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Penguins for ground crew — Lincoln Ellesworth and early Antarctic flying

29 September 2010

Lincoln Ellsworth was an intrepid explorer of the 1930s, specializing in arctic and antarctic trips. He accompanied Roald Amundsen and pilot Umberto Nobile (not to mention the crew of the airship Norge) during the first siting of the geographic North Pole.

Later he funded no less than four expedition flights to explore Antarctica. Along with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon in 1935 they set to the task of flying the breadth of the continent in a Northrop Gamma called, Polar Star. The flight would take the pair about 2900 miles (35ookm) and land 25 miles (40km) short of their destination due to lack of fuel. They final leg was walked to Richard Byrd’s former base camp where they waited, as events transpired, for a month until rescued by the good ship Discovery, a British research vessel. Until their rescue the pair had been considered lost since a breakdown of their radio gear early in the flight — a common occurrence of the day — did not allow anyone to know how far along their course they had traveled. The paradox of this flight was that they had one of the few, if any, of the airplanes that could fly long distances in the Antarctic … so no aircraft could be mobilized for a search and rescue effort as would occur almost anywhere in the world of today.

Flying cross-country, over blue water, much less vast expanses of sub-zero temperature landscape back in the day was not for the faint hearted or the unprepared. That Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon were able to fly across Antarctica and survive for thirty days once forced down is testament to their planning. Along the way the Ellsworth Mountains were discovered and the Hollick-Kenyon Plateau was named after the expedition’s pilot.

The "Polar Star" on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum — photo by Joe May

The 'ground crew" and detail of the spats and skiis — photo by Joe May

Remarkably, Hollick-Kenyon returned to recover the aircraft which Ellsworth later donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The Northrop 2B Gamma was an advanced aircraft of the time possessing highly streamlined wing fillets, streamlined wheel spats, a single wing and all metal construction, capacious cargo bay in the nose — and, most imperatively for this flight, an enclosed cockpit. Indeed, the Gamma was a purpose-built aircraft designed for speed and range, as well as reliability, though visibility was far from exceptional.

Texaco was active in promoting aviation in the 1930s and was one of the expedition sponsors, also some slight damage which occurred as a result of the forced landing — photo by Joe May

Detail of the cockpit crewed by Hollick-Kenyon and Ellsworth on the Ellsworth Trans-Antarctic Flight — photo by Joe May

It is all too easy to not truly appreciate accomplishments made in the past. Perhaps not so in this case since Antarctic flying is not for the common aviator even though  it is 75 years later. Think of it … no reliable maps and only a single engine, no hope of immediate aid should circumstances warrant … what these two persons did would be remarkable by today’s standards, so their flight and later unexpected rescue must have been truly outstanding in the heady days of the 1930s when feats of aviation were almost daily headlines. The Polar Star is displayed as she would have been while at rest on the Antarctic ice in the Smithsonian Aviation & Space Museum on the National Mall.

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