On 10 May 1945 - 2 days after VE Day - the World's first flight to both Geographic and Magnetic North Poles departed UK.
The Lancaster 'Aries' belonged to the fleet of aircraft at the Empire Air Navigation School (EANS) at RAF Shawbury, the centre of air navigation expertise and the home of the Specialist Navigation (SpecN) Course. The aircraft had undergone extensive modification in preparation for Arctic flying; the nose and tail gun turrets were replaced by smooth fairings and additional fuel tanks gave a range of ~5,000 NM. Typical cruising was at 12,000ft and 240kts. To prevent astrodome misting, there was no heating and the crew were always on oxygen.
The flight would constitute the World's first airborne comprehensive scientific investigation of the polar area and would represent the first British flight to the Pole. Aims included to test new navigation techniques, evaluate navigation systems, conduct a magnetic survey, obtain radar mapping and meteorological data and photograph Arctic topography.
An extensive navigation fit was installed, much of it by RAE Farnborough. This included 7 compasses, a gyro, 2 astro-compasses, 3 sextants, radar, Gee, Loran, 2 radalts, air-milage indicator and drift recorder. A flux-valve dip meter and 3-axis flux-valve magnetometer would determine dip and magnetic field strength.
The crew of 11 comprised Wg Cdr McKinley (pilot/capt) plus another pilot, Wg Cdrs Maclure and Anderson plus Flt Lt Underwood as navigation team, 2 radio operators, 3 groundcrew and a doctor. All 3 navigators and both pilots were navigation specialists – the 2 ‘working’ navigators were students of the then-current No 3 SpecN Course.
As both position and heading were to be highly reliant on the sextant and astro-compass, in the permanent summer daylight at high-latitude, the sun and moon had to lie on bearings at least 45° apart for fixing. This gave only 5 consecutive acceptable days in May 1945.
The leg to the Pole was to be attempted on 15 May and Aries left Shawbury for Reykjavik on 10 May – a final forecast in Iceland led to a 24hr delay, but Aries was airborne from Reykjavik at 0300 on 16 May. Things did not go well, however, with dangerous icing causing Aries to return 9 hours after departure, having failed to reach the Pole. But with confirmation from the forecasters that a more easterly route would be clearer, Aries was again airborne within a couple of hours. The last run of 600 miles saw the navigators take 60 astro shots and the Pole was reached at 0206Z on 17 May. A comparatively uneventful return saw the aircraft back at Reykjavik by 0900, almost 19 hours after becoming airborne on this second attempt. Many of the crew had been awake for 56 hours.
Aries then spent a further 9 days searching for the position of the Magnetic Pole, confirming that it was close to the Astronomer Royal’s predicted position. Also confirmed was the hopeless inaccuracy of charted magnetic data throughout the whole polar area and of height data for Greenland. Aries ultimately landed back at Shawbury at 1245Z on 26 May 1945, having made the first non-stop flight from the North American Pacific coast to NW Europe in 18h 26m – about half the time taken by multi-hop lower-latitude brethren.
A large contingent of VIPs and press witnessed the arrival. Since departing on 10 May 1945, Aries had flown over 24,000 miles in 110 hrs. Amongst data recorded were 30,000 magnetic recordings and 2,000 photographs.
The flights were well reported in the national press and Wg Cdr McKinley presented the preliminary results to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in December 1945. Likewise, Wg Cdr Maclure presented the technical aspects to both the RGS and the American ION (RIN had yet to be formed). David McKinley achieved the rank of AVM and in 1995 was granted RIN Honorary Fellowship at a ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the flight. Ken Maclure became a RIN Vice-President and Andy Anderson was RIN President 1959-61; the Institute also holds an Anderson Memorial Lecture annually.
There were 4 successor aircraft to Aries I and, after the demise of Aries V, a Canberra, the name ‘Aries’ was given to the polar flights undertaken in a variety of aircraft by each SpecN (later to become AeroSystems) Course.
It is gratifying to see that the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury still names one of its helicopters ‘Aries’.