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    Sir Hubert Wilkins

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    —      |      Vol_XV-0890                                                                                                                  

    (Burt M. McConnell)




    Canadian Arctic Expedition 2
    Marooned 3
    Over The Ice 4
    Joins the A.F.C. 5
    Joins Shackleton 7
    First Command 8
    Weather Forecasting 9
    Airplanes in the Arctic 10
    Second Arctic Expedition 12
    A Sounding At 77° 45′ N. 12
    Forced Landing on the Ice 14
    Third Arctic Expedition 15
    Flight to Spitsbergen 17
    First Crossing of Polar Sea 18
    First Flight in Antarctic 19
    Second Antarctic Expedition 20
    A Submarine in the Arctic 21
    The Search for Levenevsky 22
    Honors 24

    001      |      Vol_XV-0891                                                                                                                  

    (Burt M. McConnell)



            Captain Sir George Huber Wilkins, K.B., M.C. (1888- 1958 ), arctic and

    antarctic explorer, was born at Netfield, South Australia, October 31, 1888,

    the son of Harry and Louisa (Smith) Wilkins. He was the youngest of thirteen

    children. The boy's formative years were spent on his father's ranch, and he

    seldom saw snow during the first twenty years of his life. Yet before he was

    fifty years old, Wilkins had commanded eight arctic or antarctic expeditions

    and had been a member of nine others.

            Wilkins was educated at the State School and the Adelaide School of Mines,

    where he specialized in electrical engineering. He wanted to see the world,

    and in order to do that he became a motion picture photographer. At the age

    of twenty he began his travels — from Australia to the Indies, Egypt, Algeria,

    and most of Europe — hoping eventually to have enough notes and pictures to

    make a book of travel. He became a newsreel photographer and was one of the

    first to take moving pictures from airplanes and balloons. He was also one of

    the first to drop with a parachute from an airplane.

            At the Graham-White School of Aviation, London, Wilkins was taught the

    fundamentals of flying. Then came the war in the Balkans. He was then employed

    by the Gaumont Company, and his employer joined with the London Chronicle in

    sending him to Turkey as a photographic correspondent. Wilkins thus became the

    first photographer to obtain successful motion pictures in battle. He did it at

    great personal risk. For, unlike the infantryman, he could not seek cover.

    002      |      Vol_XV-0892                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

            Following this dangerous and exciting task, Wilkins went back to making

    pictorial histories of certain industries. He was on one of these jobs in the

    tropics when he received a query, by cable, from the home office: Would he care

    to join a polar expedition? Wilkins would; but he assumed that it was an ex–

    pedition to explore the Antarctic. For, in 1913, Scott, Shackleton, and the

    Antarctic were in everybody's mind. But he was destined to go the Arctic

    with Stefansson.


    Canadian Arctic Expedition

            In the United States, Vilhjalmur Stefansson was beginning to attract

    attention. He had already spent five winters in the Arctic, and now the Can–

    adian Government drafted him to lead northward an elaborately equipped expedi–

    tion, with a comprehensive scientific staff. Wilkins was recommended to Stef–

    ansson as the best motion picture photographer in the field. So Stefansson

    picked him, sight unseen. He never had cause to regret his choice; Wilkins

    proved more than adequate for every task, every responsibility, every emergency.

            The scientific staff was gathered from the ends of the earth — Australia,

    New Zealand, Scotland, Norway, France, Canada, and the United States providing

    most of the members. (The writer was a U.S. member of the staff.) Wilkins

    joined us, quietly and unobtrusively, at Victoria, B.C., and straightway began

    to make a pictorial history of the expedition. On the voyage to Nome, Alaska,

    he overhauled and repaired one of the motorboat power plants that had defied the

    best efforts of the engineering officer. So much for his training at the Adelaide

    School of Mines. Later in the Arctic, Wilkins astounded the ethnologist by tak–

    ing down, in what amounted to musical shorthand, the notes of an Eskimo song.

    So much for his musical training and for his study of the cello, which was his

    hobby. En route from Nome to Point Barrow, he and the writer volunteered to

    003      |      Vol_XV-0893                                                                                                                  
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    re-stow the entire cargo of the ship's main hold. On the trail, in bitter

    winter weather, he rose on many an occasion at four o'clock in the morning

    and took his turn as cook — although he might easily have considered himself

    exempt from such a menial task. But Wilkins was always eager to do more than

    his share.

            At Nome, as Stefansson explains in The Friendly Arctic , there occurred a

    mild insurrection on the part of certain members of the scientific staff; they

    wanted to be sure of a sufficient supply of fresh water during the voyage into

    the Arctic Sea. It was odd that the oceanographer should have led this insur–

    rection, for he, above all others, should have known that fresh water can be

    obtained from salt-water ice. Although Stefansson received a letter from cer–

    tain members of the scientific staff, asking him to meet them at a specified

    hour to discuss (as it turned out) this matter, Wilkins took no part in the

    puerile affair.



            Wilkins was one of the three white men (with Diamond Jenness and the writer)

    whom Stefansson took ashore for a caribou hunt to secure fresh meat when his

    vessel, the Karluk , was frozen fast in the ice off the north coast of Alaska;

    thus neither Stefansson nor Wilkins was on board when the ship was crushed by

    the ice, after a drift of 1,000 miles, north of Siberia. During the next few

    months Wilkins had his first taste of dog-team travel. He told us he didn't

    like it. In Australia, he said, a man's dignity demanded that he ride a horse.

    Breaking trail in front of the dogs, or guiding the sled, was not necessarily

    degrading, but it was hard work and meant walking. Wilkins was not accustomed

    to long-distance walking.

            During that first winter, when he traveled about 2,000 miles by dog team,

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    Wilkins dreamed of using the airplane in the Arctic, and frequently pointed out

    its advantages over the dog team. He learned to find his way about by cutting

    across snowdrifts at a given angle; where to find driftwood for a campfire; how

    to imitate the actions of a seal, basking on the ice, until he could creep near

    enough to shoot the animal; to build a snowhouse; to hunt caribou; to take

    soundings through the ice; to record meteorological instrument readings, and

    so forth. He took an interest in all branches of scientific work.

            The winter 1913-1914 was spent by the northern party in getting ready for

    exploration by dog team north from Alaska over the moving pack ice. Wilkins

    believed that Stefansson, on the basis of experience and training, was quite capable

    of conducting this trip. The majority all along the coast, however — whaling

    captains, fur traders, certain members of Stefansson's expedition, the Northwest

    Mounted Police, and Eskimos — believed it was a harebrained scheme that would

    end in the death of all concerned. Wilkins, nevertheless, stuck to his original

    appraisal of the unprecedented journey, and volunteered as a member of the sup–

    port party. Also, when it seemed that a diversion of supplies, men, and equip–

    ment from the southern section of the expedition to Stefansson's party would

    end in open mutiny (although Stefansson was in supreme command), Wilkins defin–

    itely arrayed himself with Stefansson. Wilkins believed that a small party

    could live by forage on the drifting ice fields; most of the others did not.


    Over The Ice

            When the Stefansson party set out on March 22, 1914, from Martin Point,

    Alaska, Wilkins drove one of the dog teams. A few days later, when the party

    was held up by open water, Stefansson designated the writer and another member

    to take some surplus equipment back to shore and to bring back kerosene for the

    005      |      Vol_XV-0895                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    primus stoves. Wilkins asked if he might act as substitute, as he wanted to

    develop some films on shore. Thus Stefansson lost not only the services of

    Wilkins and his companion, but the use of their rifle, sled, and dogs when a

    southwest gale came up without warning and carried the ice on which we were

    encamped some 50 miles to the northeast and far beyond the reach of the shore

    party. Up to that time, says Stefansson in The Friendly Arctic , "Wilkins...

    had proved as adaptable to polar conditions as any man I ever saw."

            Wilkins had received instructions from Stefansson for the coming summer

    to bring the North Star , a trim, shallow-draught schooner, with a single pro–

    peller, to Norway Island, at the northwest corner of Banks Island. He was over–

    ruled, however, by Stefansson's second-in-command, who turned over to Wilkins

    the less desirable twin-screw Mary Sachs , whose two propellers stuck out at wide

    angles, which is dangerous in icy waters. One of the propellers was broken off

    by hitting an ice cake (as Stefansson anticipated it would be); but in August

    1914 they reached Banks Island, near its southwest corner, where the ship had

    to be hauled up on the beach, about 100 miles short of her destination. Mean–

    while, Stefansson and his two companions, who had left the north coast of Alaska

    in March, equipped with a dog team and three rifles, had completed in June their

    600-mile journey over the drifting ice fields to Banks Island. They spent the

    rest of the summer in the northwest corner of this uninhabited island, living

    on caribou and wolves somewhat as they had lived by killing seals and polar

    bears while crossing the Beaufort Sea. In September they found Wilkins and the

    Mary Sachs .


    Joins the A. F. C.

            During the next two years Wilkins completed a series of tidal observations,

    006      |      Vol_XV-0896                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell" Sir Hubert Wilkins

    gathered and prepared numerous zoological specimens, took hundreds of photo–

    graphs and considerable motion picture film, did his share of hunting and

    travel by dog team, and eventually was sent on foot by Stefansson to Corona–

    tion Gulf, several hundred miles distant, to bring the North Star to Banks

    Island. This he accomplished, although it seemed for a time that Stefansson's

    requisition was not going to be honored.

            That job finished, Wilkins and an Eskimo killed in Banks Island enough

    caribou to provide sufficient meat for the winter. He built what Stefansson

    considered "the most comfortable and most sensibly arranged of our three winter

    bases," although Wilkins had had no experience along this line. At another

    point in his book, Stefansson says: "There is no overestimating the value to

    the geographic side of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of Wilkins' decision to

    carry on after most of his photographic equipment had been lost with the Karluk ."

            Wireless was in its infancy in 1914, and the expedition was not equipped

    with it; consequently the members did not hear about the outbreak of World War I

    until September 1915. Wilkins, eager to get to the front before the war ended,

    left the expedition in 1916, traveled to Ottawa, reported to the Government,

    then set out for Australia. There is little doubt but that Wilkins traveled

    farther to get into action than any other soldier — 30,000 miles. He received

    a commission in the Australian Flying Corps, and after doing some flying in

    England was placed in charge of the photographic section of Australian opera–

    tions on the Western Front. His job was to record, in pictures, Australia's part

    in the war. He made still and motion pictures from airplanes, as well as from

    the ground.

            After reaching France in 1917, Wilkins was promoted to Captain. He was

    in every battle fought by the Australians. In nine different battles he was

    struck by bullets, buried by shell bursts on several other occasions, twice

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    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    mentioned in dispatches for exceptional bravery, and was awarded the Military

    Cross with one bar. When Sir John Monash, Commanding General of the Australian

    forces in Europe, was asked to name the outstanding soldier under his command,

    he picked Captain George H. Wilkins, M.C.

            Following World War I there was a concerted movement to adapt the airplane

    to peacetime uses, one purpose of which was to bring the British dominions

    closer to London. In 1919 the London Daily Mail offered a prize of $50,000.

    for the first successful flight by airplane from England to Australia. Captain

    Wilkins was the navigator on one of the contesting planes. Everything went

    well until they were over the Aegean Sea, when a broken oil line compelled

    them to return to the nearest shore. The forced landing was rough, and when

    Wilkins recovered his senses he found the plane was tilted up on its nose,

    within three feet of the stone wall that surrounded a Turkish harem.


    Joins Shackleton

            Returning to exploration, Wilkins was second-in-command of the British

    Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1920-1921) during which he surveyed part of the

    Antarctic coast line. He was naturalist with the Shackleton Antarctic Expedi–

    tion (1921-1922). This was the expedition on which Shackleton died. Due to

    circumstances beyond his control, Wilkins was unable to utilize an airplane

    which had been provided for this antarctic expedition. (His scientific reports

    of the Shackleton expedition are published in Ibis. the publications of the

    Linnaean Society and other scientific journals. His collections included new

    species of birds, shrubs, trees, and insects from subantarctic islands.) Upon

    his return from this expedition Wilkins presented to the Royal Meteorological

    Society of London, a comprehensive outline for the study of arctic and antarctic

    polar meteorology. The plan was considered premature, and it was not inaugurated

    008      |      Vol_XV-0898                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    until 26 years later, when both the United States and Australian governments

    established the practical foundations for a net of polar weather stations.


    First Command

            Wilkins was in the Soviet Union when the Trustees of the British Museum

    decided in favor of a complete biological survey of the eastern half of Australia.

    Serious diminution was taking place in the native fauna; in fact, there was

    grave danger that some of the species might disappear altogether before good

    specimens were made available for study. The Museum was looking for a leader

    of an expedition to collect, for a period of two years, the native animals of

    Australia in those parts where they were still abundant. Wilkins had the needed

    qualifications; and in addition to his experience with Stefansson and Shackleton,

    he was an Australian by birth. The Trustees sent him a telegram, and in Jan–

    uary, 1923, he sailed for Australia to organize his expedition. Wilkins met

    with such success that in a report to the Trustees, two and a half years later,

    the Director of the British Museum said that more than 5,000 specimens had been

    collected, many from almost inaccessible regions; that the material obtained

    was of great scientific value; that a number of new species had been found; and

    that a large amount of material had been supplied with definite localities.

            Up to now, Wilkins had been gathering experience and seeing the world.

    Now there crystallized in his mind the determination to proceed to establish

    a network of polar meteorological stations — a plan which he had visualized

    as a boy, when drought visited his section of Australia, and his father's horses

    and sheep died by the thousands. He was now thirty-seven, unmarried, with a

    few thousand dollars in the bank. It seemed to him that farmers and stock–

    raisers in every part of the world would be at the mercy of the elements until

    009      |      Vol_XV-0899                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    long-range weather forecasting could be placed on a scientific basis everywhere;

    that departments of agriculture should devote as much time, money, and scientific

    investigation to this subject as they did to other preventive measures that

    benefited the farmer and stockman.

            Wilkins was aware of the saying, generally credited to Mark Twain, that

    everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it - and he

    proposed to do something about the world's weather. In his opinion, the pre–

    vention of suffering from unexpected droughts and subsequent famine would be not

    only humane in the extreme, but would be of considerable economic advantage.

    To forecast seasons of drought — or of rain — would be a practical achieve–

    ment of the highest order.


    Weather Forecasting

            As Wilkins flew more and more he realized increasingly that we needed a

    knowledge of the atmosphere, not only for industry and agriculture, but in con–

    nection with weather forecasting along the routes of the world's airlines; that

    we needed a knowledge of ice movements in the Arctic and Antarctic, and of their

    influence on air temperatures, in order to be able to make seasonal forecasts;

    that we eeded observations on ocean currents, and the relation of the currents

    to the periodical difference in the distribution of fish life. Additional sound–

    ings in the Arctic Sea would be of extreme interest to geophysicists, among

    others. Additional magnetic observations would be of great help to navigators

    of the air, particularly in those areas which are often so fogbound and covered

    with clouds that astronomical navigation is severely restricted.

            These were some of the incentives that led Wilkins to undertake a ten-year

    plan to determine where the nations of the world, acting in cooperation, must

    010      |      Vol_XV-0900                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    go to collect the most important data on the movement of air streams and the

    development of air currents. He believed that if weather stations could be

    established in the Arctic and Antarctic, and continuous observations taken,

    these could be coordinated with observations taken in the tropics and the tem–

    perate zones, and a sound basis for long-range weather forecasts established.

    With a ring of such stations around the Arctic and Antarctic, where much of our

    weather is said to originate, and with daily radio reports, it would be possible

    to draw charts that would trace the effects of cyclones and anticyclones as they

    moved forward from their breeding places out over the frozen oceans.

            Wilkins thereupon formulated a program of these main elements: Exploration

    of the unknown parts of the Arctic by airplane; a survey of possible sites for

    meteorological stations in the area; a study of meteorological conditions in

    the Arctic; an investigation of the possibilities of aerial transportation in

    the Arctic; and exploration of the unknown antarctic coast line for the purpose

    of determining suitable and accessible sites for meteorological bases.

            Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, and some of its far-sighted

    business men wanted to make it also the air capital. Wilkins came to the United

    States, and with the scientific backing of the American Geographical Society,

    through its Director, Isaiah Bowman, and the aid of Stefansson, his preceptor

    in arctic exploration, journeyed to Detroit and convinced its leading business

    men that they could use no enterprise better to promote their aim than a series

    of exploratory flights in the Arctic. This was in December 1925.


    Airplanes in the Arctic

            Wilkins put all of his available capital into the enterprise and sold the

    expedition's news rights; Detroit interests gathered together — or promised to

    011      |      Vol_XV-0901                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    gather together — the balance. Meanwhile, Wilkins had obtained the first

    large-winged three-engined Fokker monoplane from the factory in Holland; also

    a single-engined Fokker FV11. These were crated and sent to Fairbanks, the

    most northerly winter shipping point in the Territory. Major Thomas Lanphier,

    Lieutenant Carl Ben Eielson, and Sergeant Wisely — all of the Army Air Corps —

    were engaged as pilots. The planes were uncrated in an atmosphere of 52° below

    zero, F., taken out to the flying field, and christened. The expedition was

    moving on schedule, and there was no doubt about the efficiency of the two planes.

            Then came disaster. In preparation for the first test flight of the three–

    engined Fokker, while the machine was still on the runway, the expedition's news

    correspondent walked into a propeller, and was instantly killed. This caused

    delay and meanwhile the weather changed to warm. Snow followed, and it was

    necessary to clear the runway. Then — all within twenty-four hours — came

    the wrecking of the two planes while coming in for landings. While the machines

    were being repaired and tested, the cold season, favorable for arctic exploration,

    by airplanes, was passing. Eventually Captain Wilkins and Lieutenant Eielson,

    with the single-engined plane, made four round trips between Fairbanks and Point

    Barrow with the three-engined plane, but heavy fog prevented the explorers from

    flying far out over the Arctic Sea. However, on the first northward journey

    Wilkins and Eielson had continued out over the ice, north of Point Barrow, for

    a distance of about 150 miles — the first flight ever made in that region by

    airplane. Altogether they flew 6,000 miles during the spring of 1926, most of

    it over mou n tainous and unknown territory. But the flying season soon came to

    ah end, and they were obliged, after days of fog, to postpone operations for

    the season. Meanwhile the dirigible Norge , with Amudsen, Ellsworth, and Nobile

    on board, cruised above them on its nonstop voyage from Spitsbergen to Teller,


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    Second Arctic Expedition

            Captain Wilkins spent that winter raising funds for a second arctic ex–

    pedition. It was taken for granted that the flight of the Norge proved there

    was no land between Point Barrow and the North Pole. Wilkins, therefore, altered

    his plans to include the exploration by plane of the unknown segments east and

    west of the Norge's southward line of flight, landings on the sea ice, and sound–

    ings beyond the continental shelf. The two Fokker planes were left at Fairbanks,

    and two smaller Stinson cabin planes, equipped with skis, were taken instead.

    With Eielson or the other pilot, Alger Graham, at the controls, these planes

    were flown, nonstop, from Fairbanks to Point Barrow.

            On March 29, 1927, with Eielson as pilot and Wilkins as navigator, one of

    the Stinson planes was taken up to 1,000 feet, the compasses checked, and at

    six A.M. they struck out in a northwesterly direction into the unknown. They

    planned to fly for six hours on the outward leg, land and take a sounding, fly

    southward toward shore for three hours, take another sounding, then return to

    Point Barrow. According to Wilkins' calculations, they would have a favorable

    wind for the first four hours, and a tail wind for the last few hours of the

    return journey.

            The temperature was 42° below zero, F., on the morning of the flight, and

    a light wind blow from the southeast. They saw much broken ice, a number of

    open leads, and many patches of smooth ice suitable for landing. Their ground

    speed on the outward journey was 100 geographical miles per hour. In the cabin

    of the plane, the temperature was 18° above zero, F.


    A Sounding At 77° 45′ N.

            After a flight of five hours, the engine started missing badly, and ten

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    minutes later they were forced to land and make repairs. This was the first

    landing upon the ice of the Arctic Sea far from land by an airplane. While

    Eielson was working on the engine, Wilkins got out the sonic depth finder and

    took a sounding. In order that there might be no question about the depth of

    the ocean at that point (77° 45′ N. lat., 175° W. long.), he took another sound–

    ing. The net result was 5,440 meters — the deepest sounding so far recorded

    in the Arctic. The position is considered to be correct within 20 miles.

            The ice at the landing point was about three feet thick, and Wilkins was

    obliged to dig two holes for the sounding apparatus. This required half an

    hour. It took another half-hour to get the engine going, although they were

    not satisfied with its performance. After three attempts, they finally get into

    the air, but were compelled to make a landing after a flight of ten minutes.

            Eielson and Wilkins worked on their machine for another two hours, dis–

    covered that the trouble resulted from the flux compound used in making the

    aluminum gasoline tanks — the first of their kind. This discovery led to

    improvement in the method of manufacture of aluminum gas tanks, which are now

    extensively used by the aircraft industry. By the time they had cleaned the

    fuel lines and carburetor, it was too late to attempt a flight to the southward.

    Moreover, they had expended considerable gasoline in their testing and starting

    operations. So they decided to return on a direct course to Point Barrow. But

    in the meantime a head wind of alarming velocity had sprung up. Wilkins was

    faced with the choice of battling this head wind with his depleted gasoline

    supply or of remaining on the ice and drifting with it to the westward, hundreds

    of miles north of Siberia. They chose to make the attempt to reach Alaska.

            Soon it became too dark for Eielson to observe both turn-and-bank indicator

    and the compass, so Wilkins directed the rays of his flashlight on the compass,

    and touched the pilot on either the right or left arm to keep him on the course.

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    They were flying above storm and cloud at 5,000 feet; beneath them visibility

    was nil.


    Forced Landing On the Ice

            At 9:02 P.M. their fuel was gone and the engine cut out suddenly, as if

    the ignition switch had been snapped. Eielson glided toward the chaotic sur–

    face, heading into the wind. The light plane was tossed about as they neared

    the ice. Finally the drifting snow reached above the windows. They braced

    themselves for a shock — or a plunge into an open lead. They experienced

    neither; instead they made a good landing on safe ice. The clambered out. All

    about them they could see, in the semidarkness, pressure ridges as high as the

    wings. Weak and tired, they climbed back into the cabin and slept.

            Wilkins estimated their position to be 75 miles northwest of Point Barrow.

    Normally the ice would drift to the eastward. Because of this, and the additional

    fact that the weather remained unfavorable, they remained with the plane for five

    days, meanwhile improvising sleds from the tail ski and cowling. Their landing

    had been miraculous; they were on a smooth patch of ice less than 50 by 100 feet.

    On three sides were high ridges of ice.

            Since they could place no dependence upon their wireless, they set out for

    shore on April 3rd, each man dragging a sled. They built a snowhouse each night.

    Eielson was handicapped in this and other activities by the little finger of his

    right hand, which had become so badly frostbitten while working on the engine

    that eventually it had to be amputated. For five days they dragged their sleds,

    then abandoned them in favor of packs when the ice became very rough. Once

    Wilkins went into the water up to his waist, and the outside of his clothes froze

    almost instantly; but in the lee of an ice cake he managed to remove and dry his

    015      |      Vol_XV-0905                                                                                                                  
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    trousers by rubbing them in the soft, powdered dry snow, and the replace them.

    He had no spare trousers, but he did have a spare pair of dry fur socks. The

    temperature was about 10° below zero, F. On April 15th they reached the des–

    tination which they were aiming for — a trader's cabin at Beechey Point — and

    sent a messenger to Point Barrow. Pilot Graham picked them up a few days later,

    and flew them to Barrow.

            They had consumed on the journey less than 16 ounces of food per man per

    day. Yet they had not rationed their food; each man ate as much or as little

    as he chose. They had made an average of 10 miles per day for ten days.

            Eielson's frozen finger incapacitated him for further flying in the few

    [ ?] weeks of good weather that remained, but one day, when weather conditions

    seemed promising, Graham and Wilkins had set out in the direction of Grant Land,

    and continued for about 200 miles. Layers of fog, however, obscured the sky

    above and the ice below. To have continued would have served no useful purpose,

    so they returned to the mainland and operations for 1927 were suspended. On the

    first clear day, June 5th, they took off for Fairbanks.

            Wilkins' faith in the airplane as an instrument for arctic exploration had

    been justified. He and Eielson had determined three things: The approximate

    limit of the continental shelf north of Siberia; that airplane landings on the

    arctic ice pack are feasible and that it is possible to walk ashore over the ice —

    which victims of a forced landing at sea in the temperate zone could not do.


    Third Arctic Expedition

            Wilkins' 1928 plans called for a continuation of his 1926 and 1927 efforts.

    His Detroit backers had begun to lose interest, however, so he was obliged to

    sell the rather unwieldy Fokkers. Then he purchased a small Lockheed Vega mono-

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    plane; it was the second Lockheed plane ever built. This machine was beauti–

    fully streamlined and had a long cruising range. Moreover, it could be handled

    by Eielson and Wilkins, Eielson acting as pilot and Wilkins as navigator and

    mechanic. On February 26, 1928, the compact expedition arrived at Fairbanks;

    the machine, simple but efficient in design, arrived by rail and was assembled

    the next day. On March 19th everything seemed favorable for a flight to Point

    Barrow. It was 24° below zero, F., when they took off. The trip to Point Bar–

    row was made at a speed of 115 miles per hour.

            Having explored from the air that segment lying to the westward of the

    Norge's line of flight, Captain Wilkins now proposed to explore the other seg–

    ment, and at the same time determine whether or not land existed in the so-called

    Crocker Land area, as had been reported by Admiral R. E. Peary and others. He

    would then continue on to Spitsbergen — a total distance of 2,200 miles —

    which would incidentally demonstrate that air transportation in the Arctic, even

    in winter, was possible.

            Mr. O. M. Miller of the American Geographical Society had provided a spec–

    ial stereographic chart, curves, and tables. Wilkins planned to follow a great–

    circle course for the first 1,300 miles, then turn obliquely to the left on an–

    other great-circle course to Spitsbergen. Thus he and Eielson would cross through

    171 degrees of longitude and through a difference of 315 degrees of compass de–

    clination — and this in an area where the horizontal forces influencing the

    compass were weak and the perpendicular forces strong and unknown. As the navi–

    gator of the flight, Wilkins [ ?] did not choose to fly the easily navigated

    route direct to the North to the Pole and south to Spitsbergen; he planned to skirt

    Grant Land and Greenland, changing his course frequently, according to the in–

    fluences of wind, ground speed, magnetic declination, and meteorological condi–


    017      |      Vol_XV-0907                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

            In preparation, Wilkins carefully worked out the navigation problems for

    simulated flights — which might begin at any hour of the day through a two–

    week period, and be influenced by various meteorological conditions likely to

    be encountered. This required many days, on the ground, of careful and com–

    plicated calculations. High longitudes would be crossed at frequent intervals

    and the magnetic declination would change frequently; at times it would be as

    much as 360°. The north end of the compass would point south. But having pre–

    pared thus, it was not difficult, on the actual day of flight, to choose the

    figures to suit the hour, and by interpolation, find the matter of navigation

    much simplified.


    Flight To Spitsbergen

            Snow covered the ice of the Point Barrow lagoon, but Eskimos were hired

    to clear a runway for the ski-mounted Vega. This proved to be too short, and

    it was lengthened to 3,500 feet. When a still longer runway was found necessary,

    they shifted to another lagoon and cleared a runway a mile long. Four days of

    intensive labor were necessary to complete the job. On the morning of April 15,

    1928, when weather conditions seemed favorable, Eielson guided the trim monoplane

    down the 14-foot-wide groove — and they found themselves in the air. The

    course was set in a direct line to latitude 84° N., longitude 75° W., i.e., to

    a point north of northern Ellesmere Island, thus through or along the southern

    edge of Peary's reported Crocker Land. With the exception of a stretch of about

    100 miles, to the westward of Grant Land, clear weather permitted close observa–

    tion of the ice-covered surface of the Arctic Sea. No indications of land were

    seen. Inside the cabin of the plane the temperature was about zero; outside it

    was 48° below zero, F.

            In general, during the flight, they were able to determine the weather

    018      |      Vol_XV-0908                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    ahead for at least 200 miles. Thirteen hours out of Point Barrow, Wilkins

    forecast a storm over Spitsbergen, and considered the possibility of landing

    at Cape Columbia, on the north coast of Ellesmere Island. They were averaging

    more than 100 miles an hour over the ice. They checked their position by sight–

    ing the Grant Land coast of Ellesmere in the distance. For the first time in

    eighteen hours, Wilkins took time out for a snack.

            Ahead they could see high, curling, cumulous clouds rising to heights even

    greater than their plane could reach. Wilkins set forth the situation in a note

    to Eielson:

            "There are two courses open. We can land down there and wait until the storm

    is over. But could we take off? If we go on, we are sure to meet a storm over

    Spitsbergen. We may not even find the islands. Do you wish to land now?"

            The reply was characteristic of Eielson: "If you can find Spitsbergen, I'll

    take a chance of landing the machine there." Wilkins was willing to trust Eiel–

    son's flying; and Eielson was willing to trust Wilkins' navigating. So they pro–



    First Crossing of Polar Sea

            About 100 miles short of their objective they saw two small mountain peaks

    projecting through the clouds. As they approached the land, their practically

    empty plane was tossed about like a cork on an angry ocean. At intervals they

    could see the dark water, some 8,000 feet below. Eielson descended to within a

    few feet of the sea. Beneath the clouds the wind force was terrific. Salt spray

    filled the air. The plane's windshield was crusted with ice, and the drifting

    snow completely hid the surface of the land. Nevertheless, Eielson pointed the

    nose of the plane into the wind, and glided downward. Their skis touched the snow,

    019      |      Vol_XV-0909                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    and so great was the velocity of the wind that their plane came to a stop with–

    in forty feet. They had been in the air twenty hours and twenty minutes. They

    had made the first crossing of the polar sea by airplane. Experts agree that

    this was the outstanding example of coordinated piloting and navigating up to

    that time.

            The wind was blowing at the rate of about 45 miles an hour, and the curtain

    of drifting snow was so dense that they could see only a few yards. For five

    days the storm kept them confined to the plane; it was only after they got into

    the air that they could see the masts of the radio station at Green Harbor. They

    landed at the station, and sent out the news of the flight to the New York Times.

            While in England, after his flight from Point Barrow to Spitsbergen, Captain

    George Hubert Wilkins received the honor of knighthood as a reward for his gal–

    lant war service, his contributions to the natural sciences, and his polar ser–

    vice — a total of fifteen years of conspicuous effort, culminating in the trans–

    arctic flight — in the service of his country. He chose to be known as Sir Hubert.


    First Flight In Antarctic

            On his return to New York City from Spitsbergen in the early summer of 1928,

    Sir Hubert immediately began preparations for carrying out in the Antarctic a pro–

    gram similar to that laid down for the Arctic. Again his chief scientific sponsor

    was the American Geographical Society; his main financial backer was the Hearst

    Newspapers. Again Lieutenant Eielson was his chief pilot, and they took with

    them the plane in which they had made the Point Barrow-Spitsbergen flight. It

    was the first complete airplane to reach the Antarctic; they were there a month

    before Admiral Byrd arrived at his base on the other side of the Continent. They

    unlcaded the plane, completely assembled, on November 10, 1928, and on November 16th

    020      |      Vol_XV-0910                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    made the first flight by airplane ever done in the Antarctic.

            Sir Hubert chose the region in which antarctic land had first been dis–

    covered; in which ships had explored for a century and in which he himself,

    while on the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition, had spent a whole summer

    mapping less than 100 miles of coast line, working hard and dangerously in an

    open whaleboat. During that first flight they photographed much of an area

    that included, with its contours, about 1,200 miles of coast line, discovered

    what appeared to be several channels and a strait, dividing Graham Land form

    the continent, but which subsequently proved to be long smooth glaciers. They

    sighted 14 new islands. All this was possible in one day because of the great

    speed and the great height at which they could use an aerial camera.

            After a second flight on January 10, 1929, to confirm the observations

    made on the first flight, it was deemed advisable to postpone operations until

    the following season.

            Before he returned to the Antarctic in the fall of 1929, Sir Hubert was

    married to Suzanne Bennett, of Australia.


    Second Antarctic Expedition

            During his second expedition, on which A1 Cheesman was his chief pilot,

    Sir Hubert discovered that a section in the Pacific sector of the Antarctic,

    400 by 900 miles, is ice-covered sea, and not land, as was formerly supposed,

    and thus the Antarctic Continent was pushed back some 400 miles. He also sel–

    ected a number of sites suitable for permanent meteorological stations for long–

    range weather forecasting. He had outlined, in two seasons, much of the hitherto

    unknown portion of the Antarctic archipelago south of South America. He also dis–

    covered that Charcot Land is not part of the mainland, but an island.

    021      |      Vol_XV-0911                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

            Sir Hubert, in 1929, made the round-the-world flight with the Graf Zep–

    and, together with Lady Wilkins, traveled with the Hindenburg on its

    first flight from Germany to New York. He traveled on board the airships to

    observe methods of navigation, and as a representative of the press.

            Since there were no islands within the center of the Arctic Sea to serve

    as meteorological bases, and because he believed that bases upon the drifting

    Arctic ice pack would be dangerous and unsatisfactory, Sir Hubert decided, in

    1930, that he would experiment with a submarine to determine the feasibility

    of using a submarine vessel as a base in the Arctic for scientific investiga–

    tion. Surface vessels could not penetrate the ice, but a submersible might be

    able to occupy a base beneath the ice throughout the years.

            He did not have the money to design and build the ideal submarine for such

    work; but the U. S. Navy had the old 0-12, which it was willing to turn over to

    him. The ship was renamed the Nautilus , and refitting of the vessel, for travel

    under the ice somewhat in the manner of an upside-down sled, was begun in the

    fall of 1930. A great ice drill was installed, so that escape might be made

    through the ice pack.


    A Submarine in the Arctic

            The expedition was sponsored by the American Geographical Society. Carnegie

    Institution of Washington, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Woods Hole Ocean–

    ographic Institution, and the Geophysical Institute of Bergen, Norway. During

    the crossing of the Atlantic, an accident crippled the submarine's engines and

    dynamos, and caused the vessel to put in at Plymouth, England, for repairs. The

    submarine thus arrived at Norway some two months late — July 31, 1931. The loss

    of the submarine's diving rudders, in the waters near Spitsbergen, followed by a

    022      |      Vol_XV-0912                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    storm that lasted several days, hampered operations. The explorers were,

    however, able to reach with the submarine a latitude higher than that ever

    reached by any other vessel under its own power (about 82° N.). With the

    aid of D. Harald Sverdrup, chief of the scientific staff, they were able to

    make magnetic observations, secure important oceanographical data, chart the

    depths of the ocean, take bottom and water samples, temperatures at various

    levels and great depths, gravity measurements, meteorological observations and

    spectrographic recordings, and, in fact, carry out all the functions of a

    scientific oceanographic laboratory with such speed and in such comfort — op–

    erating through a hatchway in the bottom of a compressed air-filled chamber —

    that the collections made in three weeks were as large as they might have made

    from a surface vessel in two months.

            Despite the loss of the diving rudders, the vessel was thrust beneath the

    ice; moving pictures were taken of the bottom of the ice as the vessel was in

    progress, and it was demonstrated that a submersible could be operated beneath

    the arctic ice pack. Because of the loss of the rudders and the delay caused

    by the accident to the engines, the plan of crossing the Polar Sea had to be


            During the years 1932-1934, Sir Hubert organized and managed the Ellsworth

    Antarctic expeditions.


    The Search for Levanevsky

            Sir Hubert was in New York on August 13, 1937, when Sigismund Levanevsky

    and his companions on a flight from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska, were reported

    missing. Offers of help came in to Moscow from various governments, among them

    those of Canada and the United States, from a number of scienti fic

    societies in

    023      |      Vol_XV-0913                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    various countries, and from corporations and private persons. The Soviet Em–

    bassy in Washington then telephoned the Explorers' Club in New York, asking that

    the Club coordinate the offers of assistance which were coming from places and

    persons outside the Soviot Union.

            Since time was of the essence, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who then was Presi–

    dent of the Club, accepted immediately (at 11 o'clock in the evening), and took

    the midnight train for Washington. At a conference in the Soviet Embassy next

    morning it was agreed that, in addition to all other forms of search, and in

    part so as to bring together various offers of aid, the Soviet Government should

    appoint Wilkins their chief field representative in North America during the

    search, and specifically to command an airplane that would cover the region be–

    tween the Yukon River, Alaska, and the North Pole. It was thought that the lost

    Soviet flyers might have made a landing within this area, and that some — or all

    of them — were still alive and in need of assistance.

            The Embassy now purchased the only airplane then in the United States cap–

    able of making long-distance flights — a Consolidated flying boat. Within 48

    hours, Sir Hubert's plans for the flight were complete, the pilots and radio

    operators were on hand; and in less than ten days they had flown a total of more

    than 10,000 miles. On one flight, from the north coast of Alaska almost to the

    North Pole, they were in the air 22 hours and 10 minutes. On another occasion,

    when it was necessary to reach the area of search, a thousand miles from their

    base, when the weather there promised to be clear, they took off in a howling

    gale, when visibility was limited by snow and sleet to less than 200 yards. This

    feat demonstrated the courage and skill of Herbert Hollick Kenyon, the chief pilot.

            On all their flights over the Arctic Sea, they broadcast to Levanevsky and

    listened on the wave-length he might have used to reply if he had heard their

    024      |      Vol_XV-0914                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    signals. No sound of Levanevsky's wireless was heard during the search,

    which extended over a period of five months. At the beginning of winter,

    when ice formed on the lagoon which was used for take-offs and landings, the

    flying boat was abandoned in favor of a two-engined Lockheed Electra.

            Clouds, varying winds, and the erratic behavior of their four compasses

    made Sir Hubert's job as navigator difficult (the North Magnetic Pole was dis–

    tant only about 600 miles). But they persisted in their efforts until the

    middle of March 1938, when all hope of finding the Russians and their plane

    was abandoned by the Soviet Government and the expedition was recalled. They

    had flown over and explored 170,000 square miles of the ice-covered surface of

    the Arctic Sea, of which an area of 150,000 square miles (an area about as large

    as the state of Montana) had never before been seen by human eyes. They saw

    no new land and thus made it reasonably sure that no land existed in that area

    between Alaska and the North Pole bounded by 120° and 145°W. longitude.

            Sir Hubert and his crews flew a total distance of 44,000 miles, and made

    the first winter flights by moonlight ever undertaken in the Arctic, some of

    them of 2,000 miles each wholly without daylight. They confirmed by trial what

    the students already believed from theory: That winter flying in the Arctic is

    safer than summer flying.



            Wilkins was created a Knight Bachelor by King George V in June 1928, and

    was awarded the Patron's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society. He was also

    awarded the Samuel F. B. Morse Gold Medal of the American Geographical Society

    for exceptionally distinguished work in geographical research. Sir Hubert also

    received gold medals from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and similar

    025      |      Vol_XV-0915                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. McConnell: Sir Hubert Wilkins

    organizations in Berlin, Philadelphia, Belgium, Denmark, Cuba, Argentina, and

    Peru. He was created a Companion of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus,

    of Italy, in 1931. He has been awarded medals by Norwegian and French aero–

    nautical societies, and by the International League of Aviators. Sir Hubert

    is an Honorary Member of The Explorers Club of New York City, The American

    Philosophical Society, The Poor Richard Club, the Adventures Club, The Cir–

    cumnavigators Club, and many other clubs and societies.

            During World War II and through 1948, Sir Hubert was a member of the

    Advisory Board, Military Planning Division, Research and Development Section,

    U.S. Army; in 1947-48, Consultant to the U.S. Weather Bureau, Arctic Section,

    and, in 1946, Consultant for the Office of Naval Research, U.S. Navy. In 1947,

    he was appointed Assistant to the Chairman, Board of Governors, Arctic Institute

    of North America.


    Burt M. McConnell

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