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Eielson's Biplane Takes Flight Once More

Fairbanks, AK -If you visited Fairbanks International Airport over the weekend, you may have noticed a small construction project near one of the baggage carousels.  A local group has been working for six years to restore a biplane that once belonged to Carl Ben Eielson.  The plane has a new set of wings, a fresh coat of paint it’s now hanging once more from the ceiling of the Airport terminal.

Rick Kreofsy stands midway up a ladder.  He’s tightening a cable attached to the bottom side of an airplane wing overhead. “There’s over almost 600 feet of cable in this airplane,” he says.  Kreofsky is a volunteer with the Farthest North Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association.  Back in 2007, the group took on a project to restore a biplane that once belonged to aviator and explorer Carl Ben Eielson.  

Kreofsky uses pliers to twist at a cable.  It’s one of many that crisscross between an upper and lower set of wings.  “Different wires do different things.  These ones here are supporting the wings in flight from the bottom.  The ones coming up from the top hold the wings up when it’s sitting on the ground,” he explains.

This is a Curtiss JN-4D, but people call it a “Jenny” for short.  It came to Fairbanks in 1923, after Ben Eielson convinced a group of businessmen to buy it for $2400 dollars.  Eielson flew the first mail flight between Fairbanks and McGrath in 1924.  He didn’t use this plane for mail delivery, but he did fly the Jenny all over Interior Alaska. Roger Weggel is an Instructor with the UAF Community and Technical College’s Aviation Maintenance Technology Program. “It had enough gas for 150 miles I guess," says Weggel.  "So it went Central, Circle I think, Wisemen and Livengood for sure, Nenana and McGrath.  So, kind of in that circle, that was one tank worth of gas and then and then you’d have to refill to come back.”

The plane itself took a beating.  Without runways, it landed on gravel bars.  During takeoff, it plowed through alders and brush.  But only a few years later, the plane was grounded.   Angela Linn is the Collections Manager for Ethnology and History at UAF’s Museum of the North.  She says no one quite knows how it ended up in the Museum’s collection. “You know, we’re not really exactly sure who gave it us," she says.  "Our files indicate it came to us in 1945 and that it was basically in a warehouse with no wings, just the fuselage.”

In 1981, a group of Air Force mechanics fit the Jenny with wings from a different kind of biplane, before they hung it from the ceiling of Fairbanks International Airport.  But it never looked right, so volunteers raised nearly 27 thousand dollars to build new ones.  Bruce Dunkel is a volunteer with the project. “Yeah, we built the wings from nothing," Dunkel says.  "They started with a couple of pieces of wood on the table and then we made the ribs, cut the ribs by hand.  It’s amazing, built from scratch.  The disappointing part is putting the skin on because it’s this beautiful structure underneath there and it’s all varnished.  It’s just gorgeous.”

Bright yellow polyester fabric covers the wings.  They span more than 46 feet.  Originally, they would have been covered in linen fabric.  When Ben Eielson flew the Jenny, it was painted dark green.  But the fuselage is original.  The original wicker seats and wooden foot pedals rest inside and the propeller is also original.  Roger Weggel says he’s confident the plane could fly again, were it not for a few missing parts.
“It’s missing a water pump and a set of magneto, but if we had another couple parts, we could run that engine.  It’s just they’re very hard to get, almost unattainable.  I actually found a guy who would loan is some parts if we wanted to actually fly it.”  Weggel is convinced this is one of the oldest airplanes in the state.  Anyone coming or going from the Golden Heart City can catch a glimpse if they look up. With help from the Department of Transportation and officials at Fairbanks International, the plane hangs once more from the airport ceiling.