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Taking it to the edge: South Australia's polar pioneers: Wilkins

Apprentice years

'Through a study of world meteorology we can hope to provide information of extreme value to primary producers and so help feed the ever increasing population of the world.'
Wilkins, G. H. Flying the Arctic New York, London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928 page vi

On 17 March 1959 the United States atomic submarine Skate surfaced at the North Pole. There with full ceremony the men and officers honoured the memory of South Australia's forgotten son, and scattered his ashes over the polar regions which he had conquered by land and air, and had led the way in its final conquest by sea. Sir Hubert Wilkins had come to rest in his spiritual home. His widow's ashes would join his 16 years later, also courtesy of the United States Navy.

Hubert Wilkins was born on 31 October 1888 at Mount Bryan, one of 13 children. Devastating drought ruined his family, rain coming too late to save the stock. It was these extreme weather conditions that gave Wilkins the incentive to study and to conceive the idea for his future explorations and a worldwide study of meteorological conditions. Even as a young man he seemed to realise the importance of the study of weather, including the significance of the polar regions.

He studied engineering at the South Australian School of Mines and later photography and cinematography. He moved to Sydney to further his photographic career, and sometime in late 1911 or early 1912 he sailed for England to take up an offer from Gaumont Studios. Here he also learnt to fly, again discovering a need for detailed information about the weather. He combined his talents as photographer and aviator and experimented with aerial photography later becoming a war correspondent in the Balkan War.

In 1913 he was invited to join Vilhjalmur Stefansson's Canadian Arctic expedition. This gave Wilkins the opportunity to hone his scientific knowledge, to learn the survival skills of the Inuit people and to formulate his plans for improving weather forecasting. He was also to see at firsthand areas of the ice that would be ideal landing fields.

War service

Belatedly Stefansson's expedition heard of the Great War and in May 1917 Wilkins was commissioned in the Australian Air Force, and appointed official photographer. He would be awarded the Military Cross, and later added a Bar for his part in saving wounded men. He worked at one stage with Frank Hurley - another notable war correspondent, Antarctic explorer and a fellow Australian.

Following the Armistice, Wilkins' camera skills were still needed at the Peace Conference. He joined the Lighter-than-Air Command and learned to navigate airships. He envisaged the role of airships in meteorological research - a vision ahead of its time. He drafted a proposal for a worldwide network of weather stations; he laid his plans for future expeditions by aircraft and submarine. His plans were always ahead of the technology. 

War service over, Wilkins's first trip to the Antarctic was in 1920 as a member of JL Cope's British Imperial Antarctic Expedition. Lack of support caused the abandonment of the main objectives of this expedition, but about 30 miles of the previously uncharted coast of Graham Land was surveyed.  Wilkins now began planning his own Antarctic expedition, but abandoned this when invited by Shackleton to join his expedition in the Quest. Wilkins had gone ahead of the main party when the Quest had to undergo repairs in Rio. He spent six weeks on South Georgia collecting specimens. He rejoined the Quest as it tried to carry out Shackleton's plans; he had died after reaching South Georgia. Wilkins discovered a new variety of seabird, subsequently named for him - Wilkins bunting, a new finch and a species of tree found only in South America and New Zealand. His collections were given to the British Museum and kept that institution busy for years.  It also drew this very able scientist to the attention of that institution and they would later ask him to lead a collecting expedition in Australia.  However never far from Wilkins' thoughts were his plans for a global weather monitoring system.  While writing up his reports from the Quest expedition he prepared a paper for presentation to the Royal Meteorological Society. This called for a globe encompassing 44 observation stations in the Arctic and Antarctic and which would utilise radio technology to transmit daily reports; as planned he estimated it would cost about £2 million. The Royal Meteorological Society appointed a sub committee to investigate Wilkins' paper. This was 1923 - his vision would not be put in place for another 28 years with the establishment of the World Meteorological Organization. 

Undiscovered Australia

'We found the hills more barren and more destitute of game than the coastal areas. The longer we hunted and the more reports we heard, the greater was the evidence that Australian native life is rare in many places and extinct in parts.'
Wilkins, G H Undiscovered Australia ... London: E. Benn, 1928 page 64

In 1923 the British Museum asked Wilkins to lead an expedition to tropical Australia to collect specimens of the rarer native fauna. The collections included plants, birds, insect, fish, minerals and Aboriginal artefacts, as well as mammals. The expedition lasted over 2 years and highlighted the quality of Wilkins's work. Warmly welcomed in Brisbane in April 1923 by the end of his expedition and the publication of his account of it, Undiscovered Australia, he became unwelcome in his homeland. His countrymen did not want to be told how their incursions into the bush were destroying it and the animals; the farmers did not want to be told how their own practices on the land were destroying their livelihood; and the politicians and authorities did not want anyone to be told about conditions of the Aboriginal people. 

Next he began in 1926 a series of Arctic flights between Alaska and the North Pole. Wilkins was searching for land in the frozen sea for a permanent meteorological observatory. He was also seeking to prove a theory he had developed on Stefansson's expedition in 1913-16 - that there were frequent stretches of level ice within the polar pack that would support a plane landing on skis.

Arctic flights

'Each snow drift and ice ridge had a story to tell.'
Wilkins, G. H. Flying the Arctic New York, London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928 page 274

The importance of Arctic flights was growing as the shortest distance between many countries was across the Arctic. Wilkins's initial flights with Carl Ben Eielson proved that there was no land for 500 miles northwest of Alaska, nor a prospect of islands a short way beyond it, as they sounded depths of 16,000 feet. They did prove that landings were possible in the icepack - they made three - all in varying degrees of visibility. At one stage Wilkins and Eielson were forced to abandon their plane and walk out. They did so using the Inuit survival skills that Wilkins had acquired during the Stefansson expedition.

Finally in 1928 after extensive investigation of Arctic conditions Wilkins and Eielson took off on their great adventure - the successful flight across the Arctic from Point Barrow, Alaska to Spitsbergen (Svaalbad), Norway. Despite difficulties at take off - broken skis and a need to lengthen the runway, they were away on April 15. Eielson's navigational skills saw them through and after 20 hours flying they landed, in thick drifting snow, somewhere (they hoped) near Spitsbergen. For four days they were stormbound, later discovering they were within a short flight of their destination.

Wilkins was knighted for this pioneering flight and received the medals of both the Royal Geographical and the American Geographical Societies.  In New York he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade. It was as part of the celebrations in New York that Wilkins met Suzanne Bennett.  She was an Australian actress making her way on Broadway. For the welcoming party all that mattered was that she was pretty and Australian. Love would bloom and would endure the long separations of the years ahead.

First flight in the Antarctic

In November 1928 Wilkins was in the Antarctic, undertaking the first aerial exploration of that largely unknown continent. The Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition was sponsored by the American Geographical Society. Accompanying Wilkins was Eielson and two other pilots experienced in Arctic conditions. Wilkins also took the Lockheed Vega monoplane he had used on the successful Arctic flight, and another identical aircraft.

Unusually light ice conditions in the Antarctic in 1928 disrupted Wilkins's plans and he was compelled to maintain his base at Deception Island, at the northern tip of Graham Land. On November 16, 1928 the first flight ever was made in the Antarctic. With the unusually mild conditions, Wilkins drastically altered his plans and on December 20 he flew south in a plane burdened with a maximum load of fuel and the pilot and navigator carrying 30 days of emergency rations and survival equipment in their packs. In a 10 hour flight Wilkins sighted several channels dividing Graham Land in two - these were named Crane Channel and Casey Channel. Further south again another large channel was seen further dividing Graham Land from the mainland - Stefansson Channel. They flew to 71° 20′S at longitude 64° 15′W, before having to return. Wilkins recorded in his diary that "we are now quite certain that Graham Land is not connected with the mainland continent." A second flight on January 10 confirmed the observations of the first flight. A report in The Times of December 21, 1928 said that Wilkins's discoveries were perhaps the most important in the Antarctic since Shackleton's discovery and ascent of the Beardmore Glacier to the Antarctic Plateau.

HR Mill of the Royal Geographical Society and a noted Antarctic historian wrote that "it would be too much to claim that the two flights made from Deception Island have solved any of the great Antarctic problems that have been puzzling explorers for generations - but they have done more to suggest possible solutions and to point the way to future investigations." Mill went on to write that it would take years of laborious work on land and sea or months of systematic aerial surveys to test and verify or correct the interesting outline presented by Wilkins, but that it was nevertheless a "magnificent pioneer performance."

These discoveries would later be disproved by the aerial surveys and accompanying coastal and land surveys undertaken by John Rymill in the Graham Land Expedition of 1934-5.

Later work

Wilkins was not finished with the Antarctic. He returned in 1930; plagued by poor weather he still managed several flights and determined that Charcot Land was in fact an island. In four expeditions with Lincoln Ellsworth between 1933/34 and 1938/39 he acted as air adviser. Between these ventures Wilkins also attempted to take a submarine beneath the North Pole in 1931, but mechanical failure prevented this advanced idea. He reached 82° 15′N before returning. He did however live to hear of the under-ice voyages of USS Skate and USS Nautilus in August 1958.

Wilkins' led an aerial search to find a missing Russian Tupolev bomber, with a crew of six, who were attempting a flight from Moscow to New York. Over the autumn and winter of 1937/38 Wilkins flew 70,000 kilometres in almost continuously bad weather. Much of the time they were flying by moonlight. The flights were feats of endurance and nerve. Despite all the efforts of Wilkins and his pilot, no trace was ever found of the missing Russian plane. Wilkins received high honours from the Soviet Union, but this was no comfort.

Rejected by the British and Australian governments at the outbreak of the Second World War, on account of his age, Wilkins became involved with the American war effort, and from 1942 was a consultant for the United States Army on conditions of extreme cold.

All his life Wilkins was driven by his conviction about the necessity for a world-wide meteorological organization. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical and the Royal Meteorological Societies, and in 1955 was granted an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Alaska.

His pioneering efforts in aviation, aerial photography, and Arctic and Antarctic exploration place Wilkins in the forefront of Australian explorers. As always, he was years in advance of the technical capabilities of the time, and in the thinking of other men. He lived his dreams waking, in pursuit of knowledge and an answer to the problem of weather. 

Reading list:

Wilkins, G. H. Flying the  Arctic New York, London, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928

Wilkins, G. H. Undiscovered Australia: being an account of an expedition to tropical Australia to collect specimens of the rarer native fauna for the British Museum, 1923-1925 London: E. Benn, 1928

Nasht, Simon The last explorer: Hubert Wilkins Australia's unknown hero Sydney: Hodder Australia, 2005


Explorer in many fields
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Ford van used by GH Wilkins in Australia
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GH Wilkins returning to camp with a specimen
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Lockheed Vega back from the Arctic
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Lurabee Channel as seen by Wilkins
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Map of Graham Land 1928
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Sudden death of explorer
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Wilkins' Lockheed Vega monoplane
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