Wings Magazine - February, 1980
The Eagle & the Turtle
The late 1930s was a time of worldwide tension. Germany, Italy and Japan were all expanding their areas of influence. The United States, though officially neutral, was insistent that there would be no dominance by foreign powers in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1938, Nazi Germany sent an expedition to Antarctica to map and claim land for the Fatherland. Antarctica was a vast continent that could have strategic importance to Germany and Admiral Richard Byrd testified on this matter to the U.S. Congress. The remote and largely unknown continent could provide excellent locations for monitoring stations that would be invaluable for forecasting the weather of the South Atlantic and South Pacific. The tips of South America, Africa, and New Zealand, as well as the entire southern coast of Australia. are separated from Antarctica by relatively narrow strips of ocean. A few well-placed naval bases on the Antarctic coast could support the blockade of these strategic channels.
As a result of Byrd's testimony, the United States Government decided that the southern flank of the Americas must not be controlled by foreign powers. This southward extension of the Monroe Doctrine was publicly voiced by Secretary of State Cordel Hull when he said; "Considerations of continental defense make it vitally important to keep for the twenty-one American Republics a clearer title to that part of the Antarctic continent south of America than is claimed by any non-American country."
This concern was real as borne out later in World War II when German warships operating from Antarctica sank and captured Allied ships and even mined the entrances to the Australian harbors of Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for and Congress approved the formation of the United States Antarctic Service (USAS) under the command of Admiral Byrd to explore and claim the areas of Antarctica in the Western Hemisphere that were not already claimed by other American nations, The USAS was an organization financed, staffed and equipped jointly by government (both civil and military), university and private orgranizations.
The USAS plan was to set up base camps at each side of the area to be claimed. Land and aerial teams would then move to explore the area in between, mapping and, later, laying claim to it.
This was the most highly technological expedition, at the time, to ever venture into the southern-most continent. Each base had aircraft for exploration. mapping, and ground party support. In addition to oldfashioned dog sleds, various types of tractors, bulldozers and even Army tanks (with their guns removed) were sent to provide ground transportation.
However the flagship of the land expedition was far bigger than any Army tank, it was the gigantic Snow Cruiser.
The Snow Cruiser was a mammoth, self-contained vehicle that carried its own Staggerwing Beech scout plane like an eagle perched on the back of a turtle. Straight out of science fiction. the Snow Cruiser was conceived by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, the Director of the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago. Dr. Poulter had been the second-in-command of the 1933-35 Byrd Antarctic Expedition, and determined to improve transportation over the forbidding, snowbound landscape, which wore out dogteams within a few hours, he developed the Snow Cruiser.
The Snow Cruiser was a huge four-wheeled vehicle 55 feet 9 inches long, 19 feet 9 inches wide and 15 feet high (not including the airplane). Fully equipped, it weighed approximately 75,000 pounds. Its four ten-foot rubber tired wheels were individually powered with 75 horsepower electric motors that could be operated singly, together, or in any combination. The wheels were separately retractable (they could be raised four feet) and had both front and back steering. The Snow Cruiser could turn around in its own length, move sidewise at a 25° angle and climb a 37 percent grade. Because of the individual retractable wheels and its sled-like belly, the Snow Cruiser had the capability of crossing 15-foot crevasses in the ice. Electric power was generated by two 150 horsepower diesel engines driving generators. It could attain 30 miles per hour and had an unrefueled range of 5,000 miles. Its steel body was completely arc-welded and was insulated so the 4-man crew could keep warm when the outside temperature was 100 degrees below zero, which it frequently was. Built into the capacious enclosed body was a combination driver, chart and radio cabin, a machine shop, an engine room with four beds. storage space for supplies, and a compartment in the rear for supplies, and a compartment in the rear for two spare tires. On board the giant vehicle were food supplies to sustain its four-man crew for a year, 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel oil and 1,000 gallons of aviation gasoline for the Beechcraft. The ski-equipped Staggerwing was carried on the roof, being loaded and unloaded using the sloping rear upper deck of the Snow Cruiser.
The $150,000 Snow Cruiser (to build something similar today, would cost millions) and its Beech Model 17 airplane were the property of the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology and were loaned to the United States Antarctic Service for the expedition. The Snow Cruiser was designed by the staff of the Research Foundation under Dr. Poulter's direction and it was constructed at the Pullman Railroad Car Manufacturing Plant.
After completion it was driven by road from Chicago to Boston, where it was loaded aboard ship. As you might guess, the cross-country trip of a vehicle of that immense size on the two-lane highways of 1939 caused quite an uproar. In the course of its eighteen day, 1020 mile long trip through mountains, hairpin curves, and narrow streets, it had two accidents and caused the largest traffic jam in history when 70,000 cars were backed up for 90 miles outside Boston, their drivers agog and furious, as the mammoth vehicle was given the right of way.
On selecting their scout plane, the scientist and engineers at Armour Institute of Technology knew they had to have an airplane with a large, completely enclosed cabin. But it also had to have the overall size small enough to fit atop the Snow Cruiser. The aircraft had to be rugged and proven in cold weather operation. It had to be reliable for use far from factory or dealer service centers.
The airplane they chose met all of the above criteria. It was a Beech Model 17 Staggerwing of which over 300 had previously been built. And for the depression era 1930s that was a high production number!
The Beech 17 though designed as a business plane was considered an excellent arctic and bush plane, certificated for operation on skis and floats in addition to the standard retractable wheeled landing gear, Dozens had been exported for operations in the frigid climate of Canada, as well as the humid jungles of Central and South America, and such desolate arid areas as India, China and Africa.
The particular Staggerwing model chosen was a Beech D17A powered by a 350 horsepower Wright R-760-E2 engine. The Armour Institute's ship (Serial Number 357) was a colorful one with Galetea Orange wings and horizontal tail, Stearman Vermillion fuselage and vertical tail, a black bird stripe on the fuselage side, the legend "U.S. Antarctic Service" in 6-inch white letters on the fuselage and its registration Number NC20778 outlined with a black pinstripe on the wing and tail. The ship had a full complement of blind flying instruments and radios as well as being equipped for aerial photography and scientific research such as cosmic ray surveys.
The pilot of the Model 17 for the USAS expedition was US Marine Corps Technical Sergeant Theodore A. Petras from Birmingham, Alabama. Sgt. Ted Petras spent several weeks in the fall of 1939 at the Beech Aircraft Corporation factory in Wichita, Kansas while the D17A biplane was being completed. Beechcraft "old timers" remember him as a quiet, modest young man. deeply interested in following every step of his plane's construction and in learning everything he could from anyone competent to advise him.
C/N 357 was completed on October 31. 1939 with Sgt. Petras accepting delivery on November 1, 1939. The ship was flown by Petras to the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia for mounting on skis and other additional preparations for its forthcoming trip to the frozen continent. The expedition's ships proceeded down from Boston to the Philadelphia Naval Yard where they picked up the aircraft and then proceeded south to Antarctica.
In addition to the Staggerwing, the expedition had two U.S. Navy Curtiss R4C-1 Condors and a Barkley-Grow twin engine seaplane. One Condor was assigned to the East Base and the other to the West Base, which were situated near the extremes of the land to be claimed, The Barkley-Grow operated off the U.S.S. Bear which was exploring the Antarctic coast line.
The plan for the Snow Cruiser was to explore a path outward from the West Base across the continent to the East Base. Every 250 miles or so, the Snow Cruiser was to launch its plane to scout and photograph the area 300 miles on each side of the route.
The other members of the Snow Cruiser crew in addition to Ted Petras were Dr. F. Alton Wade, from Oxford, Ohio, Chief Scientist of the USAS who commanded the Snow Cruiser; Corporal Felix L. Ferranto, USMC of Brooklyn, NY, was radio operator, and Machinist Mate 2nd Class Clyde W. Griffith, USN, of Irondale, Ohio, served as mechanic for both the Snow Cruiser and the Staggerwing.
The Snow Cruiser had problems right from its arrival at West Base (also called Little America III). In order to drive the Snow Cruiser off the USS North Star, a 60 foot long steel and wood ramp was constructed As its two front wheels reached the wooden timbers comprising the lower two thirds of the ramp, there was a terrific splintering crash and the vehicle broke through a dozen three by twelve inch supporting beams. The monsterous machine plunged to the ice with a sharp downward list to the left nearly throwing Admiral Byrd, Dr. F. Alton Wade, Felix Ferranto and Ted Petras from their perches atop the cruiser to the ice below. Clyde Griffith who was in the engine room yelled at Dr. Poulter who was driving to: "Take your foot off the brake and gun her!" This is exactly what Poulter did, not stopping until he was a full mile from the ship.
It was soon seen that the Snow Cruiser just couldn't move well on the ice and snow, In order to obtain greater traction, the two spare tires and wheels were mounted on the forward axle, thus giving her four tires in the front and two at the rear. Even with this modification the Snow Cruiser was still in trouble. Though designed to climb steep inclines and cross crevasses. it just couldn't climb over the "chocks" of snow which formed in front of the wheels when they slipped, spun and dug in. Dr. Poulter analyzed the problem as being incorrect gear ratios. A lower gear ratio would have been better just as it is on a car driven on sand. Dr. Poulter said that new parts could be made and changed in the field when another expedition went to Antarctica, But this was never to be, because World War II cancelled follow-on expedition plans.
The Snow Cruiser was coached slowly along as far as the airstrip where it was parked and its crew plus airplane joined forces with West Base. The Beechcraft was then assigned to help in the West Base's air operations. The Beechcraft's crew lived in the Snow Cruiser and used its machine shop to support the aircraft maintenance. With its built-in radio room, it served as communications center for the airstrip. This was really luxury living compared to that of the Curtiss Condor's crew, who lived in a tent throughout the brutal winter! In reality although it had trouble moving over the snow and ice, the Snow Cruiser turned out to be the best living-working facility at Little America.
Though it had originally been planned to have only the Curtiss R4C-1 at the West Base for air operations, the usefulness of the Beech Staggerwing was soon apparent. The obsolete Condor was worn out from years of Navy and Marine Corps service and just didn't have the necessary power and performance. Therefore. the Beechcraft took over much of the exploratory and mapping role, as well as small support missions, leaving to the Condor the heavy transport duties.
Flying in Antarctica is difficult at best. Weather conditions are unpredictable and often very severe. Whiteouts come up suddenly, leaving the pilot with no visual horizon or way to tell the ground from the sky. Much of the area is mountainous. The temperature can drop to 120 degrees below zero, and fabric covered ships like the Staggerwing and Condor don't hold heat very well.
There is an old aviation saying that goes: "Flying consists of hours of sheer boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror." Veterans of that albino hell of ice have modified it to: "Antarctic flying consists of moments of sheer boredom interrupted by unending hours of stark terror."
On the ground things weren't any better. Plunging temperatures went off the scale Planes were fueled by hand from drums or small cans. Oil was preheated on stoves or over open fires. When fabric had to be repaired, the patches were doped on under heated tents, the mechanics getting "high" on the fumes. Tents had to be put over the engine and propeller so they could be warmed up enough to start. It was a preview of the Russian front a few years later.
The USAS expedition arrived in Antarctica in mid-January 1940. Since seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, this was summer. Not much flying could be done before winter set in and all activity ceased. The Antarctic winter was one long night which lasted for 123 days beginning when the sun set on April 31, 1940. Before this long blackout came, the Beech D17A did get off a few missions including two major aerial explorations. On the first Sergeant Petras was accompanied by Dr. F.A. Wade who acted as observer and navigator on a flight over the Rockfeller and Alexandra mountains. On the other, Ted Petras flew with Dr. Paul Siple, commander of the West Base as observer, and Dr. Wade, as aerial photographer, over treacherous unexplored areas of the Ross Ice Shelf.
During these early months the Staggerwing was also used to take cosmic ray intensity measurements at various altitudes. Though the Beech D17A's advertised service ceiling is 15,400 feet, the cold, dense polar atmosphere allowed flights in excess of this.
Cloudy skies had halted all flying since late February, but on March 9th the skies cleared and Dr. F. Alton Wade called for one last high altitude cosmic ray research flight. The D17A was hurriedly made ready for flight. After a series of preliminary measurements were made on the ground, the plane took off and circled the camp, climbing slowly Sergeant Petras was pilot with Machinist Mate 2nd Class Clyde Griffith manning the cosmic ray instrumentation. The Staggerwing climbed and measurements were made at various altitudes. At 21,050 feet over Little America, the Beechcraft was still climbing but as the temperature was then 45° below zero, Petras decided to descend, As far as could be determined, this was the highest altitude, by several thousand feet, attained up to that time over the Antarctic continent.
As preparation for the winter, the airplanes were enclosed in hangars built of blocks of snow, They were soon drifted over and the following spring had to be dug out, Also buried by the winter snow were the cans of aviation gasoline that had been simply stacked on the ground. But at least the Beechcraft crew had warm comfortable quarters to lounge the winter away in. The unfortunate Condor crew was stuck in a tent.
When spring came, bringing with it daylight. flying resumed. Aviation gasoline caches had been stockpiled at outlying spots by ground parties so extended exploratory flights could be made. These were also banked with food and could be used by both ground and air parties as emergency supply depots, much as the British and Norwegian expeditions had utilized them 30 years before. They were located adjacent to areas that were more or less suitable for aircraft landing and take-offs. The suitability for aircraft operation, however, was often decided by ground exploration personnel who knew nothing about airplanes and each landing in the out-country was an experience!
On December 9. 1940. trail parties reported conditions favorable for exploratory flights to the east. At 1000 GMT (Greenwich) Sgt. Petras departed West Base in the Beechcraft with Dr. Siple. They landed at the Rockfeller Mountain gas cache at 1120 to top off. Taking off and proceeding eastward. they found the Sultzberger Bay area and the valley between Mt. Haines and Mt. Rea fog-filled. but the Mt. Rea gas cache area was miraculously clear enough to permit safe landing and the gas tanks were again topped off. They took off at 1443 and proceeded eastward for a photographic survey of the Mt. Hal Flood area The flatlands in the area were at 5400 ft. elevation while the mountains reached nearly 9000 feet. Surveying the area, they began their photographic passes at 1555 GMT and continued taking aerial photographs for almost three hours. Inbound from the Mt. Flood area they flew over a ground geological party and dropped them some aerial photos of the area plus some fresh bread and meat. They also looked for, but did not sight a ground survey party that was returning from Mt. Flood. Due to fog conditions they had to fly on to the gas cache at Mt. Grace McKinley, landing there at 2005 GMT and taking on enough fuel to return to West Base. They then proceeded back towards West Base which was not becoming overcast. A 100 miles from Little America they made a fourth landing for a brief conference with Dr. Wade who was with a ground party. They then returned to the West Base airfield arriving at 2255 GMT. This 13-hour mission with four landings in the outback was typical of the many exploratory flights the Staggerwing was used for.
The Condor was originally planned to be the main exploratory aircraft but due to its poor condition and large gas consumption, a large part of the exploratory program was shifted to the Beech D17A. The gas caches laid at Mts. Rockfeller, McKinley, and Rea would permit only one Condor flight, whereas the Beechcraft could make several flights on the same gas supply to approximately the same range as the Condor. The Beechcraft's cabin, though large for a single engine airplane, was like a sardine can when compared to the Condor's airliner cabin. Only two men with safety equipment, food. sleeping bags, etc. could be carried by the Staggerwing. It was difficult to take sun sights (celestical navigation was the primary mean of navigation in Antarctica) in the Beechcraft as they all had to be taken through the windshield. The only available camera hatch was the door window. Despite all its disadvantages, the Beechcraft accomplished its assigned missions, and 12-hour long missions were common, demonstrating the toughness and durability of the Beech D17A. its Wright engine and its crew. There were troubles, however, such as when the tail ski broke late in the season. and emergency repairs had to be made in the field at the Mt. Rea gas cache, with the wind coming up and the temperature dropping.
In late December 1940, the expedition was coming to an end. It was time to return to the United States. The weather was bad and all flying had ceased on December 18th. The last of the ground parties with tractors and dog sleds were trying to make their way back to Little America through blizzard conditions. Some of the ground teams were returning from ventures as far out as 600 miles from base. By New Year's Day 1941, eleven days of heavy snowfall had jeopardized all the tangible results of the ground exploration. The Snow Cruiser was running low on fuel. The dog sled teams were running low on food. The deep new snow caused both sleds and the cruiser to bog down. The dogteam parties jettisoned all extra weight, including their radio transmitter, to keep going. The cruiser men decided they would have to abandon most of the sleds they were towing But still the cruiser bogged down. Finally by driving their tractor in reverse they found they could move slowly forward and pull a small load.
The loads that would have to be abandoned included rock samples from the mountain ranges they had explored: forty-one days worth of seismic records. the first ever made in Antarctica: priceless scientific notebooks: and stacks of hand drawn maps of the newly explored areas.
Dr. Paul Siple. base commander at Little America. saw that the weather had cleared slightly and decided to dispatch the Condor with tractor fuel and dog food to the struggling ground parties. It would also retrieve some of the scientific specimens At midnight McCoy, Giles and Siple took off and jumped over the cloud belt between Kainan and Okuma Bays. The fog closed in over the trail parties and although the Condor's crew located them 71 miles from base by following the trail. they were again lost to sight when a circle was made to attempt a landing. Hoping for an improvement in conditions. the Condor proceeded to the tractor. which was 92 miles from base. and landed beside it, Fifty gallons of fuel were unloaded for the cruiser and in its place was loaded on board the Condor a half-ton of the previous scientific gear that had been marked for abandonment. To give one an idea of ground conditions. It took the Snow Cruiser another five days to struggle the 92 miles back to base.
The Condor's subsequent takeoff was surprisingly easy, but just after leveling off for cruise. the starboard engine began to cough and vibrate. Just before reaching the edge of the overcast, the engine quit with a clutter and momentarily burst into flames, The weary Condor could not maintain altitude on one engine, so McCoy executed a very smooth emergency landing in the middle of nowhere. They were about 80 miles from Little America. Giles established radio contact with base while they were gliding down and informed them of their predicament. Inspection of the engine showed number four cylinder head sticking part way through the cowling. They radioed Petras to come out in the Beechcraft with Gray, the mechanic for the Condor, tools and a spare cylinder. The Staggerwing arrived within two hours.
When the cowling was pulled, it was discovered that the trouble was with the cylinder containing the master rod, which could not be repaired in the field. At this late date and with the prevailing surface conditions, their was no way to bring out a spare engine and the equipment needed to replace it.
While the engine was being examined. Petras and Siple had transferred the dog food to the Beech and took off and ferried it to the trail parties which were still camped under a thin fog. They then flew to the coast hoping to find a suitable spot where it might be possible to freight the equipment in the Condor so the Bear could pick it up for repair and replacement. But at no place in Okuma or in the bay to the west was there a safe slope from the barrier to the sea ice. Completing their reconnaissance, they returned to the crash site, Petras then flew Giles and Gray back to Little America while McCoy and Siple made the Condor as secure as possible. Petras then returned in the Beech to pick them up He was forced to fly low along the trail to the east to again locate the Condor which was now under a low overcast. Despite increasing wind he was able to land and pick up McCoy and Siple as well as a few valuable specimens and instruments. The ubiquitous Staggerwing then returned safely to base just twelve hours after the Condor's original takeoff.
During the next week, Ted Petras flew the Beechcraft twice more out to the crash site and picked up the scientific equipment considered worth salvaging. Meanwhile, the tractor party reached Little America on January 6, 1941, having driven the huge vehicle backwards the last 92 miles. The next day the dog sled teams made it in. Three days after the trail parties finally returned, ships started arriving at Little America to return the USAS expedition back to America. The expedition was over and the United States was concentrating on preparing the country for our possible entry into World War II. With all the expense of rearmament, Congress had not appropriated the funds to continue the Antarctic program or even the United States Antarctic Service. The idea of a permanent base on the Antarctic continent would have to wait many years for a more peaceful time.
Nevertheless, the USAS had accomplished much in increasing the knowledge of the southern polar regions, Much of their experience with aerial and mechanized vehicles would soon pay off when U.S. military forces were deployed in the polar regions of Alaska, Greenland and Iceland. The gallant explorers had also left a legacy in Antarctica where they named several newly discovered mountains. On the maps of that desolate land are Mount Siple, Mount Petras and Mount McCoy among others,
On January 31, 1941, just over a year after it had been landed in Antarctica, the Beech D17A was loaded aboard the USS North Star for its return to the United States. The Staggerwing's mammoth mother vehicle, the Snow Cruiser, was left in Antarctica. It was hoped that Congress would soon appropriate money for the USAS to return and with the proper parts the Snow Cruiser could be modified for successful exploration. However this never came about and the Snow Cruiser is still at the Little America site, a monument to the United States Antarctica Service and the first large scale technological assault on Antarctica.
The saga of the Antarctica Beech D17A did not end here. When it was returned to the United States, it only stayed in the country a short time. It was soon sold to Mr. E. J. Connellan of Alice Springs, Australia, who registered it as VH-AFP upon its arrival in Australia. But Mr. Connellan didn't get to use it long because the Royal Australian Air Force needed aircraft and impressed it into service giving it RAAF serial number A39-2. It was one of three Beech 17s impressed into World War II service by the RAAF. After the war, the Staggerwing was returned to Mr. Connellan who flew it for many years, It was later sold several times and in the hands of its last owner, crashed on December 22,1963, at Springton, Queensland, Australia, fatally injuring the pilot. In the ensuing fire, the aircraft was destroyed.
Ted Petras, the U.S. Marine Corps Tech. Sergeant who piloted the D17A in Antarctica, later gained further fame in another Beechcraft. In early 1944, Ted Petras, now Captain. USMC, piloted the first Allied airplane to land on New Britain since several RAAF Wirraways evacuated the island when the Japanese invaded in January 1942. Captain Petras made the landing while flying in the twin-engined Beech JRB assigned as the staff transport plane for Major General William H. Rupertus, USMC, commanding general of the U.S. Marines which had just recently invaded the Japanese held island. The landing was made on the previously untried, and still uncompleted dirt airstrip, but compared to Petras' adventures in the Antarctic Beech, it may have seemed routine.
Twin-engined Beech Model 18s similar to the one that Petras had landed on New Britain would, after World War II, be used like Ted Petras's Staggerwing for exploratory flights in Antarctica. But those adventures are another story!