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An Antarctic Pioneer

OH-07-0350-07-tn.jpg: SGT Wally Tarr at work in his packing crate workshop.

Wally Tarr's Story

This month marks 51 years since the formation of the RNZAF Antarctic Flight. A member of the Flight, Mr Wally Tarr, talked recently to Air Force Historian Bee Dawson about his experiences.

OH-07-0350-07-tn.jpg: SGT Wally Tarr at work in his packing crate workshop.

Like many men of his generation Wally Tarr isn’t the sort to shout about his achievements. But the story of his involvement in Sir Edmund Hillary’s trans-Antarctic crossing in 1957 is a fine and inspirational example of Air Force personnel at the forefront of exploring one of the world’s last frontiers.

OH-07-0350-22-tn.jpg: FGOFF Bill Cranfield and SQNLDR John Claydon at the South Pole. OH-07-0350-22-tn.jpg: FGOFF Bill Cranfield and SQNLDR John Claydon at the South Pole.

In 1956 Ohakea-based SGT Wally Tarr was selected to join the three-man Air Force team supporting Sir Edmund’s epic crossing of Antarctica. ‘I don’t know why I was chosen. The Air Force asked for volunteers and I didn’t bother because so many others volunteered and I thought I didn’t stand a chance. Then one day the Squadron OC called me into his office and asked if I’d like to go to Antarctica. I said “Yes” and the next day I was off to Air Department in Wellington for an interview,’ said Mr Tarr.

In addition to various scientific studies the expedition’s primary objective was for the British party, led by Dr Vivian Fuchs, to cross Antarctica by tracked vehicles from the Weddell Sea to Scott Base, via the South Pole. Sir Edmund Hillary’s party was to establish food and fuel depots along the route. As it turned out Sir Edmund Hillary made the crossing first, but that is another story.

The RNZAF Flight’s task was to reconnoitre the route, to air supply depots and to provide emergency backup.

OH-07-0350-06-tn.jpg: The Beaver is mothballed for the winter. OH-07-0350-06-tn.jpg: The Beaver is mothballed for the winter.

Formed in Wigram on I May 1956 the RNZAF Antarctica Flight came under the command of SQNLDR John Claydon, formerly the CO of Wigram’s Flying Training Wing. During the six months prior to departing aboard the NZ Navy’s wooden-hulled ship, the Endeavour, Flight members – SQNLDR Claydon, FGOFF Bill Cranfield and SGT Wally Tarr - carried out a variety of exercises. In addition SGT Tarr, being the only engineer, cross trained in other technical trades – airframes, instruments, electrics and safety equipment. His exceptional technical abilities and dedication were later acknowledged in the Expedition’s official report which noted: ‘SGT Tarr and his men worked untiringly and efficiently in keeping the planes airworthy for the maximum possible time.’

Disaster struck as the Auster Mark 7 aircraft’s crate was being loaded aboard the Endeavour. The crate was in its cradle and being swung out from the berth at Lyttleton when it struck another ship. One wing was seriously damaged. The wing had to be repaired in New Zealand and shipped down later. This meant that the Auster could not be used on floats to assist the wooden ice-breaker through the pack ice. The ‘accident’ elicited some strong language from the Air Force contingent, says Mr Tarr.

OH-07-0350-08-tn.jpg:A hot air blower is used to melt snow from the Beaver’s wings. OH-07-0350-08-tn.jpg: A hot air blower is used to melt snow from the Beaver’s wings.

The other aircraft, a de Haviland Beaver, was safely hoisted aboard but had a lucky escape when, during rough seas, a huge wave came over the bow and damaged the Beaver’s crate on the foredeck. ‘Luckily the aircraft wasn’t damaged but the salt water got in and that had to be rectified with hoses as soon as we got into calm water,’ said Mr Tarr.
When the ship arrived at McMurdo Sound the team began the arduous task of unpacking and assembling the Beaver.

OH-07-0350-09-tn.jpg:SGT Tate, LAC Chapman, F/S Weston (RAF) and LAC Breese on Observation Hill.

OH-07-0350-09-tn.jpg: SGT Tate, LAC Chapman, F/S Weston (RAF) and LAC Breese on Observation Hill.

‘We put the undercarriage on while it was still on the ship and the elevator and rudder and tailplane before they hoisted it onto the sea ice using the ship’s gear. We put the main planes while the aircraft was on the sea ice. It meant working flat out, non-stop until we had it ready to fly because we didn’t want the sea ice to break up and see the aircraft float out to sea. We worked nearly 24 hours straight. We eventually got the aircraft ready to fly at two o’clock in the morning and took off for a succession of test flights.’

The original plan had been to set up base at Pram Point on the other side of the bay but access there was unsuitable. The Americans were based at Hut Point and after Sir Edmund and SQNLDR Claydon took off from there and saw the area from the air they noticed the area where Scott Base is now, and decided to make their base there.

Mr Tarr’s description of the working facilities as ‘fairly basic’ is probably somewhat of an understatement. His first task was to build a workshop. Kiwi ingenuity saw him convert the Auster’s packing case into a small but comfy workspace.

‘We’d brought stuff and scrounged gear from the base to make benches and stuff like that. We had a heater out of one of the tractors and we installed that to keep us snug and a radio transmitter. Inside the case was quite comfortable really but working outside on the aircraft was a different story.’

"YOU COULD GET FROST BITTEN NOSES. THEY WOULD TURN WHITE AND CLEAR."

With temperatures plunging as low as minus 40o C in mid-winter and rising to the giddy height of minus 10o in summer there was only one way of working exposed to the elements - using hot air blowers. These were critical when bare hands were required.
‘We had a hot air blower provided by the RNZAF. But it wasn’t adequate so we eventually borrowed one from the US Navy and that was excellent. If I was working on the engine I’d put a cover over the engine and blow hot air into it. It was never too hot even with the hot air blowers,’ says Mr Tarr.

As a further safety precaution team members always worked in pairs so they could keep watch over one another for signs of frost-bite.

OH-07-0350-23-tn.jpg: FGOFF Bill Cranfield and LAC Breese at RNZAF Darwin depot.

OH-07-0350-23-tn.jpg: FGOFF Bill Cranfield and LAC Breese at RNZAF Darwin depot.

‘You could get frost bitten noses. They would turn white and clear,’ says Mr Tarr.
The team kept the Auster flying throughout the winter months.

‘We used battery lanterns for lighting the runway. When the battery froze they’d stop working of course, so we’d have to get another battery or lantern.’

The hardest part about working in the harsh conditions wasn’t so much the hard work but the inconvenience, he says.

‘One of the problems we had was refuelling the aircraft.  The rubber hoses (refuelling hoses) would freeze hard and we couldn’t bend them. So we had to take them into the hut, warm them up and take them out again and contour them to the shape for refuelling and then pump the fuel. Ice crystals would also get into the fuel so we also had to filter all the fuel to get rid of them. We always pre-heated the engine prior to starting to avoid engine failure. I was surprised the hoses froze like that. I had expected the supplier to ensure they were suitable for those conditions.

OH-07-0350-24-tn.jpg: LAC Chapman works on the Beaver’s engine.

OH-07-0350-24-tn.jpg: LAC Chapman works on the Beaver’s engine.

‘Also the oil used to go like beeswax so it had to be preheated with an air blower in the really cold conditions. We eventually fixed that problem with oil dilution. That required aviation fuel to be injected into the oil after each flight before the engine was stopped.

‘Like us the Americans decided to fly their helicopters and one Otter right through the winter. But they didn’t preheat their Otter properly. They heated the front of the engine but not the back. They broke a tail shaft between the power section and the accessory section so that was the end of the Otter’s winter flights. Eventually they stopped using their helicopters so we were the only ones who flew right through winter. Luckily I’d read a few articles about operating engines in those conditions before I came.

‘The living conditions were basic but ‘comfortable’ says Mr Tarr. ‘We had little two bunk cabins. I had a lower bunk and a desk. We had a cook, Bucknell, who did good meals most times. On the weekends we’d give him a break. Curry was my speciality dish.’

The Flight’s Auster was snowed in after one particularly nasty blizzard that lasted for almost a week. When the men went to the airfield they found no sign of the aircraft until someone noticed the very tip of the prop sticking out of the snow. Digging it out was a race against time with an incoming tidal crack in the ice threatening to rend the aircraft in two. Everyone pitched in and dug furiously resulting in some superficial damage to the fabric. They towed it out and got on with the task of emptying the snow from the aircraft’s interior. For Mr Tarr that just meant more bare hands work repairing the aircraft using ‘tiny’ needles.

After the hard work of establishing the ground and maintenance operations SGT Tarr was joined in October by radio mechanic SGT Tate, engine fitter LAC Chapman and airframe fitter LAC Breese.

Mr Tarr concedes that without the help of the RNZAF Antarctica Flight the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition may well have failed.

‘They had to have support towards the South Pole. Once we’d stocked up the depots for the crossing party we then had an extra task of supplying Ed Hillary on his attempt on the South Pole – on the tractors. That was an additional task. One not originally planned for.’

At the close of the 1957-1958 season the Beaver was dismantled and stored. It had flown 266 hours and the Auster had flown 34 hours covering a total of almost 35,000 miles. The RNZAF Antarctic Flight returned to New Zealand in March 1958 aboard the Endeavour with the Auster aircraft loaded aboard. Later in the year the Beaver was flown back to New Zealand tucked in the belly of a USAF Globemaster.

After SGT Tarr returned to New Zealand he attended officer training at Whenuapai and served as an Engineering Officer at Hobsonville and Wigram. He was posted to Fiji and then sent to the United States for a year overseeing the production of the RNZAF’s fleet of C-130 Hercules aircraft. He later returned to the US for a two-year stint overseeing the production of the RNZAF’s P-3 Orion aircraft near Los Angeles. He met his wife in the United States and retired from the Air Force in 1976.

Despite now being in his early eighties Mr Tarr maintains a close and personal interest in aircraft. He currently owns a US Army Grasshopper (Piper L4B) which he imported from the Solomon Islands to Fiji and flew back to New Zealand. His pilot’s licence is no longer current so he leases the aircraft to Hamilton’s Vintage Aircraft Club.