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Forgotten Pioneer Pilot

By Bethany Robinson
1/31/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

The Norwegians never forgave their most famous aviator for collaborating with the Nazis.

Robert F. Scott saw great potential in 21-year-old ski expert Tryggve Gran, who accompanied him to Antarctica in 1910. But the polar explorer was by no means blind to the youthful Norwegian’s faults, commenting: “…the boy has a certain amount of intelligence and a great fund of good nature under his thick crust of vanity. If the last can be transpierced, we can find uses for the better qualities.” Gran would go on to become one of Norway’s aviation pioneers, but his “thick crust of vanity” would ultimately obscure his aerial achievements.

Jens Tryggve Herman Gran was born into an affluent family on January 20, 1889, in Bergen, Norway. Following his father’s early death, Gran’s formative years were marked by his search for adventure. An ardent soccer player and skier, he attended school in Switzerland, then traveled to South America and throughout Europe before entering the Norwegian Naval Cadet College. He left college to go to Antarctica with Scott.

Gran, the youngest member of the expedition, was quickly nicknamed “Trigger.” His immaturity, tendency to preen for the camera, ski-jumping antics and storytelling earned him mixed reviews. At one point he was voted “best looking and biggest idiot.”

The expedition proved to be a sobering experience for all involved. Scott and four others died in March 1912 after having reached the South Pole in January, a month after rival Roald Amundsen. Among the dead was Laurence “Titus” Oates, a Boer War hero to whom Gran had pledged to side with Britain in the event of war with Germany. Gran was a member of the search party that found three of the dead. He wrote in his diary, “Scott is dead, the adventure is at an end, and the future lies ahead.”

When Gran returned to Europe in 1913, a chance meeting with British pilot Robert Loraine suggested a new vocation. Gran later claimed that Loraine convinced him to take up flying by saying, “It must be a damn sight easier to fly than to do all those things on the ice.” Loraine had been the first to fly the Irish Channel, the first to land on the Isle of Wight and had competed in the 1911 Circuit of Britain race.

Gran enrolled at Louis Blériot’s flying school, and in due course received his pilot’s certification. Then, eager for acclaim, he resolved to be the first to fly across the North Sea. He bought a Blériot XI-2 monoplane from his instructor in early 1914. Named Ça Flotte, Gran’s airplane had a relatively powerful 80-hp Gnome engine—at a time when most Blériots were powered by 25-hp Anzanis or 50-hp Gnomes. Ça Flotte was constructed of ash, bamboo and steel tubing, with rubberized fabric surfaces. Gran described it as “an affair of bicycle wheels and piano wire.”

The Norwegian transported his dismantled airplane to Peterhead, the easternmost point in Scotland, more than 300 miles from Norway’s western coast. His plan was to fly over the steamship routes, so that if he had to ditch a ship might pick him up. On July 17, 1914, he moved the Blériot to Cruden Bay, which promised less fog.

The flight’s timing was ultimately dictated by the oncoming war. Facing a British ban on civilian flights after 6 p.m. on July 30, Gran took off on July 29, but was soon forced to turn back due to dense fog. When he tried again the following day around 1 p.m, the heavily laden airplane barely missed a power line on takeoff. The notoriously churlish weather over the North Sea worsened soon after that, but Gran pressed on. His only instrument was a small compass, and he used the size and direction of the waves beneath him as a guide.

Following a rough flight of 289 miles that lasted four hours and 10 minutes, Gran landed in Norway, shortly thereafter renaming the Blériot Nordsjøen (North Sea). He had set time and distance records for the longest flight out of sight of land, records that would endure until John Alcock and Arthur W. Brown flew the Atlantic five years later. Besides being the first to fly the North Sea, Gran had brought the first airmail to Norway, carrying a letter from British publisher Lord Northcliff to Norway’s Queen Maud.

Although Gran was hailed as a hero in Norway, international interest in his feat was curtailed by saber rattling. When World War I began, Gran was appointed a first lieutenant in the newly formed Norwegian air force, which also commandeered Nordsjøen. Sent to Britain and France to study air defense in 1915, Gran kept his promise to his dead friend Titus Oates, joining the Royal Flying Corps as an alleged Canadian under the name of Teddy Grant. When he was formally released from the Norwegian air force in 1916, he rejoined the RFC using his own name. He served first in home defense with No. 39 Squadron, then went on to fly Sopwith Camels with No. 70 Squadron, carrying out offensive patrols over the Western Front.

Shot down over France in 1917, Gran survived the war to be awarded the Military Cross. He ended the conflict as a squadron commander of the Royal Air Force unit in the Russian port of Archangel. By that time war wounds had left him deaf in one ear and with a badly scarred leg.

Though he remained in the RAF after the war, Gran took leave in 1919 to attempt a transatlantic crossing. He crashed into the Bay of Fundy right after takeoff. Later that year he toured Scandinavia in a Handley Page O/400. On August 23, Gran became the first to pilot an airplane from London to Oslo. The Handley Page was the largest plane ever to have landed in Norway—and when he crashed it in September, it was the largest plane to have crashed there. Gran was next grounded by a motorcycle accident and released from the RAF with the rank of major in 1921, after which the Royal Norwegian Air Service quickly recommissioned him.

In the interwar years Gran remained restless, convinced that his exploits should have garnered him more fame. In 1934 Norway celebrated his feat’s 20th anniversary with a North Sea crossing by three Norwegian military Fokkers, one of them piloted by Gran. Nordsjøen was subsequently donated to the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo, where it can be seen today.

Gran’s perennial disgruntlement made him easy prey for the Norwegian Nasjonal Samling party of Nazi stooge Vidkun Quisling. It is not clear if Gran joined the party before or after the April 1940 German occupation of Norway that put Quisling in power, but Gran was a well-known member during World War II. Quisling hoped to use him to improve the party’s poor image, lauding his achievements and authorizing a stamp to commemo rate the 30th anniversary of the North Sea flight.

Gran took on the job of organizing Norwegian general aviation, notably glider flying, with “requisitioned” aircraft. By 1942 this effort became the Quisling party’s flight wing, the Hirdens Flykorps. A few flight instructors went to Germany for training, and some glider demonstrations were given, but the Flykorps never grew beyond a few hundred members.

After the war Gran was tried as a collaborator. The celebrity he had sought earned him a sentence of 18 months—and irrevocably tarnished his reputation. Historians would largely ignore his aviation achievements. Gran spent the next three decades until his death in 1980 lecturing about the 1910-13 Scott expedition, trying to preserve the memory of the man who had perhaps known him best.

 

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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