BOOK REVIEW

Tordoff, Dirk, MERCY PILOT: The Joe Crosson Story. Epicenter Press, Softbound, 250 pages + index. black&white photographs. $17.95

The only thing harder to do than write about a thoroughly nice man who has a nice wife, four fine children, and many friends is to review that writing. Fortunately, although Joe Crosson had the handicap of no vices, not even a bad temper, his exploits were enough to overcame that flaw.

Joe was 23 years old in 1926 when he came to Fairbanks as a pilot who was also a good mechanic. This was the beginning of the glory days of the bush pilots in Alaska. Pioneering airline president Juan Trippe put it well, "A territory where people pay four hundred dollars for the privilege of walking behind a dogsled for ninety days is a good prospect for an airline."

Crosson started as the youngest commercial pilot in Alaska but quickly became known as a most proficient one. This was also a time when various pilots such as Sir Hubert Wilkins, Roald Amundsen, Peary, and others were anxious to fly over the North Pole. Wilkins was stopped by bad weather, but the dirigible Norge carrying Amundsen and Nobile landed in Teller after its successful voyage and Crosson was chosen to take a photographer out for pictures.

The author repeatedly refers to the pilotís ability to orient himself geographically. That is useful today, but was critical in a time when there were no radios and few landing fields in Alaska. Like all successful bush pilots, Crosson was adept at landing on wheels, skis, and floats and flew wherever he was needed.

Opening the North to aviation meant Crosson encountered various famous fliers, especially Wiley Post, who became a good personal friend.

There were miraculous rescues and narrow escapes but also tragedies. Luck ran out for noted pilots Harold Gillam and Russ Merrill when their planes went down. Carl Ben Eielson, good friend and noted bush pilot died flying furs off a stranded vessel; Post and the famed wit and philosopher, Will Rogers, were killed when their plane crashed near Barrow, and Marvel Crosson, his beloved sister and also a fine pilot, died in the Arizona desert in 1929 while competing in an air race. She had come to Fairbanks in 1927 and caused quite a hum locally and nationally because of her flying skills and beauty.

Through her Joe had met Lillian, another lovely young woman, who became his wife.

Shortly after the bush pilots of the Arctic established their glamorous and well-deserved reputation by succeeding in some of the most hostile landscapes and weather in the world, consolidations began in the small airlines. The more planes a company owned, the more money it made to buy newer, more expensive engines and planes, so companies merged. The more successful of these attracted the attention of the major airlines, and Pan American Airlines established an Alaskan arm, PAA. This was big enough to establish scheduled service across the territory and eventually link to Seattle and thus the rest of the United States. Landing fields were built in Juneau and Seattle and service extended to California.

Joe was basically a fine pilot, but he also was a good administrator and soon found himself running larger and larger operations for PAA. The family, now with four children added, moved to a large house in Seattle.

World War II was a major disruption. Crosson was among those who instantly offered his expertise on the great-circle routes across Alaska, but his health suddenly became precarious. He seemed to recover after a few months, but he had made his decision to quit the bureaucratic life at PAA and go into business for himself. He and some partners formed a company in 1944 to supply planes, parts, and mechanical services across Alaska. It was an excellent idea; Joe was known, liked, and trusted by almost everyone in the territory. The firm was off to a flying start. In June of 1949 Crosson died in his office of a massive heart attack. He was 46 years old.

The author interviewed Crossonís widow and children, a satisfying addendum to the biography. All are doing well.

Appendixes show the airplanes of Crossonís time, the airlines and their consolidations, and the index is adequate.

All in all, a quite satisfying book, well worth reading, as Crossonís career is a mini-history of aviation in Alaska. Highly recommended.

D.L. 

 

   

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