25 August 2009

If At First...

On August 23, 1932, central New Jersey's second greatest aviator took off from Floyd Bennett Field in an attempt to pilot the first northern-route flight to Europe. Thor Solberg, a thirty-nine-year-old Norwegian who had come to America in 1928, had been working at a picture frame factory in Brooklyn - and saving every penny to realize his dream of establishing an air-route from New York to Norway.

Thor Solberg 1932
Thor Solberg, 1932

Accompanying Mr. Solberg was radio man Carl Petersen. A fellow Norwegian, Petersen had already been to the Antarctic on Admiral Byrd's first expedition of 1928-30, and would return there again on his second expedition of 1933-35.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 August 1932

Solberg and Petersen had some competition. Also departing that day, from the same airfield, flying the same type of aircraft - a Bellanca K biplane with the 12 passenger seats removed and customized for a trans-Atlantic flight - and with the very same destination, Oslo, was Norwegian-American Clyde Lee.



Lee and radio man John Bochkon had a slight head start and navigated through a tremendous storm to complete the first leg of the trip, landing at Harbor Grace, Newfoundland. On August 25, Lee took off across the Atlantic with enough fuel for 37 hours of flight. He was never heard from again.

Solberg and Petersen flew through the same storm on their way to Harbor Grace - a storm that was described by Solberg as one of the worst he had ever seen. At one point, they were completely blinded by snow and did not know whether they were over land or water. Solberg made an unsuccessful effort to climb above the storm before the engine stalled and he had to put the plane down.

They made a water landing on Placentya Bay, about sixty miles from Harbor Grace. They were rescued by fishermen, but the badly damaged plane sank to the bottom of the bay.

It was nearly three years before Thor Solberg was able to realize his dream, finally touching down at Bergen, Norway on August 16, 1935.

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