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Polar Extremes: The World of Lincoln Ellsworth (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by C.V. Glines
By Beekman H. Pool
University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks

Although few aviation buffs know his name today, Lincoln Ellsworth was a wealthy American with a passion for adventure who dared to challenge the polar regions and took part in some pioneering aerial feats. In 1925 he shared an unsuccessful flight in an open cockpit seaplane with Roald Amundsen, a renowned Norwegian explorer, in an attempt to reach the North Pole. The next year he flew to the Pole in a dirigible with Amundsen and Umberto Nobile, who are now given credit for being first to do so — despite Richard E. Byrd's claim to have been first. Byrd's claim was irrefutably rebuked by Floyd Bennett, Bernt Balchen and weather experts who have proved that he did not do so.

Ellsworth was passionate about polar exploration. Although Byrd, with Balchen as pilot, was first to reach the South Pole by air, Ellsworth had no interest in repeating their feat. Instead, he wanted to explore the 5 million square miles of Antarctica that had not yet been seen by humans. He had Jack Northrop design a special plane and asked Balchen to be his pilot.

The first attempt in January 1934 was thwarted when the plane, dubbed Polar Star, was wrecked after being unloaded. Once the plane was repaired, a second attempt was made late that year from the other side of Antarctica. After a series of frustrating delays, Ellsworth finally asked Balchen to make a 2,000-mile nonstop flight across the continent to the exploration base "Little America" in questionable weather. Balchen refused and quit the expedition.

Ellsworth tried again in 1935 with Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, a Canadian pilot. They almost made it in November but had to land four times to figure out where they were. They finally crash-landed when they ran out of fuel short of their goal and had to sledge their way through many days of "blind wanderings" to find the snowed-over buildings at Little America. However, their transantarctic flight had penetrated farther into the interior than any other expedition before them.

The description of their ordeal as they waited for rescue illustrates the disparate backgrounds of these two men and helps the reader to understand what kind of man Ellsworth really was. He didn't give up on trying to see more of Antarctica, setting off on another expedition in 1938-39 to claim a 430,000-square-mile wedge of land for the United States. The area has since been disputed, and after several changes of designation, his original claim for James W. Ellsworth Land (named after his father) has been significantly reduced. Maps of Antarctica now show the Ellsworth Mountains, which cover an area of 240 by 480 nautical miles, as the only lasting tribute to his efforts.

Lincoln Ellsworth, who lived a full and adventurous life, died in May 1951. This excellent biography summarizes in thoroughgoing fashion his significant contributions to the history of polar exploration.

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