Australian explorers have spent three southern hemisphere summers in a row hunting for the aircraft used by legendary polar geologist Sir Douglas Mawson. Yesterday they said they had stumbled upon some metal pieces of the plane on New Year's Day.
Ironically Mawson didn't use the plane to fly: its wings of the 1911 model were damaged in a crash before his expedition. Instead he used the primitive aircraft as a kind of single-prop motorised sled.
The aeroplane was found by a group called the Mawson's Huts Foundation, which is trying to preserve the explorer's camp in Cape Denison on Antarctica's Commonwealth Bay.
The news of the find was announced on the foundation's blog by team member Tony Stewart: "The biggest news of the day is that we've found the air tractor, or at least parts of it!"
Australian polar explorer and geologist Douglas Mawson led two expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s, on the first one bringing along the single-propeller Vickers plane.
Stewart said the 1911-14 Australian Antarctic Expedition used the plane to tow gear onto the ice in preparation for their arduous sledging journeys.
But the plane's engine could not withstand the extreme temperatures and it was eventually abandoned.
The plane, the first from France's Vickers factory, had not been seen since the mid-1970s, when researchers photographed the steel fuselage nearly encompassed in ice.
The foundation believed the plane would still be where it was left by Mawson, near the huts and the harbour, which is covered in ice for most of the year.
Stewart said he and his team had brought down tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to look for the plane – but in the end it was a just chance find.
"Magnetometer, ground-penetrating radar metal detectors and all sorts of things to try and look for it, but in the end it was just a combination of a very low tide, good weather and a thin ice melt," he said. "Our carpenter was taking a walk along the beach and just saw the metal in 10 centimetres of water, just right next to the ice."
Apparently, the wreckage had been under the feet of the expedition looking for it.