Taking Flight: Ketchikan's Commercial Aviation History : A collaboration with Don 'Bucky' Dawson with support from Chuck and A.J. Slagle to celebrate a century of commercial aviation in Ketchikan
Northbird Aviation Company, 1922-1923

Commercial aviation in Alaska began July 17, 1922, in the Gateway City of Ketchikan, with the arrival of former U.S. Army aviator Roy Franklin Jones from Seattle, in his modified WWI Navy surplus Curtiss MF Seagull biplane flying boat dubbed the "Northbird". Accompanied by mechanic Gerry Smith, Jones completed the first airplane flight to the Territory via the Pacific Coastal route, establishing Alaska's inaugural charter flying business based in Ketchikan. Northbird Aviation Company's ticket agency was located at the Talbot and Spaulding building, with a second Juneau office at the Gastineau Hotel added later for 1923 regional operations. The plucky flyer had local family ties and many friends. A heroic welcoming reception came from a huge crowd gathered to meet the plane at the city waterfront dock.

Jones' aerial path to success was chock-full of major obstacles: His fledgling business was run mostly out of pocket from the start, without the benefit of any real backing or subsidy support as enjoyed by his successors, while operating an underpowered aircraft equipped using the era's typically unreliable liquid-cooled cast-block aluminum engines that handicapped all flying machines of the day. He faced the hard realities of dealing with a total lack of existing aviation support facilities, seaplane docks or radio communication, as he navigated the challenging environment of Southeast's rugged formidable terrain and unpredictable often-foul climate. Jones already knew from his earlier days working for Standard Oil, that aviation fuel existed in local supply for use on local cannery labeling machines.

In retrospect, it's truly amazing to note that despite it all, the ever dauntless Roy Jones still managed to log over 400 flight hours during his sole year in Southeast with the Northbird, while setting numerous Alaskan aviation 'firsts' in the process of introducing The Airplane's great potential for development in The Last Frontier. There were many more hours of down time spent maintaining and repairing damages on his hardy ole' bird, which were facilitated with construction of a floating hangar at Thomas Basin in 1923.

Besides historic advent, Alaska's first pioneer bush pilot, Roy Jones' list of territorial flying precedents is significant. These include: First commercial air charter business complete with ticket offices and booking agents; first regional/international flights connecting Ketchikan with Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, and Prince Rupert; first international/intra-Alaska airmail (unofficial); first airplane flights for fish spotting/government fisheries patrol, aerial surveys for timber harvest/hydropower/mining and trapping assessment; first commercial aerial photo mapping; first still/motion picture newsreel photography (President Harding visit to Metlakatla in 1923); and first medical emergency relief physician transport flight (Ketchikan to Metlakatla).

Scores of local residents and tourists experienced their first thrilling plane ride aboard the Northbird during her brief Panhandle service, before the flying boat was wrecked in a landing accident at Heckman Lake on Sunday, August 5, 1923. Shortly afterwards, Jones purchased a crated Boeing C-11S biplane pontoon seaplane from Dr. DeVighne in Juneau, and initially planned on also rebuilding the Northbird to keep his outfit going as a two plane operation. Fate and more setbacks forced him to give up on his dream. Roy Jones would eventually return to the local flying scene, but that's another story.

Aircraft Specifications:
Northbird, 1919 Curtiss MF (Modernized F) Seagull Flying Boat, Ser. #A5522. 150+ built. Construction: Laminated mahogany plywood veneer over wooden frame double-step hull, with fabric covered flying surfaces. Dimensions: Length: 28' 10"; Height: 11' 9"; Wingspan: 49' 9". Weights: Standard Empty Weight: 1,860 lbs.; Gross Weight: 2,900 lbs.; Useful Load: 1,000 lbs. Performance: Airspeed: 80 mph; Service Ceiling: 9,000 ft.; Cruising Radius: 3 hrs. (345 mi.). Engine: 180 hp Hispano-Suiza V8 Cylinder (in lieu of stock 100 hp Curtiss OXX-6). Occupancy: Pilot: 1; Passengers: 2 (three passengers f/1923).

Roy F. Jones

Gerald Smith, Frank Wadman, Charles Duffey, Clare Krough, George Beck, and Joe Krause.

Click to Enlarge
Northbird Aviation Company in Hyder, AK - Company Letterhead SuperimposedNorthbird Aviation Company in Hyder, AK - Company Letterhead Superimposed
Curtiss MF Flying Boat in Juneau, AK, 1923Curtiss MF Flying Boat in Juneau, AK, 1923
Curtiss MF Seagull at Thomas Basin, Ketchikan, AK, 1922Curtiss MF Seagull at Thomas Basin, Ketchikan, AK, 1922
School teachers aboard the Northbird, Douglas, AK,1923School teachers aboard the Northbird, Douglas, AK,1923
Northbird Aviation Company display at Ketchikan International AirportNorthbird Aviation Company display at Ketchikan International Airport