|I don’t know about you, but I love old airplanes. In fact, I have had the privilege of flying many interesting older aircraft including a P51 Mustang, a Piper J-3 Cub and a Douglas DC-3. While I am type rated in jets, these aircraft are far more fun and interesting to fly!
One of the more interesting periods in aviation was from the end of World War I to the start of World War II. During this time countless advances in aviation were made, many expeditions undertaken, and numerous records were set.
One such story follows.
Northrop 2B Gamma Polar Star
On November 23, 1935, explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, took off in the Polar Star from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea and headed across Antarctica to Little America.
This was not the first time that Ellsworth had attempted a transantarctic flight in the Polar Star.
Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered and the only one that was mapped entirely from the air. Aerial explorers from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Norway, Canada, and France can be credited with this feat, and Lincoln Ellsworth was one of the most tenacious of these explorers.
Ellsworth, a World War I pilot, was the son of a Chicago millionaire coal mine owner. He went on his first polar expedition in 1925 with the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In May 1929, Ellsworth, Amundsen, and Italian dirigible pilot Umberto Nobile made the first transpolar flight in history, from Spitzbergen, Norway, to Alaska, in the airship Norge. It was Ellsworth’s use of the airplane for exploration, rather than his skills as a pilot, that earned him his place in aviation history.
Ellsworth first took the Polar Star to the Antarctic in 1934. Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Australian polar explorer, went along as advisor, and the Polar Star’s pilot was Bernt Balchen. The expedition reached the Bay of Whales by ship on January 6,1934, and Ellsworth intended to make a round-trip flight with Balchen between the Bay of Whales and the Weddell Sea.
However, the 15-foot-thick ice on which the Polar Star was standing broke apart and one of the skis slipped through a crack. The aircraft was almost lost, but after long hours of work it was recovered and put back on the ship to be returned to the United States for repairs.
Ellsworth and the expedition went back to Antarctica in September. October and November were considered the best months for flying there, and this time Ellsworth planned to fly from Deception Island to the head of the Weddell Sea.
However, before any flight could be made, the Polar Star had to be shipped to Magellanes, Chile, for repairs to a broken connecting rod, and by the time the aircraft returned to Deception Island, snow conditions made it impossible to use the runway. The expedition then tried Snow Hill Island on Antarctica’s east coast.
On January 3, 1935, Ellsworth and Balchen made a successful flight to Graham Land, but clouds and snow forced them to return to Snow Hill Island after several hours.
That November. Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon finally succeeded in flying the Polar Star across Antarctica. After their takeoff on the 23rd, they flew at an altitude of 13,400 feet; on crossing the 12,000-foot peaks of the Eternity Range, they became the first men to visit western Antarctica. Ellsworth named a portion of that area James W. Ellsworth Land in honor of his father.
The Polar Star made four landings during its flight across the Antarctic. After a blizzard that occurred during the night at the third camp, the inside of the plane was packed solid with drifted snow. The two explorers spent a whole day scooping out the dry, powdery snow with a teacup.
On December 5, Fuel exhaustion forced them to land 40 kilometers (25 miles) short of their goal on December 5, and they walked for six days to reach their destination. They settled in the camp abandoned by Richard E. Byrd several years earlier.
The British Research Society ship Discovery II sighted them on January 15, 1936. Hollick-Kenyon later returned to recover the Polar Star. The total distance flown by the Polar Starbefore its forced landing was about 2,400 miles. The U.S. Congress voted Ellsworth a special gold medal for his Antarctic exploration and “for claiming on behalf of the United States approximately 350,000 square miles of land in the Antarctic representing the last unclaimed territory in the world.”
The Polar Star was one of two Northrop Gammas that were the first aircraft produced in 1933 by the newly established Northrop Corporation of Inglewood, California. The Gamma is a low-wing, all-metal cantilever monoplane with a 710-hp 9-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine. The one built for Ellsworth had
two seats in tandem with dual controls. The other of these first two Gammas was built for Frank Hawks, who at the time was a pilot for Texaco. Hawks’s Gamma was a single seat model. On June 2,1933, Hawks set a west-east nonstop record in his Gamma, flying from Los Angeles to Floyd Bennett Field, New York, in 13
hours, 26 minutes, 15 seconds.
In April 1936, Lincoln Ellsworth donated the Polar Star to the Smithsonian.