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On the Verge of the International Polar Year, NSF Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of First Flight To Land at the South Pole


Gus Shinn honored at Florida event

October 31, 2006

For b-roll on Betacam SP of U.S. Antarctic Program logistics, including contemporary aircraft, still images of the aircrew and plane that made the 1956 flight and NSF’s new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, contact Dena Headlee, (703) 292-7739,

From the United States’ Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, astronomers use sophisticated telescopes to peer into the depths of space and create images of the universe in its infancy. Scientists use of one of the world’s most sensitive seismic stations to record rumbles through the Earth’s crust produced by earthquakes. And they can use samples of the Earth’s purest air as a baseline to study atmospheric chemistry.

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 31, 1956, a tiny U.S. plane made that science possible when it landed on the ice sheet at the southern end of the world, 9,300 meters above sea level. That landing will be commemorated at a ceremony today at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. The ceremony is scheduled to include a telephone call from NSF Director Arden Bement to personnel at the South Pole.

The commemoration will coincide with a newly launched webcam that will allow the worldwide public to see what conditions confront scientists at the bottom of the world. Available through a Web special report on the NSF site at:, the webcam displays a live image of the research station as well as local weather data and other information.


On Oct. 31, 1956, at 8:34 p.m. local time, the first aircraft ever to touch down at the South Pole skied to a halt atop the Antarctic ice sheet at 90 degrees South latitude. The U.S. Navy R4D, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Conrad C. “Gus” Shinn, had been christened Que Sera Sera, the title of a popular tune that won that year’s Academy Award for Best Song.

The lyrics, in retrospect, were curiously appropriate to all that followed at the South Pole, both later that day and in the half-century since:

Que Sera Sera

Whatever will be, will be

The future’s not ours to see.

Immediately after the plane halted--with engines running to avoid a freeze-up (a practice still followed to this day)--U.S. Navy Adm. George J. Dufek., commander of Operation Deep Freeze, stepped out onto the ice, along with pilot Douglas Cordiner, to plant the stars and stripes at the Pole. They were the first to stand there since Briton Robert Falcon Scott did more than 40 years before. Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten Scott in his race to the Pole. Amundsen’s party survived the 800-mile return trip, Scott’s did not.

Others had flown over the Pole. Most famously, Navy Adm. Richard E. Byrd, was the first in 1929. But none had ever landed. No one even knew precisely what the challenges would be or if they could be overcome. In that sense, Shinn’s touchdown foreshadowed Apollo 11’s moon landing, 13 years later.

Dufek stepped into a landscape almost as unfamiliar.

“It was like stepping out into a new world. We stood in the center of a sea of snow and ice that extended beyond our vision,” Dufek wrote in his 1956 memoir Operation Deep Freeze. “How deep that ice lay beneath our feet, no one has yet determined. Bleak and desolate, it was a dead world, devoid of every vestige of life except us.”

After 49 minutes on the ground and a risky take-off, made even more complicated when the plane’s skis initially stuck to the ice, the men left the Pole toreturn to what is now McMurdo Station, NSF’s logistics hub in Antarctica.

That first landing was followed almost immediately by “Seabees,” U.S. Navy construction workers using airdropped materials to build the first permanent station at the Pole. A team, co-lead by scientist Paul Siple and Navy Lt. John Tuck, Jr., began the first winter ever spent at the South Pole in March of 1957 as part of the global series of observations carried out in the International Geophysical Year (IGY).

At the time of the landing, Dufek wrote, the wider world was consumed by the conflicts of the Cold War raging in the Middle East and in Hungary.

But, he also pointed out, in Antarctica, soldiers, sailors and airmen were working for peace. “Our victories would be quiet ones in the service of knowledge; our ”beachheads“ were the stations at the South Pole and elsewhere in the Antarctic. The ”occupation forces“ that would follow us as soon as the bases were built and ready would be teams of trained scientists. Their only opponent would be the unknown.”

In the intervening years, even more has changed at what was the site of Shinn’s difficult landing and where now Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station rises from the ice.

Aircraft arrive at the station many times a day between early November and mid-February, carrying vital cargo to complete the construction of the third and newest scientific station at the South Pole, as well as to build newer scientific instruments.

The planes that deliver the goods today are flown by crews of the 109th airlift wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard. Their ski-equipped Hercules LC 130’s dwarf Que Sera Sera in many ways.

Now, where relatively primitive stations were set up to take weather and other measurements, a sophisticated telescope a cubic kilometer in size and designed to detect infinitesimally small particles called neutrinos is being built into the ice sheet itself. Other massive radio telescopes are being built to scan the skies of traces of images of what the universe looked like in its infancy. Laboratories, carrying on the pioneering work of IGY in an unbroken scientific chain, monitor global air quality and seismic waves.

But despite the changes of the past 50 years, all who fly the route from McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott, scientists whose discoveries drive the missions, owe a debt to the crew of Que Sera Sera.

In 2006, the nations of the world are poised to recognize the 50th anniversary of IGY--which itself marked the beginning of the modern age of Polar exploration--by mounting a fourth international Polar year (IPY), beginning in 2007. None of it could be considered without air support.

“Establishing South Pole base, named IGY South Pole, was only one of our many jobs on Operation Deep Freeze,” wrote Dufek 50 years ago. “But it is a symbol of the expedition to us. Beyond the strange and alluring beauty of the mountain ranges, the valleys and glaciers that lifted from the Ross Sea, lies this high plateau of frozen solitude. What are the secrets that men will learn from it in the years to come?”


Special Report: U.S. South Pole Station, Support:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


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