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Often described by those who knew him as clear-eyed and careful, he was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and learned to fly in the United States Navy during World War I.

Although he never saw combat, he had 376 flight hours when the war ended, all of it on floats.

In the next few years he finished college, went to work as an engineer and business manager, got married and started a family.

He also did everything he could to get back into the air.

Hunters and fishermen found their way to remote camps with Merrill, establishing a burgeoning tourism economy for the region where one had been largely impossible before the airplane.

Merrill was also late, lost or long overdue more than once.

In 1927, Eielson and George Wilkins crash-landed on the ice about 65 miles northwest of Barrow while trying to be the first to navigate across the Arctic.

It was eighteen days before they hiked into the fur station at Beechey Point; the little finger on Eielson’s right hand had to be amputated due to frostbite.

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.

The maps told these men, (and they were very nearly all men), practically nothing.

Surveys could only give them vague guidelines for distance and altitude and there was little about what really mattered: places to land.

News articles announcing pilot departures and arrivals made the front page back then, as did those reporting pilots were okay: “There is no truth to the report that Pilot Young is missing,” reads a headline from The Anchorage Daily Times.

Overdue aircraft were common, as were the stories of pilots emerging unscathed after all manner of delays, breakdowns and mishaps.

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Dearest love to my wife, boys and two fine brothers.” Everyone from the aircraft was found alive, although it would be months before the pilot physically recovered.