Recently, at UAF, I did some library research, primarily on some flying in the late 1920s. The newspapers were really full of aviation back then; it was rare to find an issue of the Fairbanks paper that did not have an aviation story from somewhere around the world on the front page. What’s interesting is how much aviation is still in the papers though. There was a crash while I was there that killed everyone onboard (flew into the side of a mountain; it will most likely be pilot error for flying into bad weather). It made the front page because of the dead passengers and I asked some family up there what they thought about it. Everyone felt bad for the passengers of course (two couples on an Alaskan cruise), but as for the accident itself or the number of aircraft accidents, well, “there are just so many of them” is what I heard again and again.
There are always pilots crashing and dying in AK – still. It’s almost like a car accident in terms of getting notice. They make conversation for an afternoon maybe and then they are gone. “You can’t keep track of them all”, someone said to me, like it was their fault for doing it so often. How could I expect anyone to notice – or care – when it has always been this way. Pilots die in Alaska; they just keep dying.
There was one guy I interviewed when writing my thesis who had a passenger pull a gun on him inflight and demand to be flown home when the pilot said he had to turn back for weather. (This was in a little single-engine airplane where the passengers are sitting right behind the pilot and can reach out and touch him.) He had a gun pointed at him and tells the guy that if they keep flying they will die or if he shoots they will die. The other passengers told the idiot to lay off and they went back. That’s the kind of crazy we were dealing with so it’s not like the passengers were always a sobering influence.
So many crashes in all of these years though means a lot of dead pilots and thus plenty of ghosts. And I can’t imagine that all of them are resting easy. They died hard, leaving family and friends waiting at home. Russ Merrill had two little boys when he disappeared in 1929; only a small piece of his plane washed up on shore. And Ben Eielson was on his way to building an airline empire when he hit the ground in Siberia.
The guys I knew had kids and wives and plans for one day living the easy life. One had just gotten married, another just came back from a trip to Ireland with his mom. They weren’t thinking about any kind of dying so could they really rest in peace? If someone was going to linger, wouldn’t it be them?
Ghost stories make for great fiction and we all pretty much love them. What I wrote about today though was seeing all those ghosts; reading about them, writing about them, and knowing them personally. There are days when I think about those pilots and I am sad at how many dead faces and names I can recall. Eielson and Merrill were gone in 1929; there’s a lot of dying between now and then and a lot of men whose names no one else seems to miss knowing at all.