Lincoln Ellsworth

Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951)

ellsw-1_222Together with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, Lincoln Ellsworth discovered the Ellsworth Mountains and completed the first transantarctic flight in history.

Introduction to Polar Exploration

Ellsworth’s initial exposure to polar adventures began on May 21, 1925, when he, Roald Amundsen and four other men set out in two Dornier flying boats, on an unsuccessful but adventurous mission to be the first to fly to the North Pole. The planes landed on an open lead 120 miles (193 km) from the Pole and the men found themselves stranded, as the lead closed up around them and one of the planes was crushed. They spent 24 days leveling an ice runway on the moving floes of ice. On the 25th day, the remaining plane took off with all six men aboard and safely arrived back in Spitsbergen.

The following year, Ellsworth, along with Amundsen and 14 other men piloted a dirigible, the Norge across the Polar Sea from Europe to Alaska, a 72 hour, 3,393 mile (5460 km) journey.

Antarctic Inspiration

Ellsworth was inspired by the accomplishments of Sir Hubert Wilkins, who had explored the coast of Graham Land, Antarctica by air in 1928; and by Admiral Richard Byrd, who made the first flight over the South Pole in November 1929. With the help of Wilkins, Ellsworth began planning his first Antarctic expedition, the aim of which was to make the first transantarctic flight, from Byrd’s Little America II base to the head of the Weddell Sea and back. Wilkins purchased a 400-ton herring vessel to serve as expedition ship. The vessel was re-fitted and christened the Wyatt Earp, for the famous frontier marshal whom Ellsworth admired. Ellsworth’s plane, the Polar Star, was shipped to Norway and loaded aboard.

Transantarctic Flight

First Attempt (1933-34)

In July 1933, the expedition embarked on the four month journey to New Zealand, where they re-fueled and took on provisions. Continuing south, they encountered heavy pack ice at the entrance to the Ross Sea and spent 22 days working their way through it toward the Bay of Whales. Finally, on January 9, they reached the edge of the ice shelf, 20 miles (32 km) north of Little America II. They moored the Wyatt Earp and lowered Polar Star onto level snow.

Ellsworth and pilot Bernt Balchen made a successful test flight and everything was ready for the transantarctic flight. During the night, heavy seas broke up the ice under the Polar Star, leaving it hanging over a crevasse, supported by the wings. The aircraft was damaged beyond field repair. The expedition was over.

Second Attempt (1934-35)

Ellsworth returned to the Antarctic with a new plan. He had learned that it was impossible to reach the Bay of Whales before January and that January was a poor month for Antarctic flying due to fog. As a result, he decided to begin the transantarctic flight on the Antarctic Peninsula, fly to Little America II, and wait there to meet up with the Wyatt Earp in January. This would allow a November start; reduce the flight distance by half; and allow them to carry a sledge, tent, camping equipment and supplies.

The ship arrived at Deception Island on the Antarctic Peninsula in mid-October. Polar Star was unloaded and assembled on the beach. As they tested the engine, a connecting rod snapped. Spare parts were flown to Chile and picked up by the Wyatt Earp. By the time the plane was repaired, the snowfield runway had melted and the warm temperatures brought persistent fog. Once again, the expedition was over before it began.

Third Attempt (1935-36)

The following year, Ellsworth made a third attempt for a transantarctic flight, this time with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. The expedition set up a base at Dundee Island on the Antarctic Peninsula and by November 18, the Polar Star had been test-flown and was ready for the historic flight. Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon took off on November 23, heading southwest over the Larsen Ice Shelf, George VI Sound and what is now Ellsworth Land. They flew past the northern end of the Ellsworth Mountains, thus discovering the highest mountain range in Antarctica. After 13 hours of flying, and in poor visibility, the men landed to ascertain their position. Ellsworth claimed the area for the United States and named it James Ellsworth Land, for his father. Over the next 10 days they made three attempts to continue their flight, but each time they were forced to land due to deteriorating weather. At Camp II they were pinned down by a three-day blizzard which nearly buried the Polar Star and took three days to dig out. Finally, on December 4 they were able to take off toward the Bay of Whales, 150 miles (241 km) away. The final two legs of the journey got Polar Star within 16 miles (26 km) of Little America, before running out of fuel. The men were unsure which direction to walk and it took them 11 days of searching to find the base. Once there, they settled in to await the arrival of the Wyatt Earp.

In all, the transantarctic flight covered 2200 miles (3541 km), with four stops and an elapsed time of approximately 20 hours. 1200 miles (1931 km) were over previously unexplored territory. This was the longest flight in polar history, a feat not repeated until 1956.

Rescue Party

Rescue plans were put into action when radio contact with the Polar Star was lost. The RSS Discovery sailed for the Bay of Whales arriving on January 15, one month after the men had arrived. Ellsworth’s tent was spotted and an aircraft dropped emergency supplies. A rescue party reached Little America and Ellsworth returned with them to the Discovery. Hollick-Kenyon stayed behind to salvage the Polar Star. The Wyatt Earp arrived several days later. The Polar Star was re-fueled, flown to the Bay of Whales and loaded on board.

Antarctic Expedition 1938-39

Ellsworth made one final expedition to Antarctica, this time to the Indian Ocean sector. Ellsworth and pilot J.H. Lymburner made a 210 mile (338 km) flight south along the 79th E. meridian, from 68°30’S to 72°S. Ellsworth claimed an 80,000 square mile area for the US—a claim that was promptly disputed by the Australian government. He named the area ‘American Highland’.


Ellsworth’s 1935 transantarctic route traversed the length of the Ellsworth Mountains, which he named the ‘Sentinel Range’. This name was later restricted to the northern of two distinct ranges (the southern range became the Heritage Range) and the entire group of mountains was named ‘Ellsworth Mountains’ in his honor. A number of other features are also named for the American explorer, including:

  • Sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth, west of the Ellsworth Mountains. Site of a recent drilling project;
  • Cape Ellsworth, named by personnel of the Discovery after Ellworth’s rescue;
  • Mount Ellsworth, Queen Maud Mountains. Discovered and named by Admiral Byrd during his 1929 South Pole flight;
  • Ellsworth Land, the area over which Ellsworth flew during his transcontinental flight.

Back to Polar Explorers

Sign up for the newsletter

Thanks for Signing Up!