Relic of Antarctica's first plane found on ice-edge

CAPE DENISON, Antarctica (Reuters) - An Antarctic expedition has found what it believes to be remains of the first aeroplane brought to the frozen continent, on an icy shore near where it was abandoned almost a century ago.

Australia has searched for many years for the old single-propeller Vickers plane at Cape Denison, where the nation’s most famous polar explorer, Douglas Mawson, abandoned it after it proved to be a failure during his 1911-14 expedition.

“Luck has been on our side and it’s been a great episode in the history of Antarctic aviation,” said Dr Tony Stewart, leader of the current expedition, after the chance discovery on New Year’s day.

Another member of the expedition, which is dedicated to restoring Mawson’s original wooden huts at Cape Denison, stumbled on pieces of rusted metal tubing among ice-encrusted rocks on the shore of Commonwealth Bay at an especially low tide. They match structural iron tubing from the single-winged plane’s fuselage.

Mawson’s dream of staging the first human flight over the Antarctic ice cap, less than a decade after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight, was shattered even before his expedition sailed for the Antarctic from Australia in late 1911.

The plane crashed in a demonstration flight in October that year, weeks before Mawson was due to set sail. No one was hurt, but the wings were damaged. With no time for repairs, Mawson removed the wings and took the rest of the plane, aiming to use it as a flightless “air tractor” to haul equipment across the ice.

Even as a tractor, with its wheels replaced by sled-runners, the Vickers was a failure. Its engine seized up in the cold.

The Mawson’s Huts Foundation, an officially backed charity that funds the conservation work on site, believes the plane became entombed in ice after it was abandoned and then inched its way toward the sea with the glacial ice over the last 100 years.

“It’s been an exciting search. Friday was possibly the only day in several years when the rocks were sufficiently exposed and the tide was low enough and we were here to see it,” Stewart said.

Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Jerry Norton