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Wilkins, George Hubert

Wilkins, George Hubert

Alias: None

Title: Mr

Dates: 1888-1958

Nationality: Australian

Awards: Patrons' Medal of the Royal Geographical Society; Knight of the British Empire; Military Cross

George Hubert Wilkins was born in Australia on 31 October 1888. After training at the State School and School of Mines in Adelaide, he reached Europe as a stowaway and spent four years wandering in Europe and America, eventually serving as an official photographer to the Turkish army during the Balkan war of 1912. In 1913, he joined the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-18, led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, spending three years in the field as photographer and correspondent for the London Times. Returning to Britain in 1916, he enlisted with the Royal Australian Flying Corps as air and field photographer. He saw service in France, was wounded and awarded the Military Cross with bar. In 1919, he attempted to fly back to Australia as navigator in an air race, but the aircraft crashed in Crete and he returned to England.

Wilkins joined the British Expedition to Graham Land 1920-22 (Svend Foyn), led by John Lachlan Cope, which initially promised opportunities for flight and aerial photography in the Antarctic Peninsula. However, insufficient finance curtailed the expedition, and Wilkins and Cope withdrew. Homeward bound in Montevideo, he encountered Sir Ernest Shackleton, who invited him to join his Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition 1921-22 (Quest), as naturalist and photographer in Quest. On Shackleton's death in South Georgia in January 1922, the expedition continued for a few months under Frank Wild, briefly exploring the South Sandwich Islands and the Weddell Sea before returning to Britain. While he was working on the specimens brought back by Quest in the Natural History section of the British Museum, Wilkins was selected by the trustees to lead a collecting expedition to northern Australia between 1923 and 1925.

Returning to the Arctic, Wilkins spent the next three years making pioneer exploratory flights with Carl Ben Eielson as pilot. After two preliminary seasons based in Barrow, Alaska, on 16 April 1928, he flew with Eielson in a single engine aircraft across the Arctic Ocean from Barrow to Spitsbergen via northern Ellesmere Island, a flight of over 4000 kilometres in just over 20 hours. For this and earlier Arctic achievements, Wilkins was knighted and awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

On return to the United States of America, Wilkins organized the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition 1928-29, which aimed initially to fly from the South Shetland Islands to the Ross Sea. His flight from Deception Island on 16 November 1928 with Eielson as pilot was the first-ever flight by powered aircraft in the Antarctic region. After several more preliminary flights from Deception Island, Wilkins took off with Eielson for his main exploratory flight on 20 December. They flew over 960 kilometres to the base of the Antarctic Peninsula, a major achievement in aviation that demonstrated both the possibilities and limitations of aerial exploration in the Antarctic. Leaving the aircraft behind on Deception Island, Wilkins left for the United States, returning to Antarctica the following season to lead the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition 1929-30. Again snow, ice and weather conspired to make the long flight to the Ross Sea impossible, but Wilkins achieved several shorter flights along the Peninsula.

In 1931, Wilkins formed a consortium with Lincoln Ellsworth, a wealthy American mining engineer, and others, in a plan to reach the North Pole by submarine, under the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition was beset by bad weather and damage to the vessel's diving gear, and the submarine Nautilus made only minor forays under the ice north of Svalbard, collecting much scientific data. In 1932, Ellsworth and Wilkins again formed a partnership for a further attempt to fly across West Antarctica. In a series of three expeditions, one from the Ross Sea and two from West Antarctica, Wilkins was responsible for the administrative details at the bases and on board Wyatt Earp. In August 1937, he helped in an aerial search of the Arctic basin north of Alaska and Canada, seeking a Russian aircraft reported missing on a trans-Arctic flight (pilot Sigismund Levanevskiy), but after several months of searching, no traces were found of the missing aircraft or men. In 1938, Wilkins joined Ellsworth in a fourth Antarctic expedition, this time to Princess Elizabeth Land. As operations manager, Wilkins remained with the ship, taking several opportunities to raise the Australian flag on coastal islands, reinforcing his country's claim to the territory.

During the Second World War, Wilkins was based in Washington, where his advice was frequently sought in connection with Arctic problems. From 1942 to 1952, he served as consultant to the United States Military Planning Division, and from 1953, he continued this work as geographer in the United States Department of Defense. He continued to travel and visited the South Pole in 1957 as a guest of the United States government. He died in the United States on 2 December 1958.

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