Bernt Balchen never sought fame; rather it seemed to seek him. He sought challenge and in doing so found his role in life. He always strove for excellence and won international acclaim. He believed in freedom of man and fought for it in the uniforms of three nations.
- In 1926 helped the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition prepare to fly the dirigible Norge over the North Pole.
- Chief pilot of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition in 1929, he navigated a Ford tri-motor over the South Pole.
- From 1933-35 served as chief pilot of the Lincoln-Ellsworth trans-Antarctic expedition.
- First pilot to fly an airplane over both Poles for which he was awarded the Harmon Trophy.
- Assisted the U.S. Air Force in building a base in Greenland and served the Air Force as an expert Arctic aviator.
Bernt Balchen was one of America’s greatest aviators. In the words of the World War One ace flyer, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, “there was no better man in the field of flight.” His contributions to aviation history were many. He flew two historic missions for Richard E. Byrd: the trans-Atlantic flight of the America in 1927, the first to carry US airmail to France; and as the pilot for the Byrd expedition in 1929 where he was the first to fly over the South Pole, for which he received a special Congressional Medal.
Bernt was born in southern Norway, the son of a country doctor, who encouraged him to enjoy the outdoors. Bernt loved to hike, hunt, fish and ski in the lovely forests and mountains near his home. He developed into an exceptional athlete, and was a candidate for Norway’s Olympic team. He was educated in forestry in Norway and in Sweden gaining a deep appreciation for the landscape of Scandinavia.
During the First World War, he served in the French Foreign Legion and in the Norwegian Army. He then fought as a volunteer in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, when he was seriously wounded. After he returned to Norway and the Norwegian Navy, he recieved a commission as a naval aviator in 1924 and advanced in the Norwegian Naval Aviation Service as a test pilot.
The great Norwegian explorer, Ronald Amundsen, chose Balchen to join his team at Spitsbergen in preparations of the dirigible, Norge, for the 1926 flight over the North Pole. With this mission complete, Balchen received a request from Richard E. Byrd to join his voyage out of Spitsbergen back to the U.S., and to be available for future Byrd expeditions.
Balchen was hired as a test pilot by the aircraft designer/manufacturer Anthony Fokker, and sent to Canada to teach clients about aircraft maintance and flying in extreme winter conditions. While in Canada, Balchen also carried out pioneering cargo flights into northern Canada. For his role in establishing and developing aviation in Canada Balchen was inducted as the only non-Canadian into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.
Flying with Richard Byrd’s trans-Atlantic flight in the America in 1927, Balchen was the pilot credited with saving the lives of the crew in a record forced-landing off the French coast. Later, as a member of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, Balchen served as the pilot for the first aircraft over the South Pole in 1929, accomplished under challenging conditions.
Balchen was now an aviation celebrity, serving as technical advisor for Amelia Earhart for her successful flight across the Atlantic.
In the mid-1930s he returned to Norway to work with the Norwegian Airlines, and later on a team to create a Nordic Postal Union, and to help negotiate an aviation treaty with the United States.
He was in Helsinki on November 30th, 1939, working on a contract to provide U.S. fighter aircraft to Finland, the same day of the Soviet attack on Finland, that prompted the Winter War of 1939-1940. Balchen helped organize the Norwegian Air Force Training Base called “Little Norway ” in Canada.
In early 1941 the U.S. was secretly developing bases in Greenland–initially to expedite aid to besieged England. General Henry “Hap” Arnold asked Balchen to join the Army Air Corps, and to build, organize and command the northernmost U.S. base in the Arctic Circle on Greenland, designated Blue West-8. Here he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldiers’ Medal for many dramatic rescues of downed U.S. airmen on the Greenland icecap.
General Arnold had a new mission for him in 1943. Balchen operates a courier air transport service between Britain and neutral Sweden. He established a permanent base in Stockholm to operate the courier service. He began with five civilianized B-24 bombers, capable of carrying 35 passengers and by the end of the war he had 22 aircraft in operation. These aircraft transported over 2000 Norwegians to Britain for military service and repatriated over 1200 interned U.S. airmen. The aircraft delivered more than 200 tons of military supplies for the resistance forces of Norway and Denmark, and returned to Britain with personnel, diplomatic pouches, and sorely needed Swedish ball bearings.
Other sensitive missions followed. Balchen conducted highly dangerous re-supply operations over Norway in 1944, the first daylight re-supply missions into Norway in the war and the longest transport flights in the European Theater of Operations, 16 hours, to reach north Norway. In late 1944 Balchen led a unit of ten U.S. C-47 Transport Aircraft, in full military markings, to establish a uniformed American presence in neutral Sweden. This force was used to transport over 1500 Norwegian Light Infantry soldiers into combat in northern Norway and provide supplies to the soldiers and Norwegian civilians in the war devastated area. His wartime service in Scandinavia was recognized by many awards, including the U.S. Legion of Merit, and decorations awarded by the Kings of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Following the war, Balchen returned to civilian life to help organize the Scandinavian Airlines System. This task done, he returned to the U.S. Air Force in 1948 for command duty in Alaska with the Air Rescue Service. He flew non-stop from Alaska to Norway in 1949 to become the first to pilot a plane over both poles. In 1951 he served as the technical advisor for the construction of the USAF Strategic Air Command Base at Thule, Greenland.
Throughout his career he enjoyed sketching and painting in watercolors. In 1953 he was asked to host an art exhibit in a prominent art gallery in New York City. The exhibit was a great success and led to two further exhibits. His artwork captured the beauty of the arctic landscape that he deeply loved. President Eisenhower presented Balchen the prestigious Harmon Trophy for aviation excellence in 1953. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1956 but continued in an advisory capacity for government and industry. One of his special achievements was the founding of the International Aviation Snow Symposium, an effort to improve the safety and efficiency of aviation operations in winter weather.
Balchen passed away in 1973 and was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. Words engraved on his memorial marker read “…I go on to the next adventure, looking to the future but always thinking back to the past, remembering my teammates and the lonely places I have seen that no man ever saw before, still hearing the crunch of the skis and the howl of malamutes carrying far away and forever through the thin air”. Bernt Balchen lived the life of the explorer and leader he always wanted to be. He left us a marvelous legacy of accomplishments.”
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