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Alaska’s First Bush Pilot

Ben Eielson learned to fly during World War I and ended up becoming the Father of Alaska Aviation.


There’s no talking about the history of bush pilots in Alaska without mentioning the exploits and accomplishments of the first and one of the most famous: Carl “Ben” Eielson.

Born in 1897 the son of Norwegian immigrants, Eielson left his small town birthplace of Hatton, North Dakota, in 1917 to learn to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service and enlisted the following year in the newly formed aviation section of the Signal Corps. After World War I ended, Eielson organized the Hatton Aero Club and got into barnstorming, but on the practical advice of his father, he soon went to law school at Georgetown. Working part time as a police officer at the Capitol, he met Daniel Sutherland, a congressional delegate from the Alaska Territory, who convinced the young aviator to go to Alaska to teach secondary school.

Once in Alaska, Eielson immediately saw the need for aviators. He got a plane and began flying passengers and supplies throughout the northern territory, becoming the sole pilot for the Farthest North Aviation Company.

Eielson would become legendary for flying Australian explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins in 1928 from Point Barrow, Alaska, 2,200 miles over the Arctic Ocean to Spitsbergen in arctic Norway. Later he would pilot Wilkins as he explored Antarctica, making Eielson the first to fly on the ice-bound continent.

No stranger to wintry conditions, he was the first pilot to land on floating ice. Closer to home, Eielson was the first to fly mail by air in Alaska and to land the state’s first airmail postal contract. Up to that point, mail had been delivered by mushers. He made the first airmail run from Fairbanks to McGrath — a distance of about 300 miles, which took 20 days by dogsled — in four hours; at $2 per pound of mail, the service was half the cost of dogsled delivery.

Eielson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in 1929 President Herbert Hoover presented him with the Harmon Trophy for the world’s outstanding aviator. That same year, Eielson formed his own airline in Alaska, but he would not live long enough to see his commercial dream come to fruition. On November 9, 1929, Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, were killed in a crash while on a rescue mission in Siberia attempting to evacuate crew and cargo from an icebound ship in the Bering Strait. Eielson was 32. More than 10,000 people reportedly paid tribute at his funeral in Hatton.

Known today as the Father of Alaska Aviation, Ben Eielson became the first individual to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award posthumously.



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