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A Carl Ben Eielson Story


Today we look at the early part of famed aviator Carl Ben Eielson’s story. He was born on this date in 1897 in Hatton, North Dakota.

Eilson went to college at UND in 1914, but left to enlist in the air service, which had only 35 trained pilots. He earned his wings, but just as he received his sailing orders, the Armistice was signed and his military flying days came to an end.

Back in Hatton, Eielson persuaded a group of businessmen to buy him a plane – a Jenny that he took to college and used for barnstorming around the Midwest during the summer. His father, Ole, was vehemently opposed to his flying, certain that his son would get killed. On one occasion, Ole even threatened to burn the plane, but before he could do it, his son misjudged a take-off in a pasture near Climax, MN, hooked a telephone wire, and crashed.

So it was back to school, this time at Georgetown, where he met Dan Sutherland, an Alaskan congressman. It was Sutherland who planted the idea of Eielson teaching up north. He agreed, moving to Fairbanks to teach high school math and general science, and to coach basketball.

His father Ole was relieved by the decision. “At least,” he said, “there are no airplanes up there.” Little did he know that Wrong Font Thompson, the editor of the News-Miner in Fairbanks, would very much warm to Eielson’s idea of bringing an airplane to town. Together, they persuaded the townspeople to buy one.

One Alaskan aviator later said, “When Ben come here, he didn’t know no more about flyin’ than a hog’s hip pocket.” Actually, there was general agreement that Eielson honestly wasn’t a natural when it came to flying. They called him a “sweet stunter” who had a poor sense of direction, and his landings and take-offs left a lot to be desired.

Eielson’s new Jenny arrived in 1923, and he soon made the first commercial flight in Alaska’s interior, with banker Dick Wood fortifying himself with “Alaska Mule” before climbing into the back seat.

Wrong Font Thompson wrote, “Somebody HAD to go, so Dick decided it might as well be him.” The townspeople found it unsettling to see “two of the best men in town, everybody’s friends, settin’ one behind the other in a rig not much wider than a canoe.”

Their destination, Nenana, was only 50 miles away by air – just follow the railroad tracks below. But, somehow Eielson got lost, and it was an hour and a half before they finally spotted the town.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm