, protection, and the operation of an international airport in the vicinity of Anchorage. The CAA was also authorized to construct a suitable highway between the population center and the airport.

A site was selected well from the population center, yet adjacent to the Lake Hood float plane area. An existing road lead from Anchorage to Lake Hood, thereby only requiring improvements. The money was appropriated in 1948 and in the spring of 1949 construction on the $12 million project began. The airport was completed and opened for business in January 1952. The original construction included an 8,400-foot east/west runway, 5,000-foot cross-wind runway, parallel taxiways and terminal parking aprons. A wooden frame control tower from Yakutat was used until the terminal building was completed. The terminal building with the control tower was dedicated and commissioned in October, 1953. The old wooden tower was moved to, and commissioned as, the Lake Hood Control Tower.

Shortly after the completion and commission of Anchorage lnternational Airport, the international air carriers began filing applications for landing rights. Anchorage became the first American city with non-stop airline passenger service to both Europe and Asia.

The post war military continued to recognize Alaska's value and continued to strengthen its presence in Anchorage. Congress created a separate United States Air Force in September 1947. This Air Force was an equal partner to the Navy and Army. This began the separation of the air and ground corps at Elmendorf. In 1950, when the headquarters and support facilities were completed for the Army, Fort Richardson was commissioned. The Air Force Base was Elmendorf.

The continuing threat of communism and the deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union spurred the importance and growth of the military in Alaska. The Alaskan Air Defense Command, with its headquarters at Elmendorf, became known as the "Top Cover For America." It is the first line of defense from invasion or aggressive acts from the Soviet Union. Throughout the years they have spotted and intercepted numerous Soviet Union Bears and Migs. This threat with the Soviet Union also encouraged the growth of Fort Richardson's support and ground forces.

The CAA expected the opening of Anchorage lnternational Airport to greatly reduce the operations at Merrill Field. They even predicted the closure of Merrill Field. This prediction proved to be in error as Merrill Field continued to flourish. It became a major general aviation facility. It was described as being one of the largest flying schools under the American flag. Merrill's activity in the early 50s exceeded Los Angeles and San Francisco to be ranked number one on the West Coast. As the result of this continued growth, by 1953 the east/west runway had been increased to 4,000 feet and the north/south to 2,460 feet.

Anchorage lnternational Airport also continued its rapid growth to become one of the busiest airports. By 1954 the CAA had ranked Anchorage as the nation's fourth busiest aviation center. Part of this growth was the addition of the Alaska Air Guard Facility.

In 1959, as part of the Statehood agreement, Anchorage lnternational Airport was transferred to the State of Alaska. The approximate value was $11,650,000. By 1961 the East/West runway was extended 2,200 feet and the parking aprons were also extended to accommodate the jet aircraft. Growth was continuous throughout Anchorage's aviation community.

Then, on March 27, 1964, a devastating earthquake measuring 9.2 Mw shook Anchorage for five minutes. Parts of downtown were in shambles and several blocks along Fourth Avenue dropped as much as 10 feet. Of the airports, Anchorage lnternational received the greatest amount of damage.

Air traffic controllers Bob Daymude and Bill Taylor were on shift at Anchorage lnternational Tower when the earthquake occurred. Bill was in the tower cab, while Bob was in the office area. When the earthquake began, Bob left the office and was ascending the stairs to help Bill. Taylor was descending the stairs. Debris began falling; Bob stood under an inner wall doorway type of brace. Bill was struck and buried in the debris. Bill Taylor's injuries proved fatal. Bob Daymude was pulled from the debris and was rushed to a hospital in a station wagon. Bob received minor injuries and later returned to his controller duties. In 1975 he transferred to Merrill Field where he continued as an air traffic controller until his retirement in 1985.

Russ Stallcup had just arrived at the control tower for his shift when the earthquake hit. He ran to a nearby parked FAA DC-3. From there he communicated to all aircraft that Anchorage had experienced a major earthquake, to divert, as Anchorage was unsafe and do not land. He stayed in the DC-3 all night controlling the air traffic.

Frank Austin was controlling the air traffic at the Lake Hood Tower. There was no structural damage to the tower; however, communications were lost due to the electrical failure. Frank Austin left the Lake Hood Tower and helped rescue Bob Daymude and Bill Taylor.

Upon surveying the damage, Anchorage lnternational Airport received some runway and taxiway cracking. The approach end to Runway 6 sunk two feet and the lighting system was damaged. However, the very next day the airport was back in operation during daylight hours only. Portable radios were positioned in the Lake Hood Tower, which controlled the traffic to both Anchorage and Lake Hood for a year until the replacement tower arrived. The South end of the terminal building was destroyed. When the control tower collapsed, it destroyed the lounge, kitchen and the restaurant.

Elmendorf also received damage. The tower was abandoned and a portable tower used until another tower was constructed. There was minimal runway and taxiway damage. Elmendorf continued its operations.Merrill Field didn't receive any damage to either the ground surfaces or its structures. It was business as usual.

The recovery from the earthquake was phenomenal as different government agencies immediately responded. President Johnson created the Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska. The Small Business Administration loaned millions to rebuild homes and businesses. The Alaska District Corps took charge of the rehabilitation projects. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) diverted a prefabricated control tower destined for Enid, Oklahoma, to Anchorage International. It was located east of the terminal and was operational until 1976, when the current tower/radar facility was constructed.

As the reconstruction, repair, and restoration took place, Anchorage lnternational took on a new appearance. The main portion of the terminal was redesigned and constructed while the C Concourse received repairs. Ten feet had to be added onto the new prefab control tower to provide controller visibility over the new terminal building. This improved the visibility to the north/south runway, however, a camera had to be mounted on top of the terminal to improve this area of visibility.

Anchorage lnternational Airport didn't let the earthquake stop its growth. After restoration growth was rapid throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1970 it handled over 2,387,600 passengers and 69,000 tons of cargo. That same year it opened a new, larger modern terminal. It was also preparing itself for the Supersonic Transport (SST) by constructing another East/West runway parallel to the existing runway.

The original plan for the SST was to become the ultimate in air transportation, to carry passengers beyond the speed of sound, and to fly between Europe and the United States in less than four hours. Boeing (United States), BAC Aerospatiale (British/French) Concorde, and Tupolev TU-144 (Soviet Union) SST prototypes were being constructed and tested. Costs and environmental questions slowed and eventually halted Boeing's attempt. The second production of the TU-144 was lost while participating in the 1973 Paris Air Show. The Soviet Union production attempt never really recovered from this accident and slowly died. The British/French Concorde survived. The Concorde 02, which was an improvement and modification of the 01, made its maiden flight January 10, 1973.

In January and February of 1974, what is now known as the Concorde 201, arrived in Alaska for cold weather testing. Most of its time was spent in Fairbanks, however it made a flight to Anchorage, stayed several days and then returned to Fairbanks. The Concorde arrived in Anchorage on a cold, foggy, snowy day. The visibility was such one could hardly see the runway from the terminal's observation deck. Anchorage gave the plane a good test and it also proved Anchorage could accommodate the highly sophisticated aircraft. However, due to the air and noise pollution associated with the SST, restrictions were placed into effect. They could fly only over the oceans and sparsely populated areas, and therefore the only economical route was between Europe and New York. Anchorage lost the Concorde trade.

This minor set-back didn't deter Anchorage's Aviation Industry. It continued its rapid growth with the aid of the oil industry. The discovery of North Slope oil had the oil companies flocking to Alaska. Anchorage became their Alaskan headquarters by hosting 33 companies. This was most evident during the North Slope lease sales, when Anchorage lnternational Airport ramps and parking areas were full of corporate jets, and due to the lack of accommodations, the executives were forced to stay in their aircraft.

Once the lease sale was completed, the next project was getting the oil to market. In 1974 Congress approved the construction of the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a cooperative venture of several oil corporations, completed the construction and the oil began flowing June 1977. Again Anchorage was the headquarters and all traffic and supplies came through Anchorage via aircraft or ship.

During this time construction of the new Anchorage lnternational Control Tower/Radar facility began and was commissioned in 1976. The Lake Hood Tower was decommissioned and its traffic controlled from the new tower. The new Anchorage Tower stands 165 feet tall and is engineered to withstand an 8.5 earthquake. The old Lake Hood Tower was dismantled, and the tower cab is on display at the Alaska Transportation Museum in Wasilla.

(Additional copies of this article are available from the Airport Manager's Office, Merrill Field Airport, 800 Merrill Field Drive, Anchorage, AK 99501-4129. Telephone 907-343-6303 or fax 907-276-8421.)

    • Merrill Field
    • Airport Manager: Paul Bowers
    • 800 Merrill Field Drive, Anchorage, AK 99501
    • 907 343-6303