Antarctic air crash victims remembered
11th May 2012
A ceremony has been held at Wilkes station in East Antarctica to commemorate the victims of a fatal plane accident at the site 50 years ago.
The American plane Neptune P2V crashed during take-off on November 9 1961, killing five of the nine people on board.
The plane crashed after fuel leaked from the plane’s fuselage tank causing a massive fire.
At the time the crew was returning from a geomagnetic survey to Russia’s Mirny station as part of Operation Deep Freeze and had stopped overnight at Wilkes.
Recently Australian expeditioners wintering at nearby Casey station laid a plaque at Wilkes to remember the men who lost their lives lost in the tragic event.
Casey Station Leader Mark Hunt said the plaque was presented to him at the Australian Antarctic Division’s headquarters in Hobart late last year by the Neptune’s surviving co-pilot Ernest Hand.
“Mr Hand was still deeply moved by his memories of the accident and his time in Antarctica, so I am pleased we are able to honour him and those who died by holding this ceremony,” Mark Hunt said.
“The plaque has been affixed to a rock cairn overlooking Newcomb Bay and the old Wilkes station and lies next to other men who have died on the icy continent.”
“I think it’s important to have a permanent memorial here so as time erodes the physical evidence of the crash, snow and ice now covers the majority of the remains of the plane, it is still remembered long into the future,” he said.
Wilkes was an American station which had been handed over to Australia in 1959. Australia used the station until 'Repstat', eventually renamed Casey, was built on the Bailey Peninsula in 1964. The current Casey station was officially opened in 1988.
Neptune memorial ceremony at Wilkes station Antarctica
Video transcriptWilkes Ceremony
Mark Hunt, Casey station leader
So we've come here today to formally acknowledge the tragedy of the Bluebird which was a Neptune P2V aircraft that crashed on take off near here, early in the 1961-62 summer. The aircraft involved was call-sign Bluebird and it was heading back from a trip over to Moonie station. It was on its way to McMurdo and it just stopped near Wilkes here, up on the plateau behind us to refuel overnight. It came in the afternoon, the Australians went up to help refuel and everybody went back down to station that evening for some food which the Americans had brought in and everybody really enjoyed that. They had a few drinks, got to know the dogs, and then in the morning headed off for the plane to return and unfortunately it crashed on takeoff and five people died and four people survived. It's worth remembering that today, in the middle of summer, we have an aviation program where scientists can leave Hobart and come down here for a week then go home again and be back there after a flight of four and a half or five hours. It's very different to what it was fifty years ago. It's also worth remembering that some of us standing here actually started our season coming in through McMurdo with a shared logistics program with the US and in fifty years much has changed but it's interesting to note that we're still working with the US, just as we were here fifty-odd years ago and we're still working together in the aviation program. So it's particularly salient that today we remember the people who were involved in that crash of the Bluebird, fifty years ago. It's exactly half-way in our Antarctic history. Fifty years after Mawson. Fifty years before us. I'm dedicating this plaque. It's worth taking some time to reflect on the sacrifices made by all of the people who've been impacted by the crash of the Bluebird but particularly those based at Wilkes at the time. Both those who survived the crash and those who lost their lives in it.
I was really lucky to be in Hobart in November when there was a commemorative ceremony for the crash of the Neptune aircraft and I met quite a few of the guys who were down here in 1961 and who were part of the whole refuelling and then recovery exercise from the wreck and I talked to people like Neville Smethurst, who was the OIC at the time and Bill Burch who photographed it and Ernie Hand who was the co-pilot in the aircraft itself. Talking to those guys fifty years on, trying to understand what they must have gone through, realising how fresh the memory was, gave me an enormous appreciation of the importance of the event and the importance of making sure that we appropriately remembered it and dedicated the memorial down here this season.
US Neptune plane crash, November 1961, Wilkes – narrated by Bill Burch
Video transcriptNeptune Crash Eyewitness Account
We had had a day or so's notice that a US Airforce Neptune would be calling in on its return run of a magnetometre (sic) survey from McMurdo sound to Moonie, the Russian station about eight hundred kilometres west of us at Wilkes. They would stay overnight and fly back to McMurdo the next day so we became the ground staff of banana belt airlines (BBA). Trundled a sled of fuel up to a more-or-less flat spot on the plateau known as the Wilkes airstrip and whilst Max Berrigan (sic) toed and froed up and down the strip flattening out the [?] a bit more with his D4, the rest of us waited in a beautiful, calm sunshine for their arrival. Before landing, they circled a couple of times, establishing contact with our radio crew in the Weasel and trying to gauge the best spot to land. After landing in a flurry of powdered snow, the ungainly looking black bird with its bright orange tail and wingtips waddled over to our terminal, shut down and nine men emerged from a door in the middle of the fuselage. After all the self introductions, much patting of the dogs and comments about the strip being nearly as bad as Moonie, all but one of the crew, Bill Chastain, piled onto the ground transport with our welcoming party except for me. The sled was now fitted with chairs from our canteen, leaving him and I with the Weasel and the task of refuelling the aircraft. All we had was a hand-pump so it was a very tedious task made all the more frustrating because as we pumped up into the belly of the plane, fuel seemed to be streaming out from some drain hole in the rear. Normal spillage, my companion assured me. Well, he should know. I'd never seen an aircraft like this before, let alone refuelled it from forty-four gallon drums in Antarctica. After what seemed like hours of arm numbing pumping, he deemed the tank full so we closed everything down and took off to join the rest of the team in a big party back at the station. Next morning, a farewell contingent, diminished by some excesses the night before, escorted our new friends back to the airstrip on yet another perfect day. Some jet-assisted take-off rocket bottles (JATOs) were clipped on to the sides near the tail. Hand-shakes and back-slaps, a final pat of the dogs and all but the engineer climbed on to the plane as the engine starting routine began. With all engines running smoothly, the engineer climbed on board. Variants (sic) of us moved in to good viewing positions. I committed to the telephoto lens on the movie camera to maximise the sight of the JATOs firing. The Weasel headed off down the side of the runway. Four cockpit crew actually walked out of this, but the five in the belly of the plane had no chance. Apart from severe burns to exposed skin, those who got out were relatively lightly injured. It was agreed that the five others must have perished and our priority (sic) was getting the injured back to base as quickly as possible. Max and I were asked to stay back and record the wreck site as well as we could in case a blizzard wiped out vital evidence for any crash investigation. Locating the bodies of the others for later recovery was also part of the plan. After forty minutes or so, the burned-out centre of the middle bird was cool enough to approach closely. Knowing where most of the crew had been sitting, it was obvious where they should be. It was three days later when a C130 Hercules from the US Antarctic Squadron VX6 arrived to repatriate the injured and retrieve the bodies of the dead.