The Missing Pilot and the Crash That Rocked Alaska’s Golden Age of Aviation
A love for flying lured daredevils to the icy Last Frontier. But when Russ Merrill’s plane went down, it ignited a 10,000-mile search and changed the world of aviation forever.
Illustrations by Marc Pearson
Ben Eielson departed Anchorage on September 20, 1929, expecting to find his friend Russ Merrill in a matter of hours. Along with an observer, he flew the 225 miles to Sleetmute believing he would soon find Merrill, or hear word of his location. Eielson did not plan to initiate a massive search of the region or call in other pilots to help, or put his own life on hold for weeks in a vain attempt to find his fellow pilot.
In his Travel Air floatplane, Merrill’s September 16 flight from Anchorage to the western village of Sleetmute should have taken three hours. He also had planned a viable alternate destination at a hunting camp at Chakachamna Lake in case he had trouble along the way. After flying out of Anchorage for the past four years, Merrill knew the region well; in fact there was no one in Alaska who knew it better. But he did not arrive in Sleetmute that night, and was never seen again.