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Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
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Antarctic Aerial Exploration


Map of a portion of Antarctica, showing routes of Richard ByrdÔs explorations by airplane, sledge, and tractor outward from Little America during his first (1928-1930) and second (1933-1935) Antarctic expeditions.

Of all the places on the face of the Earth, Antarctica has proven to be the most challenging for aviators to explore because of its extreme environment. The seventh continent, which is approximately 5 million square miles (12.9 million square kilometres), or roughly 1 1/2 times the area of the United States, is the coldest, harshest, emptiest, and most remote place on Earth. The annual mean temperature at the South Pole is approximately -56 degrees F (-49 degrees C), and the region's gale force winds make aerial exploration extremely difficult. Antarctica is a complete landmass covered by ice. It also consists of large rocky mountain ranges that climb well over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Despite Antarctica's extreme challenges, many aviators have achieved fame and satisfied their curiosity while exploring the region. In the process, they have made several record-setting flights and helped advance scientific research significantly.

On February 4, 1902, British Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott made the first flight over the world's most remote continent. Scott went aloft in a tethered hot-air balloon off the Antarctic Coast. He made several scientific observations and became the first person to peer into the heart of Antarctica. One of Scott's colleagues, Ernest Shackleton, also eventually went up and took several photographs--the first aerial shots of the continent. Although Scott was the first person above Antarctica, he also wanted to be the first to reach the South Pole. Unfortunately for him, Roald Amundsen became the first man to claim that honour, on foot, in 1911. A few weeks later, Scott would also make it to the Pole but would die of starvation and exposure while returning from his mission.

After Scott's initial ascent, Antarctic aerial exploration remained inactive until the 1920s, or until the best polar pilots had first conquered the Arctic region. In December 1928, Sir Hubert Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson--who that April had become the first person to fly an aircraft across the Arctic Ocean--took off from Deception Island, one of Antarctic's most remote islands, and made the first successful airplane flight over the continent. They flew their Lockheed Vega the entire length of Graham Land, a major Antarctic peninsula. In less than a year's time, Wilkins and Eielson had become the first people to fly over both polar regions.

At approximately the same time that Wilkins and Eielson were soaring over Graham Land, U.S. Navy Commander Richard Byrd was establishing a massive permanent base camp called "Little America" on the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica. While Wilkins and Eielson had only a small team and a few sponsors, Byrd was leading the largest, privately sponsored polar expedition up to that point with more than 80 men, four ships, and three separate airplanes--a Ford Trimotor named the Floyd Bennett (in honour of the man who had flown him to the North Pole, but who had recently died of pneumonia), a Fokker, and a Fairchild. Although Wilkins and Eielson were mainly interested in surveying Antarctica, Byrd was obsessed with being the first to fly over the South Pole.

By November 1929, Byrd felt ready to attempt the Pole. On the 28th, the weather cleared and Byrd, pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June, and Ashley McKinely, a photographer and aerial mapper, took off in the Floyd Bennett and headed toward their destination. They planned to fly directly to the Pole and then, on their return trip, refuel and re-supply at a remote ground base. During the flight, as they approached the massive Queen Maud mountain range, they had to dump several bags of food and supplies at the very last minute to be light enough to climb over the mountains. Once they were past the range, it was a pretty direct path to the Pole. When Byrd finally winged over the "bottom of the world," he became the first person to have flown over both poles. In all, the entire roundtrip flight, a journey of approximately 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometres), had taken 17 hours, 26 minutes.


Photo shows the Curtiss Condor T-32 William Horlick during the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, 1933-1935.

After Byrd's record setting flight, only one major Antarctic aviation "first" remained, or at least that is what Lincoln Ellsworth believed. In December 1933, Ellsworth, who had been among the first to fly a dirigible over the North Pole, started to pursue his dream of being the first to fly across the entire width of Antarctica. Backed by a 16-man team, which included Sir Hubert Wilkins as the expedition manager and Brent Balchen as the lead pilot, Ellsworth established a base on Dundee Island in Antarctica and waited for several months for the right weather for the mission, but he never got a break and had to postpone his plans until 1935, when the weather finally cooperated. On November 21, Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon took off in Ellsworth's single-engine Northrop Gamma Polar Star on the approximately 2,200-mile (3,541-kilometer) journey from Dundee Island to Byrd's Little America. The flight was extremely difficult due to problems with their navigational equipment and inclement weather, and as a result, they had to land several times. At one point, a storm kept them pinned down for more than three days. Finally, within four miles (six kilometres) of Little America, they ran out of fuel. Believing they could make it the rest of the way on foot, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon set out for Little America, but without any distinct landmarks in the bleak, white, storm-tossed, environment, they wandered around for 10 days before finally reaching their destination on December 15, three and a half weeks after they had set out from Little America. Although the journey had taken much longer than anticipated, they were still the first people to fly from one side of the continent to the other.

In the 1940s, the U.S. military became the leading aerial explorer of Antarctica. In December 1946, the U.S. Navy's Operation Highjump, the largest Antarctic expedition ever organized, began. Highjump included a task force of 13 ships and more than 4,700 seamen. The main purpose of the operation, which ended in 1947, was to train men and test equipment that could operate under polar conditions; the U.S. wanted to be prepared to match its new enemy, the Soviet Union in any terrain, should hostilities break out between the two superpowers. During the operation, the navy successfully launched several heavy-laden transport planes from an aircraft carrier using jet-assisted take-off (JATO), a significant technological advance that shortens the distance required for heavy aircraft launches. Another key outcome of Highjump was an extensive aerial survey of Antarctica. Under Richard Byrd's guidance, the Navy used Martin and Douglas aircraft to map approximately 1.5 million square miles (3.9million square kilometres) of Antarctica's interior and about 5,500 miles (14,245 kilometres) of its coastline.

In 1955, the U.S. Navy launched another major Antarctic operation that relied heavily on aircraft and remained active up to the turn of the 21st century. The initial objective of Operation Deep Freeze was to establish two Antarctic scientific bases, one at the South Pole, and one in Marie Byrd Land. One of Deep Freeze's major aviation highlights was the construction of several airplane bases that allowed planes equipped with wheels to take off and land on the ice, something that only aircraft fitted with skis could previously do. Another mission highlight occurred when a Navy transport plane made the first aircraft landing at the South Pole on October 31, 1956. Helicopters would also eventually become an important part of Deep Freeze. In all, by the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. Navy had transported more than 195,000 passengers, and delivered over 240 million pounds of cargo and close to 10 million gallons (37.9 million litres) of fuel around Antarctica.

From the early 20th century to the present day, aircraft have played an important role in Antarctica's exploration. Scientists and professional adventurers have traditionally relied on them to help them in their work, but now lay people are also using them to explore the region. As recently as the summer of 2002, anyone with $25,000 could book a 16-day aerial expedition of Antarctica. As the 21st century continues to unfold, who knows what new twists and turns Antarctic aerial exploration will take. But one matter is certain, without aircraft and the brave individuals that flew them, and continue to pilot them, the world would know very little about the coldest, harshest, and most remote continent on Earth.