The 1928 Stearman biplane that made Alaska aviation history
The plane in the drawing is a 1928 Stearman C3B, registration number NC5415. It is, along with planes such as Ben Eielson’s World War I-era Curtis Wright JN-4 (on display at Fairbanks International Airport), and the 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim 100 at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, a rare and iconic piece of Alaska aviation history.
In the ten years that this plane flew in Alaska, NC5415 was piloted by several famous pioneer Alaskan aviators, including Noel Wien, Ben Eielson, Harold Gillam, Joe Crosson and Merle Smith.
Manufactured by the Stearman Aircraft Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, it actually began life in 1928 as a C2B, the second model manufactured by the company. It originally had a Wright J4 nine-cylinder radial engine. However, by 1932 the plane had been upgraded to Stearman’s C3B model. The upgrade included replacing the engine with the more powerful Wright J5 nine-cylinder radial engine. The J5, after it was developed, quickly earned a reputation as an extremely reliable engine. Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” had a J5 engine when he made his solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
According to a 1980 article by Les Kares, who restored the plane, it was shipped to Alaska in 1928. During its first few years in Alaska, it was flown by Harold Gillam in the 1929 search for aviator Ben Eielson, who had crashed off the coast of Siberia. It was also flown by Joe Crosson in January 1931, when he flew the NC5415 from Fairbanks to Barrow over the uncharted Brooks Range to deliver diphtheria antitoxin.
In 1932, it was used in a series of firsts for both aviation and Denali National Park and Preserve. Planes had been used to supply the mining camp of Kantishna, on the far side of Denali, since the mid 1920s, and sightseeing flights around the mountain became increasingly popular about 1930. However, as explained by Dirk Tordoff in his 1994 article, “Airplanes on Denali,” no plane had landed on the mountain before 1932, although by that time, mountaineers had become interested in using planes to photograph and map potential climbing routes.
That year, an expedition climbed the lower portions of the mountain to conduct cosmic ray experiments, and Alaskan Airways, the Stearman’s owners, delivered the expedition’s personnel and scientific equipment to the 5,600-foot level of Muldrow Glacier, near the mountain’s base.
Alaskan Airways made several trips to the glacier for the Cosmic Ray Expedition, landing the first plane on Denali on April 25. NC5415, piloted by Jerry Jones, was the second plane to land on May 3.
On May 16, Jones returned to the glacier in NC5415 to rescue an expedition member who was seriously ill with high-altitude pulmonary edema. This flight was the first air rescue from Denali.
Later in 1932, Alaskan Airways was acquired by Pacific Alaska Airways (a subsidiary of Pan American Airways). Pacific Alaska eventually sold NC5415, and it ended up in the fleet of Cordova Air Service, where Merle Smith worked as a pilot. Smith was piloting this plane when he earned his “Mudhole Smith” nickname.
NC5415 crashed in a remote section of the Wrangell Mountains in 1939. Due to the crash site’s inaccessibility, the wreck sat in the mountains for almost 30 years until being air-lifted by helicopter to Gulkana.
It was acquired in 1968 by Seattle aviation buff, Les Kares, who, over the next ten years, restored the plane to flying condition.
It is now owned by Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, and is on display at its Lake Hood location.
- “Adventures of an Alaskan biplane.” Les and Janet Kares. In “Alaska Magazine.” December 1980
- “Airplanes on Denali.” Dirk Tordoff. In “Alaska History.” Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall, 1994
- Alaska Aviation Museum website, alaskaairmuseum.org
- Photographs from the Crosson Family Papers. In the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives