Article: 1935 Antarctic Flight

  • Image of Polar Star aircraft in flight, a Northrop Gamma

    Spring, 2011, Altitude

    Herbert Hollick-Kenyon aborted two flights and barely avoided being grounded by Lincoln Ellsworth

    In early December 1935, two men flew over the last unexplored area on earth – the Antarctic – one of them was the American world-famous explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and the other was Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, a Canadian Airways Ltd. pilot based in Winnipeg.

    Hollick-Kenyon died at age 78 in 1975 in Vancouver, a year after his induction into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. A notice on his death in the Winnipeg Tribune said he: “achieved international fame for his historic 2,200-mile expedition over the Antarctic in 1935.” The news item also reported he “spent more than 14,000 hours in the air in 45 types of aircraft, was employed with Trans-Canada Airlines in 1930, and Canadian Pacific Airlines in 1942. He became head of CP Air’s pilot training program and retired in 1967.”

    Hollick-Kenyon was born in England and emigrated to British Columbia as a youth. He joined the Canadian Army and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, where he learned to fly. When the war ended, he continued as an instructor. In 1928, he joined Canadian Airways. Hollick-Kenyon played a leading role in searches for missing adventurers – the marooned 1929 MacAlpine expedition and the 1937 search for Sigmund Levanevsky who was lost on a trans-polar flight.

    It was, however, Hollick-Kenyon’s role as lead pilot on the 1935 Ellsworth Antarctic expedition that landed him on the world stage. Hollick-Kenyon and expedition leader Lincoln Ellsworth were the first to fly over the Antarctic, an accomplishment not repeated until 1956.

    How did a relatively unknown Canadian Airways pilot from Winnipeg get chosen to be one of two pilots Ellsworth recruited to his Antarctic expedition? The other pilot Ellsworth invited to join his team was J.H. Lymburner, also a Canadian Airways pilot and one of the pilots of CF-AUJ, the unique Fairchild Super 71 now on display in the museum.

    A feature article in the October 10, 1964 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, by Edward R. Green explains that the 1935 Antarctic expedition was Ellsworth’s third attempt to fly across that continent. Ellsworth’s lead pilot on his first two attempts was Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian who spent several months in Manitoba in 1927 airlifting supplies to Churchill in support of the northern railway project. It appears that Ellsworth and Balchen had a falling out because the Free Press article says Balchen: “did not always accept Ellsworth’s wishes regarding flight plans.” Balchen, who at the time had the reputation as the world’s best cold-weather pilot, wanted Ellsworth to recruit three pilots for the expedition. Balchen also thought Ellsworth’s plans were too dangerous and is quoted in one account as saying “Ellsworth can commit suicide if he wants, but he can’t take me with him.”

    After advertising and making extensive enquiries, Ellsworth narrowed his choice to two names with outstanding reputations – Hollick-Kenyon and Lymburner. Ellsworth originally planned to appoint one pilot for the expedition, but ultimately decided to sign both. Among other qualifications, both pilots had experience in the “specialized art” of starting airplane engines in cold weather.

    The aircraft for Ellsworth’s third attempt to fly across the Antarctic was the Northrop Gamma, the first plane to be built by the newly formed Northup Corporation of California. It was an all-metal, low-wing monoplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney 600 hp radial engine. Its top speed was rated at 230 mph with a cruising radius of 7,000 miles fully fuelled.

    Ellsworth and his team sailed to Dundee Island opposite the tip of South America in late 1935. By November 18, the Polar Star was re-assembled, test-flown and ready.

    On November 21, with full fuel tanks and three months of emergency rations, Hollick-Kenyon lifted the Polar Star’s 7,600 pounds into the air. Ninety minutes later, Hollick-Kenyon told Ellsworth that it was necessary to abort the flight because the glass fuel flow gauge was cracked and likely to burst. They took off the next day, and again aborted the flight, this time due to bad weather.

    By this time, according to Green in his Free Press article, a very impatient Ellsworth was second-guessing his choice of Hollick-Kenyon and seriously considered taking Lymburner instead. According to Green, Hollick-Kenyon went to see Ellsworth and said, “I understand that you would prefer Lymburner on your next flight. That’s quite all right with me.” In the ensuing conversation, Ellsworth realized that Hollick-Kenyon was, according to Green’s article, “no glory-or-death boy, but a highly competent man hired to do an exacting job, and in turning back he had used excellent judgement.”

    On November 23, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon took off for the third time. After several hours they lost radio contact with their base and landed after flying 13 hours.

    They resumed their journey 19 hours later, but only for another 30 minutes when the weather forced them to land, stranding them for the next three days.

    In the afternoon of November 27, Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon took off but weather forced them to land after 50 minutes. Another blizzard grounded them a further three days. They were, however, able to determine that they were about 500 miles short of their goal.

    When the storm ended, it took three days to dig out the Polar Star. The engine fired up in the afternoon of December 3, but they did not take off because still another storm moved in. Able to fly the next day, they were airborne for about four hours and landed a fourth time to check their position and fuel supply. They took off for the last time only to land an hour later when Polar Star’s engine sputtered and died – they were out of fuel.

    Dead reckoning told them they were close to their destination, Little America. But, they didn’t know in which direction. It took another 11 days, until December 15, for Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon to get their bearings and travel the remaining distance, which turned out to be a mere 16 miles. They then waited for rescue and were sighted by the British Research Society ship Discovery II on January 15, 1936.

    Ellsworth returned to Australia while Hollick-Kenyon remained behind to assist with the recovery of the Polar Star, which was refuelled and flown to the nearby coast and loaded onto the Ellsworth expedition ship, the Wyatt Earp, and transported to New York, where it arrived in April 1936.

    Ellsworth promptly donated the Polar Star to the Smithsonian Institution and proposed that he and Hollick-Kenyon fly it to Washington. However, an aircraft inspector nixed the plan when he discovered deficiencies and refused an airworthiness certificate. Ellsworth protested and, in the end, Hollick-Kenyon took the Polar Star, solo, to its final destination.

    Although many international honours were showered on Ellsworth in the wake of the Antarctic adventure, Hollick-Kenyon was not entirely forgotten – one of his many honours was a knighthood, becoming Sir Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, an honour he disliked. Green reports in his Free Press article that Hollick-Kenyon returned to more prosaic flying assignments in Canada, first as a pilot for Trans-Canada Airlines. In 1942, he joined Canadian Pacific Airlines becoming its first chief pilot. He retired in 1962 and was named to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973. It was also reported that at one point Hollick-Kenyon also operated a motel in British Columbia where few, if any, travellers knew of his adventures.

    The 1935 Antarctic flight, a 2,150-mile trek across totally unknown territory, was a daring adventure by any measure. Anything beyond an hour of flying put Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon beyond any hope of rescue. To the extent that there was a rescue plan it consisted of a directive to look for them along the coastline in the vicinity of their destination, Little America, and to continue the search for a set period of time. After their last landing, it took more than a month for Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon to be found. Navigation depended on accurate sextant readings, something which eluded the pair until they discovered a loose adjusting screw in their instrument. Any of the blizzards they encountered could have grounded them permanently.

    The combined achievement of Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon is properly recorded as one of the greatest flights in early aviation history.

    Image of portrait of Herbert Hollick-Kenyon

    Photo (above): After his trans-Antarctic adventure, Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, shown here in an 1928 photo, basked in the limelight with his famous employer, Lincoln Ellsworth. One of Hollick-Kenyon’s many honours included a knighthood, an honour he avoided acknowledging. After Antarctica, Hollick-Kenyon returned to Canada to fly for Trans-Canada Airlines until 1942 when he joined Canadian Pacific Airlines and later became its first chief pilot. He retired in 1962 and was named to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973.
    Photo (top): Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon and American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth flew across Antarctica in 1935 in the Polar Star, a Northrop Gamma aircraft. It was an all-metal, low-wing monoplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney 600 hp radial engine. Its top speed was rated at 230 mph with a cruising radius of 7,000 miles fully fuelled. Their flight, a 2,150-mile trek across totally unknown territory, was a daring adventure by any measure because any mishap or mechanical problem put Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon beyond any hope of rescue. At one point a blizzard grounded them for three days and it took another three days to dig out the aircraft; that they were able to do this and then start the engine was an amazing outcome. The Polar Star’s location and pilot in this photo are unidentified.
    Sources:
    • Green, Edward R., A Manitoban in Antarctica, an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, October 10, 1964.
    • Lincoln Elsworth, a chapter published on the website of South-Pole.com, a site dedicated to the explorers polar regions.
    • Mills, William J, Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2003.
    This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2011 edition of Altitude magazine.

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