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Operation Deep Freeze: Return to the South Pole

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

On the 31st October 1956, Rear Admiral George Dufek, U.S. Navy and his companions flew towards the South Pole hoping to become the first people to stand at the South Pole since Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN and his companions had departed in 1912. Unlike Amundsen and Scott, who travelled south with dogs, ponies, motor sledges  and on ski and foot, Dufek and his men were in the comparative comfort of ‘Que Serra Serra’) a U.S Navy ski equipped version of the famous DC3 airliner and transporter. The plane was named after the popular Doris Day song, ‘Whatever will be will be, que sera serra’.

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

The purpose of the journey was to ascertain if a plane could land safely at the South Pole, where the Americans intended to build a scientific base for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). In preparation for the flight, photographs from Amundsen’s and Scott’s expedition were studied to see the depth of their footprints, indicating the thickness of the snow, and ascertain if the surrounding area was flat enough to land a plane. This information and reconnaissance flights indicated that a landing could be made but in the event of an accident two large aircraft accompanied ‘Que Serra Serra’ and were ready to drop survival equipment.  Commander ‘Trigger’ Hawkes, an experienced Antarctic pilot was chosen as pilot along with Lieutenant Commander C.S. Shinn.  Hawkes chose to give the Shinn, a younger pilot, the honour of landing the plane at the South Pole.

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

The flight south followed the route pioneered by Sir Ernest Shackleton and chosen by Captain R.F. Scott: departing from Ross Island across the Ross ice Shelf, ascending up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau and then on to the South Pole. Que Serra Serra arrived at the Pole and had a smooth landing. The American flag was raised and then Hawkes interviewed Dufek with a movie camera but later found out that the interview was not recorded as the film in the camera had frozen solid. A metal radar reflector was installed to assist future flights to find the same location.

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Alarmingly, the men started to notice frostbite on each other’s faces and Dufek gave the order, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ Preparing to take off, the pilots revved up the plane’s engines but it would not move; the skis had frozen to the snow and ice. To assist with taking off, Que Serra Serra had Jet Assisted take Off (JATO) rockets which were normally ignited once the plane was moving. Each JATO provided the equivalent amount of power an engine for 30 seconds.  Realising that he was stuck, Shinn ignited four JATOs at once, then another four, then another four and then his last three. The pilot and crew of the aircraft flying above were horrified to see a great cloud of smoke and flame but suddenly Que Serra Serra appeared – flying, albeit low and slow. Arriving back at McMurdo Station, Ross Island the news was broadcast that forty-four years after Amundsen’s and Scott’s great expeditions the American Stars and Stripes now flew at the South Pole.

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Bryan Lintott