Carl Ben Eielson
By Thomas H. Smith
First published in the Grand Forks Herald
April 14, 1994
A meeting in New York in 1925 involving two veteran arctic explorers, both with ties to North Dakota, forever changed the style of exploration in both the north and south polar regions.
The two explorers were Carl Ben Eielson and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Eielson was born in Hatton in 1897 and graduated from the University of North Dakota (UND) in 1921. He learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service in 1917 and later pioneered aviation in Alaska, flying the first air mail there in 1923-24 and later flying the first air mail from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Fla.
Stefansson, a native of Arness, Manitoba, Canada, who spent much of his youth in Mountain, North Dakota, began his college education at UND. He was one of several students who occupied low-cost living quarters on the Harry Richards farm (now the Ray Richards Golf Course) just south of the UND campus. Stefansson completed his studies at Harvard University, but found time in his formative years to serve a stint as city editor of the Plaindealer, then a competitor to the Grand Forks Herald.
Stefansson had been asked by George Hubert Wilkins to recommend an experienced arctic aviator to be the pilot in a daring attempt to fly nonstop from Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway. Stefansson had been the leader of extensive expeditions by boat and on ice in the Arctic Ocean and Canadian Arctic Islands.
Wilkins, who was born in Australia in 1888, served with Stefansson from 1913 to 1915, learning arctic survival skills from a recognized authority. Stefansson had witnessed Eielson's flying skill and appreciated his vision in projecting a great future for aviation in the Far North. So he recommended Eielson for the job as pilot in Wilkins' dangerous and demanding project.
Perhaps the most complete account of the events of those days is "Polar Pilot - The Carl Ben Eielson Story," an illustrated book written by the late Dorothy Page of Wasilla, Alaska, and published in 1992. Much of the background information and many details for this account came from or were confirmed by Page's book.
The epic journey on arctic ice in 1927 probably was the biggest test of the physical toughness of the Wilkins-Eielson team as well as one of the greatest arctic survival accomplishments of all time.
In an exploratory flight north of the Alaskan coast in April 1927, engine trouble forced them down twice on the ice floes. After making what were believed to have been the first-ever landings and takeoffs on floating ice, their Stinson plane ran out of gas and Eielson made a third emergency landing on moving ice the same day. They abandoned their plane and walked 125 miles on the ice in 13 days. They fashioned crude sleds from airplane parts, pulling them across the ice. They soon abandoned the sleds, continuing with backpacks, which they finally reduced to one. Despite a dunking in the icy water for Wilkins and frozen fingers for Eielson, they finally reached land and safety near Beechy Point, about 25 miles northwest of present-day Prudhoe Bay. But they had lost an airplane, one of Ben's fingers (by amputation) and, perhaps most importantly, the April weather window for 1927.
Still not discouraged, the pair made preparations to attempt to fly to Spitzbergen early the next year. Finally, on April 15, 1928, they set off from Barrow in the little orange Vega with a load of 3,000 pounds, most of it gasoline. Also included were items of arctic survival gear and more than 40 pounds of cold food, mostly chocolate plus raisins, pemmican and biscuits. Their goal had been described by another famous Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, as "beyond the possibility of human endeavor."
Thanks to Wilkins' extraordinary navigating skills and Eielson's legendary piloting expertise, they had a largely uneventful flight for the first 20 hours and 20 minutes. They had covered more than 2,100 miles when a severe storm forced them to make an emergency landing on Dead Man's Island in the Svalbard Group, a short distance from their destination at Green Harbour on Spitzbergen's west coast. They would sit huddled in their little plane for five days.
When the weather cleared, they found a difficult challenge in trying to take off in deep snow on a rough surface. Despite a downhill roll, the plane's skis wouldn't move smoothly through the snow so Wilkins got out and pushed. The plane took off OK but, unknown to the pilot, Wilkins fell while trying to climb aboard the moving Vega. Luckily, Eielson circled the makeshift strip and saw his partner on the ground. He landed again and they made a second try with Wilkins pushing and with a rope ladder slung from the door. Wilkins, his hands numb with cold, lost hold of the ladder and fell a second time. Again Eielson took off alone and again he landed on the snow.
On the third try, Wilkins used a piece of driftwood to push from the cabin door, and the plane lurched free with both men inside. Once in the air, they soon saw the radio towers and a coal mine at Green Harbour.
Their success, following by less than a year the widely publicized solo flight of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris, attracted a wave of international attention in European capitals and in North America. In a triumphal tour of Europe, they were honored by the leaders of many countries, including England, where Wilkins, a British subject, was knighted by King George V.
Eielson was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Hoover in Washington, and they were given an official welcome in New York attended by many dignitaries.
Later in 1928, Wilkins asked Eielson to join him in an expedition to Antarctica. They pioneered exploration by plane there in late 1928 and early 1929 (Antarctic summer) flying the same little Lockheed Vega.
After successes at both the top and bottom of the world, Eielson realized his dream of forming his own air service in Alaska. He had 12 planes, three hangars and a staff of experienced Alaska pilots and mechanics. Eielson now carried a new title of colonel after being commissioned in the National Guard in ceremonies in Grand Forks in April 1929.
Crash in Siberia
Col. Eielson's satisfaction in fulfilling his dream was short-lived. He was killed on Nov. 9, 1929, when his Hamilton airplane crashed in Siberia. His Alaskan Airways Inc. was conducting a major rescue effort involving 15 passengers and furs valued at $1 million on an icebound ship. The Nanuk was frozen in arctic ice at North Cape (shown as Mys Schmidt on today's maps).
Eielson and his top mechanic, Earl Borland, made one safe trip to the ship and back to Nome. But a second flight to Siberia from Teller, a staging point northwest of Nome, proved disastrous when their plane crashed in a storm. They were about 350 miles northwest of Teller or about 400 miles northwest of Nome.
A massive search was launched involving flyers from the U.S., Canada and Russia. On the 77th day, they found the plane at a point about 30 miles west of Cape Vankarem and about 90 miles from the icebound ship. Twenty-four days later, they found the bodies of Eielson and Borland in the snow. Other pilots speculated that altimeter problems combined with bad visibility caused the crash.
The achievements made by Eielson in his short 32-year life continue to receive attention in the publication of new material and in the expanded scope of museum displays telling the story of his life and times. Priceless collections of Eielson memorabilia are on display today in his home town of Hatton, N.D., and in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. Other items are on display at the University of North Dakota.
Where to see memorabilia
The best place to see Eielson material in North Dakota is at the Hatton-Eielson Museum, located in the spacious 93-year-old house where Eielson grew up. Items on display include survival gear, medals and awards, correspondence, a wide range of photos and many newspapers, including front pages from some of the world's leading dailies.
The photo displays feature one of President Hoover presenting the Harmon Trophy to Eielson, many showing the airplanes of the day, scenes from the search and rescue effort, the funeral train that carried the famous flyer's body back home, and the funeral, probably the most memorable in North Dakota history.
In Anchorage, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum boasts an extensive collection of Eielson memorabilia, including movie footage of the aviator and his Hamilton plane at the icebound ship in Siberia. The museum also features indoor and outdoor displays of whole planes and parts of planes from the early days of Alaska aviation.
The Anchorage museum opened a major display of Eielson items in February, 1994. The items were packed away in a box in Bismarck until located in 1992 by Ted Spencer, director of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, included in the display are the hand sewn fur parka worn by Eielson in several famous photos, a gold watch presented to the flyer by the City of Fairbanks, a twisted propellor from his crashed plane, and an American flag fashioned as a shroud for the dead flyer for the trip from Siberia back to the United States.
A special feature of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Fairbanks is the Hamilton monoplane in which Eielson and Borland died in 1929. Remnants of the plane were salvaged by the Russians and flown to Fairbanks in a cargo plane in 1991.
Physically and mentally tough, fearless, relentless in pursuing his goals, and capable of absorbing staggering physical hardship. Carl Ben Eielson was a survivor and a winner cut from the mold of true American heroes.
But he was more than that: he was a man of vision who correctly predicted the almost unbelievable growth of aviation in Alaska and around the world.