I just finished watching Togo on Disney+ last night, where the plot of the story is centered around a musher, Leonhard Seppala, and his lead sled dog, Togo. They make a very long trek across the Alaskan landscape in order to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in 1925. By all accounts it was a very good movie.

One of the concluding points of the movie is that Seppala, and more importantly Togo, never received proper credit for the journey, and practically all credit was given to Gunnar Kaasen, and only one of his two lead dogs, Balto, of whom made the actual delivery to Nome.

Up to this point I remember hearing so much about Balto and nothing before this movie about Togo. I wanted to know more about why this was and I came across an LA Times short article that was likely written in response to the 1995 release of Balto.

In the article, linked below, the author makes several claims, referencing a book by Morris Bealle called A Drug Story, stating that

Although their drug could easily have been flown in, it was deemed more newsworthy to send it by dog sled, where the media could excitedly report each day’s progress. The cutest dog was selected to lead and was given the catchy name Balto.

I do not have access to this book, but it seems to contrast with some of the other common statements made about the situation in 1925 Nome.

Can anyone confirm whether this is actually true?

It would be a pretty dour truth if found factual, but history is littered with actualities like this so it wouldn't be surprising.

Either way it'd be nice to know the truth.

LA Times Article on Balto: 1996

  • 6
    This article is very well written, although it lacks the attribution necessary to count as a valid answer here. In short: No, they couldn't have flown it in because no plane at the time that might have been able to land there could handle the local conditions - extremely low temperatures and a snow storm.
    – Shadur
    Dec 20 '21 at 7:04
  • Consider the "Race against Death" of Canadian aviator "Wop" May in 1929. Similar area, same disease. (No ethnic slur; In 1902, when May was 6, a 2 year old cousin had trouble with his given name Wilfred., It came out :Woppie: then shortened to "Wop"
    – DJohnM
    Dec 21 '21 at 17:00

Aviation began in Alaska in 1924. By the winter of 1924-25, there was a grand total of three aircraft in Alaska: two Standard-Js owned by Alaska Aerial Transportation Company, and a de Havilland DH-4B owned by Farthest North Aviation Company (sole pilot: Carl Ben Eielson). The Standard-J had the Hall-Scott A-7 water-cooled inline engine (notoriously unreliable and prone to things like spontaneously catching fire). The DH-4B, updated for postal mail, had a Liberty L-12 water cooled engine.

All three aircraft had been decommissioned for the winter and had nowhere near the range; a direct flight from Anchorage to Nome is 875 km, and the longest flight had been Eielson flying the mail 450 km from Fairbanks to McGrath.

Their main issues were twofold: the first was that they would have to stop somewhere to refuel, and with aircraft being extraordinarily rare in the territory to that date there simply were not many places for them to refuel, aside from possibly McGrath, and McGrath to Nome is 500 kilometers direct. The second issue is that they had water-cooled engines. Water-cooled engine + having to stop to refuel and overnight in Arctic conditions (you did not fly in the dark in those days) = solid block of ice in the morning.

So, those planes didn't have the range, they didn't have any place to refuel, and even if they had a place to refuel, the engines would have frozen.

@DJohnM referenced Wop May's 1929 flight. While not taking anything away from May, his flight covered a total of about 640 kilometers. On the first night when May and Vic Horner stopped, they did so at McLennan, a village on Lake Kimiwan, where they could get shelter and refuel, then complete the flight the next day. So two things right off the bat: they had a significantly shorter distance to cover, and they had places to stop along the route, as they were following the Peace River and it had settlements and villages along it. That is, in fact, why their flight covered around 640 km instead of the direct 550 km from Edmonton to Fort Vermillion.

Bush pilots had been operating up into the Northwest Territories, thus even further north than Fort Vermillion since 1920 with flights between Edmonton and Fort Norman (now Tulita) flying workers into the newly-discovered oil field, a total distance of 1,400 km one-way direct (and significantly further in actual travel), which also happens to pass over the area of the 1929 flight. According to one paper, by 1928 there was no spot on the Canadian mainland that was considered inaccessible by air, with planes having flown to the Arctic Coast for various reasons, so by 1929 this part of the country had a group of pilots who knew the territory and had flown it in winter, which was not true of Alaska in the winter of 1924-25.

This might be hard to grasp it these days, but until the 1930s the United States lagged behind Canada in non-military aviation. In the 1930s Canada moved more air cargo than the rest of the world combined and the concept of the bush pilot was very much a Canadian innovation, long synonymous with Canadian-based pilots, who had a history of it predating any American version, so the idea that what in Canada could be considered challenging but doable would be utterly impossible in American territory. May was actually somewhat annoyed and bemused at the publicity and breathless reporting the flight generated, since he didn't think it was awe-inspiring as reports made it out to be, but did use the publicity to establish his own airline.

Flying had only started in Alaska that summer (1924), and no one had flown further west than McGrath. It was totally unknown territory to the two or three pilots available in Alaska, and they had infinitely more experience than trying to get someone up from the States, as literally no one else had flown in Alaska. And not even those two or three had any experience flying in the Arctic winter.

Also critically, May and Horner flew an Avro Avian, and the Avian had a Cirrus air-cooled engine. They didn't have nearly the concern with the danger of it freezing.

So, long story short, in January 1925 there were no pilots who knew the region to be able to fly into Nome, there were no places to stop on the way, and the equipment wasn't capable of operating in the winter conditions. By January 1929 northern Alberta had years of aviation operations, there were pilots who knew the area and had flown it during winter months, there were places they could stop along the way, and their equipment was more capable of handling the cold. In 1929, airlifting vaccine from Edmonton to Fort Vermillion was risky, but reasonably doable. In 1925 trying to do so from Fairbanks to Nome would have been suicidal.

There were certainly aircraft in existence that theoretically could have made flight, and with the right engines might have made the trip in winter (such some models of the Junkers F 13), but none of them were in Alaska and all the other limitations would still be in effect: no infrastructure, no pilots available who knew the area. So at best the book's claim the flight could have happened is theoretically possible, but practically speaking no, it was not realistic, and thus the assertion it was a deliberate choice not to fly is simply nonsense.

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