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1950s: Over the North Pole

Norwegian navigational skills, together with some American know-how, opened the door for SAS’s first major hit: a direct route between California and Scandinavia.

On November 23, 1952, the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet ran a short news story on page A10, reserved for short and light items. The photo of an envelope was the size of two thumbnails, but while the paper made its piece of news about the first-day cover and the fine envelope, the big news was in the letter inside:

“Dear friend,
Scandinavian Airlines System is happy to send you, with greetings, this letter, flown from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on SAS’s history-making first exploratory Polar Flight.”

Flying to the US West Coast was challenging to begin with, and the fact that the airlines had to take a detour around the North Pole didn’t make it any easier. It took SAS years to develop the special navigation system that enabled its planes to fly over the magnetic pole safely and cut the distance by a thousand kilometers.

When crossing the Arctic, the magnetic North Pole made the use of a traditional compass impossible, and using a sextant was difficult during long periods of the year because the sun is below the horizon in the winter months between the fall and spring equinoxes, even if pilots could still navigate with the help of the North Star in the winter. Also, the lack of cardinal directions made traditional maps useless.

Already in 1948, just two years after the company was founded, Norwegian World War II veteran Einar Sverre Pedersen submitted his plans on how to fly over the Arctic, and a couple of years later the airlines started to plan routes over the area. Meanwhile, SAS worked with Bendix Aviation Corp., a US company, to figure out the problem with the compass.

In the early 1950s, the magnetic North Pole was more than 1,000 kilometers south of the navigational North Pole, so the compasses would point south when they should be reading north – or would go back and forth. A new method was required. Bendix came up with a gyro, which pointed to a set direction for as long as the airplane was flying.

Another major technological breakthrough was the development of the solar compass, which used polarized light that made it possible for the navigators to see the location of the sun, even when it was below the horizon. The third element that Pedersen’s team needed was a polar map the Americans had developed during World War II.

On November 19, 1952, the Arild Viking, a DC-6B, took off from Los Angeles, with 22 dignitaries on board, en route to Copenhagen. Pedersen himself was the navigator on the trip – and he was SAS’s chief navigator on polar routes between 1953 and 1975. The first polar flight made stops in Edmonton, Canada, and Thule, Greenland, and landed in Copenhagen 28 hours after it left Los Angeles.

“SAS is five years ahead of all other airlines,” Wayne Parrish, the president of American Aviation Publications, told the Aftonbladet newspaper. “The Scandinavians have done what all the others have also understood must be done and what we have waited for. This is a historic moment.

“They should be able to apply for the necessary licenses for polar route traffic, and now that they’ve found the polar shortcut, a similar shortcut to the Far East must be on the horizon,” he added.

Two weeks later, on December 6, the Hjalmar Viking touched down in Stockholm after a 21-hour journey from California as SAS continued to run tests, while waiting for the go-ahead to start regular traffic to California.

And six months later, Svenska Dagbladet wrote in its “News in English” column: “The first airliner ever to fly a traffic route over the icy regions of the North Pole arrived in Tokyo today. It was the Scandinavian Airlines System plane Hjalmar Viking, which had left Oslo 52 hours and 57 minutes earlier, carrying 40 Red Cross men for the Norwegian hospital in Korea. “The plane was met with geishas with flowers in their hands."

“SAS’s Tokyo representative states that the flying time will be shortened to 36 hours when the route comes into regular use, and that all major airlines will soon be using a polar route between Europe and the Far East, and between California and Europe. The real “Great Circle” route, however, passes over Siberia, and cannot therefore be followed by Western aircraft. The Hjalmar Viking will be back in Oslo at 6:35 pm on Friday, thereby also being the first passenger plane ever to complete a round-the-world flight.”

It took another year for SAS to get the American route authorities on board, but with the help of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce it won the right to fly to Los Angeles in 1954.

On November 15, two years after the Arild Viking’s adventure, it was time for the big premiere. The Leif Viking took off from Los Angeles and the Helge Viking from Copenhagen, and the two planes met each other at the North Pole to celebrate the accomplishment.

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