ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (Part 1)
By JO2 James M. O'Leary, copyright 1979
"...The honour of being the first aeronaut to make an ascent in the Antarctic regions ... I chose for myself and I may further confess that in so doing, I was contemplating the first ascent I had made in any region, and as I swayed about in what appeared a very inadequate basket and gazed down below, I felt some doubts as to whether I had been wise in my choice..." R.F. Scott
This Feb. 4, 1902 entry of Captain Robert F. Scott during the 1901-1904 "Discovery" expedition heralded the humble beginnings of Antarctic aviation. He was the first man to achieve flight in Antarctica, aboard a balloon soaring 800 feet into the air. Later that same day, Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton also went airborne and became the first man to take aerial photographs of their surroundings.
Once begun, there was no stopping man's inventiveness to challenge and conquer the upper atmosphere of Antarctica.
Dr. Erick Von Drygalski, leading a German expedition, also launched a captive balloon on March 29, 1902, near Gaussberg.
Sir Douglas Mawson and the 1912 Australian Antarctic Expedition brought a single-engine Vickers monoplane to their base of operations at Queen Maud Land. Although damaged in transit, the resourceful explorers converted it into a tractor on skis and used it to tow their sledges. The rigors of a 40-mile march took its toll and the converted tractor stopped, crippled with a broken propeller and a frozen engine block.
The first successful heavier-than-air flight took place on Nov. 16, 1928, when Carl B. Eielson and Sir Hubert Wilkins of Australia took off on a wheel-equipped Lockheed Vega monoplane from Deception Island on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was only a trial hop that did not take them to the mainland of Antarctica. Surveying 600 miles of the Palmer Peninsula on Dec. 20, 1938, they also accomplished the first important aerial reconnaissance of the area.
Finding no place to land, they had to turn back, reaching Deception Island ten hours after they had set out.
Commander (later Rear Admiral) Richard E. Byrd overshadowed the Wilkins-Eielson effort. Byrd brought three aircraft with his expedition in 1928: a Ford tri-motor and two single-engine monoplanes, and with these aircraft, opened the doors to aviation in Antarctica.
Byrd and the other expedition pilots tested and experimented with every aviation technique known at the time; performed extensive aerial photo-mapping of their icy surroundings; set up and established supply caches; placed research parties in the field; and airdropped mail and materials to the outlying field camps.
Having flown over the North Pole in 1926, Cmdr. Byrd highlighted his first Antarctic expedition by flying over the South Pole on Nov. 29, 1929 on board the Ford tri-motor "Floyd Bennett." True to his modest nature, Cmdr. Byrd noted in his book "Little America" about reaching the South Pole that "...one gets there and that is about all there is for the telling. It is the effort to get there that counts..."
The four pioneers of that flight - Bernt Balchen, Harold June, Richard Byrd and Ashley McKinley - had maintained radio communications with their base at Little America and their transmissions had been monitored and relayed to the United States. The announcement that they had reached the South Pole electrified the nation and involved every American in the Antarctic undertaking. They had made the round trip to the South Pole by air in 15 hours and 51 minutes. It had taken Roald Amundsen and Capt. Scott two-three months.
With his meticulous planning, boldness and daring, Cmdr. Byrd proved that aircraft could be used as a primary tool for exploration in Antarctica.
Sir Wilkins returned in 1929 with a pontoon-equipped aircraft and operated and flew his aircraft from the RRS William Scoresby, an oceanographic and research vessel operated by Britain's "Discovery" Committee. This opened up still another facet of aviation: ship-based operations, which became one of the most important means of exploring large coastal areas.
The Norwegian whaling expeditions used the innovation of seaplanes extensively to plot the coastlines of Enderby and Queen Maud Lands. In 1937, Mrs. Lars Christensen, accompanying her husband on a Norwegian whaling expedition, became the first woman to fly over the continent.
In 1935, another American made his mark in Antarctic aviation. Lincoln Ellsworth and his pilot, H. Hollick-Kenyon, made the first trans-Antarctic flight on the single-engine "Polar Star." They flew from Dundee Island, located at the tip of the Palmer Peninsula, to Byrd's camp at the Bay of Whales at the Ross Ice Shelf, a distance of over 1,500 miles. After stopping several times to determine their position or to wait out storms, they landed only 16 miles short of their goal. Their aircraft sputtered to a halt, out of gas, and the pair of fliers were forced to walk the rest of the way.
ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (PART 2)
By JO2 James M. O'Leary, copyright August, 1979
In 1938-39, Captain Albert Ritscher's German Antarctic expedition used two seaplanes which had a much longer range than the small planes used previously. Because of this added capability, the German explorers were able to photograph a large portion of previously unseen territory in a short time, taking over 11,000 photographs in a little over two weeks.
The U.S. Congress established the United States Antarctic Service Expedition in 1939 and it proved to be a turning point for aviation and exploration in Antarctica. Commanded by Admiral Byrd, this force set up several bases on the east and west coasts of Antarctica and claimed a number of territories for the United States. However, the outbreak of World War II shortly thereafter temporarily halted all operations in Antarctica.
During the war, German raiders used sub-Antarctic islands such as Kerguelen as bases and harassed Allied shipping until driven out.
World War II proved to be a testing area for all kinds of weaponry and numerous advances were made in the field of aviation technology. Aircraft became larger, more powerful, more versatile and had a larger payload.
In 1946-47, Admiral Byrd returned to Antarctica with the largest expedition ever launched against the continent. Operation HIGH JUMP utilized 4,000 men, 13 ships and a submarine. It was the first mission to use helicopters extensively; photo-mapping flights discovered more territory than all previous expeditions combined; and experimental aircraft were tested and used. The expedition also studied and investigated various inter-disciplinary science, tested personnel to the effects of harsh weather conditions and scouted for natural resources.
One of the Operation HIGH JUMP tasks was to circumnavigate the 16,000 mile coastline and map it thoroughly. A two-pronged assault was used: ski-equipped land planes made photo reconnaissance journeys of the interior, and seaplanes at various sites explored the coastline and immediate inland regions. This double-edged capability resulted in 64 photographic flights covering 60 percent of the continent's coastline in 70,000 aerial photographs.
During the expedition, Byrd also became the first man to reach the South Pole twice. It was only the fourth time man had seen the Pole: Roald Amundsen in 1911, Captain Scott in 1912, Byrd by air in 1929 and again in 1947.
The hazards of aviation in Antarctica claimed three aviators during HIGH JUMP. They were killed during a reconnaissance flight on Dec. 31, 1946 at the Thurston Peninsula.
The second Antarctic expedition (1947-48) was nicknamed Operation WINDMILL because helicopters were used extensively, although helicopters were not a novelty in Antarctica. Admiral Byrd had used a Kellett Auto-Gyro in 1934 which he operated through an entire season before it crashed.
Two icebreakers established ground control points during Operation WINDMILL and were used to construct maps from aerial photographs taken during Operation HIGH JUMP. WINDMILL was the first operation of its kind in Antarctica to be primarily dependent on helicopters for transport and accomplishment of the mission.
An Argentine mercy mission raised the possibility of support from another land mass. Ice conditions had prevented ships from penetrating Marguerite Bay in March, 1953, and isolated the Argentine station at Barry Island. Loaded with essential food, medical supplies and mail, a long-range Avro-Lincoln of the Argentine Air Force flew non-stop from South America's Rio Gallegos to the Argentine sector at Barry Island. The successful support flight proved that support from another land mass could be accomplished if suitable landing areas could be established on the continent.
The fast-approaching International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957 speeded the process of maturity of Antarctic aviation and began the Navy's involvement in a support program called Operation DEEP FREEZE. Initiating supply efforts in the 1955-56 season, the Navy flew two ski-equipped "Neptunes" and two-wheeled R5D "Skymasters" from New Zealand, landing on the ice at McMurdo Sound without any difficulty. Other than through ship operations, which had been the only way to provide support for explorers in Antarctica since exploration began, a way had been found to move passengers and cargo into the Antarctic.
On Jan. 19, 1955, the Navy commissioned Air Development Squadron SIX (VX-6), now Antarctic Development Squadron SIX (VXE-6), as the "air arm" for antarctic support. The squadron was to spearhead intra-continental thrusts and earn for itself a niche in Antarctic history.
Rear Admiral George Dufek and six VX-6 crewmen and pilots made the first landing at the South Pole onboard the "Que Sera Sera," an R4D, on October 31, 1956. They were the first men to set foot on the Pole since Capt. Scott and his fateful party in Jan. 17, 1912. Jet assisted take-off (JATO) had to be used to enable the aircraft to lift off from the soft snow of the polar plateau.
ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (PART 3)
By JO2 James O'Leary, copyright August, 1979
Special units from other branches of the Armed Forces have helped make Operation DEEP FREEZE a continuing success. Plans had to be formulated and executed which called for essential cooperation, providing much-needed personnel, supplies and other logistic support. The ongoing collective effort has borne fruit.
Since October 1955, United States Air Force aircrews, maintenance personnel and aircraft from the Tactical Air Command (TAC), the Military Air Transport Command (MATS) and its successor, the Military Airlift Command (MAC) have all been involved in antarctic supply activities at various dates.
Dating from October 5, 1955, the 63rd Troop Carrier Wing (Heavy) provided C-124 "Globemasters" to fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, from Donaldson AFB, South Dakota. The 63rd became a part of MATS on July 1957 and continued to be responsible for Operation DEEP FREEZE through 1962-63, flying the "Globemasters" and the C-119 "Boxcars."
During these years, the C-121 "Super Constellation" and the huge C-124s provided the bulk of cargo airlift and passenger service to McMurdo. Until the first ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft landed in January, 1960, the only practical way to re-supply the isolated interior stations was by airdrop from the C-119 and C-124 aircrafts.
In April of 1963, the 1501st Air Transport Wing (Heavy) at Travis AFB took responsibility for DEEP FREEZE. A major stop-over point for Air Force movements from the East Coast, Travis is 2,500 miles closer to New Zealand.
It was a 1501st aircrew that successfully landed the first C-141 "Starlifter" all-jet aircraft at McMurdo in November, 1966. The test flight demonstrated the Starlifter's capabilities to work and withstand the harsh Antarctic weather.
The C-141 became the new workhorse for Antarctic operations in DEEP FREEZE '69, a role it still has today. The C-141s operate from the early part of October through the middle of December.
From DEEP FREEZE '68 through DEEP FREEZE '75, the 21st Air Force at the East Coast was assigned the job of supporting Antarctic operations. The missions were shared by the 436 Military Air Wing (MAW) of Dover AFB, Delaware; the 437 MAW of Charleston, South Carolina and the 438 MAW of McGuire AFB, New Jersey. The responsibility was again transferred to the West Coast in DEEP FREEZE '76 to the 60th MAW at Travis AFB, California.
Despite the turnover of personnel and the commands involved, the Air Force continues to maintain a professional and dedicated stance towards serving the needs and goals of support operations in Antarctica.
Starting with DEEP FREEZE '62 and ending in DEEP FREEZE '69, U.S. Army helicopters dominated the immediate air spaces at remote campsites on the continent. The U.S. Army Aviation Detachment (Antarctica Support) arrived at McMurdo in early October, 1961, to evaluate two UH-1B Iroquois turbo-driven helicopters. Two geological missions of the United States Geological Survey "TOPO NORTH" and "TOPO SOUTH" were the first successes of the 10-man Army Detachment. These were topographical studies conducted on the ice shelf.
Although the helicopter support program was to be a temporary mission when first projected in 1961, it proved so successful and so vital to the logistical effort that by DEEP FREEZE '64, the U.S. Army agreed to continue the detachment's involvement in the operations.
The Army unit flew over 3,000 miles of support during the eight summer seasons of operations and proved the versatile capabilities and usefulness of the turbine helicopter against the environment of Antarctica. The UH helicopter models eventually replaced VXE-6's inventory of helicopters and caused the phasing out of other models.
Most of the unit's geodetic, geological and topographical missions were flown in remote campsites, such as the Ellsworth Mountains, the Beardmore Glacier, Marie Byrd Land and Ellsworth Land, which contain some of the continent's fiercest and harshest weather conditions.
"US ARMY 28 OCT 1916" This cryptic sign can be found on the top of Mount Discovery at Ross Island. It refers to the first mountaintop engine change ever performed in Antarctica.
On Oct. 27, one of the helicopters refused to start after a test shutdown and a power turbine failure for the change. A new engine and all-Army crew were delivered and, working throughout the 24-hour sunlight of the Antarctic night, the mechanics were able to complete the engine change at 8 a.m. This, despite a constant temperature of 20 degrees below zero and a steady wind of 25 knots. Twelve hours were spent making an engine switch in an environment which should have made the task more time-consuming.
With the help of two LC-130s from VXE-6, the Army helicopter detachment also mae a historic landing at the South Pole on Feb. 4, 1963. After completing their mission at Mount Weaver in the Trans-Antarctic mountains in late January, it was decided that the helicopters would be flown to McMurdo Station via the South Pole since the Pole was closer. After a 13-day wait for the weather to subside, the helicopters set out for the South Pole, heavily laden with fuel and monitored closely by the VXE-6 LC-130s. Two hours and 34 minutes after takeoff, the trio of helicopters arrived safely and became first rotary wing aircraft to reach the Pole. At the Pole, the helicopters were dismantled, loaded aboad the LC-130s and flown back to McMurdo.
ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (PART 4)
By JO2 James M. O'Leary, copyright August 1979
The contribution of the United States Marine Corps to the aviation program in Antarctica came in the form of well-trained pilots, navigators, crewmen and mechanics. They also brought with them the fierce esprit de corps for which they are known.
"The Marines always land first!" exclaimed Captain Alton Parker as he jumped off the ship during the 1928 Byrd expedition, landing on the ice at the Bay of Whales. Capt. Parker was also one of three Marine aviators with the expedition. Several Marines also served with Byrd in succeeding expeditions.
When VX-6 was commissioned in 1955, there was a small detachment of Marine fliers and aircrewmen assigned to the squadron. One of them, Captain Rayburn A. Hudman, formed the nucleus of a 12-man Para-rescue team in 1956, a team still in existence today.
In April , 1955, Lieutenant Colonel H. R. Kolp became the only Marine officer to ever serve as VX-6's Commanding Officer.
In early January 1962, the Marine Air Corps Air Facility "Darbyville" sprang to life, with Major Leslie L. Darbyshire as commanding officer and mayor of the "town." The township lasted only four days.
Major Darbyshire was forced to set down his C-130 about 100 miles from Byrd Station when three of his four engines quit. After "freight-loading" 20,000 pounds of cargo, he set the aircraft down on the polar plateau. He radioed McMurdo, told them of the problem and set about getting "Darbyville" to life.
When a relief crew arrived several hours later, survival tents had been erected, men were carving out snow shelters and the evening meal was simmering on the survival and portable stoves.
Water was discovered in the fuel and ice had clogged the engines' strainers. In the four days it took to repair these discrepancies, the hardy crews were thrown back to a bygone era of pioneers on the trail. On Jan. 5, the C-130 was repaired and airborne, ending the mayorship of Major Darbyshire.
After almost 45 years of involvement with Antarctic aviation and support, the Marine detachment's last missions were flown in 1972 and they were detached from the roster of VXE-6 shortly thereafter.
Since Operation HIGH JUMP, Coast Guard icebreakers provided the thrust for opening of the annual supply ship channels into McMurdo, but it wasn't until a trial program in 1967 that a Coast Guard helicopter program and detachment for support proved feasible. by DEEP FREEZE '70, the Coast Guard had taken over the chores of Navy helicopters for reconnaissance flights, photo-mapping flights and science support of various projects in the outlying stations beyond the capability of VXE-6. Operating from the various icebreakers used during the years, the helicopter detachments have flown over 4,000 hours of support for science research.
Based at Mobile, Alabama, the Polar Operations Division of the Coast Guard operates with a staff of approximately 22 officers, 60 enlisted aviation rates, 10 HH52A Sikorsky "Seaguard" helicopters. Each detachment deploying with an icebreaker consists of two helicopters, four pilots and 10-12 enlisted aviation personnel. The detachments are self-sufficient while deployed, equipped with aviation equipment and supply kits for maintenance and repair of the aircraft.
Rescue capabilities rest entirely with the individual deployed ships because they operate far from populated areas. Each helicopter is equipped with survival equipment and fly in pairs when necessary.
ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (PART 5)
By JO2 James M. O'Leary, copyright, 1979
During the operating season of 1960, the Air Force sent a detachment of ski-equipped LC-130 "Hercules" to Antarctica. Having proved very useful in Greenland operations, the "Hercs" proved just as useful in Antarctica and led the Navy to puchase ski-equipped "Hercs" for its own use.
The superior capabilities of the "Herc" signaled the death knell for other types of fixed-wing aircraft and caused the eventual phase-out of the reliable "Constellations" and "Skytrains" from Antarctic air space. The single-engine UH-1B "Otter" was last used during the 1965-66 season and Dec. 2, 1967 marked the last flight of the twin engine "Dakota." Since then, the support of research activities has been carried on exclusively by the "Hercs" and UN-1N helicopter.
The early VX-6 fliers were handed the mantle of responsibility for blazing the trail of Antarctica's airways, a task they handled professionally and which paved the way for fliers who came later. They proved equal to the task and the history of the Antarctic Squadron is filled with "firsts," as befitting trailblazers.
On Dec. 19, 1955, the squadron's C-54s and P2Vs landed at McMurdo to begin DEEP FREEZE ONE. Byrd Station, America's first inland station, was established Jan. 1, 1957, primarily through the use of squadron aircraft.
The 1967 season saw the earliest deep penetration of the continent with a "Herc" at Plateau Station on October 13, 1966, some 1,200 miles inland from McMurdo.
An aircraft crash in 1955 was the impetus for the formation of a Para-rescue team, still in existence today. The members of this elite unit undergo constant training in first aid, survival techniques and sky diving for that time when their services could be required.
April 9, 1961 proved that a mid-winter flight into Antarctica could be accomplished. VX-6 flew into Byrd Station to medically evacuate a seriously ill Soviet scientist. The squadron repeated their life-saving capabilities with two other mid-winter medical evacuations in 1964 and 1966.
VX-6 also recorded a 4,600-mile flight from Cape Town, South Africa to Christchurch, New Zealand via the South Pole and McMurdo Stations in 1964.
A mid-winter mail drop was accomplished in June 4, 1967, boosting the morale of the winter-over detachment and it was hoped that such flights could be made on a regular basis.
ASPECTS OF AVIATION IN ANTARCTICA (PART 6)
By JO2 James M. O'Leary, copyright, 1979
January 1975 was a disastrous month for VXE-6 when two of its ski-equipped "Hercs" had accidents 24 hours apart at Dome Charlie in east Antarctica while flying support missions for a French traverse team.
On a reconnaissance mission of the crash sites in Nov., 1975, another "Herc" crashed. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed in the accidents.
A combined military and civilian repair operation successfully repaired one "Herc" in late December, wrenching it from Antarctica's grip and flying it out of Dome Charlie on Dec. 26, 1975. American ingenuity and know-how wrested a second "Herc" from Dome Charlie and it was flown out on Jan. 19, 1976. A Christmas present to the support program came in December, 1976, when the third and last aircraft was flown out of Dome Charlie. The salvage effort proved that Antarctica was not going to win all of its battles against determined and dedicated men.
Besides setting record-breaking flight hours for support and operations in Antarctica, VXE-6 also continued its enviable record for Antarctic rescues. One rescue, in January 1978, was accomplished through the professionalism and international cooperation of Australia, the Soviet Union and the United States.
A seriously ill Australian scientist at the Australian Station, Casey, was flown by Soviet helicopter to Mirny, a Soviet station 300 miles east of Casey. A "Herc" was launched from McMurdo to Mirny, where the scientist was loaded onboard and flown to Christchurch.
Another rescue was completed in January, 1979, when five injured Soviets were transported from Molodezhnaya, 1,800 miles from McMurdo, to a medical facility in Dunedin, New Zealand. Because of the critical fuel factor, the aircraft had to be fueled twice at the South Pole - on its way to and from Molodezhnaya. The rescue mission required two crew changes, two flight surgeons and four corpsmen and almost 28 flight hours.
Aviation in Antarctica has not been without its setbacks. The bodies of over 30 American fliers and crewmen attest to the hazards of flying, serving as constant reminders that man is still subject to the caprices and whims of Antarctica's beautiful but treacherous nature.
Great inroads have been made since Scott's initial attempts into the Antarctic atmosphere. Aviation technology, modern research techniques and the Antarctic weather will be important factors for progress in Antarctica. No one knows what the future in Antarctica holds, but aircraft and aviation will be intertwined with that future, tempered and balanced by the hardy souls of the pilots and crewmen who challenge Antarctica constantly.
(END OF ARTICLE - THAT'S ALL FOLKS!)
Many are cold. Few are frozen. 'Jungle Jim'