The Original Polar Express

Headline from the September 20, 1961 Statesville (NC) Record and Landmark.

Mid afternoon on December 11, 1951, an Alaska Airlines DC-4 nicknamed “The Polar Express” took off from Fairbanks and returned some 16 hours later accomplishing something no other commercial airliner had accomplished before — flying over the North Pole.

The flight was a publicity stunt, but one with the very important purpose of placing a literal pole at the North Pole. The scheme was the brainchild of Stanley Garson, an oil worker in Point Barrow. He constructed a nine foot long, red and white striped pole to be placed on the top of the world. Garson enlisted the help of Alaskan radio personality Audree Vance whose broadcast name was North Pole Nellie. Nellie suggested that the flight also carry children’s letters to Santa.

Fairbanks Mayor Bob Hoopes and Carolina Cotton (lower left) and North Pole Nellie (holding the mail bag at center) prepare for the flight of the Polar Express. (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner).

The original hope was that the US Air Force would deliver the pole and the letters. The Air Force frequently made flights from Ladd Air Force Base over the pole. The nine foot pole was too large for the Air Force to transport so it was cut down to six feet. The plan, however, was ultimately rejected by the Air Force.

Nellie pitched the idea to Alaska Airlines who jumped at the chance. By mid-November 1951, the Civil Aeronautics Board approved the flight which was planned for Thanksgiving. Delays pushed it into December.

In the meantime, Nellie turned up the PR campaign. She was even able to get Hollywood to help. The film industry was beginning a publicity campaign of its own called “Movietime USA” and were eager to help. A young actress named Carolina Cotton (the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell) was sent as their contribution to the event.

The flight crew (from left to right): Robert Kong (2nd pilot), Wayne Wisting (chief navigator), Daniels McClean (Navigator), Charles Hall (3rd Pilot), Hebry O’Neil (flight engineer), L.E. Flahart (Captain). (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner).

The date of the flight was moved to December 10. A parade from the post office to the airport was held sponsored by the Alaskan Dog Mushers Association. The plane, however, was in Seattle and delayed by maintenance. It arrived the next day.

The letter writing campaign met with overwhelming success. The original plan was to put the letters inside the pole. More than 5,000 letters were received which exceeded the poles capacity. The others were placed in a bag and tied to the pole.

Short snorter on a Japanese 10 yen note commemorating the flight of the Polar Express on December 11-12, 1951. In addition to the crew, the note is signed by Carolina Cotton, her manager Bobby Bennett and ground crewman Rusty Fannon.

Shortly after noon on December 11, the plane left the Fairbanks airport to great fanfare and good luck kisses for the crew from Ms. Cotton. They re-fueled at an Air Force installation at Point Barrow and headed for the Pole. As they approached the target, a new problem surfaced. The pole was too large to fit through the side door of the plane. With some last minute modifications, everything was set.

With the ice caps in sight, the pilot reduced speed to 120 mph. The side doors were opened and the pole and the bag of letters were deployed. Its chute opened and the pole drifted slowly downward lit by a flashlight tied to it as a beacon. At 12:58 am on December 12, 1951, there really was a pole at the North Pole.

This post was adapted from information found at http://www.carolinacotton.org/

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