Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and the Universal Genève Polerouter

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and the Universal Genève Polerouter

There are a few well-known events in the history of aviation: the Wright brothers first flight in 1903, Lindberghs first solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927, and Amelia Earharts work through the 1930s, to name just a few.

Some of the lesser-known moments are the achievements of commercial airlines, and SAS (or Scandinavian Airlines System) proved to be one of the pioneers of long distance commercial air travel through the 20th century. Within just over a decade they had developed different routes across the North Pole that could connect travellers across the world in record times.

1954 – Copenhagen to Los Angeles

One of their inspiring achievements was establishing the first commercial flight routes over the North Pole. Though their trials and test flights began in the late 1940s, the first official commercial flights took place on November 15, 1954, and coincided with the creation of the Polarouter. Though the antimagnetic Polarouter watch was heavily marketed as an important navigational tool for the flights to take place, reliable antimagnetic watches had in fact existed for long time before this.

In reality, it was 3 other inventions that enabled the Polar Route flights: 1) the Gyrocompass; 2) the Solar Compass; and 3) high detail maps of the polar regions used with the Greenwich Grid System. Regardless, the international exposure that both SAS and Universal Genève received through their partnership was massive, which in turn endured through into the 1970s.

SAS’ first full trans-polar test flight was successfully completed in November 1952, with a Douglas DC-6B (Arild Viking) from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, via Edmonton and Greenland, taking just 28 hours in total.

In 1954 the US authorities finally granted approval for commercial polar flights, and on November 15th the first commercial trans-polar flights were inaugurated. Two Douglas DC-6B planes took off from either end of the route more or less simultaneously – the “Helge Viking” (OY-KMI, SK931 captained by Povl jensen) departed Copenhagen at 7:18 PM, whilst the sister plane “Leif Viking” (LN-LMP, SK932 captained by Sven Gibson) departed Los Angeles airport at approximately the same time.

Captain Povl Jensen flew the “Helge Viking” via Søndre Strømsfjord (Greenland) and Winnipeg (Canada) where a scheduled crew-change took place. From Winnipeg, Captain Mikael Aschim completed the flight to Los Angeles, where they arrived on the November 16 at 10:20PM. The total travel time from Copenhagen to Los Angeles was 27 hours and 15 minutes, which included nearly 3 hours of stopovers. 

On board the flight from Copenhagen to Los Angeles were the three Prime Ministers of the Scandinavian countries: Hans Hedtoft (Denmark), Tage Erlander (Sweden) and Oscar Torp (Norway) as well as a group of prominent journalists. 

Rumour is that the Scandinavian prime ministers each received a Universal Genève Polarouter 10234-1 with engraved SAS dial. However, this has never been substantiated, and the serial range for this specific model reference point to more than 3 being produced. It was also rumoured that the flight crew on these first flights received Universal Genève Polarouter 20217-6 with painted SAS dial.

In this case, there is photographic evidence that some of the crew did in fact receive a Polarouter (see below), and these photos were often used for marketing purposes by Universal Genève in the subsequent years. However, these crews were not the only ones to receive a 20217-6 SAS reference. In total there were around 170 of them produced (the same amount as other 1st execution Polarouter references), and most seem to have been gifted as bonuses to SAS captains who were flying both Polar and non-Polar routes, for quite a while after the first flights in November 1954 (see the example of a letter from SAS below).

Unlike the other Polarouter references, the SAS 20217-6 references were never commercially available. To date we have documented more than 25 examples – which is oddly more than any other first execution Polarouter.

1957 – Copenhagen to Tokyo

SAS’ polar route aspirations did not end with the Copenhagen to North America route achieved in 1954. On 24th February 1957, SAS began commercial flights on their next polar route – from Copenhagen to Tokyo. SAS used the same style of flight inauguration as used on the first polar route, where this time two longer range Douglas DC-7C planes took off from either end of the route simultaneously. 

Guttorm Viking piloted by Captain Hedell Hansen and Captain Kåre Herfjord from Copenhagen to Tokyo via Anchorage Alaska, and Reidar Viking, (LN-MOE) travelling from Tokyo to Copenhagen.  The Guttorm Viking, carried 47 passengers including Prince Axel of Denmark and expeditioner Thor Heyerdahl, whilst Reidar Viking carried 45 passengers, including both the Prince and Princess of Japan. This new route cut the flight time from 50 hours down to just 32 hours in total. 

1967 – Copenhagen to Singapore

By now, the Jet age was well and truly established – aircraft could fly further, in shorter times, and flights became shorter. Still, much of the “East” remained a long travel time from Europe. This was in part due to what was at the time, a heavily restricted airspace over the Soviet Union. However, in January 1967, the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries reached an agreement permitting SAS to fly across Siberia. The USSR reportedly made the agreement in return for USSR rights in Scandinavia en route to Cuba.

This enabled SAS to introduce the “Trans-Asian Express” route from Copenhagen to Bangkok/Singapore, using long range Douglas DC8-62 aircraft, with agreed stopovers in Moscow (connections) and Tashkent (technical stop only).

A few different Polerouters have also surfaced with unusual engravings that are tied to the dates and stopovers on the Trans-Asian Express route. For example, below is an 869113/04 reference with the inaugural Trans-Asian Express flight dates, and engravings referencing SAS, Copenhagen, and Tashkent.

SAS and Universal Genève partnership beyond the Polar Routes

Through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the partnership between SAS and Universal Genève persisted, which can be seen in much of the Polerouter-related advertisements through these eras. A handful of unusual SAS-dialled Polerouters and Polarouters have surfaced from within this period, including a few odd Polarouters with black dials and golden text, though evidence suggests these were most likely customised or modified long after their original production dates.

Some later 18kt gold pieces from the 1960s have also surfaced with SAS dials, and engravings indicating they were gifts to SAS pilots, and some of the higher ranks of SAS management staff in North America. 

Below features a 18 karat polerouter with an engraving to Tore Henrik Nilert for a 20 year anniversary from joining AB Aerotransport (which became part of SAS). He was later appointed as president of SAS Inc. in North America in 1946.

A similar model reference below features another 20 year anniversary engraving to Per (later Peter) Tornqvist, who worked with SAS as regional manager for the west coast USA from 1946 until 1971, and therefore was heavily involved with obtaining permissions for SAS to fly commercial passengers over the polar route in 1954.

The success of the polar flights discussed above, opened up major new possibilities for air travel and commerce across the world. Today, the polar region remains a vital air route for cargo and passenger flights, and SAS still offers frequent flights between Scandinavia, North America, and Asia via the Polar Routes.

Have a browse through our vintage documentation galleries to find more joint SAS and Universal Genève vintage advertisements like the ones below.

Guide to locating Model Reference and Serial Numbers

The Broad Arrow Polerouters

DIY: Replacing a crown and stem on a Polerouter