1950s: When SAS owned the North Pole
In 1957, while Giant, a major motion picture starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, opened a multi-week run of sold-out shows in Stockholm, SAS was getting ready to launch a giant show of its own: a trip to Tokyo, over the North Pole.
SAS had already done what no other airline had managed to do by flying over the magnetic North Pole toward Los Angeles. Now it was time to do the same thing in the opposite direction.
SAS had already conquered the northern route and had been flying between California and Scandinavia for two years, but that didn’t make the eastern route any less challenging. The plane took off from Stockholm a little over a week before the opening of the route, with 12 SAS captains and 31 crew members and reporters on board, ready to bring back the Emperor Hirohito’s brother, Prince Mikasa, the prince’s wife Yuriko Takagi, and 41 other special guests. (Incidentally, Prince Mikasa turned 100 last December.)
SAS didn’t leave anything to chance that time, either. On board were the captain of the Tokyo plane, Mikal Aschim, who had piloted the first polar flight to California and the round-the-world flight in 1953, as well as Danish chief pilot Fugi Svensen. The chief navigator, Einar Sverre Pedersen, was a living legend, and the chief of operations was another polar expedition veteran, the Norwegian Knut Hagerup Svendsen, who later became the airline’s CEO.
The only glitch in the preparations – there always has to be something – was that one pantry oven didn’t work, and serving unheated meals was out of the question because, as then-CEO Henning Throne-Holst put it, “it wouldn’t be our super-duper service.”
But after a 15-minute investigation, somebody realized that the oven had not been properly plugged into the wall. When the Reidar Viking flew over the North Pole at 10:50pm on February 16, the crew could radio back to Luleå: “Operation normal.”
When the Reidar Viking touched down in Tokyo and the propellers had stopped, the plane was surrounded by hundreds of reporters and photographers from all over the world. What made the Reidar Viking’s journey to Tokyo special, even if it wasn’t the first commercial flight, was that fact that the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was about to start in a few months and onboard the Reidar Viking was a group of Scandinavian scientists who measured radiation in the polar region.
The IGY was an international scientific project between July 1, 1957, and December 31, 1958. It marked a continuation of thawing of the relations between the Soviet Union and the West, and the period saw the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first successful artificial satellite.
Professor Chiju Tsuboi, chairman of Japan’s national IGY committee, thanked the scientists for their contributions to cosmic research. “A bridge of heaven has been opened between Europe and Asia,” he exclaimed. His reference is not to be taken lightly. The floating bridge of heaven is a part of the creation myth of Japan.
The Reidar Viking had been delayed for half an hour, but that didn’t matter. It was in Tokyo, and it had flown over the North Pole. The 53,950 liters of fuel had been consumed for a good cause.
Everything was ready for the first commercial flight, even the little metal box that was to be parachuted down from Guttorm Viking – Reidar’s twin starting from Copenhagen – to the North Pole on February 24 at 10:30pm Swedish time. It contained Danish Prime Minister Hans Christian Hansen’s “North Pole Declaration” and a microfilm containing the January 1 front pages of about 700 newspapers around the world.
On February 25, the front pages were all about SAS.
Published: September 15, 2021