The best way to learn about history is to hear how it affected living, breathing, relatable human beings, just like the best way to learn about science is to get your hands to dirty.
One of the best things to come out of the MA/AKHF Conference was my introduction to Jean Potter’s spirited, heartfelt book, The Flying North. (Just republished by Shorefast Editions, an endeavor of author and Alaska Dispatch aviation correspondent Colleen Mondor.) It sings the exploits of Alaska’s first bush pilots, told through the lives of nine towering characters of flight. Potter wrote it in 1945, living in a dormitory supplied by the University of Fairbanks, hopping into small planes and soaring across the territory with these visionary, larger-than-life pilots.
Potter is, unmistakably, infatuated. She is in love with flight, with the land, with the Alaskans she calls “the flyingest people under the American flag.” Her writing shines with an awe and admiration that seems unbelievable in a cynical age. Pilot after pilot is a “hero,” a “legend.” The exuberance of her writing smiles straight through her journalistic objectivity.
Potter’s also got a marksman’s aim for sharp anecdote and description as she introduces the men who risked and sometimes lost their lives to bring aviation to Alaska. Among them were Harold “Spill ‘em, Thrill ‘em but No Kill ‘em” Gillam and Bob Reeves of Reeve Airways: “Slow Unreliable Unfair and Crooked, Sacred and Unlicensed and Nuts.” They would change the landscape forever.