First Aircraft Landing at North Pole
May 3, 1952
By: Charles Compton
In 1947 what had been the Army Air Corps became the United States Air Force. Soon after it was 5 years new the commanding general of the Alaskan Air Command Major General William D. Old decided that the United States Air Force needed some publicity. The event would be the first landing of an aircraft at the North Pole.
After getting the go ahead from General Nathan Twining, vice chief of staff, USAF, General Old called on the right man at the right time.
That man was Lt. Colonel William Pershing Benedict, who in July of 1940 joined the RCAF just a few days short of his 22nd birthday. After a bout with spinal meningitis and some shenanigans that almost washed him out an unheard of three times, he finished his training as a fighter pilot and received his wings July 29, 1941.
After being in several Operational Training Units in England, Benedict was shipped out to Takoradi, Ghana by January of 1942. He managed to bypass the usual movement of troops by ship to the Suez Canal for deployment, by ferrying a Hurricane to Shandur, Egypt at the edge of the Great Bitter Lake.
Benedict crashed landed his Hurricane in a corn field in French Equatorial Africa and made his way to El Geneina, Sudan where he ferried another Hurricane to Shandur.
After some delay in Cairo, Benedict was assigned to 127 Squadron RAF on the 15 of March 1942 in Haifa, Palestine. Benedict was shot down July 16, 1942, while he and 7 other Hurricanes were flying top cover for 8 Squadron, but not before he started another career that would make him the greatest scrounger in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations.
Benedict transferred to the Army Air Corps in December of 1942 and was first assigned to the 79th Fighter Group and after only several weeks was reassigned to the 57th Fighter Group and the 66th Fighter Squadron. By December of 1943 Benedict was the CO of the 66th Fighter Squadron. In September of 1944 Benedict was assigned to the 87th Fighter Bomber Group and became the CO of the 526th Fighter Bomber Squadron.
Benedict came home on leave in December of 1944 and married the girl he met in Canada, returned to Europe till June of 1945. Benedict served in many capacities after the war and in 1949 he found an assignment in Alaska at Elmendorf AFB Anchorage Alaska.
Unbeknown to him after the 57th Fighter Group and its 3 squadrons were deactivated in 1945, they were reactivated on the Island of Shemya in the Aleutian Chain in 1946.
Benedict was in Group Headquarters until there was an opening for CO in the 64th Fighter Squadron in March of 1950, in which he served as CO till 1952. Then he was assigned to Alaskan Air Command as Special Projects Officer, then Assistant Director Chief of Staff/Operations Alaskan Air Command.
In Benedict’s USAF Officer Effectiveness Report under duties it reads;
ll. DUTIES SSN 2162 (Operations & Training Staff Officer): An Assistant DCS/Operations advises the CG on all matters pertaining to the AAC intelligence activities, manpower and organization, training and requirements, operations, preparation of over-all plans and programs, combat operations, special Arctic projects, development and review of broad AAC policy and AF civilian compo0nent activities, including CAP and Air Scouts. Directs and supervises the Directors of Operations and Training. Manpower and Organization, Plans, Intelligence, Combat Operations and Special Artic Projects. Performs special duties as directed by the Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations.
Benedict was a Command Pilot and trained pilots to fly the C-47. He was also Group Instrument Instructor, Group Flying Safety Officer and Group Training Officer.
Having said all the above General Old asked Benedict if he could carry out this mission. Benedict is said to have replied, “as long as you give me everything I want and the people I want, I can do it.”
Benedict was told to get together with Lt. Col. Joseph O. Fletcher and plan the expedition. They did it in less than a month. The expedition would be called “Operation Oil Drum”.
At this same time the Navy was trying to make it to the North Pole also but had mechanical problems with their P2-V aircraft and were unable to get to the Pole first.
After one aborted attempt, with Benedict as Pilot and Fletcher as co-pilot they made the first successful attempt to land on the North Pole on May 3, 1952.
Radio contact was maintained through out the expedition. There was another ski equiped C-47 standing by at T-3 (1 hour away) ready to be flown by Captain Lew Erhart of the 10th Air Rescue Squadron at Elmendorf AFB in case of emergency. A message was flashed back to T-3 “Expedition instructions carried out. No Sweat.”
Members of the Air Force expedition team that landed at the North Pole on 3 May 1952 are as follows; Lt. Col. William P. Benedict, Pilot, Headquarters, Alaskan Air Command; Lt. Col. Joseph O. Fletcher, copilot and commander of the (T-3) ice island project; 1Lt. Herbert Thompson, navigator, 58th Strategic (Weather) Reconnaissance Squadron, Eielson AFB*; MSgt. Edison T. Blair, recorder, Headquarters, Alaskan Air Command; SSgt. Harold Turner, engineer, 5039th Base Flight Squadron; A1C Robert L. Wishard, radio operator, 5039th Base Flight Squadron, Elmendorf AFB; A2C. David R. Dobson, Alaska Air Command photographer; Fritz Ahl, Alaskan bush pilot, McGrath, Alaska; Dr. Albert P. Crary, geophysicist, West Newton, Mass.; Robert Cotell, assistant to Dr. Crary, Cambridge, Mass.;
Writers note *Lt. Thompson was a navigator in the 91st Bomb Group (H) 401st Bombardment Squadron Heavy, flying B-17’s out of Bassingbourn, England in WWII.