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In a life filled with extraordinary adventures, George ‘Hubert’ Wilkins is particularly noted for ‘firsts’, including flights across the Arctic and in Antarctica, and taking a submarine beneath the frozen Arctic Ocean. He was also a war correspondent, cinematographer, naturalist, geographer and pioneering climatologist.
Born in outback South Australia on 31 October 1888, Wilkins was the youngest of 13 children. He studied engineering at the Adelaide School of Mines and travelled to England as a stowaway where he learned to parachute and fly aeroplanes, becoming an aerial cinematographer who performed and filmed stunts.
He became one of the first to film a battle, during the Balkan War of 1912–13, and his prowess with the camera saw him invited to join the Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1913. During this expedition, he and leader Vilhjalmar Stefansson became separated from their vessel, and narrowly escaped with their lives after hiking hundreds of kilometres across the sea ice.
After crashing in the England–Australia air race of 1919, Wilkins joined Shackleton’s 1921 Antarctic expedition. He was then asked to lead a British Museum expedition to Australia to collect rare animals.
During a series of Arctic flights in 1926–27, Wilkins had several life-threatening adventures, including having to land on sea ice when a plane ran out of fuel, and then walk for 13 days to be rescued.
In 1928, in a single-engined ski plane, Wilkins made by far the longest flight in a polar region, a trans-Arctic flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen and was knighted for services to aviation and exploration. Later that year he was back in Antarctica, commanding the Wilkins–Hearst Antarctic Expedition. During this expedition, he made the first Antarctic flight, taking off from Deception Island and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. He returned to Antarctica a further five times over the next decade.
Not content with adventuring in the air, he bought a submarine and became the first to venture under the Arctic sea ice, in 1931.
Throughout his life, Hubert Wilkins gained vital scientific insights into a range of fields. As a result, he became a consultant in polar survival for the US Government, improved weather forecasting and developed techniques for flying at night.
Wilkins is commemorated with the naming of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, Wilkins Sound, the Wilkins Ice Runway at Australia’s Casey Station and Wilkin’s Rock-wallaby, a specimen of which he collected in 1925.