The Pilot's Lounge #6:
A Pilot for All Time, More Cold Tips, and a Memorable Flight

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Winter's not over yet, not by a long shot. While waiting for the preheater to thaw out your airplane, have you ever wondered about the first pilots to brave cold-weather flying? AVweb's Rick Durden has, and he took the time to research the

The Pilots LoungeLast month, I passed along some cold-weather operating techniques put together by the denizens of the pilot's lounge here at our virtual airport. In the process, I mentioned the father of cold weather flying, Bernt Balchen, and said I'd tell you a little more about him this month. In the interim, I've also received some feedback on cold weather ops, which I'll mention, as well as a moving first-flight experience.

The Patron Saint Of Cold Weather Flying

In talking to pilots about cold weather ops, I've found that few are aware of the pilot who was probably the greatest aerial adventurer of this century. Okay, okay, there about 22 months left before the we roll into a new century, but I'm going out on a limb because I don't think anyone can surpass this guy. Part of my reasoning is based on an experience I had about 15 years ago when I had the great good fortune to sit next to Paul Garber, curator emeritus of the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. He was the employee of the Smithsonian who had the audacity to send a telegram to Charles Lindbergh, in Paris, asking that the Spirit of St. Louis be given to the Museum. The interesting thing was that he sent the telegram while Lindbergh was still en route. Garber had been such a careful observer of the aviation world up through 1927 that he knew Lindbergh would make it. By the time I was able to speak with him, Dr. Garber was the one person who had been in the position to know as much about the people in aviation in North America as anyone alive.

During dinner I asked Dr. Garber whom he felt was the best all-around pilot, ever. I expected him to identify Dr. Jimmy Doolittle (how many people know Doolittle had a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering?) With very little hesitation, Dr. Garber said, "Bernt Balchen." I asked why, primarily because so few people know of Balchen. Dr. Garber explained to me that it was because Balchen was the person absolutely everyone trusted completely, and said that he was the only one of the famous aviators of the "golden age" who was not a self-promoter, something which was ordinarily necessary to eat regularly in those days. Balchen was intensely and painfully shy; however, he was simply so good, and so brilliant, that he never wanted for work in the most challenging areas of aviation. He was always selected for some of the toughest exploring and pioneering expeditions.

As a result of the process of putting together the material on cold-weather operations, I talked with our resident historian here at the pilot's lounge and dug up some material on this amazing airman. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Bernt Balchen

Bernt BalchenBernt Balchen landed on this planet on Oct. 23, 1899, in Norway. He grew up hiking the mountains and forests of that fascinating land, disappearing into the wilderness for weeks at a time, even as a youth. Though shy, he was reasonably fit. In 1919, he was the heavyweight boxer selected to represent Norway in the Olympics. Shortly after the selection was made, he was also picked for pilot training in the Royal Norwegian Navy. The Navy would not delay the training until after the Olympics, so, at 20 years of age, Balchen was faced with a bit of a dilemma. He chose flight. As a result of that decision he went on to do more Arctic and Antarctic flying than anyone in the pre-jet era.

By 1926, he had already done some long-distance flying over uninhabited areas and was one of the earliest successful practitioners of ded (yes, ded, short for deduced) reckoning navigation. He was also a practitioner of celestial navigation. Because of the practicalities of flying in the far north, he also had become an accomplished aircraft mechanic so that he could continue to function as a pilot. That year, he was selected as a member of the Roald Amundsen expedition to fly an Italian dirigible over the North Pole.

While at the staging base on Spitsbergen Island, Balchen was sent over to Richard Byrd's camp where Byrd was planning to ride over the North Pole in a Fokker Trimotor flown by Floyd Bennet. Byrd's inexperienced crews had managed to break both sets of skis for the airplane. Balchen built them a new set, using lifeboat oars split lengthwise for reinforcement, then explained how to keep them from sticking to the snow. That Byrd subsequently faked the flight over the North Pole is well-accepted now (he didn't even stay aloft long enough to come close to having made the round trip, despite claiming a tailwind on both legs). Interestingly, there are still some reference books and museums which give Byrd credit for making the flight. For his work with the Americans, Balchen was invited to come to the U.S. with Byrd's entourage. En route to the U.S., Byrd had Balchen perform a series of navigational calculations. To Balchen's amazement, his numbers were the ones that later appeared on the maps Byrd submitted to the Geographic Society as part of his "proof" of the flight.

The Josephine Ford at the Ford MusuemOnce in the U.S., Balchen teamed with Floyd Bennett and flew the Fokker around the country, before leaving it at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., where it now resides (and where the plaque still says it made it over the North Pole but given that Henry Ford was a major contributor to the endeavor and the airplane was named The Josephine Ford, this is not surprising). Bernt was then hired as a test pilot for Fokker. Before long, he was sent to northern Canada to help Western Canadian Airlines set up its cold-weather service with the Fokker Universal and Super Universal and then he was second pilot on Byrd's flight across the Atlantic in another Fokker Trimotor shortly after Lindbergh made the trip. Interestingly, Balchen was hired as co-pilot to famed airshow and race pilot Bert Acosta, yet it was Balchen who actually hand-flew all but the takeoff because the weather was lousy. Acosta, as was the case with most pilots at the time, could not fly instruments. Upon getting to the French coast and receiving word of deteriorating weather in Paris (they had a radio receiver), Balchen set course directly for Paris. Byrd overrode him and demanded they fly up the coast then follow the Seine. The extra two hours required for the detour meant they arrived after fog had set in. They had to return to the coast. Balchen, showing a certain degree of skill, ditched the Fokker just off the beach. All aboard got ashore without injuries.

Balchen, torn between his love of his native country and his adopted country, applied for U.S. citizenship. While his application was pending, he went to Antarctica, where, in November 1929, as pilot in command, he flew Byrd over the South Pole in a Ford Trimotor. On this polar trip, there were two others aboard and a full photographic record of the flight was made, even though Balchen had to take on the navigation chores because Byrd, inexplicably and despite being officially the navigator, did nothing. The story of Balchen's handling of the overloaded Ford and finding the updraft inches from the leeward wall of a glacier valley to climb to the high south polar plateau is chilling to this day.

While in Antarctica for a year, Balchen and others invented cold-weather gear and engine heating devices still in use all over the world. Upon returning to the U.S., the president gave the Distinguished Flying Cross to all in the airplane, except Balchen. Leaving the White House, Bernt was handed a subpoena. He was to be deported for violating the terms of his citizenship application by going to the South Pole. The sensational story was printed in newspaper extras that afternoon. Fiorello LaGuardia, then a U.S. Representative, later Mayor of New York, and who had flown combat in World War I, got word of the pending deportation. With Minnesota Representative Shipstead, of the other political party, LaGuardia pushed through Congress a bipartisan bill that was signed by President Hoover, making Balchen a citizen before he could be deported.

Bernt returned to Antarctica and made a number of other pioneering flights over that continent.

When Amelia Earhart decided to fly a Lockheed Vega solo across the Atlantic, Balchen prepared and test flew the airplane.

Shortly before World War II started, Army Air Corps General Hap Arnold swore Balchen into the Army as a Major and sent him to build an airport at Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland, to become famous as Bluie West 8. Balchen's crew built the place starting from someone's idea that a mud flat at the end of a fjord could be made into an airport. It was used by thousands of the airplanes and aircrew that crossed the Atlantic to fight for the Allies in World War II.

Out of necessity, Balchen created an arctic rescue program. He and his men picked up numerous downed airmen from the Greenland ice cap. More than once Balchen landed a PBY, a very large, twin-engine amphibian, gear up on the icecap to rescue men dying of exposure and lack of food. He was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for these exploits, but Admiral Richard Byrd's brother, a Senator, blocked the award.

Balchen was then sent to England to command the secret air group making flights between Scotland and Sweden that had also taken on the task of supplying the Norwegian Underground. In addition to flying regular missions as a full Colonel, he kept in touch with the situation on the ground in Norway by personally sneaking across the Nazi-held borders.

During the war, he was five times nominated for promotion to Major General, but, as it had to be approved by Congress, which included a particular Senator, he never got the promotion despite having kept his mouth shut about Byrd's North Pole deception.

Despite the "interesting" relationship, Balchen was said to have had great affection and respect for Richard Byrd, a master of organizing and raising funds for polar expeditions, but who behaved a little strangely once things were actually underway.

Following the war, Balchen was involved in the development of the current Scandinavian airline system, then went to Alaska where he became responsible for setting up the Air Force's arctic search and rescue operations based on his Greenland experience. While there, he flew a DC-4 over the North Pole en route to England researching polar routes for the Air Force. Thus, he became the first person to physically fly an airplane over both Poles.

He passed away in the 1970s, and in one of those odd twists of fate, is buried next to Admiral Byrd at Arlington National Cemetary.

There is a prestigious award given to airports of various sizes for outstanding snow removal. It is hard to win, for there are some airports that are very good at the job. Those who receive it are justifiably proud of the effort. It is simply called the Balchen Award.

This year we will see the centennial of Bernt Balchen's birth. So, the next time you use a preheater and manage to get your airplane started, remember that he was partially responsible for your being able to do it.

By the way, if you want some very interesting aviation reading for these long winter nights, I suggest: Oceans, Poles And Airmen, by Richard Montague, (Random House, 1971), about first flights over large bodies of water and extensive ice (his analysis of the faked north pole flight and the changes Balchen made to his autobiography at the insistence of the Byrd family will get your undivided attention); Hitch Your Wagon, by Clayton Knight and Robert C. Durham, (Bell Publishing, 1950), a biography of Bernt Balchen; and Come North With Me, by Bernt Balchen (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1958). As a reader of aviation books, I've found that "Aeroplane Books" of Williamsburg, Va., 800/447-8890, has been able to locate a number of out-of-print aviation books for me.

A Little More Cold Weather

As a result of my last column, I received a bit of sobering feedback from reader Paul Dold. It seems he and another pilot once put duct tape over the air vent openings on a 1968 Arrow (180 hp version) one very cold day. It helped keep the cabin warm, but, unknown to them, one of those vents also supplied cooling air to the radio stack. They fried, and lost, the radios en route. I agree with his suggestion to make sure you know where any air vents go before you plug them.

Paul also related a snowplow story. One night he landed on one runway at a multi-runway airport while snow clearing operations were in process. While rolling out, his landing light illuminated a windrow of snow across "his" runway, left by the plows clearing the intersecting runway. He was able to stop, but it nearly ruined his evening.

In the last month, I landed at an airport where the plow operators had faced a challenge following a major blizzard. They did not pile snow at the ends, but the sheer volume of snow meant that a windrow was left as they made the pass at each end of the runway. It was about two feet tall, right at the very end of the runway. So, as I said, don't aim for the threshold of the runway at night unless the runway is very short and you are absolutely certain you know there is nothing sticking up.

Let's be real careful out there.

The Joy Of A Child

I did something recently I'd promised my daughter I'd do once she got big enough and the weather cooperated. She has been a climber, has taken gymnastics and loves to hang upside down. The first time she saw an air show pilot roll an airplane onto its back she said she wanted to try it. Finally, we did.

The local 7KCAB Citabria has a mod to the engine so it puts out 170 hp rather than 150, which is nice. Unfortunately, it went on the market a few weeks ago, so I've been trying to fly it before it's gone. I was getting worried that the weather would not cooperate in the interim.

Finally the gray skies of winter rolled back, so I called to see if I could get the Citabria about a half hour after my daughter's school let out. It was available. I showed up at school at dismissal and was rewarded by a nine-year-old running full tilt into me and yelling "Daddy!" I told her today was the day we were going to do aerobatics. Her response was to sprint to the car and tell me to hurry.

On the way to the airport we talked about parachutes and rolls and loops. She wanted to do rolls. Once at the hangar, I ran a weight and balance to see if I could put a 75-pounder with a 20-pound chute in the front seat and me in the back. Yep.

We spent about a half-hour discussing how to wear her chute, what controls were what and how they differed from the family bug-smasher. She showed that she could pull the mixture to idle cutoff and shut off the fuel if we had an emergency, and that she could release the safety harness, get the door open and jump. Once strapped in, having your daughter hit the starter on an airplane for the first time is a pretty emotional experience. My goodness she's growing up. Well, her feet don't reach the rudders, so it will be some time before we consider any serious dual.

CitabriaIt was kind of nice flying from the back and being able to see forward clearly. Even sitting on a cushion and a parachute, the front seat occupant didn't block much of the view. Climbout over the snow-covered landscape was the sort of thing which inspires poets. My passenger counted the feet until we were 4,000 feet above the ground because she wanted to do a roll as soon as we got there. She was a little dismayed to learn we had to fly level several miles to get to an area where we could legally do the maneuvers.

My friends, the first roll was a ball. She laughed and shouted and crowed all the way around. She thought it was great. She loved having a window on top of the airplane so she could see the ground when we were upside down. She wanted to do a roll herself. She wasn't strong enough to get full aileron deflection on the Citabria, even with spades, so I "helped." Another laughing, cheering roll. It was infectious. I've always enjoyed "akro," but I've never been in an airplane with anyone so expressive about the pure joy of it. Then we had to do some level inverted flight, and some loops and some more rolls. On some rolls, she did most of the work on the ailerons. I'd figured she'd last through a couple of rolls, a little inverted work, then a loop or two. Nope, she wanted more. Another session of inverted flight, more rolls and then zero g, which was a little disappointing to her because she was strapped in tightly.

Finally she decided she had had enough. While we let down, she did open the air vent for a little fresh air (good, she's mortal), but she never expressed any other indication of nausea.

Someone had lowered the runway by about six inches since the last time I was there, so the landing was pronounced "bouncy." Just what I get for being a little impatient on a wheel landing. Sigh.

As we taxied in, she started telling me that she wanted to use the parachute and wants to skydive when she gets old enough. I just smiled. I hope that sense of adventure doesn't desert her. After reaching the hangar, she shut the engine down with the mixture control and said, "watch how fast I can get out." She popped the quick releases on the two seat belts, opened the door (I worked the top latch), spun around, put her feet on the door sill and jumped out, chute and all. Fortunately she didn't reach for the D ring, as I had visions of paying for a re-pack.

I wrote this section a couple of hours after we flew. As I wrote it, she was still excited. I am still very, very glad we were able to do something which was so much fun for both of us.