Ben Eielson, the "Father of Alaska’s Airmail Service"

02.21.2015
Blog

By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator

Ben Eielson leaning against a plane
Ben Eielson

Ben Eielson was an aviation pioneer. Known as the "Father of Alaska's Airmail Service," he was born in Hatton, North Dakota in 1897. Like many other young men, Eielson enlisted in the armed forces when the U.S. entered the First World War, ending up in Signal Corps' aviation section. After the end of the war, Eielson took to barnstorming, as did several other ex-military pilots. There wasn't much money to be made in that line of work, and after a few years he decided to accept a teaching position in Alaska.

The challenges of transportation and communication over the vast distances of the territory intrigued Eielson. Before long he was pushing the need for a commercial aviation company, having convinced financial backers of the promise of his vision. Eielson had support for the venture and soon was flying as the only pilot of the Farthest North Aviation Company.

By 1924, Eielson and supporters had managed to receive a mail contract for service between Fairbanks and McGrath, Alaska, a distance of about 300 miles at $2 per pound of mail, one half the cost of the route's dogsled mail service. On February 21, 1924, Eielson took off in a single-engine de Havilland from Fairbanks with 500 pounds of mail headed for McGrath, Alaska.

Ben Eielson standing in front of a plane
Ben Eielson

That first flight was a success, but postal officials were not convinced of the need for the more expensive airmail over the cheaper dog sleds. In May, after only half a year of service, the contract was withdrawn. Eielson traveled around the country again, taking various jobs, before returning to Alaska late in 1925. It was there that the Australian explorer, Sir Hubert Wilkins, convinced Eielson to accompany him on an expedition, a trans-polar flight from northern Alaska to Greenland. The resulting 1926 expedition did not succeed, although in the attempt Eielson did become the first flyer to land an airplane on the Arctic Slope.

In April 1928, Wilkins and Eielson finally flew 2,200 miles over the polar cap from Alaska to Spitzbergen Island, Greenland. Similar expeditions followed, and in 1928 Eielson won the Harmon Trophy for the greatest feat in American aviation of that year. The next year, Eielson joined a rescue mission to save passengers and furs off of a freighter trapped in ice near Siberia. Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, were killed flying into a blizzard. Their bodies were recovered months later.

 

Nancy Pope

About the Author
Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, has worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she has curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.