More than a pilot

Bernt Balchen, the aviator and explorer, was also a writer and strategic visionary

Bernt Balchen

Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta / Wikimedia Commons
Pilot Bernt Balchen in front of a plane on skis in Alberta, Canada, in 1930.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Bernt Balchen is probably the most famous aviator and explorer you’ve never heard of. He was born in Tveit, Norway, just outside Kristiansand. In his youth he became an accomplished outdoorsman and cross-country skier. Ever in search of adventure, he joined the Royal Norwegian Navy Air Service as a pilot after a stint in the French Foreign Legion and also as a volunteer cavalryman in the Finnish Civil War. In Norway’s challenging aerial environment of fjords, mountains, and bad weather, Balchen, by necessity, became an accomplished instrument flyer. In recognition of his piloting skills, he was asked to join the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition in 1925, which was organized to rescue a lost Roald Amundsen in the Svalbard Archipelago.

He returned to the archipelago a year after that successful mission at the special request of Amundsen, who sought Balchen’s assistance as an expert aviator and outdoorsman to help safely launch the dirigible Norge for its flight from the island of Spitsbergen to Teller, Alaska. However, he did not fly with Amundsen, but instead provided technical support for Commander Richard E. Byrd, who was also in Spitsbergen, where Byrd and his co-pilot made a celebrated attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole in an airplane. Later, in 1927, he joined Byrd on Byrd’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in a tri-motor Fokker. Commander Byrd continued to rely on Balchen as both an aviator and innovative airplane mechanic when he and his crew made the first-ever flight over the South Pole.

In 1931, Amelia Earhart sought him out to specially modify her Lockheed Vega for a solo trans-Atlantic flight. Landing in Ireland in her plane in 1932, she was the first woman to successfully cross the Atlantic by airplane.

Balchen spent the rest of the 1930s advising the newly formed Norwegian Airlines, working to establish the Nordic Postal Union, and negotiating an aviation treaty between Norway and the United States. In 1940, in anticipation of the coming war, he set up “Little Norway” in Canada, a base that trained 2,500 Norwegian aviators during World War II. As a dual Norwegian and American citizen, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a colonel and flew numerous dangerous long-distance flights to Europe in order to ferry much-needed military aircraft to the war zone.

After the war, he was assigned to Alaska where he became involved in developing strategies and techniques for the rescue of downed aircraft in the Arctic. In 1949, while in Alaska, he flew on a mission over the North Pole and became the first man in history to have flown over both the North and South poles. When his military career ended in the mid-1950s, he turned his attention to commercial aviation in both Norway and the United States. He died at Mount Kisco, New York, in 1973. In recognition of his service to the United States, he is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Bernt Balchen

Book cover: Come North with Me
an autobiography
Bernt Balchen

Balchen was certainly a pioneering pilot and master airplane mechanic for over 30 years, but there was even more to the man. He was also an accomplished painter whose works were often offered for sale in New York’s best galleries. In addition, he was a wonderful writer and strategic visionary. His writing skills are amply showcased in his 1958 book Come North with Me: An Autobiography published by E.P. Dutton. His writing is direct and enormously engaging in its descriptive power. For instance, here is his word portrait of Roald Amundsen on the eve of his dirigible expedition over the North Pole:

“His face is expressionless and we cannot read it. Beneath the thick tufts of his eyebrows, white as hoarfrost, his eyes in their deep sockets are hidden in shadow. His cheeks are leathery and folded into hard creases, with a fine network of wrinkles spreading out from the corners of his eyes like a map of all the dog trails he has run. The most prominent feature of his face is the thin and arched nose, which gives him the look of an eagle. It is a face carved in a cliff, the face of a Viking.”

Later in the book he paints another vivid word portrait, this time of the famous aviator and inventor Tony Fokker: “The America (Byrd’s tri-motor airplane) is being towed back to the hangar for the third time, and Tony Fokker has been up all night, waiting vainly for the take-off. When Commander Byrd strolls into the hangar later that morning, Uncle Tony flies into a Dutch rage. His round pink cheeks blow in and out, like the rubber bulb-horn of his Lancia, as he honks with fury. He is sick and tired of this damn stalling. Byrd can fly America nonstop to hell, for all of him—he is through right now, by Gott. He roars off in his sport car in a cloud of mud and flying grass, and goes for a long cruise in his yacht to cool off.”

Balchen was particularly adept at writing about the Arctic environments he loved so much. For instance, here are his amusing observations on Antarctic penguins: “The ever present penguins meet us as we jump ashore at Discovery Inlet—little Adélie penguins the size of waddling ducks, and groups of giant Emperor penguins more than half the height of a man. They stand in single file in their stiff white shirts and black tuxedos, weaving a little and teetering impatiently from one foot to the other, like slightly inebriated dinner guests waiting their turn at the men’s room.”

Besides his skills as an aviator, explorer, painter, and writer he was a prescient visionary. Near the end of his 1958 autobiography he muses that “if the present rate of warming continues for another thirty years, we shall have an ice-free ocean over the North Pole in the summertime.” In a similar vein, he recounts his thoughts in the cockpit during his flight over the North Pole in 1949: “I looked north as I flew, and beyond the north to the future and in my mind I could picture commercial vessels plying some day over this vast new sea, opening up the riches of all the hitherto inaccessible lands within the Arctic rim: Prince Patrick Island and Grant’s Land and the whole Canadian Archipelago.”

Later, in the same chapter he wrote: “Today the only true map is the globe, and the airplane has turned it on its side. In Roman times the Mediterranean Sea was considered the center of the world; but our new Mediterranean is the Arctic Ocean, and the North Pole is the crossroads of tomorrow’s travel.”

Also recognizing the strategic importance of the North, he then went on to warn: “Not only will commercial travel follow this polar route. In time of war, enemy aircraft and missiles may be expected to use the great circle course, bringing all these areas within range of strategic attack.”

And next he wrote of Norway’s strategic importance in this northern future: “We must look north, but like a good pilot, we must be able to see to the west and, more important, to the east. The Soviet’s only entrance to the North Atlantic is between Norway and Spitsbergen. If we can block this Dardanelles of the Arctic, we can turn the Atlantic into a NATO lake where our shipping can move free of naval interference. ‘Who controls Norway commands the North Atlantic’ is as true for the Communists as it was for the Nazis once. The Russians themselves must realize that their Achilles’ heel is the Arctic, and that their occupancy of Scandinavia would close this exposed flank. Here is where the next brush war is most likely to flare up, I think, and our defense of the Scandinavian Peninsula is vital for the security of all the world’s democracies.”

In light of Balchen’s strategic observations quoted above, it is no accident that NATO conducted a massive military training exercise in Norway this year, the largest such exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War. It involved up to 50,000 troops engaged in practicing complex maneuvers on the land, sea, and in the air.

Bernt Balchen was a man of many talents and accomplishments. He is most famous as a pioneering aviator and Arctic explorer, but as we have seen, he was also a strategic visionary, artist, and a surprisingly good writer. He is without doubt one of the truly great Norwegians of the 20th century. Perhaps he will one day gain the worldwide fame he deserves.

This article originally appeared in the January 11, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.