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If there is any frontier still remaining in the United States it is likely located in Alaska
The dangerous game of Alaskan aviation
Hardcover. 242 pp.
2012. Lyons Press.
On March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward concluded a deal with representatives of Tsar Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, to acquire the vast Russian territory of Alaska. Alaska was purchased by the United States for $7.2 million -- a price that worked out to about 2 cents per acre. The U.S. bought the entire territory of Alaska for less money than publishing company HarperCollins would pay future Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to write a book about her life about 140 years later. With the hindsight of history, Seward's Alaska Purchase is one of the great bargains in world history.
While some derided the Alaska Purchase as "Seward's Folly" because of its harsh terrain and climate, vast empty spaces, low population, and distance from the contiguous United States, most Americans supported the transaction. All doubts about Alaska's worth were extinguished when prospectors realized that Alaska was rich in natural resources, including gold and oil. Alaska was organized as a Territory of the United States following the purchase, and became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
Whether it was Russian or American, territory or state, Alaska has never been a place for everybody. If there is any sort of frontier still remaining in the United States, it's likely located in Alaska. The state is, by far, the largest in the union -- twice the size of the second-largest state, Texas. Yet, despite that size, the population remains small. With as many people as a mid-sized American city, only three states have a smaller population and Alaska has the lowest population density. Almost 150 years after Seward's purchase, Alaska remains relatively empty; its unforgiving terrain is almost always so frigid that it makes the famous "frozen tundra" of the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field seem like a Hawaiian lava field.
But people do live and work in Alaska. Small towns and villages dot the landscape throughout the vast, frozen state from the Aleutian Islands the reach across the Bering Strait towards Russia to the eastern border with Canada's Yukon Territory and all the way up to the northernmost city in the United States at Point Barrow. While Alaskans in the southern part of the state have an effective road system between the town, villages, and larger cities such as Fairbanks and Anchorage, the geography that gives Alaska its beauty and uniqueness amongst American states prevents safe, year-round travel in territory above the Arctic Circle.
The conditions which sustain that remoteness have necessitated Alaska's unique and widespread aviation industry. With town and villages hundreds of miles apart, the best -- and often only -- transportation is by plane. Aviation in Alaska has been a steady form of travel, an effective way to deliver supplies or evacuate patients to hospitals, and an important commercial industry for nearly a century. For many Alaskans, there is a reliance upon aviation for needs that Americans in the Lower 48 would never imagine boarding an aircraft for.
Colleen Mondor spent four years as a dispatcher for a charter airline operating out of Fairbanks, Alaska. In her book, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska (2011, Lyons Press), Mondor shares her experiences in running the operations center and her interactions with the pilots who flew missions for her company. Because of the harsh weather and rough terrain, it is no surprise that the casualty count among Alaskan pilots is high. This is not a new problem, nor is it a diminishing problem. Plane crashes claim lives in Alaska more than the people who rely on air transport want to think about. Along with dozens of pilots -- some grizzled veterans, some astonishingly inexperienced -- plane crashes in Alaska have claimed the lives of hundreds, including people like Will Rogers, Wiley Post, Hale Boggs, and Ted Stevens.
The Map of My Dead Pilots attempts to give some insight on Mondor's experiences, although she does so while not giving out too much information. Maybe it is to protect the pilots who were lost, maybe it was to protect the company she previously worked for, but one drawback to the book is that is sometimes feels as if there are important details that would help flesh out the story. I imagine that Mondor is trying her best to be respectful of the pilots she knew, but there is a generic aspect to many of those that she writes about which makes it difficult to differentiate between pilots and incidents.
Some of the better parts of The Map of My Dead Pilots are when Mondor tells of the interesting history of aviation in Alaska dating back to the pioneers of the 1920s, bush pilots who risked (and often gave) their lives while exploring the massive state and pushing themselves to learn more. I was also fascinated when Mondor recounted some conversations about the pilots who survived as they tried to explain why they were drawn to Alaska and why they allowed their company (which remains unnamed throughout the book) to send them on missions that could have been deadly for them; missions that were often deadly for others.
Mondor's book tackles an original subject, and The Map of My Dead Pilots shines when it focuses on the history of certain flights or Alaskan aviation in general. When the book turns into a conversation between Mondor and the pilots she knew, it drags and becomes redundant. In reality, the book could have been 50 pages shorter and readers wouldn't have missed out on anything. There are moments where heavy-handed attempts at something more literary than it needs to be brings it back to Earth (so to speak). Overall, I would definitely recommend it as it is a quick read and features insight on an occupation that remains important and necessary, daring and sometimes deadly, no matter how far technology advances.
The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska by Colleen Mondor is available now from Lyons Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Colleen Mondor's website is www.chasingray.com.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.