History of Russell Merrill

Merrill Field, known as the "Aviation Field" until 1930, was Anchorage's first true airport. On Sunday, September 25, 1932, the field was dedicated in memory of Russell Hyde Merrill.

Although Russ Merrill was the second pilot to fly from the "Lower 48" to Alaska, he nevertheless is credited with many firsts. His initial flight was made in a Curtiss F Flying Boat. 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 schoolteacher, near death from a gunshot wound, to Anchorage.  Merrill, with his critically wounded passenger, circled and recircled 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.

By 1929, commercial aviation increased rapidly and Merrill flew 10-to-12 hours daily. For his third  flight of September 16, 1929, he loaded his plane with heavy machinery destined for Sleetmute and Bethel. That was the last time "Russ" Merrill was ever seen. On October 20, fabric identified as that from the tail section of his plane, was found on a Cook Inlet beach. Some believe he fell asleep and flew into the inlet while others guess he had been forced down on the inlet and cut the fabric to use as a sail before the plane was swamped and sunk in a gale the next night.