Hidden History

The Missing Pilot and the Crash That Rocked Alaska’s Golden Age of Aviation

A love for flying lured daredevils to the icy Last Frontier. But when Russ Merrill’s plane went down, it ignited a 10,000-mile search and changed the world of aviation forever.

The Missing Pilot and the Crash That Rocked Alaska’s Golden Age of Aviation

Ben Eielson departed Anchorage on September 20, 1929, expecting to find his friend Russ Merrill in a matter of hours. Along with an observer, he flew the 225 miles to Sleetmute believing he would soon find Merrill, or hear word of his location. Eielson did not plan to initiate a massive search of the region or call in other pilots to help, or put his own life on hold for weeks in a vain attempt to find his fellow pilot.

In his Travel Air floatplane, Merrill’s September 16 flight from Anchorage to the western village of Sleetmute should have taken three hours. He also had planned a viable alternate destination at a hunting camp at Chakachamna Lake in case he had trouble along the way. After flying out of Anchorage for the past four years, Merrill knew the region well; in fact there was no one in Alaska who knew it better. But he did not arrive in Sleetmute that night, and was never seen again.

Russ Merrill in his Travel Air floatplane. (Courtesy Alaska Aviation Museum)
Russ Merrill in his Travel Air floatplane. (Courtesy Alaska Aviation Museum)

The last picture of Merrill was snapped as he took off from Spenard Lake in Anchorage at 4:10 p.m. What became of him in the hours that followed is one of Alaska aviation’s most enduring mysteries, and a turning point in the perception of the job of a pilot.

Merrill was thirty-five years old when he disappeared; tall and thin with a prematurely receding hairline. Often described by those who knew him as clear-eyed and careful, he was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and learned to fly in the United States Navy during World War I. Although he never saw combat, he had 376 flight hours when the war ended, all of it on floats. In the next few years he finished college, went to work as an engineer and business manager, got married and started a family. He also did everything he could to get back into the air.

Along with fellow pilot Roy Davis and mechanic Cyril Krugner, Merrill arrived in Alaska in 1925, flying into Ketchikan with big plans to establish a flying business. He loved the area so much that he sent for his wife and children only a week later. On August 1 of that year, Merrill and Davis became the first to cross the Gulf of Alaska, flying 750 miles from Juneau to Seward. Almost three weeks later, they were the first to fly into Anchorage. (Other pilots had arrived there by ship with their aircraft in crates.) Everywhere they went, crowds formed and business quickly followed.

There were not many pilots in Alaska in the 1920s and ’30s, so with Merrill, Davis and those that followed came a litany of firsts: first to fly across the Arctic Circle, first to fly across the Bering Sea, first to land on a glacier and first to land within an active volcano. The maps told these men, (and they were very nearly all men), practically nothing. Surveys could only give them vague guidelines for distance and altitude and there was little about what really mattered: places to land. Merrill was one of the very small cadre of pilots who filled in the map of Alaska. Along the way this group of aviators created a legend, and the bush pilot myth built from their exploits has remained a critical and problematic component of the Last Frontier story to this very day.

Like his friends and competitors, Merrill flew everything. He carried freight and mail and passengers; he made the first night landing in Anchorage in 1927 to deliver a gunshot victim to the hospital there. Hunters and fishermen found their way to remote camps with Merrill, establishing a burgeoning tourism economy for the region where one had been largely impossible before the airplane.

Merrill was also late, lost or long overdue more than once. News articles announcing pilot departures and arrivals made the front page back then, as did those reporting pilots were okay: “There is no truth to the report that Pilot Young is missing,” reads a headline from The Anchorage Daily Times. Overdue aircraft were common, as were the stories of pilots emerging unscathed after all manner of delays, breakdowns and mishaps.

In 1927, Eielson and George Wilkins crash-landed on the ice about 65 miles northwest of Barrow while trying to be the first to navigate across the Arctic. It was eighteen days before they hiked into the fur station at Beechey Point; the little finger on Eielson’s right hand had to be amputated due to frostbite.

In 1925 Noel Wien was blown off course and ran out of gas on the way back to Fairbanks from Wiseman. It took him three days of wading through slush and swamp before he stumbled into civilization. His logbook read “Forced down, gas and oil out, walked 40 miles back.”

And Merrill himself was famously missing for three weeks with members of a Fox Film crew while en route to Barrow in 1928. In a final message he left in his aircraft before hiking out, Merrill wrote, “Hope to make Barrow or a Native home but rather doubt whether I can. Dearest love to my wife, boys and two fine brothers.” Everyone from the aircraft was found alive, although it would be months before the pilot physically recovered.

With so much distance between settlements and communication slow (locals often wrote messages on the aircraft themselves to pass news from village to village), overdue simply meant that word of an arrival had not yet come through. Based on history, Merrill’s last flight should have been no different than all the others before; he should have been down on a lake along his planned route waiting out the weather or tinkering with his engine. He should have been making his way to a cabin or camp, looking for assistance. He should have made it out alive because they always had before; part of why there were legends surrounding these early pilots is because even in one of the world’s most dangerous flying environments, these were men who always made it out alive.

Merrill was pushing limits before his departure for Sleetmute. He awakened at three that morning, had breakfast with his wife Thyra and made his first departure at 5:30. He flew passengers to Tutstumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, returned, loaded supplies and more passengers and departed again, arriving back in Anchorage at 2:30 in the afternoon. He then loaded up fifty pounds of mail and a 235-pound compressor for a mining operation on Bear Creek at Nyac. His plan when he departed was to stay overnight at Sleetmute and continue on to the mine the next day.

By the time he left Anchorage, Merrill had been awake for thirteen hours and flown for about six. His schedule called for working more than sixteen hours that day, with about nine of them in the air. It was a plan that would not be legal under modern regulations, which permit only eight hours of flight in a twenty-four-hour period and fourteen total hours on duty for single-pilot operators. His situation was complicated even further as his Travel Air was an open-cockpit aircraft that required more concentration to operate than modern planes. Fatigue makes everything more difficult and many pilots have fallen asleep in the air only to wake up too late, after something has gone terribly wrong.

Eielson, who’d gone missing and made his way back two years before, led the search for Merrill with another pilot, Joe Crosson. They flew along every conceivable route between Anchorage and Sleetmute, and spoke to villagers and hunters, miners and homesteaders, in a fruitless search for clues. In a map kept by the Merrill family and included in his biography “Flying Cold,” there are handwritten notations from the searchers: “We completely covered south of Augustine I[sland] around Chugach…all potential [unintelligible] have been covered! Have covered over 12,000 miles in zigzag course of all.”

Finally, five weeks after Merrill took off, the only answer the searchers would ever receive about his fate arrived in Anchorage. Fred Smith from the Cook Inlet village of Tyonek arrived in town with a piece of fabric that had become caught in his fish trap on October 3. Smith had then gone hunting in the bush, unaware of the search, so the news of his discovery did not arrive until late October. Based on the stitching and color, mechanic Alonzo Cope, who had recently overhauled Merrill’s aircraft, positively identified the twelve-inch by forty-inch piece of green fabric as part of the horizontal stabilizer. It was surmised that Merrill was forced down in the inlet by mechanical problems and tried to fashion a sail using the fabric. Bad weather the night of the 16th had taken him and his aircraft out to sea; nothing more was found.

In the years after Merrill was lost, an overdue aircraft, once part of the routine lead-up to a safe homecoming, became the first part of a story that led all too often to “missing” and then, “dead.” It could be that before Merrill’s death the flights were not as hazardous, that even though the bush pilots were filling in the map and testing the cold weather capability of their aircraft and themselves, they were still cautious; they were patient. As novelties to a population largely dependent upon dogsleds and boats, it was not expected in the early days that the pilots should consider daily risk-taking a necessary part of the job, but soon enough that changed.

Two months after Merrill went missing, Eielson departed on a charter flight with his mechanic Earl Borland to transport furs from an icebound ship off Siberia. They never arrived. After three months of extensive searching, their aircraft was found smashed on the tundra; both men had died on impact.

In 1923 Eielson could be reticent about flying at night and no one faulted him; in 1929 he departed for Siberia in some of the worst weather recorded in Nome’s history. In a pattern that would become common in Alaska aviation, economics trumped everything and safety was seen just as a costly delay. The contract to transport the furs from the icebound ship Nanuk was $50,000; Eielson had to fly because his company couldn’t afford to lose that contract.

Ironically, a large part of why it took the searchers so long to find Eielson and Borland’s wreckage was because on many days they could not even get off the ground to go look.

Merrill’s disappearance and death were not a catalyst for change in Alaska, but rather the first proof that change had already come. His fellow pilots covered thousands of miles and put their own lives and business on hold to search for him, but in the years that followed, searches, with rare exception, were dramatically downsized.

After Merrill and Eielson many other names familiar to Alaska aviation would die in crashes: Ralph Wien, Ed Young, Fred Moller, Hans Mirow Merritt Kirkpatrick and on and on and on. Harold Gillam, known as “he thrill ’em, he spill ’em, he no kill ’em Gillam,” was missing with his passengers for four weeks in 1943 near Ketchikan. Rescuers looked for two weeks; the survivors were found only after two of them made their way to a beach and built a signal fire. No one thought they were alive because by then it was so common for a missing flight to mean a crash with no survivors. Gilliam and passenger Susan Baxter did not survive that accident, which was blamed on continued flight into bad weather.

The tipping point of Alaska aviation’s “can do” spirit came quickly, and by the time Merrill was being commemorated as a hero the job was widely acknowledged as dangerous — not only due to Alaska’s weather and geography but also because of the inherent demands of trying to serve a population that relied so much on aircraft. As Jean Potter wrote in“The Flying North,” published in 1945, “In the decade preceding World War II more than a third of the planes in the Territory were demolished in major wrecks.” While safety measures were expanding in the Lower 48, they were largely dismissed by pilots and passengers in Alaska. That notion that things are different in the Last Frontier has not changed, regardless of modern technology and regulations.

By the mid-1950s passengers were so dependent upon air travel that it had become a critical way of life. For some pilots, however, the constant and often unreasonable demands were just too much. As he later wrote in his autobiography, “The Last Bush Pilot,” after one too many harrowing late-night flights, Wien Airways pilot Andy Anderson, “….finally announced to everyone in the region that I would no longer consider a woman in labor a medical emergency. This resulted in my flying expectant mothers to the hospital in advance of expected birth dates, and those flights were made in decent weather and during daylight.”

Pilots still go missing in Alaska, most recently in September 2013 when Alan Foster vanished while flying home to Anchorage from Yakutat.

In 1930 Anchorage Municipal Airport was renamed Merrill Field and it remains in use today as a very busy general aviation airport. A bronze plaque at the field reads “To that dauntless pioneer of the air Russel Hyde Merrill whose life’s aim was the development of aviation in Alaska.”