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Not forgotten

New Antarctic memorial immortalizes tragic plane crash from 50 years ago 


Ernie Hand recalls the gasoline fireball filling the plane up to his ankles. He had managed to bring the U.S. Navy P2V-7LP Neptune back to the edge of the ice shelf before the crash landing that sent the converted bomber skidding across a half-mile of ice.

“While we were sliding, things were blowing up. There were a lot of hydraulic cylinders, oxygen bottles, that kind of stuff,” says Hand, the co-pilot that day more than 50 years ago.

“When it came to a stop, I opened the escape hatch and rolled out. I was on fire from one end to the other,” he adds with a strong Southern drawl that makes the story sound so matter-of-fact. “A lot of things go through your mind: Shall I run and get away from this thing, because it kept blowing up. But I stopped and thought, ‘I better put myself out.’ So I did.”

Hand, 75, somehow survived with three other men when their plane caught fire on Nov. 9, 1961, shortly after taking off from Wilkes Station on the coast of East Antarctica. Five others weren’t so lucky, including four members of the Navy’s VX-6 squadron and a U.S. scientist.

Until recently, the incident was a fading memory, remembered by a handful of men who had witnessed the tragedy. Time was consuming the wreckage itself, as snow drifts buried the parts of the aircraft that had been left at the site.

“Clearly, in [a] few years time, there’d be no trace of the tragedy visible, to serve as a stimulus for reflection on the event,” says Bill Burch.

Burch had witnessed the accident from the ground. Also, as the station’s “official photographer,” he shot stills and video of the takeoff. Later, he would write an essay about the tragedy called “The All American Boy,” an homage to AMH1 William W. Chastain, one of the Navy men who perished in the crash.

“I felt it would be a loss to the history of the region if there was not some basic permanent record of this accident,” says Burch, 73, via email from Australia.

Eventually, he joined forces with Billy-Ace Penguin Baker and the Old Antarctic Explorers Association (OAEA), a U.S.-based non-profit founded to preserve the memories and experiences of those who have been involved in Antarctica.  

Baker arranged for the OAEA board of directors to donate $1,000 toward a bronze plaque that would commemorate the crash. Burch and some of his Wilkes crewmates added another $300.

On April 21, 2012, members of Australia’s Casey Station held an official dedication ceremony the day after the plaque had been placed on a large boulder overlooking Vincennes Bay near memorial crosses for two Australians who had also died on the continent.

“Standing there, it certainly feels poignant and appropriate,” says Casey Station leader Mark Hunt, who helped arrange for the delivery of the plaque to the Ice and oversee the memorial service.

Jubilant atmosphere

The opportunity to live and work in Antarctica had been a boy’s dream come true for Burch after listening to the exploits of a fellow countryman who had been “down south.” Thanks to a basic science degree in physics and electronics — and apparently a dearth of applicants for a geophysicist position — he joined the 1961 Wilkes crew at age 22.

Wilkes Station was one of seven research bases established by the United States during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY), a scientific campaign that involved dozens of nations in a variety of research fields, with special emphasis on the polar regions. In 1959, the United States turned over Wilkes Station to the Australian government, which about a decade later built a new base a couple of miles away and named it Casey Station.

Most of the 24 men who had arrived at the coastal research station in 1961 were Australian, though the contingent included five Americans, as part of the spirit of cooperation fostered by Antarctic research.

One of the Americans was Stan Wilson, a budding marine biologist who later switched careers and specialized in remote sensing in oceanography, retiring from NOAA last year after stints in both the Office of Naval Research and NASA.

Wilson recalls the jubilant atmosphere that prevailed on Nov. 8 when the P2V landed at Wilkes. It had been 10 months since they had seen anyone other than each other.

“The camp was absolutely humming with excitement,” Wilson says. “It was absolutely the high point of our year. New stories; fresh faces; interesting conversation.”

A rough landing

The plane, piloted by Lt. Elias J. Stetz and Lt. j.g. Ernie Hand, had arrived from Mirny, a Russian coastal base, after being delayed several days by a blizzard. The purpose of the mission was for geophysicist Edward C. Theil to conduct an airborne magnetometer survey over the continent. The flight was to cover some 3,500 miles from and back to McMurdo Station, the United States’ main logistics facility for Antarctic operations.

The Americans had also brought about 600 pounds of mail to Wilkes, according to Hand, further endearing the flight crew to their hosts.

“They treated us like royalty. They wined and dined us,” he says.

Before joining the fete, Burch had volunteered to help refuel the P2V. That’s when he met Chastain, whom he described in detail in his “The All American Boy” essay:

“His teeth I remember most about him. An absolutely perfect set kept totally visible through the mobile shutter of a mouth that rarely closed as he chewed gum and talked, simultaneously. A tricky maneuver that demanded great facial mobility. He was in every way the epitome of what movies and early TV had taught me to think of as the “All American Boy.” Six foot something, crew cut hair, big beaming smile, looked to be barely twenty. His mother must have been very proud of him!”

Burch goes on to mention how Chastain remarked on the roughness of the Wilkes landing strip — a stretch of ice that had been flattened down by a D4 tractor before the plane arrived. The men finished loading the P2V with gasoline and joined the party.

And a rougher takeoff

The next morning, with most of the Wilkes crew nursing hangovers, only a few people turned out to see the P2V off, including Burch and Wilson. The plane was fully loaded with fuel, about 3,350 gallons across the wings, and another 1,500 gallons in a tank located near the aft of the plane in the bomb bay.

“The flight to McMurdo from Wilkes was a long way,” Hand explains. “That’s why we had [gasoline in] everything that you could put gasoline in.”

That made the plane extremely heavy.

“It was a rough takeoff,” Hand recalls. “With all of the bottles of JATO burning — and we had [six] — I did not think we were going to get off the ground. But at the last second [the plane] became unstuck and we were flying.”

The jet-assisted takeoff bottles, or JATO rockets, provided the airplane the boost it needed to lift off. But the bruising ride over the uneven snow surface had apparently broken or knocked loose the shackles holding up the fuel tank in the bomb bay. The tank broke loose and high-octane fuel started to spill out, streaming out the tail where the JATO rockets were burning.

The JATO bottles turned into blowtorches, scorching and melting the fiberglass tail. And then the flames raced back to the source of the fuel. The tank exploded, according to Hand.

“It blew the top and the bottom out of the airplane. Why it didn’t separate, only God can tell you,” he says. “It filled the whole airplane with flaming gasoline.”

Hand had taken the controls after Stetz had apparently become overcome by the smoke and passed out. He managed to put the plane down and escape out the hatch, along with AE1 Jack C. Shaffer and AT2 Clarence C. Allen. One of the men had stepped on Stetz's shoulder when crawling out of the cockpit, waking the pilot, who also fled the still-exploding aircraft.

Wilson and the station doctor, the late Dr. Noel Orton, were the first to arrive at the crash scene.

“We saw these four guys standing there, and the first thing you thought was, ‘Gee, how did they get out of that,’” Wilson says, adding that the crew’s cold weather gear had partly protected them from the fire — except for their faces and hands.

The men were severely burned and injured. Wilson was assigned to take care of Hand until an evacuation flight could be arranged.

“I was essentially Ernie’s nurse,” Wilson says. “I sort of had a special bond with Ernie because of that.”

A couple of days later, a C-130 aircraft from McMurdo Station arrived at Wilkes to transport the injured men. Comments made almost 40 years later by one of the men on the crew who flew with the C-130 rescue mission, Buz Dryfoose, attested to the roughness of the landing strip.

Nothing could be salvaged from the wreckage. “All below the snow line was pretty much in tact and all above the snow line looked like a skeleton,” Dryfoose wrote.

The four survivors convalesced at McMurdo for several days before heading to New Zealand, where they spent two weeks, according to Hand. The men eventually ended up at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, where they underwent numerous skin grafts.

Risks and rewards

So, what happened to Hand after that?

“The next year, I went down there and flew my fanny off,” he says, mildly scoffing at the idea that the accident would keep him away from flying again.

“I was back in the cockpit as soon as I was able,” he says from his home near Knoxville, Tenn. “If you have a wreck at the end of the street, you don’t quite driving. Life goes on.”

Life kept Hand in the Navy for almost 12 years, two of them in the Antarctic, an adventure that he still remembers fondly despite the tragedy.

“We did things that you wouldn’t even think about doing here [in the United States],” he says. “We were good. We were dedicated to what we did. It was no slipshod operation, believe me.”

It was certainly a more dangerous time in those early pioneering years of the U.S. Antarctic Program, then known as the U.S. Antarctic Research Program, which was managed and funded by the National Science Foundation. Four men were killed in a separate P2V crash during a whiteout near McMurdo on Oct. 18, 1956. Six men died two years later when a U.S. Air Force C124 went down in the Admiralty Mountains. On Feb. 2, 1966, an LC-47 crashed and killed six VX-6 personnel.

In fact, more than 50 people were killed between 1955 and 1999, the years when the Navy was in operational control of Operation Deep Freeze, the military’s umbrella name for Antarctic support. Some died in helicopter crashes, others in crevasse accidents.

The OAEA has established a memorial fund for the placement of future plaques, according to Baker, though some areas are probably too remote, far from field camps or research stations.

“Some of them you wouldn’t be able put a plaque up,” says Baker, who visits Chastain’s grave in the Barrancas National Cemetery at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., at least once a year. In addition, all of those killed during the Navy years are Memorial Members of the OAEA and their names are read aloud during the organization’s bi-annual reunions.

Reunion and remembrance

In April 1997, Hand retired after flying with Delta Airlines for 32½ years. The whereabouts of the other survivors is unknown at this time.

Around the time Hand was preparing to retire, Darryn Schneider and some friends who were working at Casey Station visited the crash site near old Wilkes Station, itself mostly covered by ice, and discovered that almost the entire plane was buried by snow. Mother Nature would soon erase any visible signs of the tragedy.

“It turned out to be one of the last times the aircraft was visible,” he says.

Schneider served as a physicist with the Antarctic Australian Division in the mid-1990s, and later as a scientist and program manager for neutrino experiments under way at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s South Pole Station. He had become interested in Antarctic history while at Casey, and even started an Antarctic history website, with an extensive section on Wilkes.

“With my connection to both [the] Australian and U.S. programs, I was able to put some of the right people in contact with each other, which was my very small contribution to the memorial,” he says over email. “It is up to the people who live and work in Antarctica to document and preserve their own history, and any enduring memorials are up to us to establish.”

Burch and Baker had hoped to have the plaque in place by Nov. 9, 2011, on the actual anniversary date, but things don’t always work out as planned in Antarctica.

Meanwhile, Burch, Wilson and their fellow Wilkes veterans reunited for the 50th anniversary of the 1961 expedition in Hobart, Australia, in late October. Wilson had convinced a special guest to attend – Ernie Hand.

“I was absolutely floored, pleasantly surprised, when he replied, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that,’” Wilson says.

So, Hand joined the 11 Wilkes veterans and their partners for a three-day reunion in Hobart. They held their own special ceremony to unveil the plaque, which had been draped with an American flag. About 50 people attended the gathering on Oct. 25, including Hunt, the Casey Station leader.

“First, I screened the video I had made of the whole tragedy, then Stan Wilson conducted a small dedication ceremony, including a very emotional speech from Ernest, who then lifted the flag to reveal the plaque,” Burch says. A moment of silence followed.

Six months after the Wilkes reunion, the plaque was finally put in place, with a brief ceremony.

“I’m glad the plaque is there. I hope it will be there perpetually, because it is part of history,” Hand says.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs