Bernt Balchen's story of the Fokker disaster

The following extract is from Bernt Balchen's autobiography "Come North With Me". No other account better describes how Byrd's Fokker Super Universal Virginia was wrecked in a storm after being the first aircraft to land on the Antarctic mainland. Following the Virginia incident, Balchen went on to fly a Ford Trimotor over the South Pole. He was the first pilot to fly over both the North and South Poles.

When to use a log chain for a wind sock


The Virginia at the Rockefeller Mountains before it was wrecked in a storm. Photo from "Come North With Me" by Bernt Balchen

"On March 7th when I get to Little America from a twenty-five-mile ski trip, Gould is waving to me at the end of the strip. Cyclone Haines has figured out that the weather probably won’t get much better than it is, so he guesses we might as well start now as any time. I grab a bite, throw my rucksack into the Fokker and climb in after it. Harold June comes along as again as radio operator, and Larry Gould sits in the rear of the place, gripping his theodolite between his knees.

"We have a rough take-off from Little America, because a recent blow has left the field like a corduroy road with ribbed sastrugi. I set course east for the Rockefeller Mountains, about a hundred and forty miles away, and climb to 8,000 feet and ride on top of a solid undercast. It is breaking up as we reach the range, and I come down through a hole in the clouds and find a good 3,000-foot ceiling underneath. There is a patch of blue ice at the southern end of the range, a frozen lake formed in the summer by melting water; and in this blank white world it is good to have any color to judge height and distance. June drops a couple of smoke flares, to give me wind direction, and I turn and come in for a landing on the blue ice patch. I hear a funny ticking on the plane’s skis and I look down and find they are grazing the slope of a hill. I flare out and sit down, and taxi to the northern shore of the lake.

"Our landing place is about two miles from the Rockefeller Range. The snow is packed as hard as a bone and littered with fist-sized boulders, blown here by the wind. It is a disturbing omen of what these mountain gales can be like. We sink deadmen in the snow, rope the plane securely, and stretch our tent under the left wing tip, fastening some of the guy lines to the skis and landing gear.

"After a good night’s sleep the three of us climb over gentle ice and snow slopes up to the 1,200- and 1,000-foot summits of the two nearest peaks, and by forward triangulation determine the positions of the rest of the group. I make some quick sketches to support Larry Gould’s triangulations. the wind is starting to blow hard, but this afternoon we find a patch of of exposed rock, and Larry chips off a fragment. he shakes his head. It is nothing but granite, nothing to give him even a glimpse into the geological history of Antarctic.

"The following morning the wind is blowing too hard for Gould to resume his explorations, and so we stay in our sleeping bags, enjoying a luxury breakfast in bed cooked over our primus stove. The canvas strains and balloons with each gust, and we glance at one another with a sense of foreboding. Shortly before noon there is a sharp report like a .22 rifle. The two guy lines attached to the landing gear have snapped, as the plane heaves with the wind, ripping a hole in the tent. We scramble out and shovel frantically to pile snow on the skis and weight them done so that the plane will not slide any farther. The wind increases, and the Fokker starts moving again. Gould jumps onto one of the skis, and June stands on the other, as I pile on more snow to hold them. As soon as there is a lull, we cut snow blocks and pile them around the landing gear, and I make another deadman out of one of our skis and secure the plane a little better.

"We try to assure ourselves that the worst is over; but about three o’clock the wind starts up harder than ever, and the plane lurches once more. Now the wind is so strong we can barely stand up against it. I fight my way inside the plane, and glance at the air-speed indicator. It is registering a steady 60 miles an hour, with gusts up to 90. One of them lifts the left wing, and the whole plane quivers and seems about to take off.

"While June and I hang on for dear life, Gould gets a ball of heavy silk mountaineering line from the grub chest, and throws it over the wing tip, and flings himself to the ground, tugging at the line with both hands. June makes a second loop with the line and holds on, while I start shoveling snow once more to strengthen the wall around the ship. It is all I can do to grip the handle, because the wind is blowing the shovel blade around like a kite. Right now I think we could use a log chain for a wind sock.

"We battle the wind for three seemingly endless hours. The blowing snow stabs into our faces like needles; the air is so thick with it that I can hardly see as far as my hand. Gould and June, lying flat on the ground and hanging to the lines, are numb with cold. At last I have piled enough snow blocks so that our buried skis will hold the plane; but there is no way of telling whether the wind will increase even more during the night. We agree that the only safe thing is to take everything out of the plane and dig it down in the snow, out of reach of the gale. We remove the radio receiver, but cannot dismantle the transmitter. Now if anything happens we shall be unable to send a message.

"Our tent is a shambles when we crawl inside. Snow has been driven through the large rips in the canvas where the guy lines tore loose, and our food and sleeping bags are almost buried. The temperature has risen, along with the wind, and melting snow has soaked everything. We repair the torn canvas with safety pins, scoop out the slush, and creep inside our bags, soaked with sweat, to wait the storm out.

"It is not very comfortable waiting, that is for sure. For two days we lie in our clammy sacks, while the barometer climbs hopefully and then drops to the bottom of the glass, the lowest readings I have seen. Anywhere else at least a cyclone would be coming. Once or twice the wind slacks off enough for us to attempt to take-off, but our radio picks up a message from Little America that they have snow and zero-zero conditions there; and by the time their weather lifts, our wind is building up again. We can see it coming down the mountain side, like puffs of smoke foreboding another big blow, and the propeller blades of the anchored Fokker turn slowly around as the airspeed indicator in the cockpit registers over a hundred miles an hour. After that, none os us enters the plane any more.

"That night the snow is starting to erode around the block wall. We try to repair is as best we can, but now we cannot even stand on our feet outside. I notice that the propeller is whirling so fast that I cannot follow the blades with my eye, and I calculate that with a cold engine the speed of the gusts at this time must be in excess of two hundred miles an hour. There is nothing to do but crawl inside the tent and take it.

"Along about midnight there comes a far off moaning, building to a roar like an approaching express train, down the mountain and across the snow toward us. It hits with a boom of an artillery shell landing, and then everything is dead quiet. I sit up in my sleeping bag and look through a slit in the snow blocks we have piled around the tent. Where the outline of the Fokker’s wing was above our tent, now there is only empty space.

“It’s gone!” I say to Gould and June, and they both reply wearily, “Oh, the hell with it!” and we lie back in our reindeer bags and go to sleep.


 

"The hurricane is still howling next morning as I start for the wreck, a couple of miles downwind. A sixty-mile blast knocks me off my feet, and from then on I proceed to the plane at a rapid clip, on the flat of my back. I manage to brake myself with my ski pole and sheath knife and stop beside the plane. Right away I can see that Uncle Tony’s
handsome bird will never fly again. The gale lifted it vertically out of the cradle of snow blocks, and flew it right side up, but backward, all the way. The landing gear crumpled forward when it struck the hard snow, and the whirling propellers hit the skis and curled up in the shape of tulips. Worst of all, the generator-transmitter in the ship has been ruined, and there is no way to send word to Little America of our disaster.

"Immediately I begin thinking of the serious consequences this loss can have if by any misadventure our other long-distance plane, the Ford, should be forced down south of the Queen Maud Range during our flight to the South Pole. We have been counting on the Fokker for support of the other parties in the field or if a rescue attempt from the polar plateau should be necessary. We no longer have a long-range plane in reserve to take off the Ford’s crew in case of a crash landing south of the towering ice barriers which would bar the way to the lighter and shorter-range Fairchild.

"Throughout the day we hear our friends at Little America vainly calling us on the radio. They cannot understand why we do not answer, and they want to know the reason. During the afternoon we pick up a more urgent message: “Explain your silence.” We shut the radio off, because there is no more use listening. We have no idea how long it will take the dog teams to find us. We have enough food to last a month, at least, and fortunately the gas tanks in the Fokker were not broken, so there is fuel to keep us warm.

"The dismal days drag by at our makeshift camp. Were I alone, I feel sure that I could make it back to Little America overland without too much trouble. The distance is about 140 miles, and I am used to making fifty miles a day or more on my skis. Neither of my companions has had any practice is skiing, however, and naturally I cannot think of leaving them.

"A week later Larry Gould is working down at the wreck, retrieving some scientific instruments, and June and I are inside the tent cooking a pemmican stew. The plumber’s stove is sputtering so loudly that we fail to hear the drone of the airplane engine overhead. Not until it has landed do we see that clear weather has finally brought the Fairchild, with Dead Smith at the controls and Commander Byrd himself a member of the rescue party. Later Russ Owen tells me that back at Little America, Byrd was beside himself with anxiety when no word came from us. “If they are lost, my work is done,” he kept saying, “and the public will never forget it, either.” Before take-off, Owen says, he sat swinging his helmet between his knees and staring morosely at the floor. “Is there no end to it?” he exclaimed. “I have had almost more than a man can bear.”

"They circled the wreck and spotted larry Gould alone, and at first they thought the rest of us had perished in the crash. Commander Byrd’s face is white as he steps out, and we can see how greatly relieved he is that all of us are there, hale and ways off, folds the bag carefully, and places it on the snow. There he kneels in prayer with his back to us. After a few moments he rises again and comes back, and we begin to load the rescue plane."

Note; Second and third photos on this page are from Byrd's book "Little America".


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