Monday, 4 January 2010

Douglas Mawson and the Antarctic's first plane

One of Britain's earliest aircraft has been discovered buried in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. The plane - the first off the Vickers production line in Britain - was built in 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers executed the first powered flight. It was taken to Antarctica by Douglas Mawson, the Australian explorer, but abandoned in 1914.

Mawson had hoped to stage the first flight over the Antarctic ice cap, but the plane crashed on the Australian mainland before he set sail. It was badly damaged but he decided to take the now wingless plane anyway and use it as an "air tractor" - keeping the propeller and guiding it by using a specially made tail rudder and skis - to pull his sledges while he was exploring.

A carpenter from the Mawson's Huts Foundation, a charity devoted to maintaining the buildings constructed in the Antarctic by Mawson's expeditions, spotted the remains of the plane among the rocks on at Cape Denison, on January 1. Low tides, prompted by a blue moon, the second full moon in a calendar month, and unprecedented melting ice led to its discovery.

Considered one of the great polar explorers, Mawson joined Ernest Shackleton's 'Farthest South' Nimrod expedition of 1907-09 as a scientist, being part of the team that climbed Mount Erebus and reached the Magnetic South Pole.

It was an expedition that set out in November 1912 to map part of the Antarctic coastline though, for which Mawson will probably be best remembered. After Lieutenant Ninnis, one of the three-man team, disappeared into a massive crevasse, along with six dogs and most of the supplies, the remaining two turned back. Resorting to eating the remaining huskies to survive, Dr Xavier Mertz then fell ill and died, probably due to poisonous levels of vitamin A from the dogs's livers. Mawson, while also in a dreadful state, eventually managed to make it back to base - only to see the ship that should have carried him to safety already out to sea. He finally managed to leave Antarctica and Those Who Dared includes an interview with the Australian when he visited London in May 1914.

More on Douglas Mawson can be found here.

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