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Carl Ben Eielson, Part 1

4/15/2004:

Today marks the anniversary of an extraordinary event in the life of Hatton native, Carl Ben Eielson. Most of us have heard of him, but not everybody knows why he’s famous.

In 1927, an Australian adventurer, George Hubert Wilkins, had been trying for several years to realize a dream of being the first to fly north over the Arctic from Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen, Norway. After trying several pilots who crashed several planes, people were shaking their heads that he was still trying.

Another North Dakota explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, recommended Ben Eielson, who had become a legendary pilot in Alaska. Eielson was at a low point in his life, having lost a flying contract he needed, and was back in ND in a Langdon barbershop, when he got the call.

The journey on which Wilkins and Eielson embarked would become one of the most epic achievements of all time. Just getting from Fairbanks to Barrow was an enormous accomplishment – remember it was 1927, and they had only a small Stitson bi-plane. The 500 miles they covered was poorly mapped, and the Endicott Mountains, the “jaggedest range on the continent,” turned out to be two times higher than estimated.

From Barrow they took off on March 29th, 1927; it was 30 below zero. After several hours of flying an exploratory course north of Alaskan, their engine started cutting out, and they had to make an emergency landing on an ice floe – the first landing ever made on floating ice. After two hours and five tries, they become airborne again, but after only ten minutes, they were hit by a storm and had to land again on an ice floe.

It was dark by the time they got in the air again. Flying with a 40 mile an hour side-wind was bad enough, but they had no lights for reading their indicators. Wilkins was leaning forward over the gas tank with a guarded torchlight when the engine cut out completely. They had run out of gas and had to find somewhere down in the blizzard to land.

In his book, Flying in the Arctic, Wilkins later wrote, “We could feel the sag of the falling plane. With great coolness and skill, Eielson steadied the machine, righting her to an even keel and an easy glide... As we came within a few hundred feet of the ground... we could dimly see it serrated with ice ridges, but they gave us no idea of height or distance.

“Near the ground, the air was rough,” he continued. “The plane swerved and pitched, but Eielson, still calm and cool, corrected the controls for each unsteady move. In a moment we were in the snowdrift. We could not see beyond the windows of the plane. I felt Ben brace himself against the empty gas tank. I leaned with my back against the partition wall of the cabin and waited.

“The left wing and the skis struck simultaneously,” Wilkins wrote. “I... slipped through the door of the machine. Wind and driving snow filled my eyes. Dimly about us I saw pressure ridges as high as the machine. We had undoubtedly struck one as we came down.”

The lower wing was torn, and the stanchions for the skis were twisted and broken. When morning came, they found they had landed on a smooth stretch of ice measuring less than thirty by fifteen yards. On all sides were towering ridges of ice. They had been extraordinarily lucky, but their island was drifting, and there was no hoping of getting off it until the storm subsided.

Tomorrow, we’ll bring you the conclusion of the story.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm