Douglas Mawsons air tractor. Frank Hurley was Mawsons photographer.
Image by Frank Hurley
Exposed metal. Photo taken by Michelle Berry (click to enlarge)
Site where the remains were found (click to enlarge)
The ice covered kitchen shelves in the Main Hut (click to enlarge)
Whiskey, stout, port, wine and a bottle of vinegar. Images courtesy of the Mawson Hut Foundation (click to enlarge)
Map of Cape Denison location courtesy of (click to enlarge)
Parts of Mawsons air tractor found at Cape Denison

Posted: Jan 05, 2010 12:49 am EST
In his 1911-14 expedition to Antarctica, Douglas Mawson took a wingless, single propelled plane with to use as an air tractor to haul supplies. On New Years Day 2010 a team of conservationists found parts of Mawsons plane near his huts at Cape Denison.

Low tide expose metal

A team of Australian conservationists is at Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay to preserve and restore Mawsons original wooden Huts and to catalogue, treat and photograph artefacts.

On New Years Day they had a very low tide after the blue moon the previous day, the lowest well have all season and only 10 cm higher than the lowest possible tide here at Commonwealth Bay, reported Tony Steward on the Mawsons Huts Foundation website.

He said their heritage carpenter Mark Farrell was wandering along the rocks on the edge of Boat Harbour when he noticed some metal among the rocks in the low tide water.

Mark went back to the team and mentioned his find. Members of the team geared up quickly and examined the parts sitting in a few centimetres of water.

We photographed the objects then brought them back to the lab immersed in sea water, until a plan can be made for their conservation, reported Tony.

Vicker aircraft

Built in 1911, just 8 years after the Wright brothers first flight, it was first aircraft from the famous Vickers factory, and the first aircraft taken to either polar region, explained Tony Steward.

Due to wing damage [during a flight accident in Australia], it never flew here, but was converted into an air tractor, which the 1911-14 Australian Antarctic Expedition used to tow gear up onto the ice dome in preparation for their sledging journeys.

The aircrafts wings were removed in Australia due to an accident during a demonstration flight before the team left for Antarctica.

On Antarctic the engine had difficulty withstanding the cold temperatures and the wind conditions. At the end of the expedition the engine was removed and returned to the manufacturers in the UK. The rest of the air tractor was abandoned at Cape Denison.

Mawson and Bickertons account

Mawson wrote in his book The Home of the Blizzard, [The air-tractors] career was mostly associated with misfortune, dating from a serious fall when in flight at Adelaide, through the southern voyage of the 'Aurora', buffeted by destructive seas, to a capacious snow shelter in Adelie Land - the Hangar - where for the greater part of the year it remained helpless and drift-bound.

Mawson quoted team member Francis Howard Bickerton who was in charge of the air tractor, I had always imagined that the air-tractor sledge would be most handicapped by the low temperature; but the wind was far more formidable.

It is obvious that a machine which depends on the surrounding air for its medium of traction could not be tested in the winds of an Adelie Land winter.

Kitchen evacuation

Over the past few weeks the conservation team excavated the top shelf of the kitchen in Mawsons Main Hut. Michelle Berry reported in their blog that they found several bottles buried in the ice.

Excavation and conservation treatment revealed whiskey, stout, port, wine and a bottle of vinegar.

The Mawson's Huts Foundation has been established to conserve in perpetuity for the Australian people the unique, historical buildings known as Mawson's Huts. Sir Douglas Mawson, a geologist, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911, landed a party of 18 at Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay in January, 1912, and remained there until December 1913. The Foundation has been involved with seven conservation expeditions to Cape Denison, working in partnership with the Australian Government through the Minister for Environment and Heritage, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Australian Heritage Division.

Mawson built several huts at Cape Denison:
The Main Hut, which was the Australian Antarctic Expeditions winter base;
The Magnetograph House that housed the delicate equipment that continually measured variations in the Earths magnetic field near the South Magnetic Pole;
The Absolute Magnetic Hut that was used to collect measurements of the Earths magnetic field;
And The Transit House that housed instrumentation used to take star sights to determine the exact latitude and longitude of Cape Denison.

The party at Cape Denison (the Main Base) in 1912-1913 comprised 18 men:
Dr Douglas Mawson, aged 30 at commencement of expedition Expedition Leader
Lieutenant Robert Bage, 23 astronomer, assistant magnetician and recorder of tides
Cecil Thomas Madigan, 23 meteorologist
Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, 23 dog handler
Dr Xavier Mertz, 28 dog handler
Dr Archibald Lang McLean, 26 doctor and bacteriologist
Francis Howard Bickerton, 22 mechanical engineer, in charge of air tractor
Alfred James Hodgeman, 26 cartographer and sketch artist
James Francis Hurley, 24 official photographer
Eric Norman Webb, 22 chief magnetician
Percy Edward Correll, 19 mechanic and assistant physicist
John George Hunter, 23 biologist
Charles Francis Laseron, 25 taxidermist and assistant biologist
Frank Leslie Stillwell, 23 geologist
Herbert Dyce Murphy, 32 supply officer, storeman
Walter Henry Hannam, 26 wireless operator and mechanic
John Henry Collinson Close, 40 assistant collector
Dr Leslie Whetter, 29 surgeon

Above information courtesy of Mawsons Huts Foundation

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