Carl Ben Eielson
What is routine for Air Force flying crews today was an almost unbelievable ordeal for one young man from Alaska. Carl Ben Eielson is remembered as an explorer and hero who pioneered aviation in Alaska more than 80 years ago. He realized the possibilities aviation held for Alaska’s development.
Today, Eielson AFB stands as an example of the achievements made possible through his pioneering accomplishments. On Jan. 13, 1948, the Air Force officially dedicated the installation and named it in honor of Carl Ben Eielson, Alaska’s pioneer bush pilot. Mr. Eielson came to Alaska in 1922 to teach general science, English and physical education to Fairbanks high school students, but he simply could not stay away from aviation. He equated aviation to pioneering, and he believed the years to come would establish the airplane as one of mankind’s most important means of transportation.
Eielson was born in Hatton, N.D., on June 26, 1897. He enrolled at the University of North Dakota and later the University of Wisconsin. Following America’s entry into World War I, Eielson got his chance to become an aviator in January 1918 by enlisting in the newly formed aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Upon the completion of flight school, one month before he was to depart for France, Eielson received his commission as a second lieutenant.
The war in Europe ended, and he was discharged from the Army in March 1919 on the same day he was commissioned. While much knowledge of Eielson’s full military career is unclear, he did return to active duty for a brief period in the mid-1920s and received a commission as a full colonel in the North Dakota National Guard in 1929.
Eielson worked at many things during the course of his life. He went into business with his brother selling bonds for a firm in Minnesota, helped develop more suitable skis for use on airplanes after returning to the Army Air Service, attended Georgetown University Law School, was an airplane inspector for the Department of Commerce, and flew airmail in Florida – becoming the first man to fly mail between Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta, Ga.
Eielson’s heart always returned to Alaska and flying. Intrigued by the vastness of Alaska and the potential for aviation, he found himself drawn away from the Fairbanks High School classroom. He convinced several Fairbanks businessmen that commercial aviation was a feasible business venture in Interior Alaska. He became the sole pilot for the Farthest North Aviation Company, formed in 1922. After obtaining a surplus Army aircraft in the Lower 48, Eielson soon made the first regular commercial flights from Fairbanks to Interior mining camps and communities. He delivered supplies, mail and passengers in hours over distances that previously had taken days by train or weeks by dogsled. Successful and popular among its growing number of customers, the commercial operations of the company led toward regular airmail deliveries in the Interior.
In 1924, the U.S. Post Office Department asked Eielson to fly an experimental 320-mile airmail route between Fairbanks and McGrath, Alaska. The trip took 18 days by dogsled — one way. Eielson made the trip in three hours. With the help of the territorial congressional representative, a postal contract came later that year. The Post Office Department unexpectedly withdrew the contract after six months of operations, but Eielson remained in Alaska as a bush pilot. His dream of crisscrossing the vast Alaska Territory by air became a reality in 1925 when Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins enlisted Eielson for an exploratory expedition to the North Pole and a possible trans-polar flight from the northern coast of Alaska to Greenland. The expedition, which started in 1926, was unsuccessful, although Eielson became the first aviator to cross the Arctic Circle and land an airplane on the North Slope. He joined Wilkins again in 1927 on another unsuccessful Arctic-North Pole expedition. Eielson made history on the expedition’s third effort in 1928. He and Wilkins flew the 2,200-mile route over the polar ice cap from the North Slope of Alaska to Spitsbergen Island, Norway. This was the first flight from North America over the Arctic Ocean to Europe. Upon his return to the states, Eielson was called to Washington, D.C., where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, at the request of President Herbert Hoover, he returned to Washington to receive the Harmon Trophy for the most outstanding feat in aviation in 1928.
He returned to Alaska in the summer of 1929 as a local, national and international hero. Later that year, Eielson accompanied Wilkins to the Antarctic, becoming the first pilot to fly over both polar regions in the same year. He used his fame to good advantage, securing financial backing in the Lower 48 for the establishment of a large commercial aviation company in Alaska. As an active participant in the company’s flying operations, he joined company pilots in the winter of 1929 on a flight to rescue stranded passengers and a cargo of furs aboard the freight ship Nanuk, caught in the ice off the Siberian coast. It was during this rescue attempt that Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, lost their lives.
Alaska later memorialized Eielson by naming a mountain peak near Mount McKinley after him. In 1948, the U.S. Air Force renamed “26-Mile Strip,” located 23 miles southeast of Fairbanks, after him. In July 1985, Eielson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for bringing aviation to the sparsely populated regions of the world to better serve the needs of his fellow man.