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Air Force Museum Foundation

Col. Bernt Balchen


"The last of the Vikings."
- Lowell Thomas, 1973

Col. Bernt Balchen was America's greatest Arctic expert in modern times. Born in Norway in 1899, he served as a cavalryman in the Finnish Army against the Russians in World War I before becoming a pilot in the Norwegian Naval Air Force in 1921 where he acquired his initial Arctic flying experience. In 1925 he was a pilot on the Amundsen-Ellsworth Relief Expedition to Spitzbergen; the next year he was a member of the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Arctic Expedition. In 1927 he was a pilot on Admiral Byrd's famous flight across the Atlantic, and in 1928 he flew to Grennly Island north of Newfoundland to rescue the crew of the German airplane "Bremen," which had crash-landed after flying the Atlantic. During 1928-1930, Balchen was chief pilot on Admiral Byrd's Atlantic expedition and on Nov. 29, 1929, he piloted the first airplane to fly across the South Pole. He was made a U.S. citizen by Act of Congress in 1931.

During the 1930s, Balchen continued to participate in Arctic and Atlantic flight operations, and when World War II started in 1939, he began ferrying airplanes to England and Singapore for the British. In 1941, prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the USAAF at the request of Gen. Hap Arnold, and on personal orders from Arnold, went to Greenland where he supervised the construction of and later commanded the famous U.S. air base known as "Bluie West 8."

While in Greenland, Balchen led many spectacular rescue missions, saving the lives of numerous U.S. flyers whose planes had gone down on the icecap.

In 1943 Balchen was made Chief of the Allied Transport Command for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the USSR, with a secret base in Scotland. During that time, his planes flew 4,399 people from neutral Sweden to Great Britain across enemy-occupied territory. He also led highly-secret aerial missions into Norway to resupply Underground resistance forces in their operations against the Nazi invaders.

Balchen was recalled to active duty with the USAF in 1948 and assigned to command the 10th Rescue Squadron in Alaska. The next year he made the first nonstop flight from Alaska over the Polar to Europe. He was transferred to HQ USAF in 1951 to participate in building up northern defenses and surveying Arctic sites for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. Also, he pioneered the development of Thule Air Base in Greenland and blazed airborne trails to assist both commercial and military aviation in the Arctic region. After retiring from the USAF in 1956, Col. Balchen continued to serve the Air Force on special assignments and aviation and energy industries as a consultant until his death in 1973.

Click on the following links to learn more about Balchen's rescue missions.

Saga of B-17 PN9E
"My Gal Sal"

Click here to return to the World War II Gallery.