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Special Report: Australian Antarctic Aviation
The AAD expects to have a preliminary direct air flight from Hobart to Casey in early 2001. This flight will carry a number of people representing the firms which might be bidding for the longer contract. This is one of the stages of development of a Government supported comprehensive air transport system which will link Australia directly with Antarctica and tie in with smaller aircraft running shuttles to Davis and Mawson. I’m not sure when the final assessment of tenders will take place or when the first of the regular flights will take place. But it is sure to revolutionise the way that Australia conducts its Antarctic program, which has been heavily ship reliant from the beginning.
Or has that really been the case?
Let me take you a journey to reflect on the history of Australian Antarctic aviation. You will hear many of the famous names of Antarctic exploration particularly those of the aviators. We have two veteran helicopter pilots with us this afternoon and a number of you might have been exposed to various parts of our aviation past.
Does anyone here know when the first intercontinental flight linking Australia with Antarctica occurred? Any guesses?
It is often thought that Australian entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith made that first flight - from Australia to Antarctica in his Twin Otter in 1988. Dick was the certainly the first Australian to do it but the honour of the first southbound flight actually goes to the Americans who flew from Australia to Antarctica in 1964 with some Australians on board. But very few know there was an even earlier flight from Antarctica to Australia by the Americans in 1960. But more of that later.
Australian aviation in Antarctica goes back a lot earlier, however, almost to the start of aviation itself.
1903 The Wright Brothers launched their aeroplane at Kittyhawk in the USA and started modern aviation.
1911 Douglas Mawson nearly became the Antarctic aviation pioneer a scant eight years later. The Vickers Company supplied Douglas Mawson with an REP Monoplane for the 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, the AAE, based at Cape Denison. It was a typical ‘strings and wire’ contraption of the era with an open cockpit, exposed crisscross struts, minuscule motor and a big propeller; it could carry one passenger. Unfortunately at a test flight in Adelaide the wings suffered terminal damage – our first aviation accident!! Frank Wild was a passenger and he survived to be involved in much Antarctic exploration later, including with Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance voyage.
Undeterred however, Mawson decided to use the flightless aircraft in Antarctica and took it for use as Antarctica’s first ‘air tractor’. It was a short lived and fairly useless experiment. Some parts of the aircraft are still at Commonwealth Bay and the propeller is in the Maritime Museum in Esperance, WA.
With that experience and the intervention of the Great War, Antarctic exploration and Antarctic aviation went into suspension.
WW1 saw the emergence of aircraft as a major force and aviation was no longer considered a funny business in the post war era. A scramble started to use the new technology in exploration and, in particular, in Polar Regions. After the air conquest of Alaska and the Arctic and the conquest of the North Pole, eyes turned to Antarctica.
1928 On November 16, George Hubert Wilkins later Sir Hubert Wilkins, another South Australian, claimed the honour of first flight in Antarctica; he took off in his Lockheed Vega with pilot Carl Ben Eielson from a rough airstrip on Deception Island on the Antarctic Peninsula for a 20 minute flight above the southern ice. More flights followed and the age of Antarctic aviation was truly born.
1929-1931 Mawson used a DeHavilland Gypsy Moth DH60G on the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) - this included dropping the British flag on 25 January in the second territorial claim of the expedition; Eric Douglas and Stuart Campbell, later to be the first leader of ANARE, were the pilots. The aircraft suffered extensive damage on 27 January and was repaired by Campbell, Douglas, Mawson, Hurley and others and flew again.
1935 Eric Douglas was involved in the search for and rescue of the American aviator Lincoln Ellsworth who had made a forced landing in Antarctica in his Northrop Gamma 2B low-wing monoplane the Polar Star; Douglas was once again in a De Havilland Gypsy Moth.
Accompanying this particular trip was a Westland Wapiti Mk 1A but it did little if any flying.
1938/39 Wilkins was with Lincoln Ellsworth’s expedition – he used a Northrop Delta, all metal and radio equipped. Flights operated in the Prydz Bay region on the Wyatt Earp later to be used in the first year of ANARE. Wilkins re-asserted Australian claims in this area in face of Ellsworth having a brief to make claims by the USA.
1947 US Operation Highjump – this saw much use of aircraft including DC3s. One mission sighted the area where Casey is now and also the Bunger Hills one of the potential sites for a Blue-ice runway (the Apfel Glacier); another mission made the aerial photos which Phillip Law subsequently used to locate the site for the establishment of Mawson station. The picture is from an Operation Highjump flight – covering the coast near Mawson – indicating the position of Horseshoe Harbour, the future location of Mawson Station.
1947 An Australian Lincoln and two Liberator bombers were used in the Southern Ocean/Macquarie Island area for information gathering and aircraft assessment - investigating among other things the possibility of aerial liaison on the upcoming expeditions. The aircraft took off from Pearce (Western Australia), Laverton and Point Cook (Victoria). A PYB Catalina provided SAR cover for two of the flights.
1947/48 Stuart Campbell took a Navy Vickers Supermarine Walrus to help set up Heard Island – it was demolished by a 90mph blizzard after only one one-and-a-half hour reconnaissance flight. This was the last Walrus in RAN service. This aircraft has now been restored and is in the Museum at Point Cook.
1947/48 Phillip Law used a Vought Sikorski VS-310 Kingfisher on the Wyatt Earp expedition to the Antarctic continent – it had limited use and effectiveness. It made two flights of one hour’s duration each near the Niniz and Mertz glaciers. The basic problem was difficulty in launching and retrieving the aircraft. The Pilot was Squadron Leader Robin Gray.
1948 was the first ‘winter’ ANARE – with stations at Macquarie and Heard Islands; tragically it also saw the first ANARE fatality – at Macquarie Island. A diesel engineer died in an accident and the station was left without anyone capable of running and maintaining the mechanical plant. After negotiations, an RAAF Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina ‘flying boat’ was flown from Hobart to the island to deliver a replacement. The aircraft flew on to New Zealand when unsuitable winds developed at the island and on the route back to Hobart. This is the only known use of a fixed wing aircraft to or at the island.
1951 The first air drop flight to Macquarie Island – an airdrop of medical supplies and fresh food by a Lincoln bomber.
1954 Australia established a foothold on the Antarctic continent after years of frustration waiting for a suitable ship and logistic support. The Government bought two Mark VI Austers from the RAF and Phillip Law took them on the Kista Dan for the establishment of Mawson station and exploration of the Vestfold Hills; both aircraft were severely damaged in a storm, one serviceable aircraft was reassembled from the bits but it was lost in a second storm. The surviving aircraft was subsequently rebuilt and had further service in Antarctica. This season saw the arrival of Doug Leckie who was to spend many seasons with ANARE over the coming years.
1956 Australia bought a De Havilland Canada Beaver DHC2 and it, and the rebuilt Auster from 1954, were used initially from Davis Bay, Chick Islet and Windmill Island near Casey, then at Haswell Island near Mirny before arriving at and remaining at Mawson over winter, the aircraft established the air link Mawson-Davis; and was used in the discovery of the mountains in Enderby Land and the Prince Charles Mountains. A second and later a third Beaver joined the fleet.
Two Beavers and an Auster overwintered Mawson 1957 and in that deployment covered 101,000 flying kilometres of surveys and exploration.
Air crews in this era included Doug Leckie, John Seaton, Gerry Sundberg, Geoff Johansen , Peter Clemence, Jim Sandercock, Geoff Banfield, Jim Kitchenside. Two Beavers were destroyed in a 120mph blizzard at Gwamm just outside Mawson on 28 December 1959.
Soviet aircraft visited Mawson in September 1958. In December the same year ANARE supplied fuel to a Russian Ilyushin IL-2 which was then used to rescue a Belgian Auster crew of four from near their inland base.
1958/59 First use of a helicopter (Hiller12C) at Macquarie Island on lease from Trans Australia Airlines. It made its first flight on 1 December and was used for survey work on the auroral base line.
1958/59 Russian and American aircraft were used to assist with the Medivac of a sick expeditioner at Wilkes. In May 1959 the Russians flew a Doctor from Mirny in a Dakota-like aircraft to help in the assessment and treatment of the patient. In December medical evacuation was called for and the Americans flew a JATO assisted US Navy P2V Neptune from McMurdo, this was supported by an R7V Constellation circling overhead with survival equipment in the event of a mishap; evacuation was by the Neptune to McMurdo with a Hercules taking over for the flight to Christchurch.
1959/60 The first and only use of a ski-fitted and JATO assisted DC3 from the RAAF. It was based at Mawson with a 12 man crew led by Jim Kitchenside. Gwamm above the station and near the edge of the plateau was considered too exposed for sustained operations and a new site was selected at Rumdoodle further inland. First flight took place 14 June and it formally began operational flying in early August. Topographical and geological surveys were conducted in the PCMs and Enderby Land. The aircraft, together with another Beaver, was destroyed in a four day blizzard in December in winds exceeding 116 miles per hour; the aircraft was blown nearly 20 kilometres and finished up on the slope of a coastal ice cliff. This shut down all inter-station regular flying till the advent of the Sikorski S76 helicopters in the mid 90s.
1959/60 This was the first use of helicopters with ANARE on the Antarctic continent, starting with two Hiller 12Cs. It wasn’t an auspicious start. The Hillers were used near Dumont d’Urville and in the Casey area – one crashed and totalled in katabatic winds on coastal ice cliffs on the Vandeford Glacier – pilot Peter Ivanoff and his passenger were uninjured.
The Hillers were followed by the Bell 47G-2, and later by the Hiller FH1100, Hughes 500, Hughes 300, Alouette 3, Bell 206B Jetranger and Aerospatiale’s Lama and the well known and still used Squirrels. The Bell 47s were supplied by Helicopter Utilities Pty Ltd of Sydney and the company’s initials HUPL led to them being referred to as Hupples.
1960 October 23 was a special and very significant event in our fixed wing history. A US Navy R7V Super Constellation El Paisano made a non-stop 14 hour flight from McMurdo to Hobart via the South Magnetic Pole making it the first direct air flight between the two continents. The plane was destroyed on landing at McMurdo after its return trip from Hobart via Christchurch. There were injuries but no fatalities. Later flights had been planned but cancelled – these included a McMurdo-Perth direct and a McMurdo-Puntas Arenas direct.
November 1961 saw the crash of US P2V Neptune at Wilkes (now Casey) while on route from Mirny to McMurdo with loss of five lives.
December 1961 Russian ski-equipped Li2 (a DC3 look-alike) used at Mawson in another medivac; the patient was transferred to a long range Ilyushin IL-18D aircraft at Mirny, which flew to McMurdo, then via US Navy Hercules to Christchurch and a commercial flight to Sydney.
1962 A US C-124 Globemaster airdrops fuel and supplies to the famous spring traverse from Casey to Vostok.
January 1963 The forced landing of Beaver A95-205 near Ivanoff Head, 50nm from Wilkes; the rescue/recovery was assisted by helicopters. This season was the RAAF’s last involvement in actual flying operations - this particular aircraft had completed three seasons with the RAAF but went on to do two more seasons as a civilian aircraft before being sold. The RAAF considered we’d probably wrecked enough of their aircraft and furthermore they needed people and equipment for the developing Vietnam conflict.
1964 September 30 Four years after the Super Constellations’ McMurdo-Hobart flight, the first flight occurred from Australia to the Antarctic continent. On that day a ski equipped United States Navy LC130F (Hercules) took off from Avalon airfield near Geelong, Victoria. The aircraft JD318 otherwise Adelie was under the command of Rear Admiral James R Reedy, had a crew of 14; ANARE chief Phillip Law and an Australian journalist David Burke were among a small group of passengers. The aircraft had an initial fuel load of 46,000 litres in wing tanks and a supplementary tank within the fuselage, a final fuel top up occurred at the end of the runway, the aircraft flew over the South Magnetic Pole, crossed the coast near the Mertz Glacier tongue and headed to the Geographic Pole, made an airdrop of mail and newspapers and then continued to a landing at Byrd station - after a continuous flight covering 7110 kilometres and lasting 15 hours, 39 minutes.
Phillip Law recounts "I had approached this journey as a pretty routine exercise … expecting little by way of incident .." That was a masterful understatement.
The record shows the problems this flight had and is perhaps something we need to be mindful of as we move into a new era of intercontinental flights.
The aircraft radar went out an hour south of Melbourne, the GCA and TACAN (homing beacons and direction finders) at Pole Station were also out so making a smoke beacon the means to navigation, the aircraft suffered a loss of cabin pressure after opening a hatch for the mail drop at the Pole - ice formed and the hatch wouldn’t close properly, one oxygen bottle had to be shared amongst many, one floor-level windscreen shattered after the airdrop but fortunately didn’t disintegrate, they could not land at their target destination McMurdo due to 85kt cross winds and falling visibility and had to divert to Byrd Station, the people at Byrd weren’t ready for them and they had to circle while landing preparations were made, fuel reserves began to run low, they then suffered failure of the automatic locking device on the nose ski and they came in to land at Byrd on a crash landing preparedness basis.
1964 Another silly way to park an aircraft. A Beaver broke through sea ice on landing
1968/69 The Beaver made a return to ANARE - but this time a Turbo version again from the De Havilland stable; the aircraft was only used for one season – in the PCMs based at Landing Bluff. The Turbo Beaver was not a commercial success in Australia due to high purchase price and operating costs. The aircraft used by ANARE was returned to its Canadian homeland.
1968 A Russian Ilyushin 14 crashed and flipped at Rumdoodle out of Mawson. An often visited relic and reminder of the dangers of Antarctic aviation. The Russians also had funny ways of parking aircraft.
1969 An Australian Navy P3 Orion with seven navigators and eight media aboard made a high altitude navigation exercise getting to within 70 miles of Casey.
1970 On a tamer note another Orion made an airdrop at Macquarie Island, one of many by the RAAF.
1970s This decade saw extensive use of a Pilatus Porter PC6 chartered from Forrester Stephen, Victoria (later Forrestair). The first Porter did five summers in a row in the PCMs initially based at Moore Pyramid but later at Mt Cresswell. The program then shifted to Enderby Land in 1974/75 and this Porter was again pressed into service. Unfortunately after only 48 hours flying it was destroyed in a blizzard at Gwamm. A second Porter from the same company took over the following summer and operated in Enderby Land for three seasons, it then had a year off but then came back for the 1979/80 season; it had a forced winter-over in 1980 because it could not be loaded on the Nella Dan in Horseshoe Harbour at the end of the 1979/80 season because of weather and ice conditions.
1969/70 First use of the Hughes 500 helicopter with ANARE. These were on charter to the Division from Jayrow Helicopters of Moorabbin, Victoria and followed the demise of Helicopter Utilities. Peter Clemence and Dave King are two remembered figures from this year. In the first season a flight of three operated at Davis, the Amery Ice Shelf, Mawson, Moore Pyramid, Beaver Lake and Stinear Nunatak. Other names synonymous with this era were Vic Barkell, Terry Ellis, Gerry Leatham, and who could ever forget ‘JR’?
1970/71 Two Hughes 500s made a dramatic emergency dash aboard the Nella Dan from Mawson to Heard Island to successfully rescue an injured expeditioner from a crevasse on the slopes of Big Ben.
1973 December 6 saw another rather significant intercontinental flight. This was an Argentinean Air Force C130 Hercules which flew from Buenos Aires to the Argentinean Base at Marambio on the Antarctic peninsular and from there the 5000 miles direct to Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory where it touched down at 1440. The flight was a forerunner to the possible development of commercial flying routes by their national carrier Aerolinus Argentinas. Similar flights were proposed for LAN Chile.
1974/75 This season saw the first and only use of a Hughes 300 and an Alouette 3; these were on charter from Jayrow in that Company’s last year of its contracts with the Division. The next series of contracts went to Vowell helicopters of Tyabb Victoria, which later became Helicopter Resources - which is now back with us this season after a gap of five years.
1975/76 Introduction of the Bell 206B Jetranger which was to provide many years of service to the Antarctic program up to 1993/94. I’ve got up to 15 aircraft registrations in my list. Bill English, Dick Tippet, Ross Hutchinson, John Sonneveld, Steve Jacobs, Leigh Hornsby, Frank Elrington, Tony Taylor are some of the crew names in my lists.
1977 September 7 had another P3 Orion airdrop of mail, meat, fresh vegetables, fruit and chocolates to Macquarie Island. Sundry RAAF personnel, Senator Townley from Tasmania and a media scrum were on board his flight, which also dropped a special cake from the Minister of the time.
1978 In January a ‘large’ Soviet helicopter dropped into Davis for yet another medivac – flying the patient to Mirny where he was transferred to a US Hercules and flown to McMurdo and thence to Christchurch. This was the first landing of a US Hercules at Mirny. An Australian Glaciologist happened to be at Mirny on an exchange visit at the time and he managed to facilitate the communications necessary for this operation.
1978-79 Australia entered into a cooperative air transport agreement with the USA and New Zealand which involved RAAF flights from Christchurch to McMurdo in exchange for flights by US ski-equipped aircraft from McMurdo to Casey station. In the first summer, the RAAF flew four C-130H Hercules sorties on the New Zealand - McMurdo route, and two proving flights of US LC-130R Hercules flew the 2,200 km from McMurdo to a ski-way at Lanyon Junction, some 20 km inland from Casey. The first landing was on Wednesday 24 January 1979. The agreement ended in 1982, and during the four years of its operation, a total of seven flights were made on the McMurdo - Casey route by US Navy aircraft (under the auspices of the National Science Foundation), and 19 flights on the New Zealand - McMurdo route by the RAAF.
1979 Starting in March that year and running till at least 1989, with some 28 flights, RAAF Hercules C130 aircraft were used for training/air drop flights to Macquarie Island. These flights were conducted usually two to three times a year, targeting the narrow three-second drop zone on the Island during the seven to eight hour non-stop flights which departed variously from Melbourne and Hobart.
1985 In the late spring, a US Hercules landed on a sea ice runway at Davis for a medical evacuation to McMurdo. Regrettably the patient died en route.
1986 HMAS Stalwart was used for a resupply run to Macquarie Island - a RAN Sea King helicopter was used during the operation.
1986/87 This summer saw the first deployment of Aerospatiale AS350B Squirrel helicopters to ANARE operations.
1988 On 6 November Dick Smith took off on a privately sponsored flight from Hobart to Casey in a De Havilland Twin Otter. The aircraft registration was VH-SHW, using the initials of Australian Antarctic aviation pioneer Sir Hubert Wilkins. The plane made a wheeled landing on a 1.5 km runway prepared by station expeditioners near S1, about 5.5 km east of Casey. The plane was then fitted with skis and assorted spare parts brought in on the Australian chartered resupply vessel MV Icebird. The Twotter as it is affectionately known made a number of flights in support of ANARE during its time in Antarctica. These included transporting summer expeditioners and supplies from a temporary airfield on an ice floe near the MV Icebird to Davis station, about 140nm distant, and doing similar work at Mawson from the edge of the fast ice into the station, as well as setting up a summer party in the Prince Charles Mountains.
1988 The year many of us would like to forget. Four Squirrels were destroyed in the hold of the MV Icebird during a storm a couple of days out of Hobart. These were replaced quickly by two Squirrels and a Hughes 500 to enable the program for that voyage to proceed. At least one Squirrel was subsequently rebuilt from this carnage to fly again with ANARE.
1988/89 The early summer saw the amazing evacuation of two seriously injured expeditioners inland from Davis; the rescue and medivac involved use of an Australian helicopter to get the men to Davis, a propeller driven Ilyushin 14 to take the men to Molodezhnaya and a Russian jet aircraft took them on to South America from where they returned to Australia in commercial aircraft – they were in Australian hospitals within seven days of the accident.
1989/90 A compressed snow runway was constructed at Casey but heavy snowfalls prevented trial flights planned for Feb 1990.
1990s This decade saw the continuation of helicopter flying; the decade started with the use of Jetrangers and Squirrels and crew who have become legends in their own right, Steve Jones, Pip Turner, Ric Piacenza, Leon Garry, Mick Dawson, Peter Colpo and of course our very own Leigh Hornsby and Adrian Pate.
A significant turning point mid-decade was the introduction of the Sikorski S76 helicopters which enabled us to directly link continental stations again by air, a link lost more than three decades earlier. The first flight Davis-Mawson was on 28 September 1994. In 1995/96 the Division’s Helicopter Contract went to Helicopters Australia in Perth who operated S76s and Squirrels until this year when the contract went to Helicopter Resources once again.
1995/96 New ground for Australian Antarctic aviation – the first woman crew – Engineer Vanessa Noble-Chatwood.
Australia has certainly destroyed, or bent to varying degrees, a large amount of hardware, but we have had no fatalities and few serious injuries - speaking highly of the competence of those who maintain and fly the aircraft in the finest traditions of Australian aviation.
SO WHERE ARE WE GOING FROM HERE?
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