Going to the Antarctic in 1957 was a lot different than if you were going there today. In 1957, the United States had not achieved any of the successes in space travel that occurred in the 1960s and continued through the present time. Long range, cargo-carrying, ski-equipped aircraft did not exist and our first few years on the continent had to be taken with aircraft lacking the capabilities of today's aircraft.
In 1957 Antarctica was still a mysterious continent and if one thought of the place at all it was with a vision of endless reaches of ice and intolerable cold. Explorers had visited the continent from time to time and some had even stayed over during a winter or two, but because of their transportation limits and the paucity of their resources, their overall knowledge of the continent was limited. In actuality, the Antarctic Continent is as large as the United States and Mexico combined, so major areas of this vast continent were still unexplored as of our start in 1957 when I began my sixteen months on the Ice.
In late spring of 1957 I was just ending my second year as a helicopter flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida, when the Navy announced that flight instructor tours were being extended from two to three years. This came as a disappointment to most of us flight instructors because the job of training neophyte helicopter pilots was a dull, repetitive business. All of us longed for the excitement of sea duty and the extending of our instructing duty to three years was a real drudge. I had found myself in a situation where there were days following more days, when training maneuvers were repeated over and over again, in a seemingly endless pattern. Eventually, the faces of the students I instructed soon seemed to look the same and the mistakes they made all followed a similar pattern.
I had been looking forward to going back to sea duty, where the missions varied from day to day and there were always new challenges to be met. The prospect of being a flight instructor for another whole year was grim news. So I thought it was a godsend when the Navy announced that they were looking for a few volunteers to participate in Operation DeepFreeze II. Helicopter pilots stood high of the list of the types of volunteers needed. The only negative aspect of this announcement was that volunteers had to show they were willing to winter-over on the Antarctic Continent, increasing their stay on the Continent to as much as a year and a half. I did not relish the idea of being on isolated duty for such a lengthy period of time but I surmised that it would greatly increase my chances of being chosen for my next higher rank if I were to volunteer for wintering-over. I didn't know if this was a fact, but it did give me a boost to volunteer for the new duty.
My first step in the process of volunteering was to present the idea to my wife. "Darling! A great opportunity for an adventurous sea duty tour has arisen and I wanted to float it by you for your advice and OK, before I place my name in the hat." My wife, who always looked forward to my transfers, suddenly looked excited. First, I told her how they needed helicopter pilots for exploration of the Antarctic Continent. This got her attention because she was very interested in the advancement of my aviation career. Next, I told her that the tour on the Continent was one that would keep me away from home for about a year. This didn't set too well with her, at first, but as she thought of it more she came to realize that I wasn't getting anywhere professionally as a flight instructor and a difficult challenge, such as I would be getting as an explorer of the Antarctic Continent, might prove valuable in getting future promotions. She soon came to agree that the change in duty stations was not so bad an idea and like all good Navy wives she was soon looking forward to getting on the road again.
From the talk around the flight instructor's ready room, I gathered that several of my fellow aviators were considering applying for Operation DeepFreeze II, which might have made the selection of helicopter pilots for the program quite competitive. When I learned a few weeks later that I had been selected for the job, and none of my fellow pilots at Ellyson Field were on the same list I was quite surprised. I believe now that much of the talk I heard around the ready room was just that and no more. When it came to actually volunteering I am sure that most of them considered that the year or two spent chasing adventures was not worth the time away from family and the seagoing Navy. Looking back these many years later I feel that the time I spent in the Antarctic to have been a great developer in my flying ability and also my self-image. I was never sorry that I decided to place my name in the hat for this most marvelous adventure.
DeepFreeze I and DeepFreeze II, plus all the DeepFreeze operations that followed were joint military exercises which supported the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide effort by the scientists of the world to take a close look at the world, from one end to another, over an entire year, much like a head to toe examination of a patient by a medical doctor. The U. S. Navy was assigned logistic responsibilities for all Antarctic operations. Men, ships, aircraft and millions of tons of equipment and supplies would be applied toward searching out the far reaches of this enormous, unexplored land. Scientists and other observers would be placed at appropriate sites, so that they could study various scientific aspects of this frozen continent. These men would study the weather, the movement of ice, the geology of the land below the ice, the animals and plant life, and dozens of other characteristics of the Continent, increasing our knowledge of this almost unknown place.
When my orders arrived I was given a very short notice to quit my assignment in Pensacola, and report for Antarctic flight training at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. It did not, however, take much in the line of encouragement to get myself and my family packed and ready for the move. This all came about in the month of June 1956 and since the squadron in Rhode Island was scheduled to leave for the Ice in late August of that same summer and because of the specialized flight and survival training I would need to complete before the squadron headed south it was important that I report for duty as quickly as possible.1 & 2
My wife and our young daughter accompanied me as we departed Pensacola, bound for Air Development Squadron SIX (VX-6). We placed most of our major household goods in storage for the two years I expected to be attached to the squadron. My wife decided that she would remain with me in Rhode Island while I was preparing to leave for the Antarctic, however, once I left for the Antarctic Continent, she would move to Georgia, where she would live with her sister . Most certainly she hated to have me gone for so long but she knew that separations were a necessary part of the Navy life I had chosen. As I did on my previous tours of duty, I always kept her aware of my adventures through my letters and my photographs. In this minor way, she shared in my experiences and it made the wait for my return a bit more tolerable
Air Development Squadron SIX (VX-6), turned out to be a very "mixed bag" as compared to other Navy squadrons and I was to find that it take much getting used to. First, the squadron was made up with pilots and flight crews from all parts of the Aviation Navy. There was a large number of aircraft types needed to accomplish the Antarctic mission. There were P2V Neptunes, the R4D Skytrains, the UC-1 Otters, the HO4S Sikorsky helicopters, and R5D Skymasters. The squadron also had a UF-1 amphibious aircraft but it never flew to the Antarctic. Each of these aircraft types had a different mission and each crew had to be given a different brand of training. The squadron even had parachutists as part of our working group; also there were several Marine Corps pilots attached to the squadron. The extra long-range R5D aircraft were to be used for aerial mapping of the inner reaches of the Continent. The P2V aircraft were fast moving, ski-equipped aircraft which could carry small cargo loads and a few personnel to distant reaches of the Antarctic. The UC-1 aircraft were short-range ski-equipped aircraft which were used for supplying fuel and supplies to the Trail Party, which would come into being late in the summer. Helicopters, such as the HO4S, were to be used for rescue work, short-range cargo transfers, and aerial surveillance. Lastly, there was the R4D aircraft (now called the C-47), which was the workhorse of the squadron. Those of us who flew the R4D saw much of the Antarctic Continent from low altitude and we covered more mileage and saw more of the rugged beauty of that Continent than all the other aircraft crews put together.
I had previously been in several squadrons of the U. S. Navy and was accustomed to the various types of officers needed to fill a squadron roster. Squadron VX-6, however, proved to be a lot different than anything I had experienced before. In a search for qualified aviators for long-range Antarctic flying, pilots were selected who had accumulated thousands of hours in multi-engine aircraft and those who were selected were most often pilots who came originally from the enlisted ranks. These men were all officers, however, they made the transition to officer rank by promotion from the enlisted ranks, rather than through the usual line officer selection routes. I had worked over the years with many of these "mustang" officers and I believe that I learned a lot from them, since they were accustomed to spending long hours in the air, doing a lot of the tedious work of flying, while leaving most of the administrative work to others to accomplish. They were first and foremost riveted to the aircraft they flew and they were able to discover many of the nuances of flying that other aviators seldom managed to learn.
I was assigned to fly as copilot on one of four R4D's which were to be used for the initial South Pole landings and for the establishment of all the remote bases on the Continent. Lieutenant Commander Eddie F. was to be my Aircraft Commander so he was made responsible for my introduction to R4D flying. Eddie was the only R4D Aircraft Commander who had not come up through the enlisted ranks. I believe that this distinction led to some of Eddie's difficulties as our time on the Ice slid by, but more of this later. Once my very brief R4D flight introduction was completed I was scheduled to remain as Eddie's copilot for the entire first summer on the Ice.
The R4D's would make most of the cargo and personnel flights at the beginning of the summer, however, once operations got underway the Air Force C-124 aircraft were scheduled to deliver vast quantities of cargo which they air-dropped by parachute to remote inland bases across the Continent. The C-124 was not ski-equipped, so it was left to the R4D's and the P2V's to deliver passengers and fuel to remote campsites around the Continent when landings were required.
My assignment to an R4D flight crew came as a surprise because I had applied for the Antarctic mission as a helicopter pilot and I hadn't realized that I would be considered for anything else. I had never flown transport aircraft so it seemed strange that I should have been relegated to being a copilot in something as ancient as an R4D. Looking back now, I can see that my assignment to the R4D gave me more career versatility because for the rest of my flying career I would not be limited to helicopters and single engine aircraft. At the time, however, I was very upset knowing that I would have to assume the role of a green copilot of an R4D for a good part of my Antarctic stay. Most of my flight experience up until 1957 had been as a fighter pilot and a helicopter pilot but for the while I was scheduled to go to one of the most demanding of places on this good Earth as a green transport copilot. It just did not seem right at the time.
My helicopter experience was not to be ignored by the squadron because I was to be the only fully qualified helicopter pilot at my wintering-over station, Little America FIVE, during the long winter months to come and there would be more than enough adventure for me in a helicopter flying role when summer R4D flying on the Ice came to an end. I was scheduled to winter at the Little America Station FIVE and it was figured that I would find many helicopter flight missions when the proper time arrived.
Learning to fly the R4D (C-47 Skytrain type aircraft) did prove to be an advantage to me in later years because there was always one or more of these durable aircraft on board every naval facility where I was stationed and I seemed to be in constant demand when pilots were needed to transport personnel and cargo. The R4D was slow when compared to other aircraft of the time but it was a reliable and forgiving airplane, and one which would get us through some very poor weather flying conditions. Eventually, I became an Aircraft Commander of the R4D, but this was after I left the Antarctic, so my long range, Over-The-Ice experience was achieved mainly as a copilot, yet it was sometimes a breathtaking experience.
Shortly after I had completed my check-in at the new squadron I was sent to Jacksonville, Florida to pick up a newly overhauled and winterized HO4S Sikorsky helicopter. I had never flown this type of helicopter but it was reasoned that I could familiarize myself with it on the two day flight back to Rhode Island. This type of flight instruction was not ideal considering I would be flying the machine under supercold conditions, but since I was a high time helicopter pilot I had the advantage of experience in other types and my adaptation to this new type helicopter was completed quite rapidly. Before leaving for the Antarctic I was able to accumulate several more hours of flying in this helicopter, so when I got to fly the HO4S again on the Ice I fitted myself into the cockpit without any problems. 3, 4 & 5
After the ferry flight from Jacksonville, Florida, I was scheduled for my first training flight in the R4D. Since summer in the Antarctic happens six months later than summer in the Northern Hemisphere, I could expect to be a member of Eddie's flight crew from August 1956 through February 1957. Before leaving for the Antarctic I made nine flights in the R4D, but only four of these flights were purely for training purposes. Eddie used the two flights to demonstrate single engine and twin engine characteristics of the R4D. It was enlightening but hardly adequate as the only formal R4D flight training I received at Quonset Point before leaving for the Ice. Most of my flight experience in the R4D had to be gotten as we made our way to the Antarctic and after that, while we flew on the Continent itself. In any case Eddie didn't seem to care much about giving me a real checkout; he knew that I was not slated to become an aircraft commander in the R4D while attached to the squadron so he only showed me enough of the aircraft's capabilities to make his flying job easier. It seems that if I were to become a full fledged R4D aircraft commander I would have to do it upon some subsequent tour of duty not while in VX-6.
Surprisingly my first R4D flight turned out to be a most memorable experience. What happened should have been a harbinger of the difficulties our flight crew would face once we left for the Ice. While Eddie was a qualified Aircraft Commander with excellent knowledge of the aircraft and its flight characteristics, he often reacted poorly when things became difficult in the air. When faced with unexpected situations, he often showed poor judgment and he often did things in the cockpit which placed the aircraft and flight crew in serious jeopardy. 6
Our first flight together proved to be a good example of how Eddie reacted to emergency situations. For the first hour and a half of our first flight he demonstrated how the aircraft took off and landed, how it flew on one engine, and what steps had to be done to handle in-flight emergencies. He allowed me to handle the flight and engine controls, so I could get a "feel" of the aircraft. Then he decided to try to lower the newly installed skis, which were attached to the regular landing gear. For landing on solid surfaces of a paved runway the skis would retract above the wheels so that they would not drag on the runway during landing and takeoff. For landing on the snow, the skis would be lowered below the wheels and the aircraft would slide along the snow.
Our aircraft had just been returned from the overhaul facility in Jacksonville, Florida and something went wrong in the hydraulics controlling the lowering and raising mechanism. Once the skis were lowered they refused to retract. Our crew chief tried adding more hydraulic fluid into the system, but because of an apparent break in the lines the fluid was quickly pumped overboard and skis refused to retract. Eddie called the tower at Naval Air Station Quonset Point and informed them of our emergency situation. Eventually squadron maintenance personnel arrived in the control tower and a lengthy discussion was held over the radio about what we might do to correct the situation. After having exhausted all the in-flight attempts to raise the skis it was decided that we would have to try landing on the grass next to the runway to minimize damage to the skis and aircraft. Before landing, however, the crash crew from the station had to spread foam on the grass to "grease" our landing somewhat. Since this soapy mixture took about forty-five minutes to apply, we were instructed to circle the field and wait for a clearance to land. The foam landing should have given us a surface similar to landing on the Antarctic snow, so we should have experienced no difficulty in the landing except having to wait that forty-five minutes. That is what I thought, anyway.
During the wait, Eddie went over in great detail what each crew-member was expected to do during the landing. Eddie would tell the crew chief, when we were about to land, "OK, pour it now!" I was told to wait for a voice signal from the crew chief that he had poured the last can of hydraulic fluid into the system reservoir, at which time I was expected to pump furiously on the emergency hydraulic pump handle, which was next to my left leg. It was hoped that this would give us some wheel braking action, since a small bit of the landing wheels stuck out below the skis and this could help us come to a stop after the landing. We practiced these precautions, over and over, so things should have gone smoothly once we started our approach to a landing.
After what seemed like a lot more than forty-five minutes we were told by the control tower that the foam had been applied to the landing area and that we could start our approach. During our long wait the weather over the airfield had deteriorated greatly and when we started the downwind leg of our approach to the landing area a fast moving rain squall moved over the field and our forward visibility became very poor. Rain had started coming down quite hard. I thought that Eddie would delay his approach until the squall drifted past the field which would have taken but a few more minutes, but it appeared that his mind was set on landing right then and that was that.
About this time I noticed that Eddie had become visibly nervous and excited as we started our turn to the landing area. Still I thought he had himself in control, non-the-less. As the aircraft turned into the wind we entered the rain cloud and the details of the airfield ahead of us became very difficult to distinguish, however, Eddie continued his approach, flying partly on instruments and partly by visual means. As we got low and crossed the field boundary, the visibility improved somewhat and I could see that we were not lined up with the foamed grass area. It was here that I could see that Eddie was definitely rattled. He was sweating profusely and his movements were rough and uncoordinated.
Since we were not lined up with the foamed landing area, but aimed at a group of spectators who had gathered to observe our landing, I expected that Eddie would add engine power and make another try at approaching the field. Instead, he continued his approach, as though he was committed to landing on that approach. No matter what happened he was determined to land. Seeing that our flight path took us directly at the spectators they immediately started running to get out of the way. Still Eddie would not take a wave-off. Eddie called for the crew chief to pour his last can of hydraulic fluid.
There was another factor which made our approach dangerous, and that was our excessive speed. Eddie did not make enough engine power corrections as we turned on the final approach and so we had far too much speed for a normal landing. We touched down hard on the wet grass but the skis did not dig in as I had expected. Maybe the wet grass made our landing smoother than what it would have been on dry grass. Still, we were going rather fast over the ground and ahead I could see a hill and for a few moments it appeared that we would not stop before we crashed into it.
The crew chief announced over the intercom radio that he had just finished pouring the can of hydraulic fluid and as I had been directed in our pre-landing practice, I started pumping away at the emergency hydraulic hand pump. At the last moment, as though by magic, the brakes seemed to take hold and we stopped just short of the hill we had seemed destined to crash against. Though the skis were down there was still enough of the tires protruding below the skis to give us some braking action and my hand pumping on the emergency hydraulic pump took effect. That was all that kept us from becoming another aircraft accident statistic.
The next half hour or so was both joyful and hectic. Everyone on the field was happy that we and the aircraft has survived without damage or injury, yet those who had to run to escape our ill-planned approach were less than kind to Eddie. From that day on he was the object of criticism from his fellow officers, especially the ex-enlisted pilots, and if they could have convinced the Commanding Officer of the squadron of his flying deficiencies they would have had him grounded for life. Whenever Eddie pulled one of his characteristic flight boners we came close to becoming an accident statistic, but the Good Lord was kind to us and we made it through despite Eddie's tendency to panic in tense situations.
Eddie and I were always good friends and we shared many good times together, so I do not wish to infer that we were at odds with each other. During normal times Eddie was an excellent pilot and I learned a lot about flying the R4D from him in spite of his faults. It was only these occasional, panicky moments in the air when Eddie showed he could not take pressure well, that his flying became dangerous. Some aviators are that way and most compensate for their condition by avoiding dangerous flying situations. Eddie was the exception; he picked a very dangerous flying mission when he volunteered to go to the Antarctic and he exposed himself, and his flight crew, to several situations which he could not handle satisfactorily.
- Antarctica contains 5,000,000 square miles of mostly ice covered land and mountains. The South Pole is on a plateau 10,000 feet above sea level. The average height of the continental plateau is 8,000 feet. The lowest temperature recorded was around minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no trees and very few plants. Valuable ores and oil have been discovered but are too remote to be collected.