November 17, 2007

Sir George Hubert Wilkins

by John Grierson from 'HEROES OF THE POLAR SKIES' Heinemann 1967

Rare portrait photo of
Sir George Hubert Wilkins

George Hubert Wilkins was in many ways the most colourful of all polar air pioneers, due to the astonishing variety of enterprises in which he took a leading part. Born at Mount Bryan East, about a hundred miles north of Adelaide on October 31st, l888.

George, as he was always known until he achieved knighthood, was the youngest of a family of thirteen, though six had died in infancy. His father, who came from a family of settlers which had sailed from Lonclon fifty years earlier, farmed a 'station' of 2,000 acres. Consequently young George's childhood was anything but colourful in the surroundings of a sheep farm, though he made the best of things and tried to improve himself by reading as many books of learning as he could lay his hands on.

One of the most vivid impressions of his childhood was the terrible effect of a three-year drought, when he saw piles of dead animals surrounded by hordes of buzzing flies, with over all the stench of a battlefield. It nearly ruined his father, who had fortunately a little money in the bank, but only enough to finish off his son's education with a course in electrical engineering at the School of Mines in Adelaide.

Pondering the scenes of disaster at Mount Bryan East, Wilkins thought that if only accurate long-range weather forecasts could be made, it would be possible to forestall the effects of drought by moving cattle to more favourable areas. In this connection one of the greatest unknowns was the air circulation-particularly the upper air circulation, in the vicinity of the poles so that an onslaught on the secrets of these uncharted areas might provide far-reach¬ing benefits for mankind. With accurate long-range fore¬casts a great improvement in world economy should fol¬low, together with the promotion of happiness and the reduction of jealous tensions amongst the nations of the earth. It was this proposition which fired Wilkins's imagination in his early desire to go exploring.

Between the age of twenty, when he left Australia to begin the colourful part of his life, and his entry into the field of polar aviation, stretched seventeen eventful years. He left Adelaide in 1908 as a stowaway intending to go to Sydney, but the ship took him instead to Algiers. There he had adventures in smuggling and spying, with an international gang. Eventually when he reached England he worked for Gaumont as a cinema photographer and in 1910 learnt to fly with Graham White at Hendon. In l912 Gaumont sent him to Turkey to cover the Turco-Bulgarian war where he had some hair-raising adventures under fire, and was nearly shot as a spy.After that war he continued photography in England from balloons, airships and aero¬planes. Then he went out to the West Indies to make a propaganda film on the cocoa estates, called 'Food for the Gods' for Cadburys.

Having prefaced his exploring life with these and many other such adventures, Wilkins began the real thing when he was assigned by Gaumont to Stefansson's Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1913, and became second-in-command of the northern section into the bargain. He soon learnt how to live and travel in the Arctic to such good effect that he went out and saved the life of Stefansson when the rest of the expedition had deserted him. Later he learnt from a trapper in 1915 that the Great War had started, and thereupon travelled to France as photographer for the Australian official war historian. There he earned the reputation of being utterly fearless in the way he would walk about with his camera in no man's land under shell and rifle fire. Nine times he was wounded by bullets, several times was buried by bomb blasts, and once was gassed.

After the war Wilkins was navigator in the all-Australian attempt of a Blackburn Kangaroo twin-engined bi¬plane with two Rolls Royce water-cooled275h.p. Falcons, to win the Daily Mail f,70,000 prize for a flight to Australia, but engine-failure caused his pilot to crash-land in Crete against the walls of a Turkish lunatic asylum, fortunately without injury to the crew. Wilkins was also sent on special reporting missions to Turkey and Egypt which kept him occupied until his military service ended. Then in 1920 he had the chance to go to the Antarctic with Sir Ernest Shackleton as naturalist in the Quest, and sailed south with the famous explorer, who unhappily died in South Georgia almost before the expedition had begun. However, work did go on and Wilkins carried out useful research into the lives of many varieties of birds, seals and penguins. After that interlude, he was again sent on a cinema commission, this time by the Society of Friends, to make a film of the appalling famine conditions in Russia, and to illustrate the work of mercy being done by the Society. Readily he put his heart into this job because he felt so sympathetic to the human misery and starvation he saw on every hand in the frozen grainlands of central Russia, and his three-reel 'New Worlds for Old' still bears striking testimony to this.

In the spring of 1,923 the British Museum wired Wilkins in Russia to ask if he would lead an expedition to Northern Australia to study the rarer mammals and aborigines of that area. He would really sooner have gone towards the poles, but having achieved a reputation as a naturalist with Shackleton, he decided to respond to the British Museum's unexpected request. This work engaged him for two and a half years during which he travelled extensively alone amongst the aborigines, many of whom were cannibals.

Although Wilkins had learnt to fly in 1910, his first expeditions-to the Arctic with Stefansson, to the Antarctic with Shackleton and to Northern Australia as leader of the British Museum's expedition-had been without aeroplanes or flying-machines of any sort. Not until he had returned from North Australia did he seize the chance to go to Alaska and set up a base for aerial exploration of the Polar Basin. The area north of Barrow was intriguing because foot or ship travel out over the polar ice had been so difficult, due to the strong currents, that there were wide areas towards the pole where new and unknown islands could exist. Indeed a story had been built up over the years that a hundred miles or so north of the coast of Alaska, there was a group of islands in the Beaufort Sea called Keenan Land. Two ships' crews had reported seeing distant mountains rising high in this area, and the Eskimoes of North Alaska claimed they had seen the same thing, only they embellished the land as teeming with game and fat women, the latter presumably because no Eskimo who had set out for it had ever returned. In 1906 Ejnar Mikkelsen, under the sponsorship of the Royal Geographical and American Geographical Societies had led an expedition to locate Keenan Land, but after great privations on the drifting ice had found nothing in the shape of land.

Obviously an aerial survey of the area would be the quickest way to establish definitely whether the islands were reality or a mirage, and this became one of Wilkins's main objectives.

He had really intended to use one aeroplane and one pilot, but by the time the Detroit magnates, who were backing him, had had their say he had to have two aero planes and two crews. The aeroplanes were both Fokkers, a single engined one with a 400 h.p. watercooled Liberty, christened The Alaskan, and a tri-motor with 220 h.p. Wright Whirlwind radials called The Detroiter. Aircrews were obtained on loan from the army, notably Major Lanphier and Lieutenant Carl Ben Eielson, the latter having had most flying experience.

The expedition reached Seattle in March 1926 and em¬barked with all their equipment for the 1,500 mile sea journey up the coast to Seward, whence the final 40 miles to Fairbanks was by rail. There as soon as the machines had been assembled and pushed out in the extremely cold weather, the newspaper men demanded a christening ceremony, which was performed by the Mayor's wife, supported by a Roman Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister, an Episcopal parson and a lay preacher. The contents of the christening bottles, smashed over the propellers, were as unexceptionable as the denominations of the religious witnesses and consisted of pure petrol.

In order to make a test flight, Major Lanphier taxied out the trimotor Detroiter but almost at once ran into a snow-bank. Everyone tried to help getting her out, but in the general confusion a newspaperman walked into one of the whirling propellers and was killed outright. After this sad event, a week elapsed before another attempt to fly was made. This time Eielson took Wilkins up in The Alaskan which handled well throughout, but on the approach Eielson misjudged his height, stalled and crashed. Luckily the machine was not too badly damaged apart from the undercarriage, and the two men were unhurt. The cause had almost certainly been due to Eielson's difficulty in levelling off with virtually no visible horizon on the snow, a situation which may arise from time to time under certain light conditions wherever there is unbroken snow.

Soon afterwards, Lanphier brought out The Detroiter with Wilkins again as passenger, made a short flight and then did the very same thing as Eielson, only he stalled from a slightly greater height. Again the undercarriage was swept off and again the occupants were unhurt, though on account of its size the trimotor was rather more damaged.

One man killed followed by both aeroplanes being crashed within twenty-four hours was not a very auspicious start for the Detroit Arctic Expedition. However Wilkins was determined to do the best with what was left of his equipment, and concentrated on the repair of the smaller machine. Inevitably so much of the short summer season was being lost, that making a major Arctic flight would be out of the question, but he could build up a supply base this year for more ambitious operations over the ice next.

In fact the very first flight to point Barrow n The Alaskan across the poorly-mapped Endicott mountains was blessed with a 50 m.p.h. tail wind, and after flying above cloud, Wilkins and Eielson came our over open water before they had seen Barrow. Thereupon Wilkins could not resist the temptation to start exploring immediately, so they continued out across the ice for 150 miles before turning back. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated behind them and when they headed round into the wind, driving snow and deteriorating visibility made contact flying difficult. But eventually they found the settlement of Point Barrow and just managed to land safely in a clearing by the telegraph station on their wheeled undercarriage. An Eskimo told Wilkins he had heard their machine pass northward over the clouds hours before they landed, thus proving the accuracy of his dead reckoning. Wilkins's introduction to this remote station consisted of an April snow-storm that kept The Alaskan grounded for five days. Then on the way back to Fairbanks the two airmen became lost due to a thaw having completely changed the appearance of the southern side of the mountains; indeed having run short of fuel they were lucky to make a forced landing safely at Circle, about 140 miles north-east of Fairbanks.

Another flight to Barrow was made uneventfully, but as Wilkins was about to leave for the third time, an Eskimo shouted that the machine was on fire. Fortunately it was only the canvas engine cover, fired through the Eskimo having put too much seal blubber on the engine heating stove, and the flames were soon extinguished. The flight' however, was frustrated by bad weather and after four hours the two airmen had to land back at Point Barrow. Then two days later, when the weather was all right, they had only been flying a few minutes when the engine be¬came so rough, they had to land hurriedly on a lagoon. The cause was diagnosed as the drying-out of the glue between the laminations of the wooden propeller due to the blubber fire. Repairs with local materials were somewhat rudimentary but after two tries Wilkins and Eielson managed to make the propeller just good enough.

Wilkins did intend to do one more revictualling flight to Barrow, and was taking off from Fairbanks when something went wrong and the Alaskan crashed. It was said that a wing had failed, but whatever it was, the dam¬age was too severe for speedy repairs. By this time, the tri-motor Detroiter had luckily been made airworthy, and Wilkins flew the final trip to Point Barrow in her.

Next year, Wilkins came back to Fairbanks in February with two new aeroplanes, skicquipped Stinson biplanes, fitted with 22A h.p. Wright Whirlwinds. The Whirlwind had been used by Lindbergh on his famous Atlantic flight, and marked a new era of reliability in aero engines. He intended to use these for landings out on the ice of the Polar Ocean in conjunction with The Detroiter as supply machine.

On the first flight over the ice, Wilkins wrote, when two hours out: 'All O.K., Eielson seems happy and I have every confidence in him and everything else on board', but when they were 500 miles out the engine began to misfire so badly that Eielson had to land quickly on an ice floe. Without a thought of their immediate peril, Wilkins got out and calmly started to make two holes in the three-foot ice, in order to take a sounding. All the time the engine was kept running because the air temperature was -35oC, and Eielson came and helped by detonating a charge in one hole whilst Wilkins listened with the recorder at the other. The first timing was 7.3 seconds, indicating a depth of 16,000 ft or about three times as much as anyone would have expected. Thinking engine noise might have spoilt the result, Wilkins told Eielson to stop it whilst they tried again, but the result was still substantially the same. Afterwards Eielson admitted that at this moment when Wilkins showed himself so utterly insensitive to danger, he had pondered 'Go ahead and take the soundings: if you stop the engine we will never get it started again after a few minutes at this temperature and nobody but God and you and I will ever know what the sounding is ! '

Two hours' hectic work on the engine with freezing fingers seemed to have achieved very little. Then Eielson made five shaky attempts to take off until they rose into the air so unhappily with their misfiring engine,* that they had to land again almost at once. Continuing to work, Eielson had four of his fingers badly frost-bitten: to make matters worse, the wind got up and it started to snow. By the time the fuel system had been flushed out, there was little daylight left, and Eielson finally took off into a head wind. Not much could be seen in the heavy snow from 5,000 ft, and when eventually the fuel ran out and the engine stopped sixty-five miles north-west of Barrow, neither man could see what lay below. By the most amazing luck, the dead-stick glide hurled the fragile aeroplane into a snow-drift, smashing the undercarriage and lower wing but bringing the machine safely to rest right way up on the only bit of smooth ice for miles around. At daylight, soundings proved a movement of 5 to 6 m.p.h. to the north-east, driven by a gale that kept the two confined for four days. Thus they had been driven even further from land by the time the weather eased and allowed them to begin the desperate trek towards safety.
* The eventual diagnosis of this trouble indicated use of a flux in the welding of the aluminium tanks which deposited a film on the wire meshes of the fuel filters.

Wilkins built ice-houses for shelter each night single-handed because Eielson's hand was too badly frost-bitten. It was only Wilkins's experience with Stefansson that brought them through alive after thirteen days with precious little food, sometimes stumbling over old floes and pressure ridges, sometimes falling into ice-cold water. On one occasion, as the two made their way by jumping from floe to floe. Wilkins went clean through the ice and the current started to carry him away. He was a non¬swimmer but luckily the 50 lb pack on his back kept him afloat and after several unsuccessful attempts, he managed to roll himself over onto the ice edge. Ben Eielson stood petrified because he knew that with his frost-bitten hand he could never survive alone should anything happen to his boss. To add to his horror he next saw Wilkins strip himself stark naked (the temperature was about -40oC) and begin to dance about like a maniac, rubbing the inside of his Eskimo suit in the snow. Not until afterwards did he realize that this was a resolute effort to avoid being frozen to death in wet seal-skins: then he was so relieved when Wilkins had dressed and seemed still in his right mind, he did not bother to ask any questions. Never before had anyone survived landing far out on the Arctic ice, either because their engine was failing or because they were obsessed with the desire of measuring the depth of the ocean.

Having established that there was no land in the'Keenan Land' area, Wilkins's next aim was towards the north¬east, since there were considerable doubts about the full extent of the Canadian Arctic Islands. But the season was too far advanced, and this further quest would require another expedition to Barrow.

Wilkins and Eielson returned for the third time in 1928 with the newest and most efficient aeroplane-a Lockheed Vega also fitted wirh the 220 h.p. Wright Whirlwind. Taking oft with an overload of petrol on skis, they planned to fly over the Canadian Arctic Islands and then around North Greenland to Spitzbergen, thus cornpleting a circle of more than 2,000 miles over the Polar Basin. Navigation would depend mainly on sun shots with an R.A.F. Mk. V bubble sextant since the magnetic compass would suffer an average rate of variation change of jo per minute on a flight of about twenty hours, apart from having a very sluggish performance in these regions. After April 5th the sun would be above the horizon all the way to Spiubergen, and that would be ideal for solar navigation.

At the first attempt to take off on a cross-wind strip prepared by Eskimoes, the Lockheed bounced off the runway and broke one of its metal skis. Luckily Wilkins had brought a spare pair of wooden ones which Eielson now fitted. A new runway had to be prepared and it was not until April 16th that the heavily laden plane was ready for another take-off. Over the pack the two airmen flew against a slight head wind, reducing ground-speed to 108 m.p.h., and presently the ice below was broken by open leads which enabled Wilkins to read the direction of pressure caused by wind and tide. Near 80o N., where they particularly hoped to see if there was land, a sheet of low cloud inconveniently covered the area. This lasted for 120 miles, when they came out over old heavy pack. From 3,000 ft not a trace of land could be seen, and course had to be altered to fly around the rim of a storm, north of Grant Land. Although it was now midnight, eleven hours after take-oft, the dull red orb of the sun was well above the horizon to the north. After ploughing through several banks of clouds, they suddenly broke through into the clear and saw the glaciated mountains of Grant Land, barely twenty miles to the south. This coincided exactly with their estimated position, which gave a great feeling of confidence in Wilkins's navigation. In fact they flew almost over Cape Columbia whence Peary had set out on his famous walk to the pole in 1909.

Despite the appearance of heavy storms ahead in the Spitzbergen direction, Wilkins and Eielson were in complete agreement that they should press on rather than risk an immediate landing on the ice to await a change. The outside air was -45oC and they knew there must be violent mixing with the warmer air-stream around the land-mass of Spitzbergen. So some hours later after climb¬ing to 8,000 ft for a sun-shot, they had to let down into a boiling cauldron of cumulus cloud in extremely turbulent air. The compass wavered all over the place and, as they neared the sea, loose objects were thrown around the cockpit by what turned out to be a raging blizzard.

The surface of the ice-strewn sea was being lashed into spray by a wind of gale force and on the coast the blown snow made visibility extremely patchy. Amongst this tur¬moil the airmen spotted a smooth patch of snow-covered land on an isolated island, ofiering poor sanctuary for an aeroplane and they therefore turned back to the coast, flying only a few feet above the waves. Here they found nothing but precipitous cliffs of jagged rock, and the bumps were so severe they were afraid of being thrown onto the cliffs.

With fuel running low and visibility steadily worsening, the two men were left with no alternative but the isolated island-if indeed they could find it again. The front wind¬screen was obscured by oil and frozen snow, making Eielson's job exceptionally difficult. But Wilkins could see better out of the windows at the side, and so he took over the responsibility of guiding the pilot, by passing a series of terse notes over the petrol tanks, as follows:

'Turn right.'
'Now to the left.'
'A bit more.'
'No, we have passed it.'
'Turn back.'
'Turn back.'
'Keep as close to land as possible.'
'There it is on the right.'

They had passed the spot where they had hoped to land almost as soon as it became visible in the murk, so they swung out to sea once more and came heading in towards the tongue of the glacier. Just as they reached it, Eielson pulled back the throttle and they sank smoothly into the snow in the howling wind the machine came to rest in ten yards.

They could not pick out a single feature around them but Wilkins managed to jump out and drain the oil before the engine could freeze solid. The gale raged and the machine shook as the wind tugged at its wings. Hours later, after both men had been fast asleep, the weather moderated and they were able to take a shot of the sun. This put them between King's Bay and Green Harbour, but before they could take careful stock of their surroundings, another blizzard had begun.

For four days Wilkins and Eielson were imprisoned by the weather and then, when it cleared, the aeroplane's skis kept freezing solid onto the snow and would not budgeuntil Wilkins pushed it. Twice he failed to scramble on board and Eielson took off without him. On the first occasion Wilkins grabbed a rope dangling from the cockpit with his mouth and loosened all his teeth before finally dropping off, to be hit a glancing blow by the tail-plane as he fell into the snow. In the end, only by using a piece of drift-wood as a sort of punt-pole did he finally manage to start the machine and scramble on board successfully.

As soon as they had climbed to 3,000 ft, the airmen could make out the radio masts of Green Harbour across the bay and there they landed safely at last. The site of their forced landing had, they learnt, the fortunately not appropriate name of Deadman's Island.

This flight of 2,500 miles (2,200 miles from point to point) in just over twenty hours' flying time was the first ever to be made by an aeroplane across the polar Basin in fact only the airship Norge had hitherto made a similar kind of journey. Little wonder therefore, tbat when Wilkins visited London, he was accorded the honour of knighthood by King George V in recognition of his outstanding work in the Arctic, and from the Royal Geographical Society Sir Hubert received the patron's medal for his many years systematic work in polar regions, culminating in his remarkable flight from Point Barrow to Spitzbergen. Amundsen described this achievement thus: 'No flight has been made anywhere, at any time, which could be compared with this'.

From the foregoing alone, Wilkins stands out as the father of Arctic Aviation, but that was by no means the end of his polar activities. In the same year that he had flown from Barrow to Spitzbergen, he sailed south with the same aeroplane and the same trusted Ben Eielson as pilot, to make the first flight ever in Antarctica. He beat Byrd for this honour by only a couple of months, but unlike Byrd he was not intent on flying to the pole. To Wilkins it seemed much more necessary, though less glamorous, to explore first the fringes and flanks of Antarctica before worrying about the pole. For this purposehe set up a base on Deception Island, off the coasi of Graham Land (or Palmer Land as the Americans preferto call it), and took a second Lockheed aeroplane with him. Not sure whether the best surface for would be land, water or ice, he equipped his machines for wheel, float or ski undercarriages. Expense was much less important now because his Arctic success had resulted in the Hearst press becoming a major backer of his new venture, which was called 'The Wilkins-Hearst Expedition'.

Unhappily, there was not much snow on theland and the sea ice was not firm, so wheel undercarriages had to be fitted. Otherwise skis would have been better as offering greater choice of possible landing places away from base, on glaciers or other ice. The only surface at all suitable for 1akeoft consisted of volcanic tuff-a coke-like sub¬stance prone to cut rubber tyres, and the 'runway' on the side of a hill was barely 800 yds long, only 40 ft wide and had two 20" bends in it. This would limit flying to half-loads and therefore restrict range, but no better place could be found. In effect this meant that the prospect of making a2,AO0 mile flight westwards to the Ross Sea was out of the question. This was disappointing because Wilkins would have liked to have done such a flight for the sake of his policy of exploring the rim of Antarctica rather than the centre, with the eventual objective of establishing a chain of meteorological stations around the periphery.

The first local flight was made on November 16th, 1928, and four days later Wilkins set off with Eielson on their first fligbt of exploration.

They headed south, first running parallel to the plateau of Graham Land which seemed to tower up to 8,000 ft, and then crossing it to continue as far as they could down the east coast. The fuel situation compelled them to turn back about 600 miles from Deception Island' On this flight Wilkins wrote 'We could see beneath us huge crust into which our machine could have fallen and left no trace' for such is the broken and precipitous nature of this peninsula. However, the most notable feature of Wilkins's observation was that he recorded a number of channels running from east to west, dividing the land into islands and thereby making it an archipelago instead of a peninsula. So convinced was he of the existence of these channels that he named four of them Crane, Carey and Lurabee Channels and Stefansson Strait, and ended up by calling the 'mainland' where he turned for home'Hearst Land'.

Since it was becoming late in the season, Wilkins made no more major flights before he sailed for Montevideo, leaving his two aeroplanes on Deception Island. At the Royal Geographical Society Sir Hubert's report about channels traversing Graham Land was hailed as the most
important discovery in Antarctica since Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier and Polar Plateau in 1908, so surprising was the apparent change of Graham Land from being, as had always been believed, a peninsula.

As proof of their interest in Wilkins's flying activities, the Discovery Committee placed the ship William Scoresby at his disposal for starting the 1929 season's work, and this took him to Deception Island. He had now lost Eielson, who had gone to what seemed a lucrative job of aerial seal-spotting in Siberia (though he killed himself in bad weather soon after arrival) and his replacement was Parker D. ('Shorty') Cramer.

The weather in Graham Land seemed even warmer this year, and the snow cover was still further reduced. After 'unsnowing' the two aeroplanes, Wilkins decided to fly from Port Lockroy on floats. With Cramer therefore he took off on December 19th on the first flight of exploration to seek again the channels discovered in 1928 so as to confirm their positions. After crossing the mountains easily at l0,m ft, the airmen were embarrassed by the rough running of their engine which made them wonder whether it was going to stop. Its performance was far from reassuring, so they turned for home after barely reaching the vicinity of 'Crane Channel', the first stretch of ice which Wilkins had thought cut through the land' He was not so happy about it this time' and wrote 'We cannot say definitely that this channel runs right through at sea-level from the Weddell Sea. I still believe that Crane Channel exists. It is not a clear water channel but is filled with ice, probably shelf ice in part.'

Conditions for seaplane flying now deteriorated at Port Lockroy, and the
William Scoresby therefore took the aeroplanes south in search of a suitable flying area. Some open water was found and a couple more flights were made, but due to worsening weather over the plateau, Wilkins could only fly to the west of it. He did however succeed in making a flight right around Charcot Land, thereby proving it an island and dispelling any previous doubts that somewhere it was joined on to Antarctica. December had ended and with it the Graham Land weather seemed to have closed for the season, so Wilkins had the William Scoresby take him 600 miles to the west, where he finally made a 230 mile flight southwards over the pack and icebergs from the vicinity of Peter I Island. As a season's work, the 1929 flying programme had been disappointing in that it had never given Wilkins the opportunity to recheck the existence of the four channels he had reported in 1928. Actually the subsequent survey work of John Rymill's expedition in 1934 proved con' clusively that Graham Land was a peninsula, and that the glaciated tongues Wilkins had seen as he flew down the east coast did not in fact traverse the land to the west. He had been misled by their appearance from the air, thereby proving how difficult it is to make reliable air observations on the basis of a single flight, without the backing of ground survey teams. In fact it is generally impossible when flying over Antarctica to tell whether you are over sea covered with ice or land covered with ice, and here the advantage must always lie with the man on the ground, who can take soundings to prove whether the rock beneath him is above sea-level or below.

Just before his departure south in 1929, Sir Hubert had married an Australian girl who was acting on Broadway. There had been no time for a honeymoon, so on his return to New York he put this right by taking his bride to Europe in the
Graf Zeppelin. They went to Switzerland and stayed with Lincoln Ellsworth in his castle near Freiburg, which gave Wilkins the chance to expound his next proposal for polar exploration-taking a submarine under the ice of the Polar Basin. This, he believed, would be an ideal means of exploring the Arctic with full scientific equipment on board and would provide the ability to pop up through the ice at will for observations. In his submarine vision he forestalled the Russians by thinking of establishing a semi-permanent floating station on the ice at the pole, an idea they eventually realized eight years later by using a formation of aeroplanes. Ellsworth agreed to help Wilkins financially with the submarine project although he had no particular desire to go along on the expedition.

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Wilkins found that the United States Navy had a number of submarines built in 1918 which were due for scrapping and he managed to lease one for five years at the rate of one dollar per year. He named her Nautilus and after a long and expensive refit, she sailed late for Europe on June 10th, 1931. She was not in good shape and one of the main engines broke down, it was said, due to mishandling by the crew, 850 miles from lreland. Luckily the United States cruiser
Wyoming was near at hand and towed the submarine to Devonport, for repairs in the Royal Navy Dockyard. These lasted so long that Nautilus was not able to set out from Spitzbergen until August 18th. Now it was so late that the original plan of crossing under the polar ice pack to Alaska had to be postponed until the following year, and a programme of merely testing the equipment on board by means of a trial dive under the ice was sub¬stituted. Even this was prejudiced by the sabotage of a crew member who removed the diving rudders whilst the vessel was in King's Bay because he did not want to go under the ice. It was not discovered until the expedition had reached the ice-edge, where a storm from the east caused the Nautilus to heave to for several days, and August was far spent before a dive under the ice could be attempted, trimming the vessel by ballast alone. Wilkins was determined to carry on with the dive, even though most of the crew would gladly have gone home.

'The wooden superstructure,' wrote Wilkins, 'covering the original conning tower and carrying the two broad sledge-runners, proved to be a nuisance but was not dam¬aged by the ice. Fortunately the "diving" compartment designed by Simon Lake did work. Through the hatch, in the bottom of the chamber, the scientists dropped their thermometers, water collectors, and bottom samplers throughout the investigations, without losing an instrument. . . The scientists, seated on comfortable chairs, could drop their instruments attached to a wire wound on a winch to a depth of two miles or more beneath the ice'.

As soon as the Nautilus, moving at little more than two knots, went under the ice, the crew heard the most awesome graunching* and rending noises, as though the ice were cutting through the steel plates of the hull like a tin-opener, forcing the captain to return immediately to open water. However, an inspection revealed hardly any¬thing beyond a few dents and scratches, for all the noises had been exaggerated due to the drumlike form of the structure. Accordingly the dive was resumed but the noise most of the time was horrifying and everyone was heartily glad when they surfaced again barely an hour later. After that the submarine only dived a few more times under ice-floes before being compelled to make for harbour due to worsening weather, on September 8th.
* Although 'graunch' does not appear in the Oxford Dictionary, it is used in quite respectable engineering circles to signify the effect of two surfaces being roughly moved over each other: Probably of onomatopaeic origin, with the'r'well rolled.

When the Nautilus reached Bergen, she was battered, leaking and in no fit state to steam across the Atlantic back to America, and the United States Navy gave per¬mission for her to be sunk in a hundred fathoms. Thus ended Wilkins's submarine attempt, dogged by a badly found ship and an unco-operative crew, yet the scientists had brought back a considerable amount of hitherto un¬available oceanographical data. Nothing which had hap¬pened had proved Wilkins's ideas themselves unworkable, and it only remained for the United States Navy to demonstrate at a later date, with nuclear submarines, that with suitable equipment all his dreams were capable of attainment.

After the 1931 submarine experiment, Wilkins's next project was as expedition manager to his old friend Lin¬coln Ellsworth, for the latter's gallant attempts to make the first trans-Antarctic flight, as already described in Chapter 6. Ellsworth realized that a man with such wide experience of polar travel, and aviation in particular, would be invaluable to him in a project of this sort. At the outset Wilkins was entrusted with the selection of a ship for the expedition, and chose the old Norwegian herring trawler
Fanefiord renamed Wyatt Earp in honour of Ellsworth's great frontier-marshal hero.

One of Wilkins's most useful activities on the expedition was in calming Ellsworth and restoring normal relationships between him and his pilots whenever, in their judgment, it became necessary to turn back, first with Balchen in January 1935 and then with Hollick Kenyon in Novem¬ber of the same year. On the latter occasion, Ellsworth was so exasperated he would certainly have substituted Lymburner for Kenyon, disregarding the fact that Lymburner was the less experienced man, had not Wilkins tactfully calmed him. Thus when Wilkins steamed into Little America in the
Wyatt Earp and found Ellsworth safe with Kenyon, he could fairly feel he had played a useful part in the expedition's successful conclusion.

Although by 1937 Wilkins had reached the age of forty-nine he was still extremely fit, and when he suddenly heard that the Russian flyer Levanevsky was missing on an attempt to fly from Moscow to Fairbanks by way of the pole, he immediately offered to lead a search on behalf of the Russian Embassy in Washington. This was accepted with such alacrity, and Wilkins organized things so fast, that he had bought a Catalina flying-boat for the search within four days of the disaster, believed to have happened near the pole on August 13th. This certainly was an opportunity that appealed enormously to Wilkins. Once more he would be able to fly in the Far North, and extend the range of the activities he had begun from Point Barrow eleven years before, with flights almost up to the pole itself. Moreover Wilkins's sense of humanity, and his inborn sympathy with his fellow human beings-brought out particularly with Eskimoes and Aborigines,* made him genuinely anxious to try and save the Russian airmen if it were still possible.
* One of these once said during the course of his North Australian Expedition 'You proper white man. You come sit down longa-camp: no humbug longa women . . . All about (everyone) feel quiet inside with you and all about want to touch you.'

Although August is one of the foggiest months in the Arctic, and the broken ice then offers the fewest possibilities for landing either a land-plane or flying-boat awayfrom the land, Wilkins did not hesitate to fly north to Coppermine at once. The area he was asked to cover consisted of a strip 400 miles wicle running 1,200 miles from the pole in the direction of the North American coast. His aircrew consisted of Hollick Kenyon, who had served Ellsworth so magnificently in the Antarctic, and Cheesman who had been with Wilkins in Graham Land in 1929, and there were also two engineers.

Fog and ice formation in the air hampered the arrival of the party at Coppermine and they had io make a forced landing in a lake just as it was getting dark. However they reached their rescue base next morning and made the first search flight over the Arctic Sea, to the north of Banks Island and across the McClure Strait, on August 22nd. On this occasion, they carried extra drums of gaso¬line in order to be able to refuel if a safe landing-place could be found, and Wilkins almost got gassed by the fumes due to leaks. He had to soak up the spilt fuel with a rag and evaporate it through a ventilator. Heavy cloud, over which Kenyon flew for some time in the hope that it would break, frustrated the search and made him turn back. The radio operator was sending messages intended for Levanevsky every half hour, and maintaining a con¬stant watch but, by the time the flight ended back at Coppermine afier thirteen hours, not a thing had been heard. And so the search went on whenever the weather looked the last bit favourable.

Of the behaviour of the magnetic compass, Wilkins wrote 'The only practical way to keep course in high latitudes where compass variation is great, is by piloting, that is using dead reckoning governed by observation of surface conditions, wind-drift, direction of snow-banks, pressure ridges, lanes of open water or other objects. A combination of that method with frequent sextant observations will necessarily fully occupy the time of a navigator flying in high latitudes'.

Once a suitable natural harbour had been found in Prince Patrick Island at 77' N. it was used as an advanced base for refuelling from the drums or waiting for the weather to clear. The second time they were there, ice started to drift in, thereby threatening their anchorage and
Wilkins's crew had to take off in a hurry although the clouds were down to 200 ft and visibility was exceedingly bad. Soon fuel supplies ran short at Coppermine, forcing a change of base to Aklavik, and on one flight from there to within 350 miles of the pole, Kenyon experienced such a heavy build-up of ice that both air-speed indicators were put out of action.

Just after mid-September, the beginning of the autumn freeze-up decided Wilkins that the period for flying-boat operations was almost over. He had flown over a hundred and fifty hours on the Levanevsky search and had not found the slightest trace of the Russian aeroplane or the missing aircrew. They had even flown to Barter Island where some Eskimoes were reported to have heard an aeroplane flying on about August 13th (the date of Levanevsky's disappearance) but the story did not stand up well to detailed cross-examination on the spot.

Having made such a thorough search for over a month, Wilkins might have been excused if he had thought he had done enough. But instead, he reported to the Soviet Embassy in Washington that he was prepared to carry on the search by moonlight with a ski-plane throughout the winter months, and Amtorg, the Soviet trading organization, thereupon bought him a Lockheed Electra. This took much longer to prepare than the Consolidated flying-boat, and it was not until the end of November that, with the same pilots, he reached Aklavik.

Unfortunately, throughout the whole period of the December full moon, vile weather prevailed and no flying was possible. Then when fine weather came in mid-January, and Kenyon was about to taxi out, it was found that the skis were rusted and had frozen fast to the McKenzie River. The temperature had been -42oC for three days, and it took some time to jack the machine up and clean the rust off. Luckily the weather stayed fine throughout the repairs, although such a fog was produced by running the engines at the low air temperature that Kenyon had to taxi two miles down the river to get out of it. Eventually he started the take-off run for this first moonlight search flight, and had gone about half a mile and gathered considerable speed, when Wilkins heard a sharp crack from the port side which he dismissed in his mind as an engine back-fire. Otherwise the take-off proceeded quite normally.

The moon threw heavy shadows, clearly revealing pressure ridges, and Wilkins felt confident he would be able to see the presence of a man on the ice from three miles at 5,000 ft-better in fact than in daylight. This was because the shadows cast by the moon looked blacker than those of the sun. After four hours, dense snow clouds forced a return, and hard granular crystals driven in by the draught through the windscreen, beat on Wilkins's face with an icy sting.

Not until some days after this flight was the discovery made that one of the tips of the port propeller was bent back, presumably through having struck a lump of ice on the ground during take-off, hence the 'back-fire' Wilkins thought he had heard. The engineer did his best to straighten the bend by hitting the propeller with a heavy hammer, but the very next time when the machine was going out to fly, with the February moon, the engine suddenly seized solid, thereby frustrating another moonlight sortie.

It would have been impossible to have done a major engine repair on the ice at Aklavik and so a new engine and propeller were requested from the Soviet Embassy. These were quickly flown out by Mackenzie Airways, fitted in the Electra and air-tested by the end of February.

In March, flights were made over the mountains of Alaska, as requested by the Russians, and later Wilkins returned to the area north of Prince Patrick Island, but there he was mostly flying over areas already covered with the flying-boat. On one of these flights, Wilkins made the first sighting from the air of ice 'islands', being two areas of old ice about two or three miles in diameter and of the species which undoubtedly originated the stories about the existence of Keenan Land. 'They rather gave the impression of being land islands,'he wrote, 'but from the rounded hummocks and the flat-surfaced fresh-water ice pools between and the turned-up edges of pressure ice, they appeared to me at the time of observation to be undoubtedly examples of paleocrystic (ancient ice) such as I have observed elsewhere in the Arctic. To the inexperienced they would have appeared as land, and even upon reflection it would be easily possible for me to persuade myself that what we saw was land. However, I am inclined to trust my judgment while actually flying over the objects and at the time there was no doubt in my mind that it was ice'.

On one nineteen-hour flight with the Electra, Wilkins flew a zig-ng course in good visibility to within 150 miles of the pole without seeing any trace of men or aircraft, and although he was still game to go on trying, a cable suddenly came in from the Russian Ambassador in Washing¬ton announcing the end of the search. That was on March 19th seven months after Levanevsky had disappeared.

Thus terminated this series of pioneer search flights over the Arctic Ocean, in which Wilkins and his crews had amassed 284 flying hours. They had covered areas of which the knowledge of man had hitherto varied between slight and nonexistent. New facts had emerged about the movement and form of the polar ice-masses, whilst the act of searching by moonlight in the depth of the polar winter was a complete innovation. The efficiency with which Sir Hubert Wilkins's operation was carried out may be gauged from the fact that the Russians, conducting their search from the other side of the pole, had crashed six of their aeroplanes during the same period.

In Wilkins's own words 'We found that moonlight flight is safe and possible, but that flight under a cloud-covered moon is as dangerous and difficult as flight under a cloud-covered sun in other seasons of the year. Under clouded skies it is almost impossible to observe snow-covered surfaces clearly.'

Even though no success had been attained in the search for Levanevsky, the advance in polar flying technique gained by Wilkins's organization was the finest possible memorial to the brave Russian airmen, who had given their lives to the Arctic.

In order to express their gratitude to Wilkins officially, the Soviet Government invited him to Moscow where he was received by Stalin and subsequently addressed the Academy of Sciences on the findings of his flights, on June 10th, 1938.

Once more Lincoln Ellsworth was seeking Wilkins's assistance for a project of exploratory flying in the Antarctic, and once more Wilkins gave the usual ready response. As a result, almost as soon as he had returned from Moscow, he sailed for Australia to prepare the
Wyatt Earp while Ellsworth himself was picked up at Cape Town. He explained to Wilkins that his objective was Wilkes Land' in the Australian Sector of Antarctica and that he meant to claim all the territory he could see from the air for the United States of America, having been requested to do so in a message from the State Department, delivered at Cape Town. This put Wilkins in a rather difficult position because here he was, as an Australian, employed by an American in an American ship, proceeding to the Australian Sector of Antarctica where the American owner solemnly proposed to claim hundreds of thousands of square miles of snow and ice-covered terrain as the property of the United States Government. In contradistinction to this, Wilkins had his own plans about territory he intended to claim for Australia, and he decided that henceforth he would proceed independently.

On the way through the ice, which was very heavy, there was a sudden alarm when Wilkins saw that a funnel spark had set fire to the wing of the Aeronca. With 5,000 gallons of aviation fuel in drums lashed down on deck, the prospects of a fire in mid-ocean were extremely alarming, and the crew worked like demons to bring a hose to bear on the flames before they had a chance to take hold.

On January 3rd when the ship had hove to in open water in order to launch the Aeronca on a reconnaissance, Wilkins went over to the land in a rowing-boat. Thereby he became the first Australian to step ashore in this part of the Antarctic and recorded the fact on a scroll in a
copper cylinder he deposited under a cairn. On the 8th he did the same thing on the Roner group of islands and planted the Commonwealth flag in the ice-covered surface. Ellsworth's pilot, Lymburner who was a Canadian, officially witnessed this overt act of imperialistic aggrandisement. Again on the 10th the same ceremony was performed at the western end of the Vestfold Hills and a third flag was hoisted next day at 60o30 S. and 79" E. Eighteen years later, when an Australian party was operat¬ing in connection with the International Geophysical Year from their base at Davis on the Robertson Coast their geologists found one of Wilkins's territorial claims dated January 1939 safely preserved at the northernmost extremity of the Vestfold Hills.

With the return of this expedition to the United States in March 1939, ended not only the partnership in exploration between Ellsworth and Wilkins, but also the expedition careers of both men in private capacities.

As soon as the Hitler war broke out Wilkins, who was in America, offered his services to Australia but that country's government seemed to have no use for his qualifications-his experience of deserts, his experience of polar surface travel and his unrivalled knowledge of polar flying. None of these things, it seemed, were needed in the battles his own countrymen foresaw, nor indeed by the authorities in the United Kingdom. He therefore set out privately to see whether he could make himself useful in augmenting the flow of American aircraft to the Royal Air Force. In Detroit he found some of his old contacts in the automobile industry, and their co-ordinating committee decided to send Sir Hubert as their emissary to the British Government in order to discover what the British needs really were in detail.

After a trans-Atlantic flight to Lisbon by a Clipper flying-boat, and on to Paris by train, Wilkins had to fly to London at the time of the rape of France. His first attempt to reach England was unsuccessful because his Anson was shot down near the Channel by Messerschmitts, but in a lucky crash-landing, the passengers walked out unharmed. At that time conditions on the ground were chaotic, all main roads being blocked by refugees under the pitiless fire of strafing aircraft, and transport of any kind was at a premium. Since it was essential for Wilkins to return to Paris and start again, he purloined a bicycle and after a nightmare journey amongst the refugees, got there in six days, just in time to catch one of the last aeroplanes to leave for Hendon.

The interview with Lord Beaverbrook was typical. When the Minister of Aircraft Production asked his visitor, 'How long would it take for anything concrete to result if immediate orders were placed with the Detroit manufacturers?' with supreme optimism Wilkins replied, 'Three months', which would be barely long enough for agreed specifications to reach the American workshops. 'Three months?' mused Beaverbrook. 'And we hardly know if we shall be here in three weeks,' for this was the critical moment when Nazi invasion seemed imminent. However, Beaverbrook gave Wilkins the entree he needed to the Ministry's experts, so that he was able to compile a list of aircraft items most urgently needed from the Detroit manufacturers. Having thus discharged his business in London, Wilkins proceeded eastward on a mission for the State Department and once more his aeroplane was shot down, following an attack by Italian fighters. He wrote to his wife that he had been 'swimming around in the Mediterranean for a bit, before being picked up by a freighter and brought to port', all as though this were the most natural way to travel.

September 1941 saw Wilkins at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and he had more adventures driving down the so-called 'Burma Road'. 'Hold-ups and smuggling were commonplace,' he wrote, 'and after two days, during one of the former, I saw my driver have his throat cut. Then I had a more sober driver in a truck with broken springs and no brakes.'The Japanese bombed the road frequently, but luckily they found it difficult to hit the ravine bridges which would have been almost impossible to rebuild quickly.

After having stayed for a spell in Burma, Wilkins went on round the world to Los Angeles with a brief stay in Batavia. The attack on Pearl Harbour presented another opportunity for him to offer his services to another government, this time the American, and again he was turned down at first, though eventually appointed Arctic consultant to the Quartermaster-General. His first job here was to overhaul completely all the Arctic clothing and equipment then being issued to the United States Armed Services, and he enjoyed very much thus applying his experience of polar living and Arctic travel. For the purpose of practical tests he was able to travel in the Far North to his heart's content.

At the end of the war, Sir Hubert transferred to the United States Department of Military Planning, with special duties in the Navy Office and Weather Bureau. Almost as a sideline, he was appointed Assistant to the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Arctic Institute of North America in Montreal. Periodically he would visit McGill University as lecturer between 1947 and 1949, as well as participating in the Arctic courses and seminar. There the college authorities found he had the happy knack of getting his enthusiasm across to his young audiences and making his descriptions of living under Arctic conditions vivid.

In 1952 Wilkins engaged in camouflage experiments for the environmental laboratory of the United States Army at Natick, visiting amongst other places, various deserts in Africa and India to take photographs and bring back samples of sand: the range of colours was quite surprising.

And so Wilkins continued as a civilian in military service, always on the move and engaged in new experiments up to the date of his death. No country other than America could have offered him so many opportunities for carrying out the sort of work that interested him most, enabling him to travel to both poles on expeditions in search of information. Active to the very end, he was smitten by a heart attack after going upstairs to his hotel bedroom at Framingham, near Boston on November 30th, 1958. Of the tributes which came in from all over the world, none could have been more eloquent and distinguished than that of
The Times. This august paper rarely accords an obituary of a whole column to the most eminent. But for Sir Hubert Wilkins it gave four columns, and even then it forgot to say that he was married.

As an explorer, George Hubert Wilkins had not been entirely accepted by his fellows. They objected that he was not really a scientist, having received no university training and that he had been misguided in his aerial discoveries in Antarctica as well as his unsuccessful submarine attempt to traverse the North Pole. However, nobody suggested that his claims to have seen the various channels such as Casey, Lurabee and so forth were the result of anything other than errors of aerial observation -serious errors indeed, but understandable in the light of all the circumstances. Moreover the submarine failure was clearly due to a badly-found vessel of which the faults and weaknesses were accentuated by a disloyal crew.

Against all criticisms, Wilkins's record as a ground explorer under Stefansson, when his loyalty alone saved his leader in the Arctic, and as leader of his own highly successful expedition to North Australia, put him in the front rank of explorers generally. But his pioneering achievement in polar aviation-the three seasons in Alaska culminating in his superb flight across the Polar Basin to Spitzbergen, plus his pioneering flights in Antarctica, put Wilkins in the forefront of polar flyers in particular. When one thinks that over and above these unique qualifications, Wilkins also led that very daring expedition in aid of Levanevsky, one can see that for a lifetime of adventure and exploration few others have approached in colour and variety the achievements of this Australian farmer's boy.

In character, loyalty was one of Wilkins's most striking attributes, as demonstrated in the Arctic, in Flanders fields and also in the affairs of the heart when his fiancee was believed to be critically ill. He had sparkle, a sense of humour and faith, almost to the extent of fatalism, in the face of great danger. People who met him were surprised at his modesty, for Australians are not normally so orientated; and he was easy to get on with, in fact not the sort of man with whom you could imagine getting annoyed. Probably his greatest weakness lay in his inability to reject improbable schemes, for his mind lacked the discipline of a proper scholastic training. Yet although this characteristic may have been a disadvantage when Wilkins was organizing a programme of experiments at Natick, it may well have been the key to his success in planning such improbable operations as his early pioneering flights. Then he just did not recognize the dangers or the difficulties.

The Americans were not slow to acknowledge the pass¬ing of such an exceptionally colourful person, and one who had worked unceasingly for the United States during the last sixteen years of his life. The American Government therefore decided to render the last rites to Wilkins in a unique manner, and one that complied with his expressed desire that his ashes should be scattered over the Arctic snows.

Accordingly, a casket containing Sir Hubert's ashes was handed over by his widow to Commander Calvert, commanding the United States nuclear-powered submarine
Skate and these were conveyed beneath the ice to the North Pole. There the Skate broke her way up to the surface, and the ship's padre conducted a simple ceremony, when, to a volley of shots, the last earthly remains of this illustrious son of Australia were committed to the raging snows of the polar wastes; the eternal snows to which he had fearlessly devoted so many years of his life.

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