Local aviation history

A&E. The Lake Mohawk Historic Committee is hoping to be able to preserve a piece of aviation history.

01 Dec 2019 | 12:59

In 1929, a little piece of Lake Mohawk traveled to Antarctica, when legendary aviator Bernt Balchen made the first documented flight over the South Pole. Balchen, a Norway native who owned property at the lake and visited frequently, carried with him a banner from the Lake Mohawk Country Club, which has since been on display in the Members’ Room at the clubhouse.

On Friday evening, Nov 29, the Lake Mohawk Historic Committee offered members a chance to help preserve the banner, which has faded from its original dark blue to a muted gray, and which needs reframing to prevent further deterioration. Current club member Andrew Stillinger, a researcher at NJIT, traveled to the South Pole in 2018, taking with him six country club banners, one of which was donated to the club, and five of which were auctioned off during a night of music, drink specials, and history at the Members’ Room.

Historic Committee chair Holly Fiorella and local historian and author Patricia Galperin were on hand to talk to members and guests about the importance of Balchen to the aviation world, and his impact on Lake Mohawk.

“Balchen was a survivalist and a decorated war hero who fought in both World Wars,” Galperin said, “He was originally in the Norwegian cavalry and was preparing to be an Olympic boxer when he got the call that he was accepted into the aviation program.”

What followed was a lengthy career in both civilian and military missions, including pioneering mail flights across the Atlantic, participating in Arctic rescue missions, and serving as an advisor to Amelia Earhart. By all accounts, Balchen was quite the ladies’ man and folk hero, marrying three times and charming people worldwide as an ambassador for early aviation.

Balchen’s connection to Lake Mohawk began in the mid-1920s, when he began to visit the area regularly. He famously celebrated the Fourth of July at the lake in 1928 and was the first to light the aerial beacon which used to adorn the tower on what is currently the Coldwell Banker building in White Deer Plaza.

According to Fiorella, the lake community reminded him of his native Norway.

“He said the lake and the mountains felt like home,” she said, “After the Antarctic expedition, they made him an honorary lifetime member of the country club, and he owned property here for years.”

It is believed that the banner that Balchen took with him on his historic South Pole flight is the only private country club flag to have made such a historic trip.