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Adventurous lives of legendary bush pilots featured in ‘Wrangell Mountain Skyboys’


Merle “Mudhole” Smith in front of his Stearman C2B biplane in McCarthy, Alaska, circa 1937. This airplane is featured in the Anchorage Museum's "Arctic Flight" exhibition.

Cordova Historical Museum

On view May 3 through Aug. 25 at the Anchorage Museum

“Wrangell Mountain Skyboys: Making History Above Alaska’s Copper Belt” focuses on the daring pilots who established aviation in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias mountain region, some of the highest and most rugged terrain in the country.

This exhibition, on view May 3 through Aug. 25 at the Anchorage Museum, is a summer supplement to the exhibition “Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation.”

Through the historical photographs in “Wrangell Mountain Skyboys” visitors will learn about the adventurous lives of legendary pilots including Bob Reeve, “Kirk” Kirkpatrick and Merle “Mudhole” Smith. These resourceful flyers opened Alaska to mineral development and to mountaineers aiming to conquer the continent’s highest peaks. These pilots took exploration and science to new heights, opened new territory to trophy hunters, and became national war heroes.

The determined Harold Gillam probably best represented the Wrangell Mountain Skyboy’s frontier image — a portrait crafted not by the aviators, but journalists and other 1930s-era writers. Gillam pioneered reliable air service in the region but received the most media attention for his pet polar bears and uncanny ability to fly in weather that grounded most pilots.

Gillam was known for using his remarkable flying skills to save people’s lives, including Carl Whitham, owner of the nearly inaccessible Nabesna Mine. In December 1934, Whitham fell down a mineshaft. Gillam attempted a rescue, risking an emergency flight out of the mine in 35 mile-per-hour winds. The Valdez Miner reported that, despite Gillam’s efforts, Whitham died. A week later, however, the paper ran a correction, stating that Gillam indeed had saved Whitham and that the report of his death was “very much exaggerated.”

“No wonder these pilots were considered ‘Angels in Fur,’” said Katie Ringsmuth, exhibition curator. “They could resurrect people from the dead!”

The flyers making history above the Wrangell Mountains developed unique skills and knowledge to establish a vital and visionary profession. This exhibition conveys how bush pilots brought eastern Alaska into the modern age, while simultaneously reinforcing a frontier identity that continues to resonate with residents today.

Exhibition collaborators include the National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and the Wrangell Mountain aviation community.

The Anchorage Museum is the largest museum in Alaska and one of the top 10 most visited attractions in the state. The museum’s mission is to share and connect Alaska with the world through art, history and science. Learn more at www.anchoragemuseum.org.


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