During World War I, observation aircraft provided ground commanders with vital reconnaissance information, and throughout the interwar years, commanders of U.S. Army ground forces demanded adequate observation support. However, most ground commanders anticipated fighting a static or slow-moving war, and the observation aircraft purchased during the 1920s and early 1930s differed little from those flown over France in 1918.
The Douglas O-38F concluded a series of biplane observation aircraft begun in the early 1920s. Between 1931-1934, Douglas built 156 O-38s for the Air Corps, eight of which were O-38Fs. Despite being one of the Army Air Corps' best known and most versatile airplanes during the 1930s, the O-38 has been overshadowed by the more sensational exploits of fighters and bombers. With a cruising speed of only 128 mph, it was obsolete by the end of the 1930s, but some O-38s remained in service at the time of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
One of the first military aircraft assigned to Alaska, the O-38F on display at the museum was the first airplane to land at Ladd Field near Fairbanks, Alaska, in October 1940. Originally a cold-weather test station, Ladd Field became famous during World War II as the place from where American-built aircraft flew to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. This aircraft flew various missions until it crashed on June 16, 1941, due to engine failure about 70 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Uninjured, the pilot, Lt. Milton H. Ashkins, and his mechanic, Sgt. R.A. Roberts, hiked to safety after supplies were dropped to them. The abandoned aircraft remained in the Alaskan wilderness until the museum arranged for its recovery by helicopter in June 1968. Despite being exposed to the Alaskan weather for 27 years, the aircraft remained in remarkable condition. Only the wings required extensive restoration.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Engine: Pratt & Whitney R-1690 of 625 hp Maximum speed: 152 mph Cruising speed: 128 mph Range: 700 miles Ceiling: 19,750 ft. Span: 40 ft. Length: 32 ft. Height: 13 ft. 6 in. Weight: 5,401 lbs. loaded