George Hubert Wilkins was born at Mount Bryan East in South Australia on 31 October 1888, the thirteenth child of Henry and Louisa Wilkins, who were pioneer settlers and sheep farmers. In an official biography he was described as a war correspondent, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist, aviator, author, balloonist, war hero, reporter, submariner and navigator.
Wilkins studied engineering part time at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries before moving to Adelaide and then to Sydney, pursuing interests in photography and cinematography. In 1908, he sailed for England and worked for Gaumont Film Company, where he became a pioneering aerial photographer. In 1913, Wilkins joined Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s expedition to the Canadian Arctic.
During this period Wilkins also learnt how to fly aircraft and when he returned to Australia in 1917, he joined the Australian Imperial Force (Australian Flying Corps) as a Second Lieutenant. In April 1918, he was appointed the official photographer and tasked with providing ‘an accurate and complete record of the fighting and other activities of the A.I.F’. Wilkins was presented with the Military Cross for his efforts to rescue wounded soldiers in the Third Battle of Ypres. He received a Bar for his Military Cross for temporarily leading a company of American soldiers, whose officers had been killed in action.
When the war ended, Wilkins continued to pursue aviation, entering the England-Australia Air Race in 1919. His aircraft, a Blackburn Kangaroo, experienced engine failure and crash-landed in Crete. Over the next few years, he returned to polar exploration, making his first visit to the Antarctic in 1920-21, accompanying J. L. Cope on his unsuccessful voyage to Graham Land. In 1921-22, he took part in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Quest expedition.
In 1927, Wilkins began preparations for a program of Arctic exploration by air. Initially he purchased two Fokker aircraft, but they proved too large for landing on ice. He sold one to Charles Kingsford Smith who renamed it ‘Southern Cross’ and it became the first plane to fly from the United States to Australia over the Pacific Ocean. Wilkins then bought a Lockheed Vega which he named ‘San Francisco’.
On 15 April 1928, with pilot Carl Ben Eielson, he flew across the Arctic Sea, from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway, arriving about 20 hours later on 16 April. The journey covered 2,500 miles, most of it above uncharted territory. It was the first time such a flight had been made and the two men became international celebrities. Wilkins was knighted and chose to be known as Sir Hubert, rather than Sir George. During the ensuing celebrations, he met an Australian singer and actress in New York, Suzanne Bennett, whom he married on 30 August 1929.
In late 1928, Wilkins and Eielson embarked on an expedition to explore Antarctica by air. They arrived at Deception Island on the Graham Land Peninsula in November and on 20 December they took to the air in ‘San Francisco’. Wilkins took notes and photographed the area with a hand-held Kodak 3A camera and two movie cameras. In a 20-minute period, he sketched a map covering 40 miles. Over the length of the flight, they explored 1000 miles of previously unexplored Antarctic territory. It was the first time anyone had flown a plane in Antarctica. It was also the first time in history undiscovered land was mapped from a plane.
Wilkins returned to the Antarctic in late November 1929 with experienced Arctic pilots, Al Cheeseman and Parker D. Cramer. They completed several successful flights between December 1929 and January 1930.
In 1931, Wilkins led the failed expedition to reach the North Pole by taking a surplus United States Navy submarine, renamed Nautilus, under the pack-ice. Over the decade, he organised four expeditions to the Antarctic to assist American millionaire explorer Lincoln Ellsworth become the first person to fly across the Antarctic continent. His last trip to Antarctica occurred in 1957 as a guest of Operation Deep Freeze, a series of United States missions to explore the Antarctic.
Sir Hubert Wilkins died suddenly in his hotel room at Framingham, Massachusetts, on 30 November 1958. He was cremated and four months later his ashes were scattered at the North Pole.