Detroit's expedition to the Arctic

By Vivian M. Baulch and Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News 

In the 1920s the uncharted Arctic Region was one of the last unexplored areas of the world, an irresistable lure to explorers and adventurers. To Australian explorer and aviator George Hubert Wilkins, the call was so great he proposed an air expedition to the Arctic to determine if there was a continent lying under the mass of ice and snow.

Wilkins had already spent nearly half of his life traveling to the far reaches of the globe. A trip over the North Pole was a venture he could not pass up. His plan called for flying from Pt. Barrow, Alaska, across the polar sea to Spitzbergen, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean north of Norway.

Wilkins was born October 31,1888, on an Australian sheep ranch, the youngest of 13 children. He studied engineering at the University of Adelaide, and took up photography as a means of seeing the world.

Sir Hubert was a handsome, dashing man with a pleasant laugh and a keen sense of humor. A super salesman, he easily obtained backing for his expeditions. He attributed his great interest in the polar regions to a search for more knowledge about weather conditions. This interest gripped him when, as a boy, four years of drought in Australia ruined his family’s ranch.

In 1913-16 Wilkins had partnered with fellow explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson in an expedition to the Arctic, which was feared lost for three cold years. They finally emerged to find the world had gone mad with war. Wilkins joined the Australian Flying Corps and went to the Western Front, where he was wounded nine times, won the military cross and came out of the war a captain.

Explorer George Hubert Wilkins

After the war, he tried to win a $50,000 prize offered for the first flight from England to Australia. He failed when his plane cracked up against the wall of a Turkish harem.

He was second in command of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition of 1921 and he was with Sir Ernest Shackleton when the latter died in Antarctica.

Wilkins was determined to use an airplane in polar exploration. He saw no sense in the slow, heart-breaking struggle over the rough, icy wastes when a plane in a single day could travel a distance equal to two years of sledging.

The Detroit Aviation Society, a group which included Edsel Ford, shared Wilkins’ dream. Captivated by the promise of airplanes, the group wished in 1926 to sponsor the first transarctic flight to proclaim to the world that Detroit starred not only as the center of the successful automobile industry but also as a center of the daring young aeronautics industry.

Wilkins came to Detroit in 1925 hoping to find financial backing for his expedition. He quickly got it, not only from the Detroit Aviation Society, but from The Detroit News and thousands of young readers, who chipped in with their pennies, thrilled at the chance to be part of such an adventure. Now that he had the money, Wilkins began outfitting his expedition, buying supplies and airplanes.

When it came time for the expedition to leave for the Arctic the following year, Detroit gave Wilkins and his team a big send-off. The mayor and a band escorted Wilkins to the Michigan Central train station. Thousands of cheering people lined the streets. Palmer Hutchinson, a special correspondent for The Detroit News, accompanied Wilkins and his pilot, Carl Ben Eielson. Hutchinson was to relay accounts of the expedition to Detroit News readers and the world.

Despite careful preparation, misfortune and tragedy dogged the journey. A team of 68 huskies left Fairbanks, Alaska, to take supplies overland to the send-off area at Pt. Barrow, but only 15 dogs survived the arduous trip. Reporter Hutchinson was killed when he climbed out of a plane in a blinding snow to free a wheel stuck in the ice and was struck by the airplane’s propeller.

One of the planes hit a stump and was destroyed and another proved too heavy to fly across the arctic range. The doomed expedition came to a halt.

Wilkins returned to Detroit as a hero, visiting city schools to share pictures and accounts of the trip with the children who had helped finance it.

Detroit News reporter Palmer Hutchinson was killed when he was struck by the plane’s propeller in a blinding snowstorm.

In 1927 The Detroit News decided to finance a new adventure in the Arctic — the Detroit News-Wilkins Artic Expedition — which included A.M. Smith, a Detroit News writer whose job it was to send back stories.

This second venture also met with failure when a blizzard forced the plane down in the Polar Sea on an ice pack 100 miles from land. This was the first such landing and the team feared the plane, a Stimson-Detroit biplane, might not restart in such harsh conditions so they kept the engine running.

Wilkins tried to take soundings to determine the depth of the ice pack but the motor made too much noise.

“Turn the motor off,” he shouted to pilot Eielson who smiled and turned off the switch.

Later, after computing that the ice was three miles thick, Wilkins asked Eielson, “What were you thinking?” when he turned off the motor.

“I was thinking that if this motor doesn’t start again,” said Eielson, “only you and I and God are going to know that depth.”

The motor did restart and the plane reached land, but the storm forced them to use up all their fuel. Wilkins and his pilot walked 70 miles to an Eskimo village. Their long, three week trek had caused many to presume them dead.

Wilkins inspects his plane prior to the 1928 expedition.

Their walk with 80-pound packs on their backs remains one of the greatest feats in Arctic history. They stumbled, tumbled, crawled over high ridges, they spread-eagled across thin ice. Wilkins went into some water to his armpits with the temperature 40 below. They made snow houses each night and attempted to melt the frost and dry the water out of their clothes. Eielson lost a finger from frostbite, but they survived.

A third try that Wilkins financed himself proved to be the lucky charm. In April 1928, Wilkins and Eielson finally flew over the polar sea, landing successfully in Spitzbergen. Later that year Wilkins was knighted by Britain’s King George.

In 1931 Wilkins bought and outfitted a war-surplus submarine and attempted to take it underneath the Arctic ice pack. Observers called him mad and gleefully cried I told you so when his attempt failed. His sub, named the Nautilus, ingloriously suffered breakdowns, and ended up being towed to Spitzbergen. Although it never reached the pole, it did prove the feasibility of under-ice voyages.

Wilkins credited Detroit for popularizing him as a polar explorer and for bringing him to the attention of scientific societies and the military.

Sir Hubert Wilkins (he dropped the George when he was knighted) died at age 70 in 1958 of a heart attack in a Framington, Mass., hotel room.

Ironically, that was the year the U.S Navy atomic submarine Nautilus made the first successful voyage under the polar ice cap.

Wilkins had hoped to make a voyage under the Arctic ice pack in the submarine Nautilus, formerly the U.S. Navy submarine C-12. The attempt failed when the sub broke down repeatedly and had to be towed to Spitzbergen.