While the eyes of the world were sweeping the Atlantic, anxious, fearful of the fate of two flying Germans and an Irishman, a tiny plane droned its way across the unknown waste and terror of the Arctic. Impervious to disappointment, danger, tragedy, Capt. George Hubert Wilkins and Lieut. Carl Ben Eielson took off unannounced from Point Barrow, Alaska, came down for five dismal days on uninhabited Doedmansoeira (Dead Man's Island), arrived last week triumphant at the haven of Spitzbergen.
Briefly, a message from Spitzbergen announced that man had for the first time flown over "the roof of the world" in an airplane. Who sent the message no one knew, for the single wireless operator of this freezing colony of miners and trappers, was killed in an accident weeks ago and the new one had not yet arrived. Perhaps it was Capt. Wilkins himself, announcing success after three years of struggle, three attempted flights, five smashed planes, the death of one man during all of which turmoil Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd flew from Spitzbergen to the pole and back again and the Amundsen-Ellsworth expedition flew all the way across in the opposite direction in a dirigible.
"No foxes seen" said the cryptic message received from Capt. Wilkins by Dr. Isaiah Bowman, director of the American Geographical Society. It meant there was no land between Point Barrow and Spitzbergen and put an end to the fond dream of a vast continent in the "blind spot" of the Arctic.
No trip could be more difficult or more hazardous. Because of the constant variation of the compass in such close proximity to the magnetic pole, navigation is a matter of genius. Because the vast area is unexplored, landing in case of emergency becomes a matter of prayer. No ship patrols the frozen reaches of the Arctic; no lighthouse points the way. Said Commander Byrd: "I congratulate him most heartily." Added Lincoln Ellsworth: "My hat comes off to the pluck of a brave gentleman."
The dangers of the 2,200-mile trip, slightly south of the North Pole on the Greenland side over a region never before seen by articulate man, particularly beckoned to Capt. Wilkins. He finally made it in 20½ hours of flying time, in a small Lougheed Vega plane capable of a sustained speed of 135 miles an hour. His record indicates that he would have made the trip had it taken forever.
In 1925, Capt. WilkinsAustralian adventurer, photographer in the Balkan War, cameraman for Stefansson in his North
Pole dash, World War flier, second in command of the ill-fated Shackleton expedition to the South Poleinduced the American Geographical Society and the Detroit Aviation Society to back an east-to-west flight over the North Pole. This was before either Byrd or Amundsen reached the Pole from Spitzbergen.
Wilkins started for Alaska in the winter of 1926, heading what was then called "the most scientifically planned and thoroughly equipped Arctic expedition ever assembled." His twin objects were "new lands for the United States and an airway across the top of the world." Furthermore, he wanted to prove that an airplane costing about $25,000 had a special utility of its own as against an airship costing about $500,000.