People & Events
Arctic adventurers Richard E. Byrd, Roald Amundsen, and Lincoln Ellsworth had much in common, not the least of which was that they all knew and benefited from the expertise of aviation pioneer Bernt Balchen. A native of Tveit, Norway, Balchen first gained experience in Arctic flying when he served with Roald Amundsen. In 1925, Amundsen, along with Arctic aviator Ellsworth, was rescued by Balchen when they had been forced down on Spitsbergen, Norway. One year later, again in Spitsbergen, Balchen would prove valuable to Richard E. Byrd when he helped fashion special skis, made of the oars of life boats, for Byrd's plane, the "Josephine Ford". Balchen also advised Byrd that it was better to attempt Arctic take-offs at night when the runway was iced over and slick.
In 1927, Richard Byrd was preparing to be the first man to fly across the Atlantic. Byrd's preferred pilot, Floyd Bennett, had been badly injured in a test flight. In the time it took the plane to be repaired, Charles Lindbergh had successfully completed the historic flight. Byrd decided his transatlantic flight would be the first to deliver airmail. In June, Byrd and pilots Bert Acosta and Bernt Balchen headed across the Atlantic. Bad weather forced them to land in the waters off the coast on Normandy, France. Their goal had been Paris.
Byrd and Balchen had a tempestuous relationship, each somewhat suspicious of the other. Balchen, a meticulous keeper of flight logs, had doubts about the veracity of Byrd's claim to have flown over the North Pole. His doubts were confirmed when Floyd Bennett, Byrd's pilot on the flight, reportedly confessed to not having reached the pole. Balchen kept the revelation to himself, knowing that alienating Richard Byrd could only harm his career. When Byrd chose Balchen to be his pilot in his flight over the South Pole, Balchen was reportedly put off by Byrd's secrecy in coming to the decision. Byrd needed Balchen perhaps more than he was willing to admit. An ace at flying on instruments, Balchen made the necessary adjustments on November 29, 1929, that allowed he and Byrd to be the first to soar over the South Pole.
Balchen became a U.S. citizen in 1931 and rose to the rank of Captain in the U.S. Air Force. During World War II he led air operations against Germany from his position in northern Norway. In 1971, Balchen went public with his doubts about Byrd's claim to have flown over the North Pole. His claim cast a shadow over Byrd's legacy and called into question his own motives for continuing his association with Byrd, who had died in 1957. Balchen himself died in Mount Kisco, New York in 1973.