23, 1935, explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, with Canadian pilot Herbert
Hollick-Kenyon, took off in the Northrop Gamma Polar Star
from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea and headed across Antarctica
to Little America. This was not the first time that Ellsworth had
attempted a trans-Antarctic flight in the Polar Star.
Antarctica was the last continent to be
discovered and the only one that was mapped entirely from the air.
Aerial explorers from the United States, Great Britain, Australia,
Norway, Canada, and France can be credited with this feat, and
Lincoln Ellsworth was one of the most tenacious of these explorers.
Ellsworth, a World War I pilot, was the son of a
Chicago millionaire coal mine owner. He went on his first polar
expedition in 1925 with the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In
May 1929, Ellsworth, Amundsen, and Italian dirigible pilot Umberto
Nobile made the first transpolar flight in history, from Spitzbergen,
Norway, to Alaska, in the airship Norge. It was Ellsworth's
use of the airplane for exploration, rather than his skills as a
pilot, that earned him his place in aviation history.
Ellsworth first took the Polar Star to the
Antarctic in 1934. Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Australian polar
explorer, went along as advisor, and the Polar Star's pilot
was Bernt Balchen. The expedition reached the Bay of Whales by ship
on January 6,1934, and Ellsworth intended to make a round-trip
flight with Balchen between the Bay of Whales and the Weddell Sea.
However, the 15-foot-thick ice on which the
Polar Star was standing broke apart and one of the skis slipped
through a crack. The aircraft was almost lost, but after long hours
of work it was recovered and put back on the ship to be returned to
the United States for repairs.
Ellsworth and the expedition went back
to Antarctica in September. October and November were considered the
best months for flying there, and this time Ellsworth planned to fly
from Deception Island to the head of the Weddell Sea. However,
before any flight could be made, the Polar Star had to be
shipped to Magellanes, Chile, for repairs to a broken connecting
rod, and by the time the aircraft returned to Deception Island, snow
conditions made it impossible to use the runway. The expedition then
tried Snow Hill Island on Antarctica's east coast. On January 3,
1935, Ellsworth and Balchen made a successful flight to Graham Land,
but clouds and snow forced them to return to Snow Hill Island after
That November. Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon
finally succeeded in flying the Polar Star across Antarctica.
After their takeoff on the 23rd, they flew at an altitude of 13,400
feet; on crossing the 12,000-foot peaks of the Eternity Range, they
became the first men to visit western Antarctica. Ellsworth named a
portion of that area James W. Ellsworth Land in honour of his
The Polar Star made four landings during
its flight across the Antarctic. After a blizzard that occurred
during the night at the third camp, the inside of the plane was
packed solid with drifted snow. The two explorers spent a whole day
scooping out the dry, powdery snow with a teacup.
On December 5, fuel exhaustion forced
them down about 25 miles short of their goal of Little America. They
walked for six days to reach there, and then settled down in the
camp abandoned by Richard E. Byrd several years earlier.
The British Research Society ship Discovery II
sighted them on January 15, 1936. Hollick-Kenyon later returned
to recover the Polar Star. The total distance flown by the
Polar Star before its forced landing was about 2,400 miles. The
U.S. Congress voted Ellsworth a special gold medal for his Antarctic
exploration and "for claiming on behalf of the United States
approximately 350,000 square miles of land in the Antarctic
representing the last unclaimed territory in the world."
The Polar Star was one of two Northrop
Gammas that were the first aircraft produced in 1933 by the newly
established Northrop Corporation of Inglewood, California. The Gamma
is a low-wing, all-metal cantilever monoplane with a 710-hp
9-cylinder Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine. The one built for
Ellsworth had two seats in tandem with dual controls. The other of
these first two Gammas was built for Frank Hawks, who at the time
was a pilot for Texaco. Hawks's Gamma was a single seat model. On
June 2,1933, Hawks set a west east non-stop record in his Gamma,
flying from Los Angeles to Floyd Bennett Field, New York, in 13
hours, 26 minutes, 15 seconds.
In April 1936, Lincoln Ellsworth
donated the Polar Star to the Smithsonian.
With its long-range speed capabilities so readily apparent, it
was not surprising that such speed enthusiasts as Jackie
Cochran wanted the Gamma. Hers was something different, being
powered by a 700 hp Curtiss Conqueror liquid-cooled V-12
tucked into a slim cowl. It was her plan to fly it in the MacRobertson Race from England to Australia in 1934, but the
airplane was badly damaged on its delivery flight. The Model
2G was rebuilt with a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp in the nose.
Jackie started the 1935 Bendix Race in it but dropped out
early because of severe weather.
Howard Hughes then took over Cochran's NR-13761 and
proceeded to blast speed records in all directions: Los
Angeles to New York in January, 1936, at 255 mph; Miami to
New York in April, 1936, at 250 mph; Chicago to Los Angeles
in May, 1936, at 215 mph.
The one and
only Gamma Model 2B was delivered to Lincoln Ellsworth who named it
'the Polar Star.' Ellsworth took the airplane to Antarctica aboard a
ship in 1934 with the famous aviator Bernt Balchen as his pilot.
Ellsworth had planned a round trip flight between the Bay of Whales
and the Weddell Sea. While still preparing for the flight the ice
beneath the polar star broke apart and it was nearly lost. After
considerable effort the plane was recovered and loaded back aboard a
ship and then subsequently returned to America for repairs.
Ellsworth and the Polar Star returned to Antarctica in September,
however before a flight could be made the plane broke a connecting
rod and had to be shipped off once again for repairs.
Finally, after returning once again to Antarctica
and finding an adequate runway the plane flew over Antarctica on
January 3, 1935. The following November Ellsworth and Canadian pilot
Herbert Hollick-Kenyon succeeded in flying the Polar Star across
Antarctica, becoming the first men to visit western Antarctica. The
Polar Star made a number of landings on it's journey across
Antarctica before it was forced down by fuel starvation just 25
miles short of it's transatlantic goal. Over 2400 miles had been
flown before the aircraft was forced down. The crew abandoned the
aircraft and walked the remaining 25 miles to their destination,
taking 6 days to arrive. The aircraft was later recovered and
donated to the Smithsonian where it is currently on display.
The Gamma family consisted of a number
of variants. The Gamma family was an outgrowth of the Alpha,
initially serving as a rugged civilian transport the Gamma
eventually found it's way into military service with the US, Spain,
China as war approached.
Model 2A, Qty 1: First Gamma delivered
(1932). Purchased by Texaco on February 14, 1933 for $40,000. Frank
Hawks, the director of the Aviation department for the Texas Company
used it for a number of record breaking flights. This aircraft was
officially named "Texaco 11" and commonly referred to as "Sky
Chief". It was in this single seat model gamma that Hawks set a west
to east non-stop record flying from Los Angeles to New York, in 13
hours, 26 minutes, 15 seconds (2 June 1933.)
THERE ARE MILITARY airplanes, and
commercial airplanes, and scientific airplanes, and sport airplanes.
And there is at least one airplane which earned its place in the sun
by being all these things and by looking so great that it could
easily have attracted the world's attention by just sitting on the
ramp motionless. The Northrop Gamma was that plane.
Wingspan 14.6 m (48 ft.)
Wing Area 363 sq. ft.
Length 9 m (29 ft. 9 in.)
Height 2.7 m (9 ft.)
Weight 1,589 kg (3,500 lb.)
Normal Loaded Weight 7000 lbs
It began as a speed pilot's dream come true; eventually it led to an
Army bomber and to fast, comfortable, high altitude passenger
travel. Along the way, it pioneered flight in the Antarctic and set
a fistful of transcontinental speed records. To do all this, it had
to combine what were then the latest technical ideas with such
radical concepts as wind-tunnel designed wing fillets and large
The beginning was February, 1932, when Frank
Hawks decided his TravelAir Mystery Texaco 13 wasn't fast enough and
asked the manufacturers to come up with something better. It was to
be financed by his employers, Texaco. Famed designer John K.
Northrop played the major role in planning, and it was his
brainchild that the Northrop subsidiary of Douglas set to work on.
Designing began in May, 1932, and the first Gamma, named Sky Chief,
was test flown on Dec. 3, 1932.
It was long and it was sleek and it was metal
from cowl to tail cone. The elaborate wing-fuselage fillets
eliminated all the troublesome interference problems encountered by
other low-wing airplanes and actually reduced the total drag. It was
possible to place the wing completely under the fuselage, which
allowed for much greater space inside. Older planes had been forced
to clutter up their cargo space with bulky wing spars, but now there
was plenty of room for freight or passengers on planes like the
Gamma or, later, the DC-3.
But what really counted was how quickly you could
get from where you were to where you wanted to be. Frank Hawks
showed how fast his big silver bird could do its job by flying from
Los Angeles to New York (no simple trick in those days) at an
average speed of 180 mph for the 2450 miles. Power for NR-12265 was
a 14-cylinder Wright R-1510 Whirlwind, rated at 700 hp at sea level.
The fame achieved in this and other speed runs was just what Texaco
wanted, being worth far more than the plane's original purchase
price of only $40,000.
The Sky Chief was flown by Hawks for more than a
year, then sold to boat builder/racer Gar Wood in 1934. An accident
during the 1936 Bendix Trophy Race from New York to Los Angeles
finally destroyed the ship when it exploded in flight and sent pilot
Joe Jacobson home in a parachute.
By any standards, the Gamma was a success, so
nothing could be more logical than to build more. The second Gamma
(Model 2B) went to Arctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth in 1934. He and
pilot Bert Balchen tried flying it to uncharted regions of the
Antarctic that year. However , the plane was damaged when it became
stuck in the ice and had to be returned home. Finally, on Nov. 23,
1935, Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon took off
from an island in the Weddell Sea and headed for Admiral Byrd's
pioneering base at Little America. This modified Gamma Model 2E was
the prototype of the bomber version supplied in quantity to the
Chinese to use against the invading Japanese in the years just
before World War II
Yet another Gamma got into the racing game:
NC-2111 owned by publisher and physical culture faddist Bernard
McFadden. Carrying the owner's name in huge letters along the side,
it was flown to third place in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race at 202
mph by Russell Thaw.
The largest number of Gammas built were Model
2Es, 51 of them came off the assembly lines. For the most part, they
were military versions, destined for the Chinese Air Force which, in
the mid1930's, already was fighting what would become the Pacific
half of World War II. Armed with just three .30 cal. machine guns
and carrying about 1000 lbs. of bombs, they probably were at quite a
disadvantage against the fast, manoeuvrable little Japanese fighter
Other Gammas-mainly 2Es went to a number of
countries for a variety of reasons. One that got as far as Sweden
was SE-ADW Smaland, used by a predecessor of today's Scandinavian
Airlines System in night airmail flying until aileron flutter proved
its undoing. At least two found their way to Great Britain, one
being a Model 2E used for experimental purposes by the Air Ministry,
and the sole Model 2L used by Bristol as a flying test bed for its
Hercules sleeve-valve engine.
Only one complete Gamma is known to be in
existence: the ski-equipped Polar Star, which is on display in the
Smithsonian. It is in excellent condition, except for some dents and
scratches acquired many years ago when it was slithering around the