Seventy years old and still roaring like the day it was built, a Second World War era DC-3 rattled into Whitehorse, the drone from the twin props announcing its arrival.
In a different era this would have been an everyday sight, but those who watched a commemorative landing on Wednesday afternoon saw a unique glimpse of the territory’s transportation history.
Dwayne King, a veteran bush pilot from Alaska with 49 years in the air under his belt, is leading a crew that is flying a vintage DC-3 from Florida to Siberia. “It’s part of your heritage, actually, in Whitehorse,” he said during a presentation at the Yukon Transportation Museum. “It’s part of what developed and opened up this part of the country.”
The route being flown by King is the same that was used by pilots in the Second World War transporting airplanes and other strategic materiel to the USSR. Over the course of three years 8,000 aircraft were delivered to keep the eastern front of the war supplied with new planes. It was one of the most massive and important pieces of the war effort, and the Yukon played a crucial role.
In the early stages of the war Russia was facing a stout German army, and had the Nazis knocking on the doors of Moscow and Leningrad. To help on the eastern front, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act which would help contribute supplies to Russia and other Allied countries.
To get this crucial equipment to Russia, a secure supply route would have to be established. It was decided that the most logical path was 9,600 km route from Great Falls, Montana to Krasnoyarsk, Russia. A significant portion of that was through the forests and mountains of the Yukon.
A snapshot taken of Whitehorse before the military machine rolled through would provide a very different view from what it would look like afterwards. Whitehorse had enjoyed a boom during the gold rush half a century prior, but its population dwindled afterwards. When the Alaska-Siberia supply route, or ALSIB, was established, things changed rapidly.
Before the war and the massive infrastructure projects it necessitated, the main artery of moving people and goods was the Yukon River, explains Janna Powell, curator at the Yukon Transportation Museum.
“Everything switched around,” she says. “Part of this whole project was bringing the Alaska Highway through, which completely changed how transportation worked in the Yukon.” Prior to the construction of the highway and the prevalence of air travel, communication and transportation took much longer.
“It made it so that there wasn’t a seasonal nature to communications,” says Powell. “You could get your mail in the winter and it didn’t take six months on the dogsled.”
Keith Halliday, chair of the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, points out another huge part of the project was the construction of airports along the ALSIB route. Cities like Whitehorse and Watson Lake were built new airfields that could handle the massive number of planes being delivered east. “It changed the way we connected to the Outside,” he says. Instead of taking an arduous journey through Skagway and Vancouver via train and ship, Outside was accessible through a single plane ride.
To commemorate that heritage and the importance of the ALSIB route, King and his crew have flown a recently purchased DC-3 up from its former home in Florida. They stopped in Anchorage yesterday and will continue on to Russia.
King – who flew bibles into Russia right after the fall of the Iron Curtain and lived in Russia for seven years as a missionary – made a promise to the president of the Republic of Sakha (a state in Russia) to bring a DC-3 to Sakha for the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day.
Not owning a DC-3, King was able to purchase one with help from his son. This particular plane was originally built for the U.S. Navy in 1944, classified as an R4D version of the DC-3. After the war it flew for various airlines before sitting idle for a number of years. When Dwayne bought it, four mechanics worked a full month to get it ready for the long trip to Siberia.
Now fully repaired and sporting a shiny blue and silver paint job, King is pleased with the performance of the plane.
“It feels fantastic. It has got the power, the lifting ability,” King says. “Any pilot would give their right arm to be able to fly a DC3, and to own one is crazy. Uncanny that you could actually own one and fly it.”
Contact Joel Krahn at