Together with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, Lincoln Ellsworth would complete the first transantarctic flight in history. With four stops along the route, the flight covered 2200 miles with an elapsed time of approximately 20 hours. The transantarctic flight was the longest flight in Antarctic history, an accomplishment not repeated again until January 1956. That the flight was successful under such extreme conditions was the result of a combination of a good airplane, flown by a man with excellent pilot and navigational skills, together with a great deal of courage and just plain luck.
Ellsworth's Introduction to Polar Exploration
Together with the dawn of aerial exploration in the polar regions came a proliferation of expeditions and sojourns, many of which became "firsts" for this new method of discovery. Ellsworth's initial exposure to polar adventures began on May 21, 1925, when he, Roald Amundsen and four other men set out in two Dornier flying boats, the N-24 and N-25, on a mission to be the first to fly to the North Pole.
Thus passed our twenty-four ice-bound days, but on the twenty-fifth - the day we had actually set, two weeks previously, to start on foot for the Greenland coast, 400 miles away, which we knew we could not reach - our efforts to free the planes from the ice were rewarded, and one plane with six men in it rose and left that hell, forever." Spitzbergen was reached with a scant 23 gallons of gasoline left in the tank.
The following year, on May 10, 1926, Amundsen and Ellsworth found themselves in Kings Bay, Spitzbergen, at a dinner for Commander Richard E. Byrd where they were celebrating his accomplishment of having flown to the North Pole and back only the day before. It was at this celebration dinner that the two announced their plans to pilot a dirigible across the North Pole to Alaska. Fourteen other men would join them in the historic crossing, including General Umberto Nobile. At 8:30 a.m. the following day, they launched their dirigible, the NORGE, on a flight across the North Pole to Alaska. After 16 hours in the air, they passed over the spot where they had been frozen in the year before. As the coastline of Alaska was approached, their wireless transmitter gave out as "ice coated the aerial wire and froze the windmill driver of our generator, which supplied the electrical energy to operate the transmitter and charge the storage batteries." They first spotted Alaska in the vicinity of Point Barrow and as they made their way along the coastline towards Nome, extremely dense fog was encountered which forced them to rise above it. They zigzagged around for the next day and could only hope and pray they hadn't drifted too far off course as they worked their way out of a tough predicament. At 3:30 a.m. on May 14, they rounded Cape Prince of Wales and brought the NORGE, coated with a ton of ice, safely to rest at the little trading post of Teller, 91 miles northwest of Nome. The journey across the polar sea from Europe took 72 hours and covered 3, 393 miles.
Admiral Byrd's transatlantic flight of 1927 drew world attention to him and in April 1928, Sir Hubert Wilkins and his pilot Carl Ben Eielson flew in an airplane from Alaska to Spitzbergen. Later that same year, during the Antarctic summer of 1928-29, Wilkins was found exploring, by air, the coast of Graham Land in the Antarctic. In December 1928, Byrd led an expedition to the Antarctic, setting up a comfortable base camp on the shelf ice beside the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea. In November 1929, Byrd, along with his pilot Bernt Balchen and two others, flew to the South Pole and back, becoming the first to do so. Riiser-Larsen was already in the Antarctic with ship and plane and during January and February 1930, several exploratory flights were made along the coast east of the Weddell Sea. The following year, Sir Douglas Mawson, flying from the research ship RRS DISCOVERY II, explored 2500 miles of coastline in the Australian and African quadrants of Antarctica. It was evident that the Arctic and Antarctic was a great arena for adventure and exploratory aviation.
In the spring of 1930, Lincoln Ellsworth was in Schloss Lenzburg, Switzerland when Sir Hubert Wilkins came to visit him. The first thought of organizing an Antarctic adventure was born as Ellsworth listened enthusiastically to Wilkins plans to operate a submarine under the Arctic ice, for which he needed financial support. Ellsworth consented to attaching his name as scientific advisor to the expedition and when Ellsworth spoke of his Antarctic dream, Wilkins gave the impression that he would be willing to enlist as his advisor.
As Wilkins sailed from New London, an invitation arrived for Ellsworth to join the GRAF ZEPPELIN as an Arctic navigation expert on a proposed flight into the Arctic. The airship was inaugurating a summer cruise into the Arctic, a place where cruise ships of the day would never dare venture. Ellsworth jumped at the opportunity, acting as explorer on behalf of the American Geographical Society. They departed from Friedrichshafen on the morning of July 24th, flying on a course that took them along the Nova Zembla coast, Franz Josef Land, Nicholas II Land and other points in the Far North. There were only fifteen passengers aboard, all of them scientists. One can only imagine the shock of running into Umberto Nobile on the giant airship, someone Ellsworth hadn't seen since their 1926 flight aboard the NORGE. As Ellsworth put it, "He had aged visibly since then. The ITALIA disaster had made a different man of him."
The sight of Arctic ice and unknown lands created a burning desire that hadn't been felt since his first meetings with Amundsen. Ellsworth waited impatiently in New York for Wilkins to return and when he finally arrived, "one evening we spread out before us the map of Antarctica." Wilkins would be in charge of setting up the bases from which to operate. With Bernt Balchen as pilot, Ellsworth's intention was to make an airplane flight from Byrd's LITTLE AMERICA II base in the Ross Sea to the head of the Weddell Sea and return, being the first to accomplish a transantarctic flight. When confronted with inclement weather, they would land and while doing so, take celestial observations to determine geographical fixes.
Wilkins was dispatched to Norway to purchase a strong wooden fishing vessel which would be used as the expedition ship. A 400-ton herring vessel, named the FANEFJORD, was subsequently purchased, refitted and renamed the WYATT EARP, after the famous frontier marshal whom Ellsworth admired. Ellsworth's plane, named the POLAR STAR, was built by the Northrop Corporation of Inglewood, CA. The all-metal, low-winged monoplane was propelled by a 600 hp Wasp engine which gave her a top speed of 230 miles per hour. The plane was equipped with wing flaps which reduced landing speed to 42 mph. With a full load of gas she had a range of 7000 miles.
It goes without saying that some valuable experience and a number of lessons were learned from the first attempt at a transantarctic flight. It became apparent to Ellsworth that a plan to fly from the Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea and return was problematic in several ways. A significant problem would present itself if the plane were forced down at the eastern end of the trip as they would be staring at a minimum 1000-mile trek, by foot, across the ice cap. Their lives would virtually hang on the performance and durability of the aircraft. Also, experience taught them that it is impossible to get into the Ross Sea and reach the Bay of Whales before January, however January is a poor month for Antarctic flying. The best months would be October and November but after the first of December, fogs set in. Thus, the only logical way to accomplish their feat was to have the WYATT EARP offload them on one of the islands along the Antarctic peninsula, probably Deception Island since Wilkins was so familiar with the area, and fly across Antarctica proper to LITTLE AMERICA and wait for the WYATT EARP to break through the ice and join them in January. By doing so, the plane would have a much shorter route than the previously proposed round-trip journey, which in turn would enable them to carry a sledge, tent, food supplies and camping equipment. Another safety measure was their proximity to Charcot Island. The half-way point of the flight would take Ellsworth within 300 miles of this southernmost and westernmost piece of land along the peninsula, an island which Wilkins knew like the back of his hand since he flew entirely around it in 1929. If something were to happen to the plane, Ellsworth could describe the landmarks and thus make it easy for the WYATT EARP to rendezvous with them. On September 19, 1934, Ellsworth and 16 other men sailed from Dunedin on a quest to accomplish what had eluded Shackleton, Wilkins, Riiser-Larsen and three other expeditions since 1914: the crossing of Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea.
The 4000-mile voyage to Deception Island took its toll on the crew and ship as wind-lashed seas, gales, blizzards and hurricanes were encountered on a daily basis. It took the WYATT EARP twenty-six days to make the crossing to Deception Island and by the time they arrived, the men looked as though they had just been discharged from a hospital as their eyes watered from the glare of the snow.
Arrangements were made by 2-way radio to have the spare rods flown by Pan American-Grace Airways to the southernmost Chilean port of Magallanes. Ellsworth, Balchen, Braathen, Dr. Coman and Dr. Holmboe remained behind in the dwelling houses while the rest went with the WYATT EARP on the 1000-mile voyage north. By the time the WYATT EARP returned on November 16, the snow fields to be used for takeoff had thinned exposing patches of black volcanic rock. Ten days later the engine was repaired but fog and mild temperatures persisted and with it, all hope of flying had to be abandoned. Everything was loaded back onto the WYATT EARP and on November 27, they sailed south in search of a new base. They traveled extensively around the peninsula until mid-January. On January 21, 1935, they sailed from Deception Island for Montevideo, Uruguay where Ellsworth decided to lay up the WYATT EARP until future plans could be made. Ellsworth crossed to Buenos Aires and after arriving in America, went by plane from the west coast of the United States to New York.
Bernt Balchen returned to Norway to enter commercial aviation so Ellsworth went to work to find a new pilot. The search ended when two pilots flying for Canadian Airways were hired. Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, an Englishman from London, and J. H. Lymburner, an Ontario farm boy, were the talented men Ellsworth chose to participate in the third attempt at a transantarctic flight.
Early in May, Ellsworth and his wife sailed for Europe to make their annual visit to Switzerland. Afterwards, they took the GRAF ZEPPELIN to South America, disembarking at Rio de Janeiro. After sending his wife on her way back to the States, Ellsworth boarded the Italian liner Augustus for the trip down to Montevideo. Upon arrival, Ellsworth was pleased to find his new pilots, mechanic and navigating crew on hand together with a good-as-new plane. On a pleasant October afternoon they started south with their first stop being to refuel in Magallanes, Chile. With full bunkers and provisions for two years, they sailed from Magallanes on October 28, 1935, arriving five days later at Deception Island. Heavy pack ice had blown in but two days later they made it through to the whaling station. On November 11 they moved out of Deception Harbor and made for Dundee Island and upon arrival, chose a base at the northwestern end of the island at a sheltered passage between Dundee Island and Joinville Island. By November 18, the POLAR STAR had been test-flown, fueled and readied for the historic flight.
Commencing on November 20, a number of exploratory flights were conducted around the peninsula. At 4 a.m. local time, on November 23, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon took off, heading southwestward over Prince Gustav Channel. They maintained an altitude of approximately 7500 feet while flying at an indicated air speed of 126 miles per hour. As they proceeded southward the pack ice became heavier until navigable leads were nowhere in sight. They crossed the Larsen Ice Shelf and soon brought the plane up to 11,000 feet where they were able to scan the glacier-filled valleys in the vicinity of Stefansson Strait. At 12:22 p.m. Ellsworth made an entry in his journal:
They crossed George VI Sound, now at an altitude of 10,000 feet, and flew on toward the southwest and across the southwestern part of Alexander Island. The western limb of George VI Sound was crossed in the vicinity of the Eklund Islands. Flying on a southwesterly coarse, they crossed the English Coast and promptly lost use of their radio (later determined to be a defective switch on the antenna lead). Meanwhile, Lanz remained at the radio for hours in an effort to regain contact with the plane. Although Ellsworth knew it was malfunctioning, no effort to land and repair the radio would be attempted until crossing the 80th meridian. When Ellsworth estimated they had reached 80° W, he dropped an American flag as a sign of his having discovered the vast plain and recorded in his journal his intention of naming the area James W. Ellsworth Land in honor of his father.
Scarcely more than an hour later they were forced to land as the engine sputtered and died. The fuel supply dried up as the plane glided to a landing at 10:03 a.m. local time. They spent the rest of the day securing the plane and setting up camp. Dead reckoning told them that they were very close to LITTLE AMERICA. However, they weren't certain as to which direction to head in order to locate Byrd's LITTLE AMERICA II. They expected to find little more than the antenna towers and ventilators exposed above the snow. As was later determined, they were approximately 16 miles from LITTLE AMERICA but didn't reach it until December 15, almost 11 days after being forced down. Distances can be extremely deceiving in the Antarctic and these two gentleman began to experience that abnormality on December 6 when they tried to reach a black object they thought might be a stovepipe or ventilator at LITTLE AMERICA only to find an empty gas can used during Byrd's expedition. They were forced to return to the plane and make a new attempt at finding LITTLE AMERICA the following day. They set out in the direction of what looked like ice-covered towers and rooftops but were forced back to the plane to grab the sledge and additional food supplies stowed in the plane. It wasn't until December 9 that they discovered the towers and buildings were actually blocks of ice
On December 10 they set out with enough food supplies and equipment necessary for a prolonged search. They utilized a pocket compass for direction and traveled on a set schedule of pulling the sledge for 15 minutes, then resting for 5, over the coarse of a 10-hour day. Frostbite plagued Ellsworth's foot as the heavy sledge was pulled through wet, heavy snow. They began to fear they would not find LITTLE AMERICA, when on December 13 they arrived at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. From there they traveled westward to find the Bay of Whales. On December 15 they came upon two tractors half-buried in snow at Ver-Sur-Mer Inlet and some time later they reached LITTLE AMERICA where they entered the radio shack through a skylight.
The next day Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon busied themselves with making life as easy as possible while awaiting the arrival of the WYATT EARP which was expected a month later. At Ver-Sur-Mer Inlet they erected the tent marked with orange streamers as a signal to the WYATT EARP when it arrived. As the days went by, Ellsworth's foot became infected.
By November 26, 1935, any attempt by Lanz to gain radio contact with the POLAR STAR was considered futile so Wilkins ordered the WYATT EARP to sail for Deception Island. Drums of gasoline and a message were left behind at Dundee Island in case the men landed there later. They arrived at Deception Island the next day. Meanwhile, Mrs. Ellsworth, who had been in regular contact with Wilkins, was organizing a relief party of her own. A plane was chartered by them to fly to Magallanes, Chile, where it would be loaded aboard the WYATT EARP. As luck would have it, the plane crashed in Atlanta, Georgia. Another Northrup plane, offered by the Texaco Company, was chartered and flown to Chile by pilot Dick Merrell together with mechanic William J. Klenke, Jr. The plane was put aboard the WYATT EARP at Magallanes and on December 22 the ship sailed for Charcot Island. The ship arrived off Charcot Island on December 28 but the pack ice was 60 miles wide and impenetrable. By December 31 Wilkins determined that to wait any longer would be futile, especially since he was confident the men had attained their goal. Besides, if the plane had gone down it was more likely to have done so nearer the Bay of Whales than in the vicinity of Charcot Island. As a result, he ordered the ship directly for the Bay of Whales. At 6 p.m. on January 19, 1936, she was sighted by the RRS DISCOVERY II and the next day both ships were at the Bay of Whales.
Ellsworth returned to Australia with the RRS DISCOVERY II while Hollick-Kenyon remained with the WYATT EARP in order to assist with the salvage of the POLAR STAR. The RRS DISCOVERY II left the Bay of Whales at 12:40 a.m. on January 22 and proceeded to Cape Crozier where a landing was made. From there, they sailed north to Franklin Island and the Balleny Islands for additional surveys and scientific investigations. The vessel arrived at Melbourne on February 16, 1936.
Meanwhile, Ellsworth's men succeeded in getting one of Byrd's abandoned tractors running with which they set out for the POLAR STAR. After refueling the plane, they were able to fly it to the Bay of Whales where it was loaded onto the WYATT EARP. A week after arriving, the WYATT EARP was on its way from the Bay of Whales. Ellsworth was in New York to greet his men as they arrived on April 19, 1936.
It was Lt. Charles Wilkes, leader of the UNITED STATES EXPLORING EXPEDITION 1838-42, who first generated interest in the Indian Ocean sector of Antarctica. Whalers and sealers from New London were active in the vicinity of Kerguelen Island during the middle of the 19th century and in 1853, John J. Heard discovered Heard Island which was occupied steadily for more than 20 years. As the years passed, whaling and sealing was reduced to an insignificant level. Lincoln Ellsworth would be the first American to bring the flag back to this quadrant after nearly 50 years of inactivity. His expedition would be the last Antarctic expedition from any country that was privately funded.
Once again, Sir Hubert Wilkins offered his services to assist in the organization of the expedition. The expedition ship was a veteran of the first three Ellsworth expeditions. The WYATT EARP, berthed at Aalesund, Norway, was reconditioned in the summer of 1938 and prepared for the expedition. Two airplanes would be taken on the expedition: an all-metal Northrop Delta monoplane with a 750-hp Wright cyclone engine, and a small Aeronca two-seated plane to be used for scouting. Both planes were equipped with wheels, pontoons, skis and 2-way radios.
The expedition included 19 men with Ellsworth the organizer, leader and aerial navigator and Wilkins as technical advisor and manager. J. H. Lymburner, reserve pilot on Ellsworth's 1935-36 expedition, was named chief pilot while Burton J. Trerice of St. Johns, Quebec and Amerherst, Nova Scotia, was named reserve pilot and flight engineer. Dr. Harmon F. Rhoads, Jr., of Everett, WA, was appointed medical officer and Frederick Seid of New York City joined the crew as radio operator. All officers and crew of the WYATT EARP were Norwegian.
The WYATT EARP departed from the seaplane base of Floyd Bennett Field in New York on August 16, 1938 and put into port at Pernambuco, Brazil on September 13 to take on supplies. She sailed the next day for Cape Town, arriving on October 9, where Ellsworth joined the expedition following a hunting trip in Africa. With the expedition fully in place, the WYATT EARP sailed from Cape Town on October 29 and reached Kerguelen Island on November 14. The ship was moored for three days in Royal Sound as the engine was cleaned. An abundance of rabbits and teal were found on nearby islands and subsequently killed and brought aboard to supplement their supply of fresh meat.
The WYATT EARP set out for Heard Island on November 17 but bad weather kept them from landing there. Rough seas, whipped up by 50 mph winds, wouldn't subside until November 20 and then at midnight, in about 55° S, 75° W, the WYATT EARP first confronted the outer edge of the ice pack. Ellsworth was surprised to meet the pack this far north. Forty-five days were spent working through the ice, approximately 800 miles wide. At 3 a.m., on January 1, 1939, the ice-bound coast of Antarctica was reached. Utilizing the Aeronca for reconnaissance, it took until the 3rd to find a suitable place to moor the ship. While moored against the ice on January 3, Ellsworth landed on one of the Svenner Islands to collect geological specimens. Although the islands had been discovered by Klarius Mikkelsen in February 1935, it appeared that this was the first landing to be made there. In order to use the Northrop plane, a new flying field needed to be located. Having reconnoitered the Rauer Islands and the Ingrid Christensen Coast to the north and south, the WYATT EARP moored to a piece of level bay ice on January 5 where adjacent islets of the Rauer Islands formed a protective harbor for the ship. Early the next day the Northrop plane was readied for flight. Severe weather forced them to move to a new location. During the night of January 10, the WYATT EARP reached the new mooring place northeast of the Vestfold Hills. On January 11, the Northrop plane was swung onto the ice and filled with gas. The test flight takeoff, the first since leaving New York, confirmed the poor condition of the ice for that purpose. After a short flight, the decision was made to make a longer flight over the continent to the south. Just after 6 p.m. local time, Ellsworth and Lymburner took off and headed south along the 79th meridian. As they flew inland, they climbed quickly to 7000 feet and then to 11,500 feet as the continent rose below them. Once inland, no rock features were visible and the horizon, for 180 degrees, was unmarked by color or contour. When the gasoline supply was about half used, they were approximately 210 miles inland. At this turn-around point, Ellsworth dropped a brass cylinder containing the following message:
Lymburner turned the plane around and a short time later they landed back at the ship. The wind was whipping from the east so once the plane was loaded aboard, the WYATT EARP set out slowly and cautiously along the coast in an attempt to find shelter. Meanwhile, Ellsworth was sending a radio dispatch to the New York Times telling his story of the flight and his formal act of claiming the territory for the United States. The world was first informed of this claim in the January 13, 1939 edition of the New York Times.
The storm, which had driven the WYATT EARP from its mooring on January 11 continued for the next two days. Afterwards, First Mate Liavaag and two other men were on a bergy bit chipping ice in order to refill the fresh water tanks when part of the berg broke off, throwing the men into the water. Liavaag was caught between two pieces of ice and before he could be rescued, his knee was crushed and kneecap broken. Dr. Rhoads examined Liavaag and determined that surgery was necessary. Since it would be difficult to perform this operation aboard the ship, Ellsworth decided to abandon any further attempts at flying over the interior and return at once to the nearest port. The WYATT EARP bucked heavy pack and strong seas but finally arrived at Hobart, Tasmania, on February 4, 1939.
After Ellsworth landed at Hobart, he publicly reasserted his claim to the territory over which he had flown on January 11 and actually increased the area involved from 80,000 square miles to 430,000 square miles. This claim was immediately disputed by the Australian Government and as a result, at the recommendation of Sir Douglas Mawson, the Government purchased the WYATT EARP for Antarctic exploration.
Following the sale of the WYATT EARP, the expedition was disbanded. On February 29, in Sydney, Australia, Ellsworth announced his intention of naming the area of 80,000 square miles claimed on his January 11 flight as "American Highland". Plans were also announced for yet another expedition but these were subsequently canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Lincoln Ellsworth arrived back in Los Angeles on March 20, 1939.
Lincoln Ellsworth lived a full and adventurous life. He died in New York City on May 26, 1951.
Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, by Kenneth J. Bertrand.
Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation, by David Burke.
Beyond Horizons, by Lincoln Ellsworth