1950s: Touchdown in LA – time to pop the Champagne
It was the era of exploration. Within the first decade after World War II, aviation took long strides and pushed down multiple barriers. Space exploration took its first steps: US pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, and the Soviets were busy at work on their Sputnik program.
Closer to Earth, one of the major milestones had been crossing the North Pole, which SAS proved possible in 1951, thanks to a special gyro, solar compass, and polar maps.
The Sputnik wouldn’t be launched for another six years, and it would be 10 years before President John F. Kennedy told Americans, and the world, that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
But that was still science fiction, and SAS officials, especially chief navigator Einar Sverre Pedersen, had other things on their minds. SAS had completed numerous test flights over the North Pole to California, and even one in the other direction when the Leif Viking landed in Tokyo in June 1954 to a hero’s welcome complete with geishas.
The tests proved that the new navigation equipment worked, but the authorities hadn’t approved the new route. In September 1954 it was reported that the Canadian government had given permission for the SAS flight to land in Winnipeg, the last stop before Los Angeles.
“Time to get going,” Svenska Dagbladet wrote.
The premiere date was set for November 15, 1954, and SAS had its staff all around the world working on final preparations. Pedersen himself was in Canada. The station chiefs of all the four stops – Copenhagen, Greenland, Winnipeg, and Los Angeles – came to Denmark to go over the details.
Everything was planned in detail. SAS built new radio masts in Norway to improve the connection between Scandinavia and Greenland, and there was even a continency for the unlikely event that the plane would have to make an emergency landing in the Arctic.
An emergency kit included tents and inflatable rubber boats, with repair kits for them. There were paddles, radio senders, shark repellent, medical equipment, a Bible, fishing rods, emergency supplies (candy, vitamins, chewing gum), flashlights, compasses, chemicals to turn salt water into drinking water, signaling lights, sleeping bags, jackets, red powder for creating signals in the snow, snowshoes, a heater, shovels, snow goggles, knives, an axe, gloves, and a hunting rifle.
In Scandinavia, newspapers held polar contests for their readers. In Sweden, Aftonbladet readers could win a ticket to Los Angeles if they correctly guessed the Hjalmar Viking’s actual flying time (and they voted for their favorite story in the paper during “Polar Week” leading up to the flight).
The governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, wrote a welcoming letter that was published in Expressen. A whole week of festivities was planned in Los Angeles, and according to rumors – which turned out to be true – film star Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” then 62, was getting ready to host a party for the dignitaries coming from the other side of the world over the North Pole.
Bob Hope, the legendary American comedian, raved about the new connection. “I’ve often wished there was a direct flight to Europe, and this new 22-hour flying time is fantastic,” he was quoted as saying. “You can almost order fresh Danishes for breakfast.”
On November 15 in Copenhagen, the Hjalmar Viking was boarded by Prince Axel of Denmark, the prime ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, SAS CEO Per Norlin and other board members, and a select group of journalists.
Meanwhile, Cyd Charisse, who danced with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, was ready to smash a bottle of Champagne in Los Angeles and send the Leif Viking and the governor of California, the mayor of Los Angeles, and Canada’s minister of transportation on their way to Scandinavia.
Yes, two SAS planes, the Hjalmar Viking and the Leif Viking, did a fly-by at the North Pole, and the historic meeting was broadcast live on radio before they continued their flights in opposite directions.
The Hjalmar Viking made good time, arriving in California 35 minutes early, and it had to circulate around the airport for a while to let the welcoming party get ready. The first person off the plane was Prince Axel, who gave a short speech. After that, it was time to get the party started – Mary Pickford was waiting.
The direct connection between Scandinavia and Hollywood was officially open.
Published: March 4, 2016