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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 22 2011

Eriksmoen: North Dakota's Carl Ben Eielson left mark all over world

The North Dakotan who owns the most world records is also the person born in the state who has the most structures and geographic landmarks named in his honor.

Carl Ben Eielson has a peninsula in Antarctica and a mountain in Alaska named after him. Also in Alaska, he is honored by the Eielson Air Force Base, the Carl Ben Eielson Memorial Building on the University of Alaska campus, the Eielson Visitor Center at the base of Mount McKinley, and the Eielson High School in Fairbanks.

A liberty ship, the SS Carl B. Eielson, was launched during World War II. In North Dakota, there is an elementary school at the Grand Forks Air Base and a middle school in Fargo named in his honor. In his hometown of Hatton, there is the Hatton-Eielson Museum located on Eielson Street.

Late in 1925, Eielson received an offer from Hubert Wilkins to be his pilot as he prepared to fly from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway. The flight was to take place early in 1926. In early April, they arrived with their supplies at Point Barrow. Eielson attempted to fly to Spitzbergen the next month, but because his plane was too heavy with supplies, he couldn’t make it over the 10,000-foot mountain crest. Other factors that attributed to the failure of their four attempts that year were damage to the plane, bad weather and Wilkins’ broken arm. Before returning to Point Barrow, Eielson became the first aviator to fly over the Arctic Ocean and the “first to land a plane on the Arctic slope.”

Until Wilkins’ and Eielson’s next attempt, Eielson accepted an offer in Atlanta to accept to fly airmail to Macon, Ga., and Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers and Miami, Fla. On Sept. 15, 1926, he became the first pilot to fly airmail in America’s Deep South.

The two men again flew out of Point Barrow on March 29, 1927. Fierce headwinds forced them to turn back after about 500 miles, and they landed on an icepack about 100 miles from their base. The drifting current carried them about “200 miles in six days,” and they decided to abandon their plane and walk 80 miles to the nearest outpost. They made another failed attempt in May.

Undaunted, the two men prepared to try again to fly over the polar ice cap to Europe in 1928. On April 15, flying northeast out of Point Barrow, they crossed the Arctic Ocean and 20 hours later landed near Spitzbergen. This was a monumental accomplishment: Eielson flew in a major snowstorm, had few landmarks and constantly had to readjust the plane’s compass. Famed newscaster Lowell Thomas called this a “flight that changed history.” Wilkins was knighted by England’s King George V, and Eielson was given the Harmon Trophy by President Herbert Hoover for being the year’s outstanding aviator.

Later that year, the two men set their sights on flying over the Antarctic. On Sept. 22, they set sail from New York on a whaling vessel to Argentina. On Nov. 4, they set up their base on Deception Island in Antarctica. On Nov. 16, they made their first preliminary flight, which was the first flight ever made in the Antarctic. With more flights, they were able to map new areas of the continent and discovered several islands.

When Eielson returned to Alaska in summer 1929, he was hailed as a hero. He was the first pilot to fly over both polar regions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later that year, he received financial backing to purchase and merge several independent air companies and establish Alaska Airways.

In late October 1929, the Swenson Fur and Trading Co. was hauling 6 tons of furs when its freighter, the Nanuk, became ice-bound off of Russia’s Siberian coast. Eielson was contacted to help rescue the 15 passengers and the million dollars’ worth of furs. On Oct. 24, Eielson announced that he agreed to fly one of the two planes for this mission. He made one flight carrying passengers and furs to Teller, Alaska, and was set to make a second trip early on Nov. 9. That morning, Eielson was waiting out a blizzard when he received word from the Nanuk that “the weather was clearing.”

Eielson decided to head back to the stranded vessel. Because of the storm, he had to rely on his instruments. As he reached the east Siberian coast, his plane slammed into the shore at full speed. Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, were killed instantly. On Jan. 25, 1930, his plane was found with the needle of the altimeter stuck at 1,000 feet. After Eielson’s body was recovered, it was flown to Hatton and buried in the family plot in St. John’s Cemetery. His airplane was not returned by the Russian government until March 1991.

In July 1985, Eielson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and on Aug. 26, 1997, he became the first posthumous recipient of the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award.

“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.