The First Flights over Antarctica

February 4, 1902

The first flights over Antarctica took place as part of a British exploration of that region of the world. The British National Antarctic Expedition, which was led by Royal Navy Captain Robert F. Scott, had departed from England in the wooden ship RRS Discovery in August 1901. 

The ship crossed the Antarctic Circle that following January, and Scott and his crew eventually found themselves sailing along the enormous platform of ice known at the time as the Great Ice Barrier (since renamed the Ross Ice Shelf in honor of the British explorer who discovered it in 1841). Setting foot on this ice shelf at a small bay there, Scott and others in his party brought with them a deflated balloon that was on board Discovery for use in aerial surveys.   

The balloon, which had been named “Eva,” was pumped with hydrogen from cylinders that were likewise part of Discovery’s cargo for the expedition. The balloon’s basket could hold only one person at a time, and Scott — “perhaps somewhat selfishly,” as he later acknowledged — selected himself for the first flight. With the tethered balloon reaching a height of approximately 800 feet (243.8 meters) above the earth, Scott could see a good deal of the massive Great Ice Barrier. 

Later that day, another milestone in Antarctica’s aviation history was achieved when Royal Naval Reserve Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton (who would lead three similarly notable Antarctic expeditions) became the second person to soar above the Great Ice Barrier in the still-tethered balloon. Armed with a camera during his ascent, Shackleton took the first aerial photographs of Antarctica. 

The balloon allowed Scott and Shackleton to see more of the interior of a continent that was still mostly unexplored. Their flights were the first of many memorable and significant experiences with airborne transportation in Antarctica.

For more information on aerial explorations of Antarctica, please check out https://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/south_pole/EX20.htm#:~:text=On%20February%204%2C%201902%2C%20British,into%20the%20heart%20of%20Antarctica

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