The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This model is a copy of the Lockhead Vega 1 monoplane, used by the Wilkins-Hearst Expedition on the first flight over Antarctica on November 16, 1928.   The Lockhead Vega with its streamlined plywood construction, cigar-shaped fuselage and powerful engine was both durable and fast – able to reach speeds of 360 kph.  The plane was purchased by the Australian George Hubert Wilkins, a daring aviator and photographer, who accompanied by former US Army pilot Carl Ben Eielson made the first flight across the Arctic on 15 April 1928.  Setting off from Barrow, Alaska the two men flew for twenty hours through blinding blizzards and freezing temperatures to Spitsbergen, Norway, a distance of over 4,000 kilometres across uncharted land.  Their daring flight made them aviation heroes and proved that such incredible flights were possible.

With the death of Ernest Shackleton, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration drew to an end, replaced by modern explorers, anxious to take advantage of innovative technology to expand their understanding of the remote continent.  The use of airborne craft for exploration had been considered by a number of Antarctic expeditions; starting with Robert Falcon Scott’s ascent in a tethered hydrogen balloon in 1902, and later with Edgeworth David’s use of Hargrave kites to carry meteorological instruments in 1907.  In 1911, the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, recognising the potential of aircraft for surveying the hostile landscape, tried to take the first aircraft south, a Vickers REP monoplane. Unfortunately for Mawson, the plane crashed on a fund-raising flight over Adelaide just before their departure and was instead successfully adapted for use on the ice as a motor-sledge.

The vast distances and the difficulties of overland travel made the prospect of exploring by air very attractive.  Wilkins and Eielson’s pioneering flight had proved the viability of aerial polar exploration over the Arctic and it was perhaps natural that the two men should look southwards for their next challenge.  Wilkins was already familiar with the Antarctic region having been part of Shackleton’s final Quest expedition as well as assisting on the limited British Imperial Expedition to Graham Land in 1920-22.  Attracting funding from the wealthy American newspaper magnate William Randolf Hearst, Wilkins led a small expedition south consisting of five men and two planes, the San Francisco and the Los Angles .  Basing themselves at Deception Island, a ring shaped caldera eighty kilometres northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, the men set about preparing for their aerial survey.  On 16 November Wilkins and Eielson took to the air becoming the first men to make a powered flight over Antarctica.  Originally planning to take-off and land on the ice in Deception harbour, they were forced to construct a rough runway on the beach as the ice was too fragile.  The men made a couple of circuits of the island and within twenty minutes were back on the ground.

Over the next month the expedition made a number of trial flights, fighting against the unpredictable weather.  On 20 December 1928, Eielson and Wilson took to the air in their plane San Francisco and flew over 2,100 kilometres across the Antarctic Peninsula, exploring vast tracts of unknown land. Wilkins excitedly recorded all that he saw, taking photographs and making sketches, exhilarated to note that “For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air”.  In one eleven hour journey, the two men had managed to survey an area that would have taken months to cover on foot at great personal risk- the benefits were clear.  With their return to Deception Island the course of future polar exploration had changed for good; aircraft were now an essential element of any Antarctic expedition.

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Currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia

powerhouse museum