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Carl 'Ben' Eielson, Father of Alaskan Aviation

Short Flights

 

Photo provided

Ben Eielson assembling his Curtiss JN-4 Jenny.

Whenever my husband Al and I visit Anchorage, we head to the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum next to Lake Hood and become lost in the vintage aircraft and wonderful old photographs of the pioneering pilots of the far north.

What incredible spirit, these men had! It is totally unbelievable to imagine the suffering they endured in the bitter frozen arctic flying open cockpit airplanes, yet they opened a new frontier and furthered aviation in a place that cried out to their adventuresome spirits.

Carl Benjamin "Ben" Eielson is known as the father of Alaskan aviation history. He arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska to work as a school teacher in 1923. Eielson started the "Farthest North Airplane Company" using a 1917 Curtiss JN-4 Jenny.

He flew the first airmail in Alaska, flying from Fairbanks to McGrath on Feb. 21, 1924, in a period of little over three hours. The same journey by dog sled took 3 weeks! Eielson received his flight training in the U.S. Army Air Corps before going to Alaska.

Beginning in July 1923, Eielson flew his Curtiss JN-4 Jenny out of Fairbanks. The Eielson Company constituted the first commercial air service in interior Alaska.

Eielson was born in Hatton, North Dakota, in 1897, and despite an interest in aviation that went back to his childhood, the 18-year-old midwesterner pursued a law degree at his parents urging, at the University of North Dakota, and later the University of Wisconsin.

When America was drawn into World War I, he saw his chance to fly and enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Jan. 1918. Before his flight training was completed the war ended, and America's need for pilots ended with the war. In March 1919, Eielson was commissioned a second lieutenant and received his discharge papers the same day.

He attended college to satisfy his parents, but also did some barnstorming in the Midwest for three years. In 1922, he accepted an offer to teach general science, English and physical education at a high school in Fairbanks, Alaska.

He was overwhelmed with the vastness of Alaska and saw a need for aviation in the area. With his vision he was able to convince some Fairbanks businessmen that commercial aviation would be a profitable business venture in the Alaskan interior. That is when the Farthest North Aviation Company was formed in 1922.

Eielson won a postal contract in 1924, a 300-mile route between Fairbanks and McGrath. Unfortunately, the contract was withdrawn in May of that year and after a few more months as an Alaskan bush pilot, he enlisted in the Army Air Service and spent a year at Langley Field in Virginia, then returned home to North Dakota.

"After developing fame as an Alaska bush pilot, he was engaged by Arctic explorer, Hubert Wilkins to pilot him. Eielson and Wilkins were the first two individuals to fly over both the Arctic and the Antarctic," the book description from "Polar Pilot" by Dorothy G. Page.

Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, well known for exploits in the Arctic, enlisted Eielson for an expedition to the North Pole and a possible trans-polar flight from the northern coast of Alaska to Greenland. Two attempts were made, but achievements of the trips were less than satisfactory. The third attempt was a huge success and the two men flew 2,200 miles over the polar icecap from Alaska, all the way to Spitzbergen Island, Greenland. Later in 1928, Eielson accompanied Wilkins on an Antarctic expedition, and they became the first men to fly over both Polar Regions of the world in the same year.

He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and won the 1928 Harmon Trophy for the greatest American aviation feat of the year.

Carl Benjamin "Ben" Eielson

I thought this description of the dawn of aviation in Alaska, from the Alaska History and Cultural Studies website was right on the mark: "Villages and mining camps in the middle of the Alaska wilderness were suddenly only a few hours from Valdez, Cordova, or Anchorage. The airplane overcame Alaska's geographical barriers to influence social, political, and economic life in the territory."

Eielson went on to become a famous Alaskan and international air hero before his untimely death in Siberia in 1929 trying to rescue stranded passengers and cargo aboard a freight ship caught in the ice off the Siberian coast.

His Jenny fuselage still exists and hangs in the Fairbanks International Airport Terminal. Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska is named in his honor. 

See you on our next flight!

 
 

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