Hubert Wilkins and Ben Eielson preparing for their trans-Arctic flight in the Lockheed Vega plane in March 1928. The New York Times would call it ‘an amazing victory of human determination’ and the journey would earn Wilkins a knighthood.

Hubert Wilkins and Ben Eielson preparing for their trans-Arctic flight in the Lockheed Vega plane in March 1928. The New York Times would call it ‘an amazing victory of human determination’ and the journey would earn Wilkins a knighthood.Credit:University of Alaska Fairbanks

“The real flight of exploration was now over,but we still had 1448 kilometres to reach our goal. We headed straight for Spitsbergen by the sun’s position and the compass.”


From now,every mile they travel is a mile closer to safety,not a mile further away from it,and they relax just a little – at least as much as one can while attempting the impossibly improbable – uniquely alone on the earth with no chance of rescue or respite. “We were cheered immeasurably by the fact that our machine had performed wonders,our engine faithful every moment. Calmly content,I ... quickly summed up the situation.”

“It was 38 degrees below zero in the open air,and we were 483 kilometres from the Pole.”

And at least they are now through the worst of the storm!

They fly on calmly,Wilkins focusing on their course,Ben’s eyes on the prize of the far horizon and his ears keenly attuned to the hum of the motor.

Just three hours later,there is another breakthrough,for again out to their right they see,on the far hazy horizon,what can only be the snow-capped mountains of North Greenland! With that sure fix,Wilkins adjusts their position on the map accordingly – not far,for he is nearly bang on – and they keep going.

Hubert Wilkins takes a break wharfside at Deception Island circa 1928.

Hubert Wilkins takes a break wharfside at Deception Island circa 1928.Credit:Courtesy of Byrd Polar Research Centre,USA

All else being equal,they now have just 965 kilometres and six hours to go,before they should be in the area of Spitsbergen. But will all else be equal?


When they are still some 354 kilometres miles away from Spitsbergen the high curling cloud masses ahead rise to a height that they cannot get above. And so Ben now starts to dart along “selected lanes between the feathery masses”,while Wilkins takes observations from the brief snatches of sun to determine their position. By estimating their speed and direction,with constant references to his watch,he is able to estimate their longitude.

Travelling in this manner for an hour and a half the good news is that they know they must now be in the vicinity of Spitsbergen. The bad news,however,is that with that proximity comes the possibility of running into that island’s mountains,obscured by the cloud they are still flying through. And if they fly over those mountains,the other danger is,“we might be going too far inland,and would therefore probably have to journey over the mountains on foot to reach the settlement”.

The results of that summation are passed in a note for Ben:

There are two courses open. We are above storm now. Down there we can land and wait until it’s over. Can we get off again? If we go on we will meet storm at Spitsbergen and perhaps never find the land. Do you wish to land now?

Wilkins showing films to Inuit people in the Arctic,Christmas 1913.

Wilkins showing films to Inuit people in the Arctic,Christmas 1913.Credit:Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre,Ohio State University.

Ben thinks for a full minute before yelling his reply:“I’m willing to go on and chance it.”

Wilkins smiles. Of course you are,Ben. We are both born chancers.


And so they fly on,their light craft now drained of nearly all of its petrol,flung about by the storm.

“She leaped and bucked like a vicious horse,and to add to it all,fine snow and the wind made everything invisible.”

Everything loose in the cabin begins to tumble and rattle.

Rattled they may be,but nerves give way to excitement when the clouds break and they see them!

“Suddenly two sharp peaks,almost needle-pointed,appeared beneath us.”

They must be ... the mountain tops of Spitsbergen! They have done it! Yes,those same mountain tops are in imminent danger of becoming their grave site but for the moment let them savour the flavour of their triumph. After all,it is no small thing to have made the impossible now possible and both men are near overcome with an elation tempered only by the terror that their reward might be a grisly death,just minutes from now. Yes,they have done what no human being has ever done in recorded history,and near completed the hardest,most dangerous,most improbable flight in history,but the final challenge might be the toughest of the lot – to get this bird safely on the ground,or at least on the ice. Their task is clear:they must now make history and not disappear into it permanently.

Nose down with the engine roaring as they descend,the storm continues to slap and thwack the Vega.


“Eielson,never losing the upper hand,held and guided her splendidly around the rugged mountain tops”. For all that,things remain ferociously difficult.

The wind is so furious and freezing that it is not only turning sea- spray to ice but actually breaking up some of the icy surface below and sending small pieces of it smashing into their windscreen. It doesn’t break,but visibility is shocking and – CHRIST! LOOK OUT! – it is only through Ben’s furious concentration and quick reflexes that they miss another mountain peak,which suddenly appears,by what surely must have been inches!

This is madness,and Wilkins is quick to signal his pilot to immediately head back out to sea at once. It is only minutes later they can see the mountain they missed. Heading in once more,towards the island,and into the storm,much the same thing happens with another mountain that had been obscured by the storm!

“We were like an imprisoned bird beating against a window pane.” The risks,great as they are,must be run. They head into the storm and towards land,Eielson flying entirely at Wilkins’ direction.

The windscreen of the Vega is almost “totally obscured with snow and frozen oil”,but through the small patches of visibility they do have,the ice,land and sea,all look ... angry.

“The ice-strewn water and the wind were furious,while spray was whipped from the sea and filled the air. Over the land the snow drifted high and thick,and it was therefore impossible to judge distance.”

One way or another they have to get down,and quickly. Desperately looking left and right out the cabin windows,Wilkins sees it.


It is a single smooth patch of white snow. It is their one chance.

How does one steer a blind pilot?

By instinct of precisely where he thinks that flat white snow is,and with note and note after note,frantically written in just legible haste:“Turn right. Now to the left. A bit more. No,we have passed it. Turn back. Keep as close to the land as possible. There it is on the right.”

Australian explorer and war photographer Hubert Wilkins.

Australian explorer and war photographer Hubert Wilkins.

Eielson takes just a glance at each note before instantly responding,throwing the plane through trough after trough of heavy wind,even as he brings her down and turns her into the wind to attempt a landing on that white handkerchief of snowy ice. It looks tiny,but ideally both the snow and the wind will bring her to a quick,tight halt. Wilkins presses his face hard against the window pane,aching to see the first sign of safety or danger,will the surface be jagged ice or smooth? Will they crash or land? “It was impossible for Eielson to see but with steady nerve braced for all eventualities he levelled the ship and lowered her gently until lost in the swirling snow.” There it is!

And it looks . . . smooth enough.

Unbelievably,Ben feathers her down for the landing of his career. Both the thick snow and the wind coming straight at them indeed stop her cold before she can break against the mountain or a snowbank.

“Such was Lieutenant Eielson’s skill that the machine stopped 30 yards (27 metres) after the skis touched the snow.”

Simply radioing their position to the waiting world is not possible as,alas,when landingin extremis,Wilkins had forgotten to wind in the aerial cord and it had sheared off. Apart from that,when it comes to the radio itself,one of its valves has burnt out. He and Ben know they are alive,but what the rest of the world must think,who knows?

Now,after carefully brushing all the snow off their clothes,they can rest,eat and drink at leisure even while the wind continues to buffet them with every gust,and they gratefully chomp down some dry biscuit,chocolate and pemmican,chased down by one gulp each of the still hot coffee in Wilkins’ thermos. Together with a smoke to calm their nerves it gives both men a chance to reflect on their extraordinary achievement.

They have flown 22 hours and 20 minutes.

Coast to coast,non-stop,over the Arctic,3540 kilometres,the first men in history to do it. And,yes,it had taken it out of them.

“We had to fight,” he will recall. “Fight every inch of the way,anxious,uncertain,never quite helpless but ever against tremendous odds. We had,as we sat in the plane,reached a position of safety not only for ourselves but for our plane.”

Peter FitzSimons new book The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins.

Peter FitzSimons new book The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins.Credit:Hachette Australia

This is an edited extract from Peter FitzSimons’ bookThe Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkinspublished by Hachette Australia and released on October 27.

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