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Bernt Balchen
Born 23 October 1899(1899-10-23)
Tveit, Kristiansand, Norway
Died 17 October 1973 (aged 73)
Mount Kisco, New York
Occupation Aviator, author, and explorer

Bernt Balchen, D.F.C. (23 October 1899 – 17 October 1973) was a Norwegian, and later Norwegian-American, polar and aviation pioneer. His service in the United States Army Air Force during World War II was tied to his Arctic expertise and helped the Allies in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Postwar, he continued to be an influential leader in the United States Air Force as well as in private consulting.


Early years

Born at the farm Myren in Tveit, just outside Kristiansand, Norway. Balchen served as a cavalryman in the Finnish Army against the Russians in World War I before becoming a pilot in the Royal Norwegian Navy Air Service in 1921 where he acquired his initial Arctic flying experience.


In 1925, Bernt Balchen was a pilot on the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition to Spitsbergen and in the next year, he was a member of the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Arctic Expedition, an attempt at flying an airship over the North Pole. In a last minute decision by Amundsen, Balchen was not chosen for the final flight. Later, in his 1958 autobiography, Balchen maintained that Amundsen's competitor, Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, had been unsuccessful in their own attempt to fly by aircraft to the Pole and back a few days earlier. Balchen based this assertion on calculations he made from Byrd's own speed/navigational data.

Under the sponsorship of Joseph Wanamaker, in 1926, Balchen, as co-pilot and navigator with Floyd Bennett, flew the Fokker Trimotor "Josephine Ford" on a flying tour to more than 50 American cities, thereby promoting commercial aviation as a safe, reliable and practical means of transport. Following the tour Balchen was hired by Anthony Fokker as a test pilot for Fokker Aircraft at Teterboro Airport, New Jersey.

In 1927, Balchen, as co-pilot with pilot, Bert Acosta, flight engineer George Otto Noville and navigator and flight organizer Richard E. Byrd, flew the first (experimental) USPS mail transport "America", a Fokker Trimotor, across the Atlantic. Due to Acosta's lack of ability to fly on instruments and foul weather for most of the crossing, Balchen did almost all of the flying. Bad weather and low visibility made landing at Paris, France impossible, despite repeated attempts. When the aircraft was low on fuel, Balchen returned to the west coast of France and landed the wheeled airplane in the sea just off the shore of France, without injury to the crew.

On 28–29 November 1929, Balchen, flying a modified Ford 4-AT Trimotor, became the first person to fly over the South Pole. He was accompanied by Harold June, copilot and radio operator; Ashley McKinley, photographer; and Richard E. Byrd, navigator and organizer of the Antarctic expedition.

Due to his reputation as a polar, transatlantic and aviation expert, Balchen was hired in 1931 by Amelia Earhart as a technical advisor for a planned solo transatlantic flight. In an attempt to throw off the press, Earhart turned over her repaired Lockheed Vega to Balchen who was assumed to be planning an Antarctic flight. Balchen took the Vega to the Fokker Aircraft Company plant at Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. There, he and mechanics Frank Nagle and Eddie Gorski reconditioned the aircraft for the upcoming record flight. The fuselage was strengthened to take extra fuel tanks that were added to provide a 420-gallon capacity; additional instruments were also installed. After modifications had been made, Earhart flew the Vega successfully across the Atlantic on 20 May 1932.[1]

World War II

During World War II, Balchen was responsible for setting up the pilot training camp/school for Norwegian exiled soldiers, "Little Norway", outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Later during the war, as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force, he oversaw the establishment of USAAF's polar base at Qaanaaq, Greenland, the air base Sondre Stromfjord, then known as "Bluie West Eight," that was used for ferrying combat aircraft to Europe. Between September 1941 and November 1943, Balchen provided his personnel with training in cold weather survival skills and rescue techniques which enabled them to carry out many spectacular rescues of downed airmen on the Greenland icecap.

On 7 May 1943, Balchen successfully led a bombing raid that destroyed the sole German post in Greenland, a weather station and antiaircraft battery on the east coast of Greenland. Its destruction hindered the ability of the German armed forces to predict weather patterns in the North Atlantic and Europe.

Balchen then was posted to the European Theatre to run Luleå-Kallax Air Base in northern Sweden (set up for harassing and denying air superiority to Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe over Finland and occupied Norway). He helped to set up an escape route between the United Kingdom and Sweden that enabled Norwegians and others to flee the Nazis. From March to December 1944, Balchen commanded an air transport operation that safely evacuated at least 2,000 Norwegians, 900 American internees and 150 internees of other nationalities from Sweden.

Balchen also commanded a clandestine air transport operation, transporting strategic freight and numerous important diplomats and Armed Forces officers. From July to October 1944, 64 tons of operational supplies were transported from Scotland to the underground in occupied Norway. Between November 1944 and April 1945, Balchen transported 200 tons of Arctic equipment and operational supplies from England to Sweden that were used to make secret overland transport from Sweden to Norway possible. During winter 1945, using C-47 aircraft under his command, Balchen shipped communications equipment into northern Norway that was of inestimable value to the Allied Expeditionary Force's intelligence operations.

Another Norwegian at Kallax during the same period, serving under Balchen, who became a good friend, was marine biologist and explorer-to-be Thor Heyerdahl, later of Ra I and II and Kon-Tiki fame.


From November 1948 to January 1951, he commanded the 10th Rescue Squadron of the United States Air Force, which was headquartered in Alaska but ranged across the entire northern tier of North America rescuing downed airmen, and led the squadron in the development of the techniques that are now universally used in cold weather search and rescue operations. Balchen was directly responsible for the U.S. military acquiring the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, that became the primary air search and rescue aircraft of the Arctic. In May 1949, while commanding the 10th Rescue Squadron, he flew a C-54 Skymaster from Fairbanks, Alaska via the North Pole to Thule Air Base, Greenland—thus becoming the first person to have piloted aircraft over both poles.

Balchen was primarily responsible for the pioneering and development of the strategic air base at Thule, Greenland, built secretly in 1951 under severe weather conditions which, by extending the range of the Strategic Air Command, increased the capabilities that made the SAC a significant deterrent to Soviet aggression during the Cold War.

After retiring from the USAF in 1956, Col. Balchen continued to serve the Air Force on special assignments and aviation and energy industries as a consultant. In his native Norway, Balchen was a driving force in the establishment of Det Norske Luftfartselskap (D.N.L.) ("The Norwegian Airline Company"), with which he pioneered commercial Europe↔US airline flights across the North Pole. D.N.L. later merged with Danish and Swedish airlines into the major carrier Scandinavian Airlines.

Balchen continued to work in consultancy until his death in 1973 at Mount Kisco, New York.

Honors and tributes

Balchen was a Harmon Trophy winner, as well as a recipient of the following military decorations:

Balchen, at his death, became one of the few Norwegian-born people buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 2, grave 4969; right next to Admiral Byrd.


Today goes fast and tomorrow is almost here. Maybe I have helped a little in the change. So I go on to the next adventure looking to the future but always remembering my teammates and the lonely places I have seen that no other man saw before.
— Bernt Balchen, found on his memorial stone, [2]

See also


  1. ^ Letter to G.P. Putnam to be directed to Bernt Balchen Quote: "Please tell Bernt Balchen how deeply I appreciate all that he did to make this flight possible. Of course he is about the finest flyer and technical expert in the world but beyond that it was his confidence in my ability which helped so much." May 22, 1932
  2. ^ Arlington Cemetery


  • Balchen, Bernt (ghostwritten). Come North with Me: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1958.
  • Balchen, Bernt. War below Zero: The Battle for Greenland. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1944.
  • Balchen, Bernt and Bergaust, Erik. The Next Fifty Years of Flight: As Visualized by Bernt Balchen and told to Erik Bergaust (Explorer books edition). Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox University Microfilms, 1954.
  • Balchen, Bess. Poles Apart. Oakland, Oregon: Elderberry Press, 2004. ISBN 1-932762-09-4.
  • "Balchen will Retire. First Pilot to Fly Over South Pole to Leave Air Force." New York Times; 20 October 1956.
  • Glines, Carroll V. Bernt Balchen: Polar Aviator. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1999. ISBN 1-56098-906-8.
  • Isakson, Evelyn Moore. Bernt Balchen: Colonel, United States Air Force, Retired: A Special Report on the Unique Career of a Great American Patriot. Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK: Hollycrest Enterprises, 1972.

External links


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