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A Flying Visit to Antarctica by Coral Rutterford

Photo – Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation – From Antarctic Photo Library

After last week’s post about the Terra Nova and Captain Scott’s expedition, I was contacted by regular contributor Coral Rutterford who I was fortunate to meet last year when I visited Coral’s hometown Auckland. Coral has lived in New Zealand since the 1960s, however her early life was spent in Poplar and Shadwell.

Captain Scott and the Terra Nova visited New Zealand before moving onto Antarctica, in the decades after the failed Scott expedition, very few people other than scientists and explorers visited the icy wastes of Antarctica.

Remarkably, Coral in the late 1970s had a rare opportunity to fly over Antarctica with one of the most famous mountaineers in the world. Coral takes up the story which begins with a strange request from her husband.

In 1979 my husband asked me to withdraw NZ$380 ​about 190 pounds from the bank and told me to not ask why he needed it, a strange request, but I did as he requested and over time I had forgotten about it.

Then later, on November 13th. after arriving home from work he said we are going out for a meal tonight, this was unexpected and off we went to an Auckland city hotel. After the meal he gave me an envelope and said “open it”, it was an Air New Zealand ticket, with my eyes watering I couldn’t read it properly. It was a ticket to go on a flight over Antarctic on the following morning November 14. I had often said I would love to do that, it was only in November when weather conditions allowed. Four flights were planned over the month.

Sir Edmund Hillary – 1970s

I then attended a pre flight briefing at the hotel presented by Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander who was the first man to climb to the summit of Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay. Sir Edmund spent a lot of time in Antarctica and gave a presentation and commentary on what to expect to see and saw film of him on the ice driving Ferguson tractors etc.

Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10 1977

My husband drove me over to Auckland International Airport next morning Nov 14th where I boarded flight 901 on an Air New Zealand DC10. There was some 275 or so passengers including a group of Japanese visitors. One lady in their group had a birthday and a cake was produced and we all had a piece and sang “Happy Birthday to you” I doubt she understood a word but she bowed and put her hands together as a thank you gesture.

We flew over the South Island and Stewart Island of New Zealand and on towards the ice. As we flew on we encountered a lot of cloud and were told to expect this and indeed when arriving at NZ/Scott Base and U.S/McMurdo Base the cloud may well be there too and not see anything, what a disappointment that would be but we hoped all will be good. A champagne breakfast was served, a nice way to start the day. Hopefully other good things would present themselves.

Scott base – Photograph by Andrew Mandemaker

As we arrived over the ice the cloud disappeared and the sun shone. What a breath-taking sight to behold. As we flew over Scott Base we saw the flight ground path for the Starlifter, a giant plane that delivers personnel and equipment and other supplies to both the NZ and McMurdo base which has USA personnel. A huge X-shaped polished area on the ice was clearly seen, the cross formation is to accommodate plane take off and landings based on the wind patterns of the day.

Starlifter and penguins by SMSgt Bob Pederson – Wikipedia

Ahead of us was Mt Erebus, at 13,200 ft high, covered in snow, the sun glistening and a white plume of steam escaping at its top. What a beautiful sight, we flew lower and saw the volcano closely. We had a closer look at the two sites of Scott Base and Mc Murdo. All supplies to these bases are flown out of Christchurch in our South Island.

Mt Erebus, Antarctica

Delicious lunch was served as we approached and the desert was a meringue with a juice spilling from its top to resemble the active volcano. and was called Peach Erebus. We flew around this area for just over a half hour and we were advised of the times and points of interest as the flight progressed. At this point we made our return flight back to Auckland, ending our 13 hour adventure.


The Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photograph 3 News, New Zealand

How could we not forget the sheer beauty of this ice and snow-covered wilderness. The Ross Sea with chunks of ice floating in the water looking like soap flakes from above but would be so much bigger in close up view with aquamarine coloured ice walls beside it.

As we flew over the tall ice mountains we noticed these towering walls were deep mauve or green with craters of water on their tops of mauve, turquoise and green that looked like jewels in a ring setting.

Some have remarked why go there just to see snow, it is surprising just how much colour there is. It was a happy flight. We were allowed to leave our seats and look out of windows all around the cabin, Sir Edmund posed with passengers for photo shoots. He was such a big friendly man and a great sense of humour. He quite happily posed with passengers as cameras clicked.

How much I enjoyed my surprise gift of this flight. There were 4 flights planned during the month of November, one a week and I was on week 2. November 14 1979.

The following week 3, the flight of the month took place and had as its commentator and a mountaineer and close friend of Sir Edmund was Peter Mulgrew. That evening as we watched television, breaking news of the worst kind interrupted the programme to announce that flight was missing and no contact had been made.

Initially Peter Mulgrew was to be on flight 2 and would have been our commentator but was unable to be available that day and he swapped places with Edmund Hillary who was booked on flight 3. Most fortunate for Edmund but so deadly unfortunate for Peter.

Flight 3 as it arrived over the area, in thick cloud cover, had smashed into Mt Erebus, all lives were lost. The pilot Capt. Simpson on my flight had noticed the co-ordinates were incorrect and had the mountain location directly in front of the planes path. This was reported to the authorities but the co-ordinates were never corrected for the next flight. Pilot error was decided the cause but years later he was exonerated. No further flights from New Zealand have been made.

I am sure when Coral was growing up in the backstreets of Poplar and Shadwell, she would not have believed that she would see Antarctica with Edmund Hillary but life often sends us on adventures. Although Coral left these shores many years ago she remains fascinated by the ever-changing landscape of her birthplace and we thank her for her contributions.