Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ben Eielson and his Jenny fly into Alaska History

Carl Ben Eielson, one of Alaska’s pioneering aviators, grew up yearning to fly. Born in Hatton, N.D., in 1897, he got his chance to become a pilot during World War I by enlisting in the U.S. Army. Eielson completed flight training and received orders to sail for France, but the war ended before he shipped out. He was discharged in March 1919.

He spent the next several years alternating between barnstorming and attending college. While enrolled at Georgetown Law School (now Georgetown University) in Washington, D.C., Eielson met Alaska’s delegate to Congress, who urged him to teach in Alaska.

In 1922, Eielson arrived in Fairbanks to teach secondary school. Teaching couldn’t prevent him from dreaming about flying, though, and he soon convinced several Fairbanks businessmen to back him in forming the Farthest North Airplane Co. He bought a U.S. Army surplus Curtiss Wright JN-4D (a Jenny) and was soon ferrying supplies, mail and passengers between communities and mining camps.

In February 1924, he flew the first air-mail run in Alaska, from Fairbanks to McGrath. It took him about four hours to cover that distance, which would have taken two weeks by Alaska’s normal winter mail delivery system — sled dog.

Eielson went on to achieve many other aviation firsts. He teamed up with Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins for several Arctic expeditions. In 1927, they made the first known landing on pack ice. The next year (1928) Eielson and Hubert flew from Alaska to Greenland, the first flight over the North Pole. Later that year they also flew over Antarctica, becoming the first men to fly over both polar regions in the same year.

Eielson was killed two years later in a plane accident. In November 1929, he and his mechanic, Earl Borland, crashed while flying a Hamilton airplane to evacuate passengers and cargo from a stranded ship off the coast of Siberia. It took search parties over two months to find the crash site. (For information about the Eielson Memorial Building at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, click here.)

Fortunately for aviation history, the owners of the first plane that Eielson used in Alaska (the Curtiss Wright Jenny) donated it to the University of Alaska. The plane was disassembled and stored at the university for many years.

Eventually, the plane was reassembled and displayed at the Fairbanks International Airport passenger terminal. However, the wings it wore were not its own. Evidently, the plane was moved to Eielson Air Force base for reassembly and while there, its wings were accidentally destroyed. The ever-resourceful airplane assemblers replaced the missing wings with those from another plane in the university collection, a Swallow biplane.

That was how things stood until new construction at the airport passenger terminal meant the Jenny needed to be moved. Volunteers from the Farthest North Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (Chapter 1129) stepped forward to make things right. In 2007, they began the time-consuming process of finding original plans and fabricating new wings.

Roger Weegel, coordinator of the restoration project, told me that during their research they discovered what a rare bird Eielson’s Jenny is. While a few score Jennies still exist (even several that fly), most of those other planes have been extensively rebuilt. Except for the new wings and the engine, everything else about Eielson’s plane is original. (Eielson replaced the original Curtis OX-5 engine with a Hispano-Suiza engine — standard in the later JN-4H).

The wings are now complete and the disassembled airplane sits in the University of Alaska Aviation Technology shop at Hutchison Career Center. The reassembly will soon begin, and hopefully, Eielson’s plane will again be on display at the airport this time next year.

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