First airplane in Antarctica found

Michael Raffety

Jan. 14, 2010

As airplanes go the Vickers monoplane wasn’t much. And after it crashed in Adelaide, Australia, in October 1911, and damaged its wings, it was even less of a plane. It was the first plane from the Vickers factory in Britain, made eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

What Douglas Mawson of Australia was left with was an engine and an air frame. He took it to Antarctica that same year, 1911, to use it to pull sledges of supplies. His group arrived in January 1912. On New Year’s Day this year remains of that first airplane in Antarctica were found on some rocks along the shoreline of Commonwealth Bay near Mawson’s Hut on Cape Denison. The parts they found looked like rusted iron pipes. They were actually parts of the tail section.

Mawson and his expedition team member Francis Howard Bickerton were unable to use it in the winter because of the winds. When they eventually tried it, presumably in the austral spring the engine seized up with the cold. The engine was removed at the end of the expedition in 1913 and eventually returned to the manufacturer. The airframe for the “air tractor” was left on the ice of Commonwealth Bay, an area to the east of the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound.

Mawson’s group had 18 members. Mawson had been on Ernest Shackleton’s first Antarctic expedition, not the famous one where his ship got icebound and he sailed a small open boat across 800 miles of ocean to South Georgia.

Mawson’s mission was to do geographical exploration and scientific research. He discovered huge penguin rookeries and fossils and researched the South Magnetic Pole. Setting off across the Mertz and Ninnis Glaciers — named for his companions on the trip — he wound up doing a solo trip. Belgrave Ninnis and his sled dog team disappeared down a crevasse that Mawson and Xavier Mertz had just crossed unawares. Gone also was the sledge that had most of the expedition’s food. They were 300 miles from base. They made a dash back, eating their sled dogs on the way. Mertz died when they were 100 miles from the base. Mawson was left on his own, cutting the sledge in half. He fell in a crevasse, but the sled didn’t follow and he was able to climb out. His survival was assured when he found cairns with food the rescue party had left behind for him.

By the time he got back to his hut it was just in time to see his ship, the Aurora, leaving. He had missed it by two weeks and would have to winter over. Five men had stayed to wait for Mawson’s expedition and were able to signal the ship. The ship, however, was due to pick up another party farther down the coast that wasn’t prepared to winter over. It was too late for the ship to turn back.

Mawson and his group didn’t get back to Australia for almost a year, returning in 1914. That same year Shackleton made his voyage to the Weddell sea and his ship, the Endurance, became stuck in the ice and was wrecked by the ice in 1915. Shackleton made his famous 800-mile voyage in a 20-foot boat in 1916.

Mawson, who was born in England in 1882 died in 1958. Shackleton, born in 1875, died in 1922.

The first actual flight in Antarctica was made by another Australian, Hubert Wilkins, in 1928, who toured the Antarctic Peninsula before being forced back by bad weather. He flew a Lockheed Vega monoplane. His expedition was sponsored by William Randolph Hearst.

Richard E. Byrd was the first to fly over the South Pole, in 1929, but he had to throw out all his food to get over the 10,000-foot mountains surrounding the Antarctic plateau. The Transantarctic Mountain Range is one of the longest continuous mountain ranges in the world. Flying a Ford Trimotor with a co-pilot and photographer, they made the round trip from Little America base to the Pole in 18 hours, 41 minutes. Byrd, born in 1888, died a year before Mawson.

It wouldn’t be until Oct. 31, 1956, that a plane would actually land at the South Pole and return to McMurdo Station. It was an R4D — the Navy version of the C-47 — flown by Lt. Cmdr. Gus Shinn, with Adm. George Dufek being the first one to step out of the plane at the Pole while Shinn kept the engines going in -60 degree Fahrenheit.

Airplanes brought an end to the heroic era in the Antarctica, but didn’t completely eliminate the risk.

Michael Raffety retired as editor of the Mountain Democrat in 2015. In the Navy he participated in Operation Deep Freeze1967-68, where he repaired communications and radar equipment and serviced a helicopter at McMurdo Station.

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