Antarctica’s first aeroplane

The Air-tractor, c1912 / photographed by Frank Hurley (State Library of NSW, Item No. ON 144/H475)

Freed from an icy grave after almost a century, parts of the first aircraft taken to Antarctica—also the very first aircraft produced by Britain’s Vickers factory—have been located in Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay.

Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson had planned to conduct an aerial survey as part of his 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, but the plan was scuttled when the aircraft’s wings were damaged in an October 1911 demonstration flight.  Mawson had no time to repair the aircraft prior to departure, so he ordered his electrical engineer/motor expert, Francis H. Bickerton, to remove the wings and convert it into an “air-tractor”—essentially a propeller-powered sled—to haul supplies.  After hauling gear across a plateau for sixteen kilometres, the engine could not cope with the extreme cold and quit.  The aircraft was eventually hauled back to the encampment and abandoned.  When Mawson returned to Australia, the engine was returned to Vickers in the UK to help pay down debts; the rest of the fuselage frame was left behind at Cape Denison, and was visible up to the mid-1970s when it was presumed to have been swallowed by the ice.

The aircraft was found on New Year’s Day by a team of Australians dedicated to preserving the site of Mawson’s first Antarctic encampment.

AN HISTORIC monoplane – a relic of Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-14 expedition – has been found in Antarctica thanks to freakish luck after a three-year search.

An Australian heritage carpenter stumbled on the remains of the craft – the first Vickers aircraft ever made – on New Year’s Day at Cape Denison.

The cast iron framework of the plane was revealed by an unusually low tide and reduced ice cover.

“It’s a remarkable find in remarkable circumstances,” chairman of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation David Jensen said.

“We began the search three summers ago and thought we might have a reasonable chance of finding it with all the equipment provided to us by sponsors.”

Nearly a century after it was abandoned by Mawson, the old Vickers was spotted sitting among rocks in a few centimetres of water during one of the lowest tides recorded at Commonwealth Bay.

“They would not have been found had the tide not been so low and the ice cover at Cape Denison at its lowest for several years – it was a fluke find,” Mr Jensen said in a statement.

— “Sir Douglas Mawson’s monoplane found.” Australian Associated Press / Adelaide Now, 3 January 2010. [Emphasis in original]

Mawson's Vickers REP monoplane No. 1, before the accident that ended her flying career.

The Vickers REP monoplane was designed in France by Robert Esnault-Pelterie (hence REP), but built by Vickers in Britain.

There is also a slight Canadian connection, since the Oxford-born engineer Bickerton made his home in Newfoundland during the Roating Twenties.  He is reported to have travelled between that colony and Britain quite frequently, easily shifting gears between the lifestyles of a New World outdoorsman and a fashionable London partygoer and man-about-town.

For more information on the finding of the aircraft—and the current state of the Mawson huts in general—the Expedition Blog of the Mawson’s Hut Foundation is probably the best source (especially these posts; 1, 2).

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