Antarctic survey aircraft ‘Learjet of day’

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A historic aircraft used to map the Antarctic is being restored in Wanaka and will be on display at the Warbirds over Wanaka Airshow at Easter.
Wanaka resident Callum Smith, who is the restorer and a member of the airshow committee, said the 1938 Beechcraft Staggerwing was a very rare model.
Once completed, it would be sent to the United States, so there was a unique opportunity to see it in Wanaka during the show.
The Staggerwing was built for executive travel and was the ‘‘Learjet of its day’’, Mr Smith said.
‘‘These were the fastest thing around in the day — [the] first biplane to hit 200 miles an hour [320kmh].
‘‘If you were a business owner, these days you’d have a Learjet. Back in the late ’30s you’d have a Beech Staggerwing,’’ Mr Smith said.
The Staggerwing became part of an expedition to the Antarctic when the United States created the US Antarctic Service, responding to rumours that Nazi Germany was laying claim to large parts of the ice continent.
The Otago Daily Times reported in July 1939 that President Franklin Roosevelt directed Admiral Richard E. Byrd to the Antarctic to establish a US base and secure its claim to ‘‘approximately 675,000 square miles [1.75 million sq km]’’.
It said ‘‘officials confirmed that the United States’ move was largely the result of Germany’s plan to send an expedition this summer into the area claimed by America’’.

Snow searcher . . . The Beechcraft Staggerwing, seen here during the 1939-40 United States Antarctic expedition, made many scientific surveys over the Antarctic, flown by pilot Colonel Theodore Petras. PHOTO: COL PETRAS COLLECTION

The Staggerwing made more than 198 hours of exploratory flights while in the Antarctic, mapping previously unknown areas, including parts of the Ross Ice Shelf, Bay of Whales and Queen Alexandra Mountains. It also flew high-altitude missions to measure cosmic rays, he said.
‘‘It was used because they had good speed and good height, because they wanted to do big­distance explorations,’’ he said.
After the expedition the Staggerwing went back to the US to be refurbished, then was used in rural Australia for many years, before crashing in 1963, he said.
‘‘It was in terrible state. It was a pretty sad wreck.’’
The present owners bought the wreck and he set about recreating the craft, using parts from another wreck, plus original plans from the factory, Mr Smith said.
The craft was made from a steel tube frame, with wooden ribs and a fabric covering.
The aircraft was restored ‘‘pretty much from scratch’’, he said.
‘‘The fuselage was all bent and twisted, so we’ve had to straighten it and weld new steel in there.’’
All the parts for the engine mount had to be refashioned using original plans.
‘‘We’ve got a lot of the original drawings; the Smithsonian [Institution] in America’s got a lot of the original drawings, so it is all available,’’ Mr Smith said.
The owners will also have a fully restored Staggerwing at the show, also restored byMr Smith.