Celebrating 90 years of Antarctic aviation

A black and white photo of a vintage aircraft frame in Antarctica.
(Photo: John Hunter)
A black and white image of a biplane suspended from the side of a ship.A ski-equipped light aircraft on sea ice in front of a shipAn orange aircraft on the deck of a ship with the Antarctic coast in the backgroundThe sun shining brightly through the clouds over a white jet aircraft on an ice runway in AntarcticaVarious vehicles surrounding a large military cargo aircraft on the ice in AntarcticaA black and white image of a man with a goatee beard smoking a cigaretteA black and white image of an aircraft on a crane suspended from the side of a ship

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the first powered flight over Antarctica, on 16 November 1928, by Australian adventurer Sir George Hubert Wilkins in a Lockheed Vega 1.

Wilkins had already entered the polar aviation history books in the same year, when he made the first flight across the Arctic with former US Army pilot Carl Ben Eielson.

Riding high on their success, and with funding from the American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the two adventurers turned their sights south to Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Taking off from a rough airstrip at Deception Island in the South Shetlands on November 16, the pair made a twenty minute flight that took them around the island and back into the history books.

Wilkins and Eielson made many flights over the next few months, often in atrocious weather. Exhilarated at the grandeur unfolding before him, Wilkins took many photographs and sketches and wrote detailed notes in his expedition diary.

“I had a tremendous sensation of power and freedom,” he wrote after an 11 hour flight over the Antarctic Peninsula. “For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air”.

In a single journey, the two men surveyed an area that would have taken months to traverse by dog sled. Their triumphant return to civilisation heralded a new dawn for polar exploration. The modern aircraft was now an essential element of Antarctic expeditions.

Witnessing the success of Wilkins, and determined to realise his own aviation ambitions, Sir Douglas Mawson took a De Havilland Gipsy Moth aboard the ship Discovery in the following year, as part of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition.

The aircraft was deployed over the side of the ship, suspended on a cable. The float-mounted biplane quickly proved useful in achieving the expedition’s goals of collecting scientific data and laying claim to new territory.

Mawson and his fellow expedition pilot, Stuart Campbell, flew the aircraft ahead of Discovery on occasions, to identify routes through the pack ice. They successfully mapped a large stretch along the coastline of what would later become the Australian Antarctic Territory, from the Ross Sea to beyond Enderby Land.

In a paper published in 1932, Mawson declared that “the aeroplane proved a most important factor in the prosecution of the geographical programme.”

Since these early days of aviation, a colourful cast of adventure-seeking pilots have continued to push the boundaries of what is possible, resulting in a progression from ship-based aviation to continental-based flights using a variety of ski-equipped aircraft.

Australian aviation in Antarctica took another leap forward in 2006-07, with the commencement of intercontinental flights of an Airbus A319 from Hobart to a blue-ice runway at the aptly-named Wilkins Aerodrome, near Casey research station.

Wilkins Aerodrome has transformed the Australian Antarctic Division’s science and logistics capability, opening up new possibilities for rapid, flexible and efficient transport of people and cargo to the continent. Since 2016, a collaboration with the Royal Australian Air Force, using a C-17A Globemaster III aircraft, has also provided logistic support for oversize and time-critical cargo for both land and airdrop missions.

In the 90 years since Sir Hubert Wilkins’ historic first flight advances in manufacturing, navigation and weather forecasting have led to improvements in aviation that pioneers like Wilkins and Mawson could scarcely have dreamed of.