First flights to Antarctica

Douglas LC47H BuNo17221 at Ferrymead Heritage Park, Christchurch. This aircraft was not used on the initial flights south but did serve in the Antarctic from 1963 to 1966, manned by members of the US Navy Air Development Squadron Six [VX-6]. It was presented to the City of Christchurch to mark the role aircraft of its type played in the Antarctic, and to honour the hospitality the city’s residents had shown to the staff of the United States Antarctic Research Program.

First flights to Antarctica

The first long-distance flights into Antarctica from the outside world left from New Zealand on 20 December 1955. They were undertaken by a United States Navy air squadron, as part of Operation Deep Freeze I. In advance of the flights members of the squadron were based at the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Wigram and Taieri aerodromes. The RNZAF and search and rescue personnel were on standby during the flights, ready to provide support should any of the aircraft strike difficulty.

Operation Deep Freeze

Operation Deep Freeze originally referred to US Navy operations during the International Geophysical Year. Operation Deep Freeze I ran from 1955 to 1956 and was followed by Operation Deep Freeze II, III and so on. The term has come to be used as a general term for US operations in the Antarctic.

The US Navy Air Development Squadron Six [VX-6] was formed on 17 January 1955 to provide the necessary air support for the Navy's operations in the Antarctic between 1955 and 1959 (Operation Deep Freeze I-IV). The impetus behind these operations was the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. The Navy was tasked with setting up facilities and supporting US scientists in their contribution to the IGY.

The squadron was assigned a variety of aircraft to see which was the most suitable for Antarctic conditions. Among them were eight larger aircraft that were to make the voyage south from New Zealand:

  • Two ski-equipped Lockheed P2V-2N Neptunes
  • Two Douglas R5D Skymasters (these were C-54 Skymasters, the military version of the commercial DC-4. They were designated R5D by the US Navy)
  • Two ski-equipped Douglas R4D Skytrains (these were C-47 Skytrains, the military version of the commercial DC-3. They were designated R4D by the US Navy. In Britain, and in New Zealand at this time, these planes were referred to as Dakotas)
  • Two Grumman UF-1 Albatross triphibians

Just 20% of the squadron's 220 personnel made the journey to New Zealand in these aircraft. Most were transported to New Zealand, and on to Antarctica, on navy vessels.

The aircraft arrived at the RNZAF's Wigram aerodrome in Christchurch between October and December 1955.  The officers and crew for the long-range Neptunes and Skymasters, who were due to fly out of Harewood, remained at Wigram until 19 December, the day before the flights to the Antarctic. Those assigned to the shorter-ranged Skytrains and Albatrosses left for the RNZAF's Taeiri aerodrome, near Dunedin, on 13 December.

On 10 December one of the Navy's icebreakers, USS Glacier, left New Zealand to prepare the ice runway for the aircraft. Six other navy vessels left on 16 December to take up pre-assigned positions over the 3860-km route between Campbell Island and Antarctica. These ‘picket ships' assisted with radio communications and weather reports during the initial flights, but were also there to assist in search and rescue should it be required. Search and rescue personnel in Wellington were on standby to alert an RNZAF Sunderland flying boat specially stationed at Bluff.

On 19 December 1955 the signal came that the ice runway at McMurdo Sound had been completed. The squadron was advised to be ready to take off the following day.


The eight aircraft took off with the assistance of Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) bottles. This system helps overloaded planes into the air by providing additional thrust in the form of small rockets.

On 20 December the first aircraft, a Neptune, left from Harewood at 4.59 a.m. About 150 people were gathered for the event. It was followed by another Neptune at 5.14 a.m., and then by the Skymasters at 8.15 a.m. and 8.33 a.m. The first Neptune arrived at McMurdo Sound 14 hours later to a smaller gathering of around 20 people. The pilot described the flight as ‘dull'.

On the same day the Skytrains and Albatrosses left from Taeiri shortly after 6.45 a.m. But all four aircraft were forced to turn back due to strong headwinds - despite the determination of some to carry on.

Despite this setback the aim had been accomplished. It had been shown that aircraft could fly to Antarctica from the outside world. David Burke, author of Moments of terror: the story of Antarctic aviation described the significance of the flights:

The frozen continent no longer stood wholly isolated; by plane it was now a matter of 10 hours, not 10 days or 10 weeks away.

The squadron, renamed the Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6) in 1969, continued to provide logistical air support for United States operations in Antarctica until it was disestablished in March 1999 because of Navy downsizing. The Air National Guard has taken over its responsibilities.

Further information


  • David Burke, Moments of terror: the story of Antarctic aviation, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1994
  • Noel Gillespie. Courage Sacrifice Devotion: the history of the US Navy Antarctic VXE-6 Squadron 1955-99, Infinity, Philadelphia, 2005
  • Tony Phillips, Gateway to the ice: Christchurch International Airport - Antarctic air links from 1955, Christchurch International Airport Ltd, Christchurch, 2001