Mysterious Aircraft in Antarctica

by Lou Ann D Haddock

Mechanical flight and its possible variations have captured the imagination of the world' most creative and adventurous people throughout history.

US Navy Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd was one of America's most distinguished explorers who, in addition to flying an airplane over lands north of Greenland including the North Pole, made 3 expeditions into areas of Antarctica which were then unknown. Exploration of Arctic areas by plane fulfilled Byrd's dream and proved him a visionary. With such a tremendous vision Byrd promoted many new technical and scientific methods during his Antarctic expeditions, particularly the use of mechanical flight.

Byrd returned to Boston from his first expedition during 1930, the first year of the Depression, with a determination to return to the Antarctic. Despite the fact that in 1933 he had little money of his own and only a few financial supporters, Byrd and his assistants tenaciously sought out and acquired all supplies and equipment needed to take on a second Antarctic expedition in the fall of that year. During the summer of 1933, a 19-year-old merchant seaman from Rocky Mount, North Carolina was also docked in Boston. The teenager loved adventure, second only to story-telling; therefore, he found it difficult to decide against applying for a post on Byrd's ship when he found that the crew must agree not to talk about the secret aircraft on board ship. In his later correspondence, the seaman referred to the aircraft as the first helicopter. Historically, that is incorrect.

In reality, the secret aircraft was a Kellett autogiro loaned to Byrd by the Pep Boys of Philadelphia.

Autogiros in the 1930s had an airplane-type fuselage with an engine-driven propeller on the front and 2-6 autorotational rotors on a top mast which was tilted slightly backward.

Unlike a helicopter which uses the engine's power to turn the main rotors, the forward propulsion of the autogiro's engine allows the oncoming wind to strike the autorotational rotors from the front and underneath causing them to rotate without any direct engine power, in a usually counterclockwise movement, thus providing near-vertical lift.

Kellett autogiro

In 1493 Leonardo da Vinci drew an illustration of the first machine with the potential to achieve mechanical vertical lift, called an air screw. The autogiro, as an expression of mechanical vertical lift, had been under development almost simultaneously with that of the airplane. So why all the secrecy on Byrd's expedition? My theory, developed in collaboration with Dr. Craig McCotter who is an engineer with knowledge of aviation and Mr. Brad Julian who is an ex-military helicopter pilot, is simply that the Kellett was being tested by two branches of the U.S. military; the Army was interested in observation and the Navy in submarine detection and convoy defense. It is likely that the autogiro's near-vertical flight potential was the military's main interest. With short take-off and landing capabilities the autogiro could operate on any road or even the deck of an aircraft carrier, thus eliminating the need for a vulnerable runway. After World War II the autogiro faded into the background and almost into obscurity.

Today the autogiro is making a comeback in some circles because it requires minimal take off and landing space and because of its relative safety in flight. The autogiro has benefited from structural redesign over the past 50 years; the modern autogiro or "gyroplane" has the motorized propeller in the rear of the aircraft, but the concept of how it flies is still the same. There are several gyroplane manufacturers with web sites from which to learn more.

Charles Virgil Dickens was the name of the young seaman who provided the impetus for this story. Even though he was unable to experience the Antarctic with Admiral Byrd, Mr. Dickens continued to be an adventurer in his mind long after he left the sea. The story he could not have told then is being told now, as parts of the mystery are unraveled, by his daughter.

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