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Carl Ben Eielson, Part 2

4/16/2004:

Yesterday we brought you part 1 of the story of Carl Ben Eielson, who was the first man to fly over the top of the world. We left him and his partner, George Wilkins, after they crash-landed on a floating iceberg during a blizzard on March 30th, 1927. The next morning, they found their island was adrift among towering ice ridges. Wilkins, the navigator, estimated they were 65 miles from safety, but their island was floating farther away each moment.

On the sixth day, cold clear weather formed enough ice for them to get off the island, which was now about 100 miles northeast of the nearest town. In her 1947 book, The Flying North, author Jean Potter wrote, “They drained what little fuel they could from the tank and improvised an oil-burner from a gallon can. They built sleds (from airplane parts). Loading them with (food and supplies), they left the shelter of their plane and set out across the frozen sea toward land.”

The men’s journey was horrific. Potter described them sinking to their waists in snowdrifts and crawling on all fours across broken pressure ridges. They spoke little except, as Wilkins wrote, to ask about each other’s condition “after strains and falls that brought uncontrollable cries of pain... as we tumbled or pinched our feet and ankles between the steel-like ice.”

Eielson had frozen his fingers while working on the plane’s engine the first day. He couldn’t use his hands and had to carry his supplies with his armpits. On April 16th – 13 days later – they reached the Beechey Point fur-trading post, 180 miles from Barrow. A message was sent by dogsled, and pilot Alger Graham flew to their rescue. Back in Barrow, one of Eielson’s fingers had to be amputated. There was no doctor – a missionary performed the operation.

It was on this date the following year that Wilkins and Eielson again flew out of Barrow. Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, said the team was attempting a feat “beyond the possibility of human endeavor.” Their new, orange, Lockheed Vega was the 2nd ever built, and it had a window in the floor. Their 3,500-pound load was mostly fuel, their food mostly chocolate.

Eielson had a habit of sleepwalking before important missions, and had once made it as far as the airfield where he awoke when he banged into his plane. Another time he had tried to jump from a hotel window, dreaming he was flying, and the only way his friends could save him was to knock him out. Leading up to this trip, his friends were standing watch over him at night.

Their airstrip was glare ice, 14 feet wide, but they made it. The first 20 hours and 20 minutes passed uneventfully, covering about 2,100 miles. Then, when they were almost to the Norwegian coastline, a severe storm came up. All they could see were two mountains ahead of them. The windshield was covered with snow and frozen oil, and Wilkins could navigate only by passing written notes to Eielson. They finally landed on Dead Man’s Island. No kidding.

The storm trapped them for five days. The snow got so deep, and the terrain was so rough, that they couldn’t lift off. Wilkins got out and pushed and was supposed to jump on as soon as the plane took off – and it did. Unknown to Eielson, Wilkins fell off. Luckily, Eielson circled, spotted him on the ground, and landed. Their second try failed, too. Finally, Wilkins used a piece of driftwood to push from the cabin door, and they were airborne. Within minutes, they spotted the radio towers of Green Harbour, their final destination. They had done the impossible.

For his “air-breaking” feat, Eielson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Harmon Trophy, and Wilkins, a British subject, was knighted by King George V.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm