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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 15 2011

Eriksmoen: Pilot Eielson a hero in Alaska as well as North Dakota

The first pilot to fly over the North Pole was killed 18 months later when his plane crashed while he was trying to rescue passengers and cargo from a ship that was lodged in the ice off the shore of Siberia.

Carl Ben Eielson was also the first airmail pilot in Alaska and Atlanta. Not only is Eielson a hero in North Dakota, but Alaska honors him as one of their own.

Eielson was born July 29, 1897, in Hatton, N.D., to Ole and Olava (Baalson) Eielson. Ole owned a general store and, in 1905, organized the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Hatton.

While growing up, Carl was better known as “Ben,” and he “did a lot of reading.” The one topic that appeared to be his greatest fascination was flying. In 1908, when the Chautauqua came to Hatton, it had a model of the plane that the Wright brothers used when they made their first flight, and Eielson studied the model in great detail.

Besides doing well in class, Eielson excelled on the basketball court and in debate competitions. After graduating in 1914, he enrolled at the University of North Dakota, majoring in commerce. At UND, Eielson played coronet in the college band, played basketball at the YMCA and was on the debate team. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin at the end of his sophomore year.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Eielson dropped out of college after the first semester of 1917-18. He enlisted in Omaha, Neb., and was called to active duty as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on Jan. 17, 1918. He was assigned to the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California in Berkeley.

While participating in flight training at the Air Service Flying School at Mather Field, near Sacramento, Eielson received word that the war was over. He remained at the school, receiving his wings, and then was briefly a flight instructor. Eielson was commissioned as a first lieutenant on March 1, 1919, and discharged three days later.

Eielson returned to North Dakota to help in his father’s store and finish his degree at UND. During the winter of 1919-20, he and others founded the Hatton Aero Club, the first flying club in North Dakota. On Feb. 11, 1920, the club purchased an airplane, and Eielson gave flying lessons, put on exhibition flights, charged people for joy rides and chartered flights for people with commercial or medical concerns.

After graduating from UND in 1921, he pursued a law degree at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Olger Burtness of North Dakota helped Eielson get a job as a guard at the U.S. House building. Eielson became friends with Daniel A. Sutherland, the newly elected congressional representative from the territory of Alaska.

Sutherland convinced him there was a great future in Alaska if the territory could be tied together through air travel. When Sutherland became aware of a school opening in Fairbanks, he told Eielson, who applied. In fall 1922, Eielson was hired as the school principal. He also taught English and science and coached the school’s basketball team.

“Intrigued by the vastness of Alaska and the potential for aviation in the area,” Eielson convinced several Fairbanks citizens to join with him on a business venture. He ordered a surplus army aircraft, which arrived in Fairbanks on July 1, 1924.

During an Independence Day celebration, Eielson was billed as “the Flying Professor.” He put on a show that included aerial stunts and then charged customers $50 for an eight-minute plane ride. By the end of the day, the airplane was paid for.

Eielson used the plane to carry passengers and medical supplies to interior mining camps and communities. He also continued to perform aerial acrobatics at shows and events throughout Alaska. In the meantime, Sutherland had secured a contract from the U.S. Post Office to begin experimental flights delivering mail to a remote village. He awarded the contract to Eielson, and the town chosen was McGrath, a regional supply center about 300 miles east of Fairbanks.

After the post office withdrew its contract after six months, the government purchased Eielson’s services and sent him to Langley Field in Virginia where he remained for a year. He then returned to North Dakota and became a bond salesman.

Late in 1925, Eielson received an offer from Sir Hubert Wilkins, a noted Australian explorer who was planning a journey from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway, by flying over the North Pole. In 1913, Wilkins was second in command of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic expedition.

Wilkins asked Stefansson who he would recommend as a pilot. Stefansson said the best pilot for such a venture was Eielson. Stefansson grew up on a farm near the town of Mountain, 70 miles north of Hatton, and both he and Eielson attended UND.

Next week we will conclude our story about Carl Ben Eielson as we focus on his remarkable accomplishments during the last three years of his life.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.