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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Land Sea Air  >  Aviation
Carl Ben Eielson: The Father of Alaskan Aviation - 1897-1929
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Don't be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.
-- E. Hamilton Lee, 1949

The history of pioneer aviation in Alaska may be wrapped in the gauze of romance today, but in the early 20th century, the skies were the domain of the daring, the ambitious, the adrenaline addicts, or perhaps those who were simply reckless.  Exploring the polar skies, as dangerous as it was, also brought out the best in some men, as it did with Carl Ben Eielson, who became world famous before his final flight at age 32.

Born July 20, 1897, in Hatton, North Dakota, Eielson was the son of Norwegian immigrants, and already reaching for the skies simply by advancing his education. He was one of eight children and was 14 years old when his mother died in 1911. While his father, Ole, did not remarry, Ben's eldest sister took over running the household and made sacrifices so that her younger siblings could go to college.

Eielson attended University of North Dakota then the University of Wisconsin. He intended to go into law, but soon he would discover that aviation was his one true passion. It began in 1917, when Eielson quit school to enlist in the Army Air Service. He began pilot training just 14 years after the Wright brothers' first flight.

In 1921, after military service and a stint working in his father's store, Eielson bought a Jenny and took up barnstorming, then experienced his first crash landing. Whether by his own choice or his father's, shortly afterward Eielson went back to college then entered law school at Georgetown University. During his first year, however, he met an Alaskan who helped arrange a teaching job at the Fairbanks high school. He started in the fall of 1922.

As with law, teaching wasn't Eielson's long-term career choice. Once he saw the potential for aviation in the vast territory, he conceived of a flying venture, and with the support of Fairbanks businessmen, such as W. F. Thompson, he persuaded investors to buy him a Jenny for his one-plane fleet. In the spring of 1923, he was the sole pilot of the Farthest North Airplane Company. Within months, he had his first brush with fame as he performed an aerial exhibition for President Warren G. Harding, who was touring the territory that summer.

The new airplane company transported passengers, freight, and doctors into rural areas. Before long, Eielson also received the mail contract for delivery between Fairbanks and McGrath, a job that traditionally belonged to dogsled carriers. Eielson offered to do it for half the cost, and the federal government contracted with him for $2 per pound of mail on the 300-mile route. The first flight on February 21, 1924, in an open-cockpit de Havilland, was successful, but postal officials were ever concerned about safety issues, and after mere months, they withdrew the contract when Eielson crash-landed that May.

"Of over 200 pilots hired between 1918 and 1926, 35 died flying the mail," says the National Postal Museum website. "The service gained an ominous nickname among the nation's aviators as a ‘suicide club' for flyers."

Still, the mail delivery route landed Eielson in Alaska's record books as the first to fly an Alaskan airmail route. Many other firsts would follow, including first to land on an ice floe, and first to fly airmail from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida. One of the most astounding firsts, still ahead, was Eielson's flight over the North Pole, a feat that earned him international recognition.

In June 1924, Eielson took a job with the Bennett-Rodebaugh Airplane Transportation Company, and his reputation continued to grow. When famed explorer George Hubert Wilkins was inquiring about candidates to join his upcoming expedition, his friend Vilhjalmur Stefansson advanced Eielson's name.

In April 1927, Eielson and Wilkins made an exploratory flight over the Arctic Ocean, an adventure that ended prematurely when they were forced to make several emergency landings and finally abandon the Stinson on Beechey Point. The pair had been given up for dead when they staggered into a village two weeks later, having traveled 125 miles on foot. Eielson lost a frostbitten finger to amputation after the ordeal.

A year later, in April 1928, with financial backing from the Detroit News, the pair took off in a Lockheed Vega and flew nonstop over the Arctic Ocean from Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway, a 2,200-mile route. And in late 1928 and early 1929, on the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition, Eielson was the first to fly over both the Arctic and the Antarctic regions, piloting the same Lockheed Vega that had taken him to Norway.

While still a young man, Eielson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his North Pole crossing, and in 1929, President Herbert Hoover presented him with an international award, the Harmon Trophy. Also in 1929, he received a colonel's commission in the National Guard at Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Eielson had gained international fame and had shaken hands with leaders of countries all over Europe. He and Wilkins had been feted in New York, and newspapers across the country boasted of their heroic explorations. But in 1929, at age 32, while at his peak, Eielson would die in Siberia during a rescue mission.

That fall, the ship Nanuk was caught in the ice at Cape North, Siberia, with fifteen passengers and six tons of furs. Eielson and his mechanic Earl Borland were hired to ferry the people and cargo back to Teller on the Seward Peninsula. On November 9, 1929, having completed one trip successfully, Eielson's plane went down due to weather conditions and perhaps a faulty altimeter, killing both men. The crash site was in Siberia about 250 miles northwest of Teller.

Following a massive search effort, the site was located 77 days later. After another 24 days, on February 18, 1930, the bodies of Eielson and Borland were recovered, shrouded in American flags, and returned to the United States. Hundreds of mourners attended his March 27 funeral in Hatton, and he was buried in the local cemetery, which was renamed the Carl Ben Eielson Memorial Cemetery. According to the Hatton-Eielson Museum, other family members who were buried elsewhere were later relocated to the Eielson plot.

According to one North Dakota historian, "Norwegian-Americans particularly lionized Eielson. A commemorative booklet published in Hatton in 1930 said he was ‘endowed with a certain spirit of romance and adventure, so typical of a true son of a Viking.' Likewise, North Dakotans counted Eielson a hero and a sort of Nordic martyr."

Fairbanksans likewise honored their hometown hero. Members of the American Legion and Fairbanks Commercial Club first met in June 1930 to decide on an appropriate memorial and to begin fundraising. Ideas included a clock tower, a swimming pool, a student loan fund or a chair of aeronautical engineering at the college, or a public school. Ultimately, the Eielson Memorial Building was constructed in his honor on the campus of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. In later years, a local junior-senior high school also was named for Eielson, a memory of the teaching career that was never pursued. And outside of Fairbanks, Eielson Air Force Base was dedicated on March 20, 1956. Back in Hatton, North Dakota, Eielson's boyhood home has been a museum since 1976, and another school was named for Eielson in Fargo, North Dakota.

Nearly fifty years after his death, in 1985, Carl Ben Eielson was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Remnants of Eielson's ill-fated plane, a Hamilton Metalplane, remained in Russia until return in the early 1990s, and are today in the collections of museums in Alaska and North Dakota.

Today the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum at 4721 Aircraft Drive, near Anchorage's Lake Hood, holds important articles in its Eielson collection, including movie footage of the aviator and his Hamilton in Siberia, his fur parka and inscribed gold watch, salvaged pieces of the Hamilton including its twisted propeller, and the flag that shrouded Eielson's body when it was recovered and returned to the U.S., an American hero who died too young.

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Carl Ben Eielson
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Carl Ben Eielson
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Eielson and airplane
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Bodies of Eielson and Borland

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