Bush Pilot Hall of Fame
Meet the pilots who created the Alaska bush pilot legend.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2013
NASM SI 89-21561
Carl Ben Eielson
Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, gets its name from this polar explorer, although, like many of the pilots who received Army flight training during World War I, Eielson enlisted too late to see combat. Eielson became world-famous in 1928 for two pioneering flights with explorer Hubert Wilkins: the first, across the Arctic, from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen, the Norwegian island north of Scandinavia; the second, charting islands around Antarctica. For these achievements, he was awarded the Harmon Trophy.
Eielson was one of the first to see the airplane’s potential in Alaska. Juan Trippe, who saw the same potential some years later, put it this way: “A territory where people pay four hundred dollars for the privilege of walking behind a dogsled for ninety days is a good prospect for an airline.” In 1923, with backing from a group of Fairbanks businessmen, Eielson bought a surplus open-cockpit Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and, calling his service Farthest-North Airplane Company, flew passengers and supplies to mines. (Eielson wasn’t the first to operate a commercial air service; that distinction appears to fall to C.O. Hammondtree of Anchorage, who, several months before Eielson started his company, took tourists on sightseeing trips in a Boeing Model C floatplane, dubbed the Mud Hen.) The following year, in an open-cockpit de Havilland DH-4, Eielson flew Alaska’s first official airmail delivery.
A year after receiving the Harmon Trophy, Eielson was killed in an airplane crash while, under contract to the Swenson Fur and Trading Company, he was attempting to retrieve furs and passengers from a ship caught in the ice of Cape North, Siberia. In a widely publicized search, Joe Crosson and Harold Gillam located the crash site. Weeks later, a Soviet search party found Eielson’s body beneath several feet of hardened snow.