Fram Museum Oslo


Riiser-Larsen, Hjalmar (1890–1965)

Riiser-Larsen was a pioneer of Norwegian aviation. He piloted the flying boat N25 for Roald Amundsen in 1925 and was navigator on the airship Norge in 1926.

Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen (1890–1965)

Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen (1890–1965)

Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen was the son of a ship’s captain and was at sea for the first years of his life. He was the eldest of three brothers. After his school exam in 1906 he went to sea on sail and steam ships. In 1909 he was accepted at the Naval School in Horten and he became a naval officer in 1912, 1st lieutenant in 1915 and captain in 1926.

During World War I he was for a while in the neutrality watch as second-in-command on the torpedo boat Skrei, but after a trip as a passenger on one of the naval aircraft in 1913, he was bit by the flying bug. He was in the first group of naval pilots which was trained in Horten in 1915, and in 1916-19 he was inspecting officer at the newly-established naval flying boat factory. After a spell at a Swedish aircraft engine factory, he was given test pilot training in 1917 in Great Britain, and he help to obtain the first fighter planes for Norway. Autumn 1919 Riiser-Larsen was in Germany to test new naval planes and the type he found, the Hansa Brandenburger, formed the basis of the Naval Air Force for the next 15 years.

Riiser-Larsen came into the public eye after a daring flying show during a meeting between the Scandinavian kings in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1917 and at an air show in Copenhagen in1919. Sommer 1918 he carried out his first civil air flight when he flew a load of Tidens Tegn newspapers from Oslo to Trondheim for the company Nordisk Luftkraft. The railway was closed by a landslide and Riiser-Larsen was the first to fly this route. Before the war finished he established sea-plane stations on Flatøy island by Bergen and on Karmøy, and in 1919-20 he functioned as director of the naval flying-boat factory. Summer 1920 he helped start a test route that the navy flew between Kristiania and Kristiansand, and for two months that autumn he was loaned out as head of operations for the Norwegian aviation company Det Norske Luftfartsrederi for the first passenger route between Bergen, Haugesund and Stavanger.

Riiser-Larsen married in 1915 and the family moved to Kristiania in 1921, where Riiser-Larsen up to 1927 was secretary for the Ministry of Defence’s Aviation Council, which administrated Norwegian civil aviation. He also had a short spell in politics as town council member for the Right (Høyre), firstly in Horten, then Oslo 1929-31. The marriage finished in the 1930s and he remarried in 1938.

During his visit to Germany in 1919 Riiser-Larsen had his first airship trip, and in 1921 he took training as an airship pilot in Great Britain as the British were planning airship routes to Scandinavia. From 1923 he was vice chairman of the Norwegian Aerial Society (Norsk Luftseiladsforening) and he argued for government grants for civil aviation. His secretary position for the Ministry of Defence meant that he each summer worked for the Navy, and in 1922 he and his friend Finn Lützow-Holm flew two Brandenburger planes from Horten around the coast to Kirkenes in 47 hours. On the return trip they carried out the first ambulance flight in Norway in connection with typhus cases in west Finnmark.

At New Year 1923/24 Riiser-Larsen was engaged by Roald Amundsen as pilot on one of the two Dornier Wal flying boats, N24 and N25, that Amundsen planned to fly from Svalbard to the North Pole. Riiser-Larsen was for a while at the aircraft factory in Italy, but returned home when Amundsen did not manage to finance the expedition. Riiser-Larsen’s good relationship with the aircraft company’s German director helped the expedition plans through Amundsen’s bankruptcy in autumn 1924, and Riiser-Larsen took over the preparations for a new attempt under the auspices of the Norsk Luftseiladsforening after Lincoln Ellsworth had saved the expedition with his sponsorship. Riiser-Larsen piloted N25 to 87°44' N and it was he who rescued the whole expedition by flying the six participants back to Svalbard in the N25.

In 1926 Riiser-Larsen was Amundsen’s second-in-command, navigator and the only Norwegian with an airship license on the airship Norge during the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight from Svalbard over the North Pole to Alaska. Two years later he was back in Svalbard to search for Umberto Nobile who had crashed on the drift ice with the airship Italia. With a small Hansa Brandenburger each, he and Lützow-Holm flew a number of search flights over the drift ice. When Amundsen then disappeared on the way to Svalbard to join in the search, Riiser-Larsen led the Louise Boyd expedition that searched for him.

Riiser-Larsen had by now considerable experience with Arctic flying and he was an obvious leader for ship-owner Christensen’s Norvegia expedition to the Antarctic 1929-30. During this parts of Dronning (Queen) Maud Land and Kronprinsesse (Crown Princess) Märtha Land were discovered and surveyed from the air. Riiser-Larsen took up film during the Norvegia expedition and this was later shown in Oslo cinemas. The following year he was back in the Antarctic and discovered Prinsesse Ragnhild Land. After serving in the fishery inspectorate 1931–32, he organised his own expedition to the Antarctic which, however, ended by being rescued from the sea ice by whaling ships. Back in Norway he discovered that he had been dismissed from the navy in his absence. 

After a short period without work and as a salesman Riiser-Larsen became director of the Norwegian Aviation Company (Det Norske Luftfartsselskap (DNL)) in autumn 1933. It was thanks to him that the company in spring 1935 gained the monopoly on scheduled traffic, and the same summer he opened the first test routes. Up to 1940 the route net was gradually expanded to cover the whole country, with a few routes abroad. Together with Swedish and Danish companies a route to the USA was planned, but was stopped by the war. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to Riiser-Larsen’s mobilisation as chief of staff in the naval air force, with Lützow-Holm as his boss. Riiser-Larsen became naval captain in 1940.

After 9 April, when he witnessed the German occupation of Oslo, Riiser-Larsen escaped to Sweden and then travelled via Moscow and Paris to London. After a spell as naval attaché in Washington he became temporary head of the Norwegian Naval Air Force, with the base in Canada where he, together with the Army Air Force, established the training camp Little Norway in Toronto. In 1941 he became rear admiral and head of the Air Forces Joint Command in London. Here he strongly supported that the Norwegian aerial forces should join in the fight against the Nazis and not just wait to liberate Norway. He held radio speeches on the BBC which worked like a magnet on youth in Norway. A large number escaped from the country to join the air force in exile. When the Army and the Navy Air Forces in 1944 were combined to the Air Defence, Riiser-Larsen became major general and the first head of the force. The Air Force he was head of did a job that was greatly appreciated and admired.

For Riiser-Larsen the end of the war brought intrigues with it that brought him to resign in 1946. He became head planner in the newly-established Overseas SAS in Stockholm. Here he planned SAS routes to South Africa and Southeast Asia before he, in 1948, was fetched back to DNL to clear up. He worked actively in the establishment of the SAS consortium which in 1951 took over all scheduled traffic from the companies in Scandinavia. Until he became a pensioner in 1955 he was the regional director for SAS in Norway.

Riiser-Larsen received a number of medals and awards and was as early as 1925 awarded the commander with star of the St Olav’s Order. He was honorary member of the Norwegian Geographical Society and the Norwegian Air Club, and he received the King’s Order of Merit in gold and the Norwegian Aviation Society’s gold medal. For his war efforts he got the Participator Medal, Haakon VII’s 70 years medal and the American Bronze Star and Legion of Merit, and he became Knight Commander of the British Imperium, commander of the Swedish Vasa Order and the Czechoslovakian White Lion order, grand officer of the Italian Crown Order and knight of the French Legion of Honour. After World War II Riiser-Larsen devoted time to peace work. From 1950 he was involved in the organisation One World, and in 1951-57 he was their world president. As a pensioner he moved to Copenhagen, where he died in 1965.

Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen knew several languages and had friends in many countries even before he became famous as Roald Amundsen’s pilot. His broad contact network was a big advantage for Norway during World War II and not least in the development of Norwegian civil aviation, DNL and SAS. Johan Nerdrum wrote about his predecessor as SAS and DNL director that he had “both actually and figuratively a weight that demanded respect, yes reverence. He had a voice that matched his size … His charm was immediate. When the large, heavy face [...] burst into a smile, few could resist it”. He also had his weak points, such as the alcohol use that was used to dismiss him from the air force in 1946, but his colleague Odd Medbøe’s testimony from 1952 can be repeated: “He is clear about the long lines, and joins fantasy with experience. He does not get lost in small matters except when they concern his people’s personal sorrows and problems... He sees aviation as one of the most important ways of promoting understanding between people and practical cooperation.”

Quoted from:

Ulf Larsstuvold: Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen. (2011-11-02) I Store norske leksikon. Hentet fra