Sir Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958)


  • Bernt Balchen



Polar regions


The passing of Sir Hubert Wilkins on November 30 means the loss of one of the most colourful figures of polar aviation and exploration. Sir Hubert was born in South Australia on October 31, 1888. He received his education as a mining engineer in Adelaide, and in his younger years worked as electrical engineer, meteorologist, and movie photographer. It was this last vocation that started him on his career of adventure and exploration. In 1912-13 he followed the Turkish Army as a movie photographer in the Balkan War. He was second in command of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-18. He then joined the Royal Australian Flying Corps, learned to fly in 1917, and saw war service as a photographer and in the intelligence services. He was mentioned twice in dispatches and was awarded the Military Cross with Bar. After the war he served as navigator on one of the England-Australia flights in 1919, was second in command of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition 1919-20, naturalist with the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition 1921-22, leader of the Australian Islands Expedition 1922-25 and leader of the Detroit Arctic Expeditions 1925-28. During these expeditions some very important pioneering flights were made in the Arctic, the most outstanding of which was the flight from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Green Harbour, Spitzbergen, April 15 to 21, 1928, which Wilkins and his pilot, Carl Ben Eielson, undertook in a single-engined Lockheed Vega. On this flight they crossed large areas of the Arctic Ocean in which other explorers had claimed to have seen land, but where Wilkins and Eielson found none. For this flight he was knighted on June 14, 1928. Sir Hubert then became leader of the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition 1928-30 during which he discovered more than 500 miles of new coastline in the Graham Land sector. In 1931 he was leader of the Ellsworth Nautilus Submarine Expedition to the Arctic, and from 1932 to 1939 manager of the Ellsworth Antarctic Expeditions. The highlight of these was the trans-Antarctic flight from the Weddell Sea to Little America by Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon in November 1935. Sir Hubert headed the search expedition for the lost Soviet flyer Levanevsky in 1937-38 and during the search covered about 170,000 sq. miles of the Arctic Ocean never previously seen. From 1942 he served as consultant to the U.S. Armed Forces on arctic problems. During his many flights and travels in the Polar regions Sir Hubert acquired a great store of knowledge of these environments, that provided invaluable help for later expeditions. He was the recipient of numerous honours from all over the world and was recognized by the American Geographical Society and the Royal Geographical Society. He was the author of many books, and active as scientist and lecturer. Sir Hubert was a man of the type that you always looked forward to meeting again. His memory will be cherished by those of us who had the privilege of being with him on polar expeditions and we shall always remember him as the finest companion one could wish for. He had courage and daring but was always even-tempered, kind and modest.