Bernt Balchen: 1899-1973
FROM VETERANS TRIBUTE.ORG and the AVIATION HALL OF FAME:
Rank, Service: Colonel O-6, U.S. Air Force
French Foreign Legion 1917
Finnish Army 1918
Royal Norwegian Naval Air Service 1921-1926
U.S. Army Air Forces 1941-1946
U.S. Air Force 1948-1956
World War I 1917-1918
Finnish Civil War 1918
World War II 1939-1945
Cold War 1945-1956
Bernt Balchen was born on October 23, 1899, in Tveit, Norway. During World War I, he served in the French Foreign Legion, the Royal Norwegian Army, and was wounded while serving with the Finnish Army during the Finnish Civil War in 1918. Balchen joined the Royal Norwegian Naval Air Service in 1921 and was commissioned as a Naval Aviator in 1924, where he served as a test pilot and arctic explorer. He was the pilot on the trans-Atlantic flight in the America in 1927, and was the pilot for the first aircraft flight over the South Pole with the Byrd Antarctic Expedition in 1929. During the 1930's, Balchen became a U.S. Citizen, helped create the Norwegian Airlines and the Nordic Postal Union, and he helped negotiate an aviation treaty with the United States. He joined the British Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War II, and was commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Forces on September 5, 1941. Col Balchen built, organized, and commanded Bluie West-8 base in Greenland from October 1941 to January 1943, and then operated a courier air transport service between Britain and Sweden, as well as other clandestine missions, from January 1943 until the end of the war. He left active duty on April 20, 1946, and then helped organize the Scandinavian Airlines System until returning to active duty with the U.S. Air Force on October 11, 1948. Col Balchen served as commander of the 10th Air Rescue Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, from November 1948 to July 1950, and then as a staff officer with Alaskan Air Command from July 1950 to January 1951.During this time, he flew an aircraft non-stop from Alaska to Norway in 1949 to become the first person to pilot an airplane over both poles. Col Balchen next served as advisor for the construction of the Air Force Base at Thule, Greenland, before serving as the Assistant for Arctic Activities at Headquarters U.S. Air Force in the Pentagon from August 1951 until his retirement from the Air Force on October 31, 1956. He was awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1953, was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973, and became the only non-Canadian enshrined into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974. Bernt Balchen died on October 17, 1973, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His quote on his grave at Arlington National Cemetery reads:
"Today goes fast and tomorrow is almost here. Maybe I have helped a little in the change. So I go on to the next adventure, looking to the future but always thinking back to the past, remembering my teammates and the lonely places I have seen that no man ever saw before..."
AVIATION HALL OF FAME:
Balchen, Bernt Explorer
Bernt Balchen never sought fame; rather it seemed to seek him. He sought challenge and in doing so found his role in life. He always strove for excellence and won international acclaim. He believed in freedom of man and fought for it in the uniforms of three nations.
In 1926 helped the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition prepare to fly the dirigible Norge over the North Pole.
Chief pilot of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition in 1929, he navigated a Ford tri-motor over the South Pole.
From 1933-35 served as chief pilot of the Lincoln-Ellsworth trans-Antarctic expedition. First pilot to fly an airplane over both Poles for which he was awarded the Harmon Trophy.
Assisted the U.S. Air Force in building a base in Greenland and served the Air Force as an expert Arctic aviator.
Bernt Balchen was one of America’s greatest aviators. In the words of the World War One ace flyer, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, “there was no better man in the field of flight.” His contributions to aviation history were many. He flew two historic missions for Richard E. Byrd: the trans-Atlantic flight of the America in 1927, the first to carry US airmail to France; and as the pilot for the Byrd expedition in 1929 where he was the first to fly over the South Pole, for which he received a special Congressional Medal.
Bernt was born in southern Norway, the son of a country doctor, who encouraged him to enjoy the outdoors. Bernt loved to hike, hunt, fish and ski in the lovely forests and mountains near his home. He developed into an exceptional athlete, and was a candidate for Norway’s Olympic team. He was educated in forestry in Norway and in Sweden gaining a deep appreciation for the landscape of Scandinavia.
During the First World War, he served in the French Foreign Legion and in the Norwegian Army. He then fought as a volunteer in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, when he was seriously wounded. After he returned to Norway and the Norwegian Navy, he received a commission as a naval aviator in 1924 and advanced in the Norwegian Naval Aviation Service as a test pilot.
The great Norwegian explorer, Ronald Amundsen, chose Balchen to join his team at Spitsbergen in preparations of the dirigible, Norge, for the 1926 flight over the North Pole. With this mission complete, Balchen received a request from Richard E. Byrd to join his voyage out of Spitsbergen back to the U.S., and to be available for future Byrd expeditions.
Balchen was hired as a test pilot by the aircraft designer/manufacturer Anthony Fokker, and sent to Canada to teach clients about aircraft maintenance and flying in extreme winter conditions. While in Canada, Balchen also carried out pioneering cargo flights into northern Canada. For his role in establishing and developing aviation in Canada Balchen was inducted as the only non-Canadian into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.
Flying with Richard Byrd’s trans-Atlantic flight in the America in 1927, Balchen was the pilot credited with saving the lives of the crew in a record forced-landing off the French coast. Later, as a member of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, Balchen served as the pilot for the first aircraft over the South Pole in 1929, accomplished under challenging conditions.
Balchen was now an aviation celebrity, serving as technical advisor for Amelia Earhart for her successful flight across the Atlantic.
In the mid-1930s he returned to Norway to work with the Norwegian Airlines, and later on a team to create a Nordic Postal Union, and to help negotiate an aviation treaty with the United States.
He was in Helsinki on November 30th, 1939, working on a contract to provide U.S. fighter aircraft to Finland, the same day of the Soviet attack on Finland that prompted the Winter War of 1939-1940. Balchen helped organize the Norwegian Air Force Training Base called “Little Norway” in Canada.
In early 1941 the U.S. was secretly developing bases in Greenland–initially to expedite aid to besieged England. General Henry “Hap” Arnold asked Balchen to join the Army Air Corps, and to build, organize and command the northernmost U.S. base in the Arctic Circle on Greenland, designated Blue West-8. Here he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldiers’ Medal for many dramatic rescues of downed U.S. airmen on the Greenland icecap.
General Arnold had a new mission for him in 1943. Balchen operates a courier air transport service between Britain and neutral Sweden. He established a permanent base in Stockholm to operate the courier service. He began with five civilianized B-24 bombers, capable of carrying 35 passengers and by the end of the war he had 22 aircraft in operation. These aircraft transported over 2000 Norwegians to Britain for military service and repatriated over 1200 interned U.S. airmen. The aircraft delivered more than 200 tons of military supplies for the resistance forces of Norway and Denmark, and returned to Britain with personnel, diplomatic pouches, and sorely needed Swedish ball bearings.
Other sensitive missions followed. Balchen conducted highly dangerous re-supply operations over Norway in 1944, the first daylight re-supply missions into Norway in the war and the longest transport flights in the European Theater of Operations, 16 hours, to reach north Norway. In late 1944 Balchen led a unit of ten U.S. C-47 Transport Aircraft, in full military markings, to establish a uniformed American presence in neutral Sweden. This force was used to transport over 1500 Norwegian Light Infantry soldiers into combat in northern Norway and provide supplies to the soldiers and Norwegian civilians in the war devastated area. His wartime service in Scandinavia was recognized by many awards, including the U.S. Legion of Merit, and decorations awarded by the Kings of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Following the war, Balchen returned to civilian life to help organize the Scandinavian Airlines System. This task done, he returned to the U.S. Air Force in 1948 for command duty in Alaska with the Air Rescue Service. He flew non-stop from Alaska to Norway in 1949 to become the first to pilot a plane over both poles. In 1951 he served as the technical advisor for the construction of the USAF Strategic Air Command Base at Thule, Greenland.
Throughout his career he enjoyed sketching and painting in watercolors. In 1953 he was asked to host an art exhibit in a prominent art gallery in New York City. The exhibit was a great success and led to two further exhibits. His artwork captured the beauty of the arctic landscape that he deeply loved. President Eisenhower presented Balchen the prestigious Harmon Trophy for aviation excellence in 1953. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1956 but continued in an advisory capacity for government and industry. One of his special achievements was the founding of the International Aviation Snow Symposium, an effort to improve the safety and efficiency of aviation operations in winter weather.
Balchen passed away in 1973 and was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. Words engraved on his memorial marker read “…I go on to the next adventure, looking to the future but always thinking back to the past, remembering my teammates and the lonely places I have seen that no man ever saw before, still hearing the crunch of the skis and the howl of malamutes carrying far away and forever through the thin air”. Bernt Balchen lived the life of the explorer and leader he always wanted to be. He left us a marvelous legacy of accomplishments.”
FROM THE US AIR FORCE MUSEUM WESITE:
"The last of the Vikings." - Lowell Thomas, 1973
Col. Bernt Balchen was America's greatest Arctic expert in modern times. Born in Norway in 1899, he served as a cavalryman in the Finnish Army against the Russians in World War I before becoming a pilot in the Norwegian Naval Air Force in 1921 where he acquired his initial Arctic flying experience. In 1925 he was a pilot on the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition to Spitzbergen; the next year he was a member of the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Arctic Expedition. In 1927 he was a pilot on Admiral Byrd's famous flight across the Atlantic, and in 1928 he flew to Grennly Island north of Newfoundland to rescue the crew of the German airplane "Bremen," which had crash-landed after flying the Atlantic. During 1928-1930, Balchen was chief pilot on Admiral Byrd's Atlantic expedition and on Nov. 29, 1929, he piloted the first airplane to fly across the South Pole. He was made a U.S. citizen by Act of Congress in 1931.
During the 1930s, Balchen continued to participate in Arctic and Atlantic flight operations, and when World War II started in 1939, he began ferrying airplanes to England and Singapore for the British. In 1941, prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the USAAF at the request of Gen. Hap Arnold, and on personal orders from Arnold, went to Greenland where he supervised the construction of and later commanded the famous U.S. air base known as "Bluie West 8."
While in Greenland, Balchen led many spectacular rescue missions, saving the lives of numerous U.S. flyers whose planes had gone down on the icecap.
In 1943 Balchen was made Chief of the Allied Transport Command for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the USSR, with a secret base in Scotland. During that time, his planes flew 4,399 people from neutral Sweden to Great Britain across enemy-occupied territory. He also led highly-secret aerial missions into Norway to resupply Underground resistance forces in their operations against the Nazi invaders.
Balchen was recalled to active duty with the USAF in 1948 and assigned to command the 10th Rescue Squadron in Alaska. The next year he made the first nonstop flight from Alaska over the Polar to Europe. He was transferred to HQ USAF in 1951 to participate in building up northern defenses and surveying Arctic sites for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. Also, he pioneered the development of Thule Air Base in Greenland and blazed airborne trails to assist both commercial and military aviation in the Arctic region. After retiring from the USAF in 1956, Col. Balchen continued to serve the Air Force on special assignments and aviation and energy industries as a consultant until his death in 1973.