Historic plane to 'fly' again at Fairbanks airport
One of the largest items in the history collections at the University of Alaska Museum of the North will once again soar over travelers walking through the Fairbanks International Airport terminal, thanks to a large-scale community effort to restore the plane.
In 1923, pilot Carl Ben Eielson persuaded a group of Fairbanks businessmen to purchase the Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” Aircraft. The war-surplus airplane cost $2,400. Eielson turned a profit within the week by giving demonstration flights over Fairbanks. Eielson and his backers started the Farthest North Airplane Co., which flew goods, people and, eventually, the first airmail routes to communities around Fairbanks.
The artifact connects people to many portions of Fairbanks’ roots, and the museum has long wanted to display it for the public, said senior ethnology and history collections manager Angela Linn. “With an object of this size, our options have been limited. We’re fortunate that the Department of Transportation and the staff at the Fairbanks International Airport have been so supportive of the project.
“Not just once, but twice, they’ve gone out of their way to accommodate this 1,450 pound plane, suspending it from the ceiling so that it can fly above passengers as they arrive and depart Fairbanks. It’s a reminder of the aviation history of this community.”
When the plane was first installed at the airport in 1981, it was thanks to the efforts of a host of Air Force mechanics who moved the plane to a storage facility at Eielson Air Force Base while a cosmetic overhaul of the plane was completed. They attached wings from another type of biplane known as a “Swallow.” For that and other reasons, local aviation buffs have long dreamed of restoring Eielson’s plane to its original aesthetic.
Pete Haggland, the director of the Pioneer Aviation Museum in Fairbanks, was the president of the local chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association in 2007 when the plane was removed for restoration. He raised $25,000 for the project.
“I raised the money, but I didn’t do the work.” Haggland said.
Roger Weggel, an instructor in UAF’s aviation department, directed the Jenny project for the EAA. He says more than 30 people have had a hand in the restoration, putting in thousands of hours of work.
“We started keeping track,” Weggel said. “I have 100 pages of hours, but we got tired of writing it down. We decided to just keep working instead.”
In return for the work completed by the EAA, the museum agreed to trade the Swallow wings.
“Not only were the wings wrong, the rest of the aircraft needed work to bring it up to its original standards,” Haggland said. “That part of the mission has been fulfilled. Now it’s a matter of putting the plane back up in the terminal.”
Haggland says it’s amazing how many people have asked about the aircraft while it has been away. The Department of Transportation, along with officials from the Fairbanks International Airport, EAA volunteers and Davis Construction, the original contractor for the recent expansion at FIA, will work together to complete the installation on Monday, October 28.