Col. Bernt Balchen, USAF Ret., is the founder and honorary chairman of the International Aviation Snow Symposium. The son of a country doctor, he was born in Tveit, Norway near Kristiansand.
Balchen was an expert navigator, aircraft mechanic and aviator as well as a Norwegian-American polar and aviation pioneer. His service in the United States Army Air Force during World War II was tied to his Arctic expertise and helped the Allies in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Postwar, he continued to be an influential leader in the United States Air Force as well as in private consulting.
These are some of the highlights of his career:
- In 1925, he was a pilot on the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition to Spitsbergen and in 1926 became a member of the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Arctic Expedition - an attempt at flying an airship over the North Pole. In a last minute decision by Amundsen, Balchen was not chosen for the final flight. Later, in his 1958 autobiography, Balchen maintained that Amundsen's competitor, Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, had been unsuccessful in their own attempt to fly by aircraft to the North Pole and back a few days earlier. Balchen based this assertion on calculations he made from Byrd's own speed/navigational data.
- Balchen, under the sponsorship of Joseph Wanamaker and as co-pilot/navigator with Floyd Bennett, flew the Ford trimotor "Josephine Ford"' in 1926. A flying tour to more than 50 American cities, the flight promoted commercial aviation as a safe, reliable and practical means of transport.
- In 1927 along with Richard E. Byrd, Balchen flew the first (experimental) USPS mail transport "America" across the Atlantic. Despite repeated attempts, bad weather and low visibility made landing impossible. When the aircraft ran out of fuel, Balchen landed the wheeled airplane in the sea just off the coast of France, without injury to the crew.
- On 28-29 November 1929, Balchen became the first person to fly over the South Pole, as the pilot for Byrd's flight.
- Due to his reputation as a polar, transatlantic and aviation expert, Balchen was hired in 1931 by Amelia Earhart as a technical advisor for a planned solo transatlantic flight. In an attempt to throw off the press, Earhart turned over her repaired Lockheed Vega to Balchen who was assumed to be planning an Antarctic flight. Balchen took the Vega to the Fokker Aircraft Company plant at Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. There, he and mechanics Frank Nagle and Eddie Gorski reconditioned the aircraft for the upcoming record flight. The fuselage was strengthened to take extra fuel tanks that were added to provide a 420-gallon capacity. Additional instruments were also installed. After modifications had been made, Earhart flew the Vega successfully across the Atlantic on May 20, 1932
- Balchen continued working as test pilot for Fokker. He participated in the Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition as chief pilot in 1933-1935. He returned to Norway in 1935 to help organize the Norwegian Civil Airline and pave the way for a Scandinavian civil airline union. He was instrumental in the eventual creation of SAS later in 1946.
- In 1939, Balchen served as a consultant to the Finnish Air Staff, as well as being a member of the Norwegian Armaments Commission. He successfully negotiated a cooperative US-Scandinavian civil air agreement for transatlantic flights in 1940. Balchen helped establish the Norwegian Air Force training base, "Little Norway", in Canada.
- Later in 1940, he served the RAF by ferrying aircraft to the Far East. Called to Washington by Gen "Hap" Arnold, he joined the US Army Air Force on September 5 and was deployed to Greenland to build a new key airfield in the North Atlantic aircraft ferry route, "Bluie West-8". Balchen led many daring rescues of downed aircrews in the period of 1942-1943. In January of 1944 Balchen was transferred to the UK to work for the Air Transport Command and the OSS by opening an air transport route from the UK to Stockholm. His mission was to support the resistance in Norway and transport over 2000 Norwegians from Sweden for military training in the UK and Canada. He conducted many clandestine operations in Sweden and Norway. He transported over 1000 US airmen who were released from internment by Sweden to the UK. Over 100 aircraft that had been downed in Sweden were repaired and flown back to the UK. He transported a German V-2 rocket from Sweden to the UK two months prior to the first use of the V-2 against the UK. After the war Balchen became president of Norwegian Airlines. He was awarded many honors, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Harmon International Trophy, presented by President Eisenhower.
- In 1946 Balchen helped form the SAS. He rejoined the USAF in 1948 and commanded an air rescue unit in Alaska. A 1949 flight from Alaska to Norway made him the first pilot to fly across both poles. In 1951 he assisted in the construction of the Thule Air Base in Greenland. He retired from the USAF in 1956. Colonel Balchen died in 1973.