15 January 2012

Antarctic Rescue - January 1960

I recently wrote about an alpine rescue in 1958.  I was recently reminded of a rescue I was involved in early 1960 in Antarctica.  Towards the end of the NZAC Antarctic expedition to the area east of the Beardmore Glacier our team was to be flown out to Scott Base by the RNZAF Antarctic Flight. Near the mouth of the Beardmore we fitted half (four) our expedition members and all their gear into the plane - we made sure that all our rock samples went in first - the Beaver, piloted by Les Jeffs, managed to struggle into the sky just before they reached the horizon. This was 8th Jan.

The Packed Beaver

Over the next three days the remaining four of us manhauled the four sleds with our remaining gear out to the Beardmore Depot. Here three Americans manned this halfway weather station between Scott Base and the South Pole. The Beaver would pick us up in a couple of days, we were told! Sure enough they arrived to pick us up but only had space for three of us.  I won the toss and elected to stay away from the metropolis of Scott Base.  They'd be back for me soon they said.

Fair enough I thought - but they crashed on a glacier to the west of us in a white out on 15th Jan. Luckily the impact simply turned the Beaver upside down and their new crash hats save them from serious injury.  The American radio man at the Beardmore Depot picked up their mayday signal and relayed it to McMurdo.  Because of weather problems help, in the form of an R4D (like our old DC3s), took five days to get to them but after discovering that they were in amongst crevasses, returned to McMurdo after dropping them some supplies.

"Carp" Beardmore Depot Radio Operator

The rescue was left to Bill Cranfield a very experienced NZ pilot who performed one of the great unsung rescues in Antarctica. In a tiny Auster he flew solo from Scott Base stopping to refuel from a fuel drum on his own somewhere on the Ross Iceshelf near the Shackleton Glacier.  He landed at the Beardmore Depot in a white out - there was nowhere else to go!  We guided him to the Depot  with smoke from a burning aircraft tyre.  We told him by radio when we could hear him directly overhead and he flew south for a while before turning 180 degrees and descending through the fog on full flap until he 'hit' the Ross Iceshelf. It was quite eerie seeing this little Auster taxiing towards us through the whiteout.

Auster Landed - note smoke 

Bill Cranfield and Les Jeffs

After a couple more days he managed to fly to the crash site and picked up one if the airmen but couldn't land at Beardmore Depot because of more whiteout conditions.  He returned to the site and slept with the airmen in their emergency tent hoping for a change of weather.  Finally on the eighth day he managed to rescue both airmen.  He returned to Scott Base with Les Jeffs on the 24th Jan and the other, Peter Rule returned on an American R4D flight with me on 2nd Feb.  For Peter Rule it had been 23 days since his departure from Scott Base. My only involvement had been to man the radio between the Beardmore Depot and the Auster.  My last effort at Scott Base was as cook for the base for the rest of the summer - as the cook had gone AWOL - together with his considerable supply of whisky.  It was a steep learning curve for me.

Bill Cranfield and Rescued Airmen (plus Athol Boag)


  1. Sadly the http://www.aviationnews.co.nz/austertotherescue.html link is now dead. I was looking forward to reading that.