Heading for unknown

Photo by Eric Douglas/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 
As these hot summer months drag on, many Illinoisans might be thinking of cooler locales. Eighty-five years ago, an Illinoisan named Lincoln Ellsworth took this idea to the extreme when he and his co-pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon of Canada became the first men to complete a flight across Antarctica.

Lincoln Ellsworth was born into a wealthy Chicago family in 1880. His father was among the city’s leading businessmen and even built one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers. He grew up in the opulent surroundings common to the well-to-do of the Victorian era, including a Michigan Avenue home with a large library full of stories of explorers and adventurers. The young man soon discovered a hunger for adventure that extended beyond studying the exploits of others. Instead, he sought to explore those spots on the globe which had not yet been written about in his books.

He happened to come of age in an era of exploration and innovation, nowhere more so than in the field of aviation. The press was full of adventure stories about brave pilots who flew the English Channel, fought dogfights in the skies over France, and zoomed ever higher and faster. A former Illinois mail delivery pilot and part time barnstormer would even become the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927.

Lincoln Ellsworth heard the call too. He had trained as an Army pilot in World War I, and led a topographical expedition into the Amazon River and Andes Mountains of South America. Now he sought an even greater challenge.

During the early 20th century, explorers around the world set their sights on the poles, both north and south, among the least accessible points on the entire globe. Enduring the distance, harsh climate and unmapped terrain would be a true test of grit for any explorer seeking fame. An American engineer named Robert Peary led an expedition which was the first to reach the North Pole in 1909, and U.S. Navy pilot Robert Byrd was credited with being the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926. But the accuracy of both of these claims, especially Byrd’s, have been subjected to intense criticism because of the difficulties of precise navigation in the polar region.

Ellsworth had partnered with the famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in an attempt to overfly the North Pole in two planes in 1925, but the mission failed. Stranded after an emergency landing, and with no radio, the six members of the expedition were assumed to have been killed. Over the course of a month they built a runway by hand and crammed everyone aboard the one remaining serviceable airplane to fly back to their starting point. A second attempt in 1926 aboard the dirigible Norge succeeded, crossing from Spitsbergen, Norway, to Alaska.

Lincoln Ellsworth
After the crossing, Ellsworth continued to explore the Arctic, scouting parts of Labrador and flying over the Arctic islands north of Siberia on an expedition for the American Geographical Society. He even sought to reach the North Pole by submarine, but had to abandon the project.

Now he turned his sights on the opposite side of the globe. The South Pole had proved just as attractive for explorers, and just as difficult to reach. A British expedition at the turn of the century had lasted three years and reached as far as 82 degrees, 16 minutes south latitude (the pole stands at 90 degrees). A second British expedition led by Ernest Shackleton came within 112 miles of the Pole in 1909 but was driven back.

The British tried again in 1912 with the ill-fated Scott expedition, which reached the South Pole, but found a wind-blown and tattered Norwegian flag which had been left there six weeks earlier by Amundsen who had beaten them to the prize. Scott and his entire party were killed on the return trip. The brutal Antarctic conditions had proven too much to overcome for a whole series of explorers.

But Lincoln Ellsworth was determined to try. Combining the two great enthusiasms of adventurers of the era, aviation and polar exploration, he set out to become the first to pilot an aircraft all the way across Antarctica, through the hazardous weather and wind, and across thousands of miles of uncharted airspace. It would be, he believed, the greatest aviation achievement in history.

It turned into something much more.

Setting out in 1934 aboard the steamer Wyatt Earp, named for the Illinois native whose adventures had captured Ellsworth’s imagination in his youth, Ellsworth and his team reached their base camp at Dundee Island, near the Ronne Ice Shelf of northwestern Antarctica. He picked the sturdiest aircraft he could find for the harsh conditions, a Northrop 2B Gamma monoplane, made of all metal and named Polar Star.

It was no match for Antarctica. The plane was crushed by ice on its first trial flight on the continent. After repairing his aircraft, Ellsworth tried again that fall. This time he was thwarted by bad weather conditions.

“Your Polar Star has traveled farther and flown less than any other plane,” a friend said to him after the failure of the second mission.

But Ellsworth was undeterred and resolved to try again. In 1935, along with Hollick-Kenyon, Ellsworth and Polar Star at last started across the continent, lifting off at 4 a.m. on November 23. The flight was every bit as harsh as Ellsworth expected. Their first landing was so rough that it furrowed the metal of the fuselage and broke the radio. Navigation remained iffy. At one point he and Hollick-Kenyon realized they were more than 200 miles off course.

Polar Star loading on the Wyatt Earp
“Heading for unknown,” Ellsworth wrote in his journal. “Bold and rugged mountain peaks across our route lay ahead, some of which seemed to rise almost sheer to 12,000 feet as far as they eye could see. I named this range ‘Eternity Range.’”

When he crossed the 80th parallel, Ellsworth dropped an American flag from the plane, symbolically claiming the vast land beneath him for the United States.

One leg of the flight lasted only 30 minutes due to poor visibility which held on for days, but they pressed on. Another leg ended with the pair flying into a blizzard which lasted for eight days. They dug the plane out of the snow using a teacup.

Continuing on toward their goal, Admiral Byrd’s Little America camp, the plane finally ran out of fuel. They finished the expedition on foot, meeting up with the Wyatt Earp on the coast of the Bay of Whales, 2200 miles from where they had started. Along the way Ellsworth had claimed more than 350,000 square miles of the continent for the United States.

Returning home, Ellsworth was welcomed as a hero. He was honored by both Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His expedition’s path was marked by newly named geographical features such as the Ellsworth Mountains and Ellsworth Land. Polar Star survived the journey and was brought back aboard the Wyatt Earp. It was donated to the Smithsonian in 1936 and remains on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Ellsworth returned to Antarctica for another expedition in 1938-39, exploring more uncharted territory. A follow-on expedition was cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II. He never returned to the continent, so much of which he claimed for the United States.

Lincoln Ellsworth died on May 26, 1951, in New York City, where the hall of the American Museum of Natural History dedicated to Arctic and Antarctic exploration bears his name.

Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica