TC Polar Pioneers - Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen
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A series of short biographical sketches of polar exploration personalities . . .
Amundsen's pilot on the 1925 flight to 88N; second-in-command and navigator on the 1926 Norge trans-polar flight; took part in the 1928 Italia rescue operations and the subsequent search for Amundsen; explored in Antarctica in the 1930s; escaped from occupied Norway in 1940 and eventually became head of the new Norwegian Air Force during WWII; and ultimately became a leading figure in SAS in the post-war years when SAS pioneered transpolar airline flights . . . Few people have had more colorful and varied polar careers and taken part in more historic events than polar aviation pioneer Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen.
The airship Norge just prior to  departure from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen on its 1926 transpolar flight from Spitsbergen to Alaska. Roald Amundsen (in white cap) is standing in front of the gondola door. Riiser-Larsen, the expedition navigator and second-in-command, appears to be inside the doorway.
The Dornier Wal flying boat N25 on the ice at approximately 88N in 1925. Riiser-Larsen was Roald Amundsen's pilot on N25 and second-in-command of the expedition. He was able to successfully take-off from an ice floe and return himself and five companions to Spitsbergen.
Riiser-Larsen, center, in later life. Another polar aviation pioneer, Bernt Balchen, is at right.
by Karl L. Kleve, Curator
Norwegian Aviation Museum
 
Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, aviator, polar explorer, businessman and soldier:  in terms of influence, impact and far-reaching sphere of activities he was perhaps the greatest of Norwegian aviators.
 
Riiser-Larsen was born in Oslo, Norway in 1890. In his 1957 autobiography, he tells the story of a time when, in the 1950s after some lengthy negotiations in the Far East for SAS, he suddenly collapsed in Copenhagen and had to be taken to a hospital. After the worst had passed, the doctor told Riiser-Larsen`s friend who had accompanied him to the hospital, "The patient will survive, although I`m afraid he`s gone quite mad." How so? the friend asked. "Well, you see," the doctor said, "I tried to ask him some questions to determine his state of mind. And the patient told me he was at one and the same time an admiral, a general and president of the SAS. And lately he`d been touring the Far East and Australia for three months! He`s obviously suffering from megalomania."
 
When writing a biographical sketch of Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, one finds oneself immediately confronted by a problem: on which Riiser-Larsen should the greatest stress be placed? Riiser-Larsen the aviator and polar explorer? Riiser-Larsen the Norwegian nationalist? Riiser-Larsen the businessman? Riiser-Larsen the general (or admiral...he was both) and founder of the modern Norwegian Air Force? To say nothing of  the various public offices he held. In fact, if he in any way were to be accused of megalomania, it could be said he had every right to be...
 
Riiser-Larsen was first a naval officer, having joined the naval officers' academy at the age of 19 in 1909. In 1915 he joined the newly formed Naval Air Force. After World War I he was acting head of the naval aeroplane factory for two years. But another officer with less pilot experience but longer overall naval seniority was named permanent head. Riiser-Larsen then continued to serve in the naval air force but changed positions often and was without a permanent military assignment. In 1921 he took his airship pilot exam and started service as secretary for the Aviation Council, a body in the Ministry of Defense supervising both military and civil aviation and aviation infrastructure. This gave him crucial experience regarding the slowly developing commercial aviation. In this capacity, he was frequently a pilot on routes for different new aviation companies. In fact he piloted a substantial part of the commercial air routes that were undertaken in Norway in the 1920s, although never on a regular basis.
 
As the most experienced pilot in Norway, and with a relatively free position in the Navy, Roald Amundsen not surprisingly turned to Riiser-Larsen when looking for a pilot and second-in-command on his expedition to cross the North Pole in 1925. Riiser-Larsen then secured two Dornier Wal planes, the N24 and N25 plus equipment. The expedition didn`t reach the Pole. The two planes landed at nearly 88N and spent the subsequent 26 days on an ice shelf before making a dramatic lift-off and return to Spitsbergen on 15 June, 1925. Although they failed to reach the North Pole, it was still a heroic adventure. And the six members received a hero's reception in Oslo on July 5, 1925.  
 
Riiser-Larsen spent the next several years on different polar expeditions. He took a leave of absence from the Navy and joined Amundsen on his airship expedition Norge in 1926. He joined the search for Nobile and later Amundsen himself in 1928, and in 1929 he was asked to lead the third Norvegia expedition to Antarctica. The Norvegia expeditions were  initiated and paid for by the Norwegian businessman Lars Christensen. The first set out in 1927, ostensibly with the goal of doing scientific research and looking for whaling resources. But a strong secondary goal is disclosed in Christensen`s request to the Norwegian Foreign Office for permission to secure previously undiscovered lands for the Norwegian Crown. The first two expeditions resulted in the annexing of two small islands outside Antarctica, Bouvet Island and Peter I Island. In 1929 it was decided to include aeroplanes in the expedition, in order to start mapping the Antarctic continent. Riiser-Larsen was then requested as expedition leader. On three subsequent expeditions, a major part of Antarctica was mapped, a large share of the continent annexed - Queen Maud Land - and a quite serious conflict with Great Britain in the offing. Britain was not at all happy with the Norwegian interest in what it considered a British sphere of interest. The Norwegian Government wasn`t happy about the annexations either, but the general populace was. And so the government sorted out the conflict with Britain and accepted most of the annexations. This in turn triggered the full division of Antarctica by the end of the thirties.
 
In the book Great Norwegian Expeditions, Riiser- Larsen recounts an audience with the King of Norway,  
 
When I came home [from the first Norvegia expedition in 1929], I had the great honour  of being received in audience by H.M. King Haakon, who wanted to see my maps of the  new country. He asked me if the coasts would provide good anchorage in the terrific  storms one can encounter down there. The King went on "but I see that you have called  it an icy bay, does that mean that it is ice-covered?" I replied: "Yes today, but the ice  down there is receding and one day that bay will be open." The King then asked me   when I supposed that would happen. I answered: "It is not easy to say, Your Majesty,  but I suppose in about 700 or 800 years." The King laughed and said: "That is a long  time." "Yes, Your Majesty, in our life, but not in the history of Norway."
 
By 1933 the expeditions had come to an end. Antarctica was mapped and discovered as good as could be, the interest of Norwegian nationalists had turned to Greenland. Riiser-Larsen had to share fate of many officers in being part of the considerable downscaling of the Norwegian military in 1933 when more than 1000 officers had to find new employment. But when Riiser-Larsen suddenly was faced with imminent unemployment, the shipping company Fred Olsen offered him the job of manager of the newly formed commercial airline DNL (Det Norske Luftfartsselskap). This was a job Riiser-Larsen was eminently well-suited for, both by his experience and his connections. He brought several old naval colleagues with him as pilots, and proceeded to turn DNL from nothing to the leading airline of Norway and one of the three companies that made up SAS in 1946.  
 
Riiser-Larsen rejoined the Air Force when Germany invaded Norway in 1940. He didn`t take part in the battles of April 1940 because both the army and naval Air Forces were easily overwhelmed. Instead he went to London with the Norwegian Cabinet and military leadership. Subsequently he went on to Canada to take part in establishing "Little Norway" the Norwegian training camp in Toronto. Thereafter he returned to London to become an Admiral as Commander in Chief of the Naval Air Force, then a General as Commander in Chief of the Combined Arms Air Force, as the two Air Forces became during the war. Then from 1944 on he was Commander in Chief of the new Royal Norwegian Air Force, the amalgamation of the two Air Forces.
 
Unfortunately for Riiser-Larsen his last few years in the Air Force were marred by personnel conflicts. He was heavily criticized by many of his pilots flying in the Norwegian-British squadrons during the later part of the war for his leadership style. In the end he had to resign in 1946 and not without bitterness. His autobiography, Femti r for Kongen (Fifty Years for the King), bears reminders of that. Taken for many years at face value as a source of information on Norwegian aviation, the book has in recent years been treated with more caution.
 
At war's end, Riiser-Larsen returned to commercial aviation. In 1947 he again became head of DNL. When DNL shortly afterwards joined with its Danish and Swedish counterparts to make up SAS, he became regional manager and main advisor to the Swedish CEO. His particular responsibility was the establishment of transcontinental routes. The opening in 1957 of the SAS route to North America over the North Pole represented the fulfillment of a vision.
 
Such were the feats of Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen: when the time came to use aeroplanes and airships in exploration, he became the natural leading persona, be it as actual leader of the Norvegia expedition or as second in command under Amundsen. When thoughts turned to the idea of how to apply aviation to the business of making money, Riiser-Larsen was put in charge. When the time came to build a modern Air Force, the name of Riiser-Larsen sprang to mind. And this is to say nothing of his role in diverse governmental aviation commissions, or as a public speaker. Riiser-Larsen died in 1965, perhaps the greatest of Norwegian aviators.
About the author: Karl L. Kleve is cand.philol in history from the University of Oslo and curator with responsibility for research at the Norwegian Aviation Museum in Bod, Norway
For more information on Riiser-Larsen, click here.
For a biographical sketch of polar airship pioneer Walter Wellman who made two attempts to reach the North Pole by air, click here.
For a biographical sketch of polar pioneer Louise Boyd, leader of a 1928 search for Roald Amundsen who disappeared on a flight from Tromso to Spitsbergen, click here.
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