Aircraft model, Lockheed Vega 1, X3903, wood/metal, made by Iain Scott-Stevenson, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 2002
The use of aerial devices for exploration purposes in Antarctica began with a plan by Professor Edgeworth David to use Hargrave kites to carry meteorological instruments aloft. David had been invited to participate in the 1907 British expedition to Antarctica by Sir Ernest Shackleton and David was accompanied by two of his former students, Leo Cotton and Douglas Mawson. Although the use of the kites does not seem to have been as successful as hoped Mawson, who in 1911 was Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Adelaide, saw value in the use of aircraft and for his expedition to Antarctica that year took along a Vickers REP monoplane. Unfortunately the aircraft crashed just prior to departure and, without sufficient time to effect repairs, it was taken without wings to act as a tractor. In this role it was successful until a major failure of the engine prevented further use.
With the vast distance of the Antarctic, and the problems of overland travel to carry out surveys, aircraft were the most feasible solution. Australian, George Hubert Wilkins, the first to fly the Arctic from Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway, proved that Antarctic flights were possible and able to facilitate greater advances in surveying the territory than could be achieved on foot. He did this by using his Arctic-tried-and-true Lockheed Vega aircraft over two expeditions; 1928-29 and 1929-30.
While Wilkins was completing his aerial surveys of the Antarctic Peninsula the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, led by Sir Douglas Mawson, was using a DeHavilland Moth seaplane VH-ULD to survey the Australian Sector lying between the Ross Sea and Enderby Land.
From this time on aircraft became a required tool for Antarctic exploration and the American explorers Richard Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth used them to good effect.
Post World War II the Australian Government established its own Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions with an aim to establish permanent meteorological bases on Macquarie and Heard Islands. Aircraft again were part of the complement and a Supermarine Walrus amphibian was despatched by ship to Heard Island but violent weather conditions caused the aircraft's destruction after only one hour's flight. The Kingfisher seaplane sent to survey the King George V Land managed four hours air time before it was returned to Australia.
Despite the setback aircraft are of such utility that they are now a main means of supply of Antarctic bases and of survey.
Made for the Australian National Maritime Museum exhibition "Antarctic Heroes - Triumph and Tragedy" curated by Lindsey Shaw and Susan Sedgwick. This exhibition ran from 5th December 2002 until 4th May 2003.
This model is a representation of the Lockheed Vega 1 aircraft X3903. X3093 was the third Vega on the assembly line at Lockheed. The prototype Vega was lost in the Oakland to Hawaii Dole air race and the second Vega was used for development and demonstration work.
The Lockheed Vega was purchased by Sir George Hubert Wilkins and used by him to fly from Point Barrow, Alaska to Spitzbergen, Norway, a distance of 2,500 miles (4,023km) over the uncharted Arctic. The flight of over 20 hours, with Wilkins navigating and former US Army pilot Carl Ben Eielson flying, took place in April 1928. Later, In December 1928 Wilkins and Eielson, with sponsorship from the American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Vacuum Oil Company of Australia and assistance from the N Bugge Hektor Whaling Company of Norway, took the Vega, now named 'Los Angeles' in honour of Hearst, to Antarctica aboard the ship 'Hektoria' . Also on board the ship was a second Vega named 'San Francisco'. An experienced Arctic pilot, Joe Crosson, was employed as the second pilot.
On September 22 1928 the Wilkins-Hearst expedition sailed from New York to travel to Deception Island via Montevideo and the Falkland Islands. On November 16 1928 Eielson took the 'Los Angeles' off from Deception Island on a twenty minute flight that has the distinction of being the first aircraft flight in Antarctica. Several days later Joe Crosson flew the 'San Francsico' and on November 26 1928 both aircraft flew together. On landing the 'Los Angeles' skidded on the ice and nosed into the water, sinking up to its wings. It took eighteen hours to rescue the aircraft. Warm weather in December prevented takeoff from the dwindling bay ice so work was undertaken to create an airstrip on the island. On December 20 1928 Eielson and Wilkins in the 'San Francisco' took off to carry out an aerial survey of the Antarctic Peninsula. On the flight they had covered approximately 1,000 miles of unexplored territory. On January 10 1929 Wilkins made a second exploratory flight to confirm some of the earlier sightings. Both aircraft were then dismantled and stored at the whaling station and the expedition returned via Montevideo.
The second Wilkins-Hearst expedition returned to Deception Island in late November 1929. A number of flights were made between December 1929 and January 1930 with the final flight occurring on February 1 1930.
Sources: Wilkins, Captain George H., Flying the Arctic, (Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1929)