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Under the Polar Sky
- An exhibition about the aviation pioneer Bernt Balchen
 
 
Norsk Luftfartsmuseum 24. oktober 1999 - 25. april 2000

 
 

The exhibition - aims and design
"Under the Polar Sky" aims at rendering a complex portrait of Bernt Balchen as an individual and a pilot. The exhibition has been built up around a great number of photographs, supplemented with objects and models. The exhibition also includes five water-color paintings made by Balchen himself.

"Under the Polar Sky" has been designed like a propeller, with six propeller blades. Each blade covers one topic. The entrance to the exhibition is at the tip of one of the propeller blades. When the visitor arrives at the propeller nave, he or she will find a showcase with objects; among them a model of the plane "Josephine Ford". This plane symbolizes the beginning of Bernt Balchen's actual career as a pilot, and from this starting point, the visitor can wander through the other propeller blades and discover more about Balchen's life and accomplishments.

The exhibition was opened by Balchen's former wife, Bess Balchen Urbahn.
 

About Bernt Balchen
Bernt Balchen was born in Tveit, not far from Kristiansand, on October 23, 1899, and died in the United States in 1973. By the time of his death, he had become a legend. His life is as exciting as a novel - a novel that keeps the tension taut from start to finish. Between his first solo flight over the Oslofjord one April day in 1921, and to his death, he lived a dynamic, eventful life, and showed impressive bravery, practical sense and willpower.

- Polar aviation
Bernt Balchen was first and foremost a Polar aviator. He received his Norwegian Naval Air Force wings at "Marinens Flygeskole", in Horten (Norway), in 1921, and spent some time as a naval pilot. But already by 1926 he applied for a leave of absence and travelled to Spitsbergen to participate as a reserve pilot on Roald Amundsen's expedition with the air ship "Norge". The same year he moved to the United States. On November 28 and 29, 1929, he flew the American Richard E. Byrd to the South Pole.
This was the first-ever flight to the pole, and can be said to be the climax of Balchen's career as a Polar aviator. Twenty years later, in May 1949, he piloted the first flight from Anchorage, Alaska, over the North Pole to Thule, Greenland. Bernt Balchen thus became the first person to reach both poles by air.

- Other achievements
Balchen also achieved other pioneer feats: In 1927 he flew Richard E. Byrd across the Atlantic. During a period before and after World War II he was chief superintendent, and later manager, in "Det Norske Luftfarts- selskap" - Norway's first united company of air services.

During World War II, Bernt Balchen was appointed colonel in the US Air Force. He established, and later became commanding officer of, a large military air base on the West Coast of Greenland, Bluie West 8. Bernt Balchen, after that, organized more allied operations to Norway and Scandinavia. He managed to evacuate four thousand Norwegians and other refugees from Sweden, so that they could later join the allied armed forces. His planes dropped weapons and equipment to the Norwegian resistance movement. Towards the end of the war, in 1944-45, Balchen led airborne supply missions with food, medicines and police forces to Finnmark from Kallax airport in North-Sweden. After the war, Balchen was commanding officer of the 10th Rescue Squadron in Alaska, and later served as special assistant on Arctic problems for the US Air Force.


- A complex human being
Bernt Balchen, in many ways, lived the life of a macho man. He was an explorer, a pilot, an adventurer, an athlete, a soldier and a hunter. He was praised as a hero and an idol, and was awarded a great number of distinctions. But Balchen was a more complex human being than he appeared to be in the public eye. Behind the facade, he led a turbulent private life. Alcohol and lack of money caused problems from time to time. In his later years, Balchen found new enjoyment in art. He was an accomplished watercolorist, with more one-man shows at art galleries in the USA. In Balchen's elegant strokes of the brush, we may catch glimpses of sensitivity and vulnerability which add nuances to the picture people have of him.
Even though Bernt Balchen had personal problems to struggle with, he was, indeed, an engaged fellow being. Having a friendly and warm personality, he easily got in touch with people and gained their confidence. At the opening of the exhibition at the aviation museum, Dr. Robert Baehr, who is preparing a biography about Balchen, gave a lecture on him. Baehr, among other things, stated: "There is a universal opinion: everybody liked the man! I still wonder why so many different individuals can be so surprisingly unanimous. All I have been in contact with, have been eager to contribute to his biography because they both liked and respected him".
Bernt Balchen died of cancer in October 1973. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.