Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914
Frank WILD (1874-1922). Autograph letter signed to Alfred Reid, 'Adelaide' but [Melbourne], 21 October 1911, on A.A.E. headed paper, 4 pages, 4to.
A fine letter addressed to the business manager of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909. Wild gives details of 'our smash up with the aeroplane'. The plane was shipped to Adelaide, taken out for assembly to the racecourse and uncrated and assembled over three days by Wild, Watkins and F.H.Bickerton. A first test flight by Watkins was held on the morning of Wednesday 3 October ('she went beautifully & Watkins circled the course half a dozen times at about 500 ft.') but the plane developed a problem with the fuel which led to a forced landing and minor damage to the plane. The necessary repairs were not completed until late at night: 'We again slept on the racecourse.. Before six o'clock [the following morning] we were ready for flight & Watkins & I climbed in. We got away well & were off the ground within fifty yards, before we got to the end of the course we were up about 100 feet..'. The plane encountered problems whilst trying to turn and they 'struck earth at about seventy miles an hour'. Both Wild and Wilkins, the pilot, were trapped under the plane, were quickly released but both sent to hospital, Wilkins with a broken breast-bone, Wild with bad bruising ('I had some of the finest rain-bow colouring spread over my anatomy ever you saw in your life'). 'The machine was badly mangled, & Mawson has decided to get only the engine body & tail repaired & taken south for sledge hauling, leaving the wings behind.' The letter continues with some details of Wild's intended movements: 'am going over to Hobart next Wednesday the 25th to arrange about berthing accommodation for the Aurora; she ought to arrive very soon [she arrived in Hobart on 4 November]. Mawson has not got on so well financially as he would have liked & is pretty considerably worried'. The letter concludes with a request 'Now, will you please do me a favour; I want a copy of Shackleton's book [The Heart of the Antarctic], with the maps, sent to a very dear old friend of mine; the address is Mrs. J.P.Martin, Petersburg, S.A. & if I don't repay you, the Lord will'.
Wild served on Scott's first expedition of 1901-4, and was a member of Shackleton's sledging party that got within 100 miles of the Pole during the 1907-09 Nimrod expedition. He went on to lead the Western Party of Mawson's expedition (1911-1914), acted as deputy to Shackleton on the Endurance expedition of 1914-1917 and ended his polar career by taking over command of the Quest when Shackelton died at South Georgia in 1922.
F.H. Bickerton, a motor engineer and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, took part in Mawson's expedition and, amongst other duties, was in charge of what became known as the air-tractor sledge. Watkins did not go south, and took no further part in the expedition.
Mawson, in his account of the expedition (The Home of the Blizzard), made no mention of Watkins, of the air-tractor having been an aeroplane, or of the crash that resulted in its transformation.