The Auster Antarctica – before climate change had been thought of!


Before climate change had been thought of, before the great ice sheets were in peril, both the North and South Poles had held a fascination for humankind. The Arctic and Antarctic regions, with their sparse fauna and forbidding temperatures – even year round – were the objects of scientific exploration, long after the Vikings reached out towards the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. It is said that the Phoenicians reached the Arctic ‘pack ice’, following a search for tin in Ultima Thule, although this is generally regarded as a myth. The great days of Polar exploration – at both ends of the Earth – were in the late 19th and the early decades of the 20th centuries. Names like Scott and Amundsen, Shackleton and Byrd echo through the howling icy wastes, but perhaps one of the most significant, but hardly less celebrated in Italy, is Umberto Nobile (ultimately, Lieutenant General Umberto Nobile, Italian Air Force). Nobile designed the dirigible ‘Norge’, in which he and his crew overflew the North Pole. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – who had earlier been forced to land short of the North Pole in a Dornier Wal aircraft – had hired Nobile and the dirigible, and claimed most of the credit for overflying the North Pole on May 12th, 1926 – the ‘Norge’ landed in Alaska. Two days prior to this, Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr, USN and his pilot Floyd Bennett had claimed to have flown over the Pole in their Fokker F-VII Tri-motor. Later revelations gave rise to doubts that this was physically possible in the time they claimed. Nobile was to fly over the Pole once more, on 28th May, 1928 in a new airship, the ‘Italia’. He crashed on the return journey and was the subject of a dramatic multi-national rescue (later, this dramatic flight was turned into a feature film, ‘The Red Tent’)

After WW2, interest in the gigantic mass of snow and ice that was the continent of Antarctica grew. In 1949/50 a joint expedition to Queen Maud Land – a giant unmapped ‘wedge’ of Antarctica lying between 20­­° West and 45­­° East – was organized by Norway (which laid claim to Queen Maud Land), Sweden and Great Britain. Britain was represented by an RAF contingent (including Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel) and it was to stage through the Falkland Islands Dependency, including South Georgia. A 600 ton seal hunting vessel, the ‘Norsel’ was to carry the party south from Cape Town. An RAF Antarctica Flight was formed in 1949, under the command of Squadron Leader G. B. Walford, RAF, and equipped with two Auster 6 aircraft (‘VX126’ & ‘VX127’), fitted with Auster floats and ski/wheel undercarriages of Canadian design. The ‘Norsel’ left Cape Town in December, 1949, and 28 days later was off the ice shelf, with the Austers performing reconnaissance sorties over the Antarctic ice as far as 150 miles from the ship, as well as supporting the base which had been established to enable a group to overwinter in Queen Maud Land. The two Austers were shipped back to Cape Town on 22nd February, 1950, with the withdrawal of the main party.

Over 1,500 Austers had been built during WW2, and had given excellent service in Air Observation Post, liaison and battlefield reconnaissance roles. However, although the wartime Mk V was a good machine, an upgrade was required. The Auster Mark 6 entered service with the RAF in 1947. It had a more powerful de Havilland Gipsy Major VII of 145 hp, more fuel, a strengthened undercarriage and powerful new flaps. At this time the RAF was organizing the AOP units, and providing servicing personal, whilst the British Army supplied the pilots who flew the aircraft. The RAF also ordered 77 of a dual-control trainer version of the AOP Mk 6, to use in a two-stage pilot ‘screening’ process – simulated instrument flying followed by night flying training; this was known as the T.7

In 1953, it was decided that a Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition was to be mounted, under the leadership of the famed explorer and geologist Dr. (later Sir) Vivian Fuchs. Along with the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary – the conqueror of Mount Everest – the party was to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic Continent using three four-tracked Tucker Sno-Cat Model 743 and three other tracked vehicles . This dangerous and lengthy Antarctic journey was going to need support by both sea and air, and in 1955, the RAF offered – once again – two Austers! In this case, two T.Mk 7 were flown to the Rearsby factory for one of the most extensive modifications that Auster Aircraft Limited had undertaken. T7 ‘WE600’, one of the last batch of T.7s manufactured for the RAF in early 1951, was prepared for the Royal Air Force, and ‘WE563’ was modified for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (as ‘NZ1707’); the RZNAF also offered a suitably modified DHC-2 Beaver.

The Austers were lightened as much as practicable, because it was intended that they would be operating on Auster-designed floats as well as carrying extensive radio and navigation equipment. The preferred engine was the de Havilland Gipsy Major Mk 7G, with Plessey 6-shot cartridge start, and oil-dilution system (to ease starting load in sub-zero temperatures – note, a similar system was fitted to the de Havilland Mosquito NF.36!) As well as this, the engine oil cooler was removed, for obvious reasons, and a 24 volt, 500 watt generator fitted. Newly-designed undercarriage legs were fitted, with a unique rubber disk shock-absorber system; the new skis had runners made from laminated fabric sheets, which were graded as abrasion resistant. The wheel brakes were removed and cables fitted to operate the water rudders at the rear of the floats. To increase range, an extra belly fuel tank was installed.

Because of the aerodynamic changes caused by the floats, a larger Auster ‘Autocar’ fin and rudder was fitted, along with an underfin; this restored control authority at low speeds. As another low-temperature ‘mod’, all the grommets fitted in the transparencies were replaced with over-size ones, of a softer composition. As you would expect, the aircraft were fitted with a wide range of radio aids and navigation equipment. A Bendix ‘Polar Path’ gyro system was the prime navigation system; this had a ‘drift’ of around 2­° per hour. As well as this, there was a ‘landing’ compass, an astro compass and a sun compass! Bearings could be taken, of course, using the Marconi AD 7092 ADF, which was paired with a Marconi AD 97/108 radio which had both a 150 foot long trailing aerial and a whip aerial. To top everything off their standard colour scheme of all-over silver with yellow ‘training’ bands, was over-painted with a startling shade of orange.

Squadron Leader J H Lewis, RAF was in command of the Auster detachment – he had been on the Auster party with the 1949/1950 Antarctic expedition, so knew the difficulties of operating light aircraft in the Antarctic regions. The Austers were loaded onto another sealing vessel, this time the MS ‘Theron’, and headed south for Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic, via Montevideo, Uruguay, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. By February, 1956, the ‘Theron’ was at anchor in Husvik Harbour, South Georgia, and WE600 had been assembled with its float undercarriage, and was undergoing trials on sea landings and take-offs. Actually, WE600 was used to scout ahead, and find a route for the ‘Theron’ when she became stuck in the ice. Following the start of the crossing of the Antarctic by the main party from Shackleton Base under Dr Fuchs (6 vehicles, 2 men per vehicle), Edmund Hillary started out from Scott Base on the Ross Sea, and established a line of supply dumps; because these stretched almost to the Pole he took advantage of this and made a successful ‘dash’ and got to the Pole on 3rd January, 1958. Fuchs also reached the Pole (19th January, 1958), and continued on to Scott Base, covering the 2,158 miles in 99 days.

The expedition was a great success, with the main party undertaking valuable survey work throughout the journey across the high Antarctic Plateau. Also, in December, 1957 the RNZAF DHC-2 Beaver, with a crew of four, flew between both expedition bases, a distance of 1,430 miles by air, in just 11 hours. Dr Vivian Fuchs was knighted, and Sir Edmund Hillary eventually made it to the North Pole, making him the first person to visit the South Pole, the North Pole and the summit of Mount Everest.

Unfortunately, WE600 had torn its rear ski off during an aborted take-off, and was flown to Halley Bay on the Weddell Sea, where she was picked up by the ‘M.V. Tottan’ and returned to Britain. On its return, it was put into store at No 19 MU, RAF St Athan, in South Wales, where it was decided to issue it to the RAF Exhibition Flight, a unit which provided static exhibits for county shows and air displays. The highlight of WE600’s post-Antarctic career came when it was repaired and refurbished at RAF Hullavington so that it could form part of the huge static display which, along with flypasts, comprised the RAF’s 50th Anniversary Royal Review. This took place, in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, at RAF Abingdon on 14th June, 1968. In 1989, after appearing at various RAF Open Houses and Battle of Britain Air Shows, it was decided that WE600 would become part of the permanent collection of the RAF Museum, Cosford; here you can see her, looking in fine shape after a major refurbishment in 2007.

Amazingly, the only other Auster Antarctica, NZ1707 (ex-WE563), also survives, as an exhibit in the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum Collection, at RNZAF Base Wigram. The expedition’s Sno-Cats have been equally fortunate in that one of them is on display at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, and another at the Science Museum, London.

The Auster Antarctica – a rare version of a standard observation aircraft, that performed admirably under appalling conditions.

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6 comments on “The Auster Antarctica – before climate change had been thought of!”

  1. Ross, what an amazing and well written history. An amazingly light aircraft for flying in such a harsh environment and I would think their crew to be brave indeed as the aircraft do not look large enough to carry survival supplied for extended periods. I posted a photo of the other Auster Antarctica but only now, thanks to your research, do I know its significance. Joe

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    • Thank you for this, Joe. I was heavily involved with Austers at Leicestershire Museum Service, and really enjoyed writing this one. I’m glad that the New Zealand authorities have preserved so much of the expedition.

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  2. Oops, my apologies. I mistakenly remembered and do not have a photo of the other Auster Antarctica, sorry to say 😦

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  3. […] The Auster Antarctica – before climate change had been thought of!. […]

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  4. Great article. here’s a photo taken last year (I think) of NZ1707 here at the Air Force Museum. Apologies for me being in the photo!

    My Auster project is slowly gathering pace with fabric planned this year on the fuselage!!

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