Bernt Balchen

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Bernt Balchen : biography

23 October 1899 – 17 October 1973

Bernt Balchen (23 October 1899 – 17 October 1973) was a pioneer polar aviator, navigator, aircraft mechanical engineer and military leader. A Norwegian native, he later became a U.S. citizen, and was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross His service in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II made use of his Arctic exploration expertise to help the Allies over Scandinavia and Northern Europe. After the war, Balchen continued to be an influential leader with the U.S. Air Force, as well as a highly-regarded private consultant in projects involving the Arctic and aviation.Glines 1999, pp. 268–273.



Gaining recognition as an accomplished pilot, the Norwegian Defense Department selected Balchen in 1925 to become part of the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition, a rescue mission for the missing explorer Roald Amundsen under the command of Flight Lieutenant Lützow-Holm. The expedition consisting of two seaplanes, was sent to Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago.Simmons 1965, p. 56. This assignment would make Amundsen, already a family friend, a lifelong friend and confidante.Glines 199, p. 19. During the next year, Balchen became part of a ground party led by Lieutenant J. Höver, providing technical services for the Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile Arctic Expedition, ultimately a successful attempt to fly the lighter-than-air airship, Norge, over the North Pole from Svalbard to Point Barrow, Alaska. Although he was a highly regarded mechanic, Balchen’s main role was to provide survival training to the Italian crew members as well as to teach them to ski. In a last-minute decision by Amundsen, he was not chosen to be on the record-breaking dirigible flight as Nobile was in charge of picking the crew, which already had a complement of 23. After observing the futile efforts and eventual crash of a Fokker trimotor belonging to one of his competitors, Commander Richard E. Byrd of the U.S. Navy, Amundsen asked Balchen to help in preparing the "Josephine Ford" trimotor for a flight to the North Pole. Under his supervision, the damaged aircraft skis were repaired with improvised wooden supports from a ship’s oars.Simmons 1965, p. 87.

Although Commander Byrd and his pilot, Floyd Bennett claimed to have flown to the North Pole and back on 9 May 1926, historians such as Walter Boyne allege that the first flight over the North Pole was actually carried out three days later by Amundsen, Nobile and their crew on board the Norge. In his autobiography in 1953, Balchen further discounted the Byrd account. He had taken meticulous notes of the activities at Spitsbergen and based his assertion on calculations that he made from Commander Byrd’s own written airspeed and navigational data. Later researchers who have studied the data recorded by Byrd and Bennett have decisively confirmed that those aviators could not have made it to the North Pole, due to mechanical breakdowns (including a failed aircraft engine and broken sextant) and that they had carried out a fraud by announcing that they had flown over the North Pole.Simmons 1965, p. 91.

In 1926, under the sponsorship of Joseph Wanamaker, Balchen officially joined the Byrd party, as the co-pilot and navigator, with the pilot Floyd Bennett, flying the "Josephine Ford" on a tour to more than 50 American cities, thereby promoting commercial aviation as a safe, reliable and practical means of transportation. Following this tour Balchen was hired by Anthony Fokker as a test pilot for the Fokker Aircraft Company at the Teterboro Airport, New Jersey.

On 29 June 1927, Balchen, as the co-pilot with the chief pilot Bert Acosta; the flight engineer, George Otto Noville and the navigator and air flight organizer, Commander Byrd, flew an U.S. Post Office airmail aircraft, Fokker trimotor America, across the Atlantic Ocean from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. Due to Acosta’s reported lack of ability to successfully fly via aircraft instruments, and the foul weather for most of this flight, Balchen did nearly all of the flying. Bad weather and low visibility over France made landing at the Paris airport impractical, despite their repeated attempts. When their aircraft was running low on aviation gasoline, Balchen decided to fly back to the western coast of France, and there he landed the Fokker Trimotor that was not designed to land on the water, on the ocean just off the coast of France, and without any injury to the occupants.Simmons 1965, pp. 107–108.