December 23, 2016

✉ Fwd: Field Guide #8: Over the Arctic Circle in 1926

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: ColleenMondor <>
Date: Fri, Dec 23, 2016 at 9:18 AM
Subject: Field Guide #8: Over the Arctic Circle in 1926
To: TinyLetter Forwards <>

A few months ago, while researching the life of Marvel Crosson, Alaska's first female pilot, I made an unexpected discovery at the Seattle Museum of Flight about the state's most famous bush pilot, Carl "Ben" Eielson. Although Eielson’s brief aviation career is well documented officially, (where he flew, when he flew, who he flew for), very little is known about his personal thoughts. Eielson died in a 1929 plane crash leaving behind almost no record aside from a few short logbook notes.

In the museum’s archives a folder containing an official airmail report from Eielson to the federal government was attached, for some strange reason, to a transcription of pages from a 1926 flying diary. I assume this diary was kept more for the explorer Sir George Wilkins than Eielson, as it detailed their flights together that year. Wilkins likely asked Eielson to corroborate some of the experiences they shared so he could use the notes when he wrote about their flights later.

Honestly, I have no clue where the original is of this diary and although the museum knew who donated the Eielson papers, they didn't really know how to explain how such disparate documents got together. (All of their Eielson papers were copies and apparently the donor was infamous for having people all over the country make copies of whatever Alaskan aviation stuff they had and send them to him. Unfortunately, he wasn't so good at keeping track of who had the originals.)

I assume the original of this diary is with Wilkins' papers—I've added it to the list of things I need to track down.

In 1926 Wilkins, who was already a highly regarded explorer, arrived in Fairbanks with two Fokker Tri-Motor aircraft, a support team and hefty financial sponsorship from the Detroit Aviation Society and Detroit News. His goals were to explore the polar ice cap, determine if there was an area north of Barrow where a meteorological station could be established and, most importantly, navigate an air route from Barrow to Europe.

There had been few flights north of the Arctic Circle at that point and maps for the region were famously inaccurate. Between 1926 and 1928 Eielson flew Wilkins dozens of times to Barrow caching fuel, studying the area and making attempts at the long Arctic flight.  

The transcribed pages found in Seattle cover the early flights to Barrow and correspond directly with passages in “Flying the Arctic”, a book about the expeditions later written by Wilkins. (And yes, I'm geek enough to have a first edition of that book.)

On March 31, 1926, the two men became the first to fly to Barrow. The Eielson pages read:
“Flying conditions, strange over ice and snow—much mist—strange phenomena—mirage—sun dogs, fog rings in sky—water, sky northern lights, night arches, continuous whiteness, can’t trace rivers, no detail or shadows, no horizon, very hard to discover coast line—so many lakes in Barrow country that it is hard to tell where the Arctic Ocean begins...Wilkins hands me a note that I can now see 100 miles further into unexplored area than any one else has ever seen.”

After being weathered in for several days, they returned to Fairbanks and made a second fairly uneventful trip on April 10th. On April 15th they departed with their heaviest load and Eielson wrote:
“Wilkins and I depart on hectic trip — third trip — carrying over 4900#. We are unable to get off the first time. Stop motor and stop before hitting trees. We turn around and start again with same load. We just get off clearing trees. We run out 5 miles before we have altitude enough to clear high trees then head north. Good weather until we get to Endicotts. They are all enclosed in clouds. We cannot get higher than 8000 feet. Mountain range over 9000 feet. We make a run at mountains then turn and go back for another run. We go from each clear spot to clear spot so close to mountains that at times each wing tip would not miss by more than a few feet. Once Wilkins claims we rolled a wheel on a peak. Finally fog closes in so we can only go east in a pass. We follow this pass hoping it will not turn out to be a blind alley. Wilkins suggests throwing off part of the load. I suggest that we keep it all awhile more. We find a pass that is clear and head north again — getting thru into tundra and fine sunshine. We land at Barrow after six hours.”
It is totally reasonable right now to think these guys were a tiny bit crazy. (Wing tips missing mountains by a few feet - whoa!)

The 1926 trips ended a few weeks later after multiple weather delays but Wilkins returned in 1927 and finally, in 1928, he and Eielson successfully flew from Barrow to Spitzbergen. The two men became famous around the world and Eielson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of all time.” (Wilkins, who was Australian, was knighted.)

The rest of Ben Eielson's story is out there somewhere, waiting to be found in an archive. I just need to keep getting lucky and I'll find it.

Post pic is of Ben Eielson with one of the aircraft for the Detroit Arctic Expedition.

If you want to read more about the history of flying, climbing, exploring and my research into the 1932 Cosmic Ray Expedition, you can subscribe to my newsletter. You can also read the archives here.

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