Lincoln Ellsworth was an American polar explorer, who led the first trans-Arctic and trans-Antarctic air crossings, and a 1987 NYAC Hall of Fame Inductee.
Ellsworth was born May 12th, 1880 in Chicago, Illinois.
Ellsworth's first experience as a pilot came during the First World War. While stationed in France, Ellsworth was introduced to Roald Amundsen: the famed Norwegian explorer and the first man to reach the South Pole. They became fast friends and, in 1925, planned an expedition to the North Pole.
On May 21st, 1925, Ellsworth, Amundsen and four other men departed in two separate planes from Spitsbergen, Norway. After eight hours of flying, the two planes were forced to land on an iceberg, due to an engine malfunction in one of the planes. Once landed, they realized that the engine was irreparably damaged, rendering the place useless; to make matters worse, they deduced that strong headwinds pushed them 120 miles off course. With only one functional plane, the explorers abandoned their hopes of reaching the North Pole. Their only concern was survival.
Before Ellsworth lay a herculean task. To make it back to Norway, all six men would have to squeeze into one plane, which was built to only accommodate three people. In so doing, they risked overburdening the plane with too much weight. To offset this, Ellsworth and his fellow explorers stripped the place of everything but the essentials, including any excess fuel.
More pressing, however, was the lack of a proper runway. The explorers were forced to improvise. Using what tools they had, they shoveled a track more than 1,500 feet long and 40 feet wide, a task that took them 20 days to complete. Amundsen estimated that, over the subsequent weeks, the men removed 500 tons of ice and snow. After spending nearly a month stranded on the iceberg - and running dangerously low on food and fuel - the explorers managed to take off on their makeshift runway. They landed on a remote coast near Spitsbergen with little fuel left. Fortunately, a seal hunting ship found and rescued them.
Upon returning to Norway, the explorers were hailed as heroes. Despite not having reached the North Pole, the harrowing tale of survival gripped the world. The expedition had nearly cost Ellsworth his life, but he was undeterred. Just a year later, Ellsworth, Amundsen and Umberto Nobile completed the first air crossing of the Arctic.
In 1927 Ellsworth was elected as an honorary member of the NYAC. In a letter to then Secretary Andrew Kerwin, Ellsworth expressed his gratitude: “I wish to thank the New York Athletic Club… for the great honor it had accorded me by electing me to its Honorary Membership… I wish to say that it was an honor and a privilege to have carried with me the emblem of the New York Athletic Club on the 3,393-mile voyage of the airship Norge across the Polar Sea…”
For his next adventure, Ellsworth turned south. He and pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon planned to complete the first trans-Antarctic flight.
On November 23rd, 1935, they took off from Dundee Island, on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and headed for Little America, a camp near the Ross Ice Shelf. During the course of their 2,200 mile journey, they discovered a mountain chain, now known as the Ellsworth Mountains.
Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon were forced to land their plane about 16 miles short of Little America. They reached the camp after an arduous trek through the Antarctic tundra. Little America offered little respite, but enough for them to survive another month before a rescue party found them. Ellsworth returned to New York, and the NYAC honored him with a celebratory banquet where he regaled members with tales of his harrowing journey.
Ellsworth donated his prized plane along with other relics and fossils he discovered to the Smithsonian museum, where they now lie.
Ellsworth passed away May 26th, 1951 in New York City at the age of 71. He is remembered as one of the great pioneers of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.