Roy Jones flew to Ketchikan 100 years ago on Sunday, bringing commercial aviation to Alaska

Crowds welcome Roy Jones and the Northbird, July 17, 1922 (photo and caption courtesy of Ketchikan Museums).


Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of commercial aviation in Alaska. In 1922, pilot Roy Jones landed his Northbird amphibious plane in Ketchikan’s Tongass Narrows. Jones then took passengers all over Southeast Alaska.

The Northbird was a sight to behold. The open-cockpit biplane looked a bit like a cross between the famous airplane and the Wright brothers’ rowboat. The Navy surplus seaplane featured two wicker seats and an engine taken from a World War I fighter plane.

And its pilot? Roy Jones, an Army Air Corps veteran who saw an opportunity in Ketchikan and on July 17, 1922, landed in the Tongass Narrows with the intention of starting the state’s first commercial air service.

“He had a dream, said Don Dawson, an amateur historian tracing Alaskan aviation history. “And his dream was to bring aviation, commercial aviation, to service Alaska. “

Dawson even restores the first Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft operated by mid-20th century carrier Ellis Airlines.

Dawson said Jones arrived from Prince Rupert at exactly 2:02 p.m. He flew over the ball fields before landing in front of a crowd that had gathered on the Ketchikan waterfront. The newspaper at the time published an article commemorating the event: “The weary airmen received a tumultuous reception by the population, blocking the roofs of the waterfront with all the sirens of the city, the bells of the churches, the horns and the steam whistles playing a loud welcome home. After being tied up, the two birdmen were lifted onto the shoulders of Jones’ friends and paraded ceremoniously through the cheering crowds along the street. Even the rain was brought under control for the celebration.

Flying Cadet Roy F. Jones, in a Curtiss JN4D (“Jenny”) in 1918, at Marsh Field, California. (Photo and caption courtesy of Ketchikan Museums).

McHale said the arrival of commercial aviation marked the beginning of a new era.

“And since then, flying has been essential to life and to Ketchikan, from those early flights and milestones to establishing regular routes,” McHale said. “Aviation continues to be an integral part of life on our island.”

Jones remained in Ketchikan and opened the Northbird Aviation Company, offering trips to Petersburg, Wrangell, Metlakatla, and Prince Rupert, and eventually Juneau and Skagway.

Dawson says the office was in the old Talbot building on the Ketchikan waterfront and noted that Jones went to college with then-resident Jack Talbot.

It was tough at first, but Dawson said eventually the business took off.

“But they had a lot of business up front to steal,” he said. “Equestrians, clairvoyants, but also businessmen, the fishing industry and aerial timber surveys and, and mining, geology, that sort of thing.

Dawson said Jones even flew a Fox Films videographer over Metlakatla to capture footage of former President Warren G. Harding laying a wreath at the Metlakatla founder’s grave.

But the Northbird has also encountered its share of challenges.

Once, near Juneau, Jones’ engine failed. He and his mechanic ended up in the water. When a boat came for the Northbird with a pole, it fell back into the water, crippling the upper wing.

The Northbird’s last flight was on August 5, 1923, just over a year after that first landing at Ketchikan.

Dawson said Jones attempted to take off from Heckman Lake near Loring and make the approximately 17-mile trip to Ketchikan.

“They encountered a downdraft,” Dawson said. “He had a passenger with them and they couldn’t get out of the little bowl there, the downdrafts were coming down the mountain. So he continued to lose altitude, so he elected to try to land on the lake again, wait to watch until the downdraft conditions subsided, and ended up cutting the trees out and the Northbird crashed into the lake. And he and his passenger, George King, were fine, but the plane was a wreck.

After that, Jones announced he would rebuild the plane—with a pontoon plane he had bought from a Juneau man—but Dawson said he never did.

Image of model airplane by Terry Richardson, 2001. Northbird, Curtiss Mf-6-K Seagull. (Photo and caption courtesy of Ketchikan Museums).

The last time Jones was in Ketchikan was August 3, 1973, for the opening of Ketchikan International Airport. He died a year later, in 1974.

“He just wanted to have his place in history,” Dawson said. “You know, he set all the precedents and he was the first.”

And Dawson said he did, all in just one year of operation.

And what can Alaskans do to remember Jones on Sunday? Dawson has an idea.

“Well, I can certainly start with a drink, 2:02 on Sunday afternoon.” he said. “Bravo to Roy Jones and the Northbird.”

A small exhibit honoring the occasion is set up in the lobby of the Tongass Historical Museum.

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