Rescue in the Antarctic

Niray Shah
Friday, 28 July 2023

On 23 November 1935, American Lincoln Ellsworth flew across the Antarctic to explore and map new territory. But when arduous conditions and insufficient fuel forced his plane to land, he and his pilot were stranded on a remote base with no way to contact the outside world. The Australian government, with help from the British, launched a rescue expedition that captured the attention of the world.

A polar explorer

Lincoln Ellsworth, born in Chicago in 1880, was the son of a successful coal magnate. He developed an interest in polar exploration, joining Roald Amundsen's attempted flight to the North Pole in 1925, as well as his successful 1926 attempt in an airship. Ellsworth later turned his attention to the southern hemisphere, making a total of 4 expeditions to the Antarctic between 1933 and 1939.

In the 1930s, much of Antarctica remained unmapped. Ellsworth believed using aircraft was the best way to chart such a vast expanse of territory. In November 1935, Ellsworth and pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon flew a Northrop Gamma aircraft named Polar Star across Antarctica.

During the expedition, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon made a 14-hour flight, but damaged their fuselage and broke their radio when landing. They tried to resume their flight but were forced to wait out a blizzard for 8 days. After digging their plane out with just a teacup, they managed to get back in the air – but by then they had run out of fuel. They were forced to land again, and hike for 11 days to the exploratory base of Little America. There, they could do little but wait and hope for rescue.

Launching a rescue mission

After contact was lost with the Ellsworth party, Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons announced that Cabinet had decided to rush a rescue expedition to Antarctica to find the explorers, as a show of goodwill and friendship towards the government of the United States. The British offered the use of the Antarctic research ship Discovery II, which was prepared for the rescue operation as soon as it arrived in Melbourne.

Specially trained RAAF mechanics, riggers, fitters and woodworkers prepared 2 planes for the operation at the Point Cook and Laverton bases. One was a Westland Wapiti, a single engine biplane designed by Westland Aircraft Works in Britain for the Royal Air Force. The other was a de Havilland Moth, one of the most popular civilian aircraft of the time, and one of the first aircraft to be mass produced. Both were refitted to withstand severe flying conditions, and were also fitted with skis and floats. The planes were then dismantled and stored on Discovery II for the journey south, to be reassembled upon arrival in Antarctica.

While the crew of the rescue expedition were mostly British, the flying operations were led by Australian Flight Lieutenant Eric Douglas. Douglas had previously been to the Antarctic with Sir Douglas Mawson as part of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE).

Despite the Discovery II facing heavy ice on the way to the Bay of Whales, the expedition successfully rescued Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon. The men had spent almost 2 months waiting for rescue.

Surprisingly, they were relatively unscathed from their ordeal, although Ellsworth was reported to be suffering from a severe cold.

The Discovery II returned to Australia, where the men were met with huge crowds and press from around the world. It was a happy conclusion to what was described at the time as 'one of the most absorbing chapters in the history of aerial exploits'.

You can discover more stories about Australia's relationship with Antarctica as well as photographs of early 20th-century Antarctic exploration at Chilled: Antarctic life inside and outshowing at the Western Australian Office until 29 March 2024.