First Flight Over Antarctica

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    In early December 1935, two men flew over the last unexplored area on earth – the Antarctic. One of them was the American world-famous explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and the other was Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, a Canadian Airways Ltd. pilot based in Winnipeg. Among his qualifications, Hollick-Kenyon had experience in the ‘specialized art’ of starting airplane engines in cold weather and had played a leading role in search for the marooned 1929 MacAlpine expedition.

    It was Ellsworth’s third attempt to fly across the Antarctic. The plane was the Northrop Gamma, the first plane to be built by the newly formed Northup Corporation of California. It was an all-metal, low-wing monoplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney 600 hp radial engine. Its top speed was rated at 230 mph with a cruising radius of 7,000 miles fully fuelled.

    Ellsworth and his team sailed to Dundee Island opposite the tip of South America in late 1935. By November 18, the Polar Star was re-assembled, test-flown and ready.

    On November 21, with full fuel tanks and three months of emergency rations, Hollick-Kenyon lifted the Polar Star’s 7,600 pounds into the air. Ninety minutes later, they aborted the flight because the glass fuel flow gauge was cracked and likely to burst. They took off the next day, and again aborted the flight, this time due to bad weather.

    On November 23, Ellsworth and Hollick- Kenyon took off for the third time. After several hours they lost radio contact with their base and landed after flying 13 hours.

    On November 24th, they resumed their journey, but only for another 30 minutes when the weather forced them to land, stranding them for the next three days.

    In the afternoon of November 27, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon took off but weather forced them to land after 50 minutes. Another blizzard grounded them a further three days. They were, however, able to determine that they were about 500 miles short of their goal. When the storm ended, it took three days to dig out the Polar Star. The engine fired up in the afternoon of December 3, but they did not take off because still another storm moved in.

    Able to fly on December 4, they were airborne for about four hours and landed to check their position and fuel supply.

    They took off for the last time only to land an hour later when Polar Star’s engine sputtered and died – they were out of fuel.

    Dead reckoning told them they were close to their destination, Little America. But, they didn’t know in which direction.

    It took another 11 days, until December 15, for Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon to get their bearings and travel the remaining distance, which turned out to be a mere 16 miles. (Navigation depended on accurate sextant readings, something which eluded the pair until they discovered a loose adjusting screw in their instrument.)

    The rescue plan consisted of a directive to look for them along the coastline in the vicinity of their destination, Little America, and to continue the search for a set period of time. They were sighted by the British Research Society ship Discovery II on January 15, 1936.

    Ellsworth donated the Polar Star to the Smithsonian Institute. Although many international honours were showered on Ellsworth in the wake of the Antarctic adventure, Hollick- Kenyon was not entirely forgotten – one of his many honours was a knighthood, becoming Sir Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. He retired from Canadian Pacific in 1962 and was named to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973. It was also reported that at one point Hollick-Kenyon also operated a motel in British Columbia where few, if any, travellers knew of his adventures. Hollick-Kenyon died at age 78 in 1975 in Vancouver.

    A successful polar crossing was not repeated until 1956. The combined achievement of Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon is properly recorded as one of the greatest flights in early aviation history.

     


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