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Carl Ben Eielson, Alaska Aviation Pioneer

Originally published on February 28, 2000. Last update: April 18, 2023.

Aviation pioneer

    Pioneer, explorer, and hero are all terms which have been used to describe the life of Alaskan aviator Carl Ben Eielson.

    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 the University of North Dakota, and later the University of Wisconsin.

    Following America's entry into World War I, Eielson found his chance to become an aviator in January 1918, by enlisting in the newly-formed aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. World War I ended while Eielson was in flight training, ending America's immediate need for pilots. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and discharged on the same day in March 1919.

    Eielson alternated between college and aerial barnstorming in the Midwest for the next three years. Unable to decide between law and flying he accepted an offer to teach at a Fairbanks, Alaska, high school in 1922. He taught general science, English and physical education.

    Intrigued by the vastness of Alaska and the potential for aviation in the area, Eielson was soon drawn from the classroom.

    He convinced several Fairbanks businessmen that commercial aviation was a feasible business venture in the Alaskan interior. Eielson soon became the sole pilot for the Farthest North Aviation Company, formed in 1922.

    After obtaining a surplus Army aircraft in the Lower 48, Eielson was soon making the first regular commercial flights from Fairbanks to interior mining camps and communities. He delivered supplies, mail, and passengers in hours over long distances which previously had taken days by train or weeks by dog sled.

    Successful and popular among its growing number of customers, the commercial operations of the company led Eielson and the firm to strive for regular airmail deliveries in the Alaskan interior. With the help of the territorial Congressional representative, Eielson was awarded a postal contract in 1924. The agreement set up a 300-mile route between Fairbanks and McGrath, Alaska, which Eielson was tasked to fly.

    The Post Office Department unexpectedly withdrew the contract in May, after six months of operations, but Eielson remained in Alaska until September as a bush pilot. He then enlisted in the Army Air Service, and after one year at Langley Field, Virginia, he returned to North Dakota, where he found employment as a bond salesman.

Closing in on fame

    His aviation background in Alaska, however, brought him an offer in late 1925 which promised to fulfill his dream of crisscrossing the vast Alaskan territory by air.

    Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, already known for exploits in the Arctic, enlisted Eielson for an exploratory expedition to the North Pole and a possible trans-polar flight from the northern coast of Alaska to Greenland. The expedition which started in 1926, was unsuccessful, although Eielson became the first aviator to cross the Arctic Ocean and land a plane on the Arctic Slope. Eielson joined Wilkins again in 1927 on another unsuccessful Arctic-North Pole expedition.

Eielson attained his greatest recognition on their third effort which was successful in 1928. In April, Eielson flew Wilkins the 2,200-mile route over the polar ice cap from the North Slope of Alaska, to Spitzbergen Island, Greenland. This was the first flight from North America over the North Pole to Europe.

    Eielson accompanied Wilkins on an Antarctic expedition later in 1928, becoming the first men to fly over both polar regions of the world in the same year. The flight over the North Pole brought Eielson his lasting fame. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and won the 1928 Harmon Trophy for the greatest American aviation feat of the year.

    He returned to Alaska in the summer of 1929 as a local, national, and international hero.

    Eielson was able to use his renown to good advantage, securing financial backing in the Lower 48 for the establishment of a large commercial aviation company in Alaska.

Tragic flight

    Eielson was an active participant in the company's flying operations. He joined company pilot Frank Dorbrandt in the winter of 1929 on a flight to rescue stranded passengers and recover a million dollars worth of furs aboard the Nanuk, a ship caught in the ice off the Siberian coast. It was during this rescue attempt that both Eielson and Earl Borland, his accompanying mechanic, lost their lives.

    On November 9, 1929, the two departed from a small airstrip on the northeastern coast of Alaska in a furious blizzard. Eielson's aircraft never reached the Nanuk. Seventy-nine days later, on January 25, 1930, during a multi-national air and ground search effort, Joe Crosson and Harold Gillam spotted the wreckage of Eielson's airplane on a small island off the Siberian coast. The body of mechanic Earl Borland was found on February 17 and that of Eielson the next day, 200 feet from the main part of the aircraft.

    Alaska later memorialized the aviator by naming a mountain peak near Mount McKinley after him. In 1948, the U.S. Air Force renamed its Mile 26 airfield, located 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks, after him. And in July 1985, Eielson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for bringing aviation to the sparsely populated regions of the world to better serve the needs of his fellow man.

Eielson Links

The Eielson Memorial Building of Aeronautical Engineering
A history of the building at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The search for Carl Ben Eielson: Chronology

The search for Carl Ben Eielson, 1929-1930

Air mail and Candler Field
Eielson was the pilot for the first air mail flight from what is now Atlanta's William B. Hartsfield Airport.

Carl Ben Eielson
From the North Dakota Governor's office, a color print and summary of the activities that gained Eielson a Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

Carl Ben Eielson Elementary School
This school in North Dakota was named in honour of the state's famous pilot. The school closed in 2015.

Eielson, Carl Benjamin
From the National Aviation Hall of Fame, a charcoal portait and a very good look at his aviation career in Alaska.

The Grave of Carl Ben Eielson
A brief bio and 4 photos of his impressive monument and grave, in the family plot in St. John's Cemetery, Hatton, North Dakota.

Hatton-Eielson Museum
Housed in Ben's boyhood home in Hatton, North Dakota.

The History of Eielson Air Force Base
A comprehensive history by the 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Department.

More Northern Aviation Links

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