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Bellingham man commanded first plane to reach Antarctica

Thanks to climate change, the frozen poles of the Earth are in the news, and are the focus of the "Vanishing Ice" exhibit at Whatcom Museum.

For Joe Entrikin of Bellingham, Antarctica remains a memorable part of his personal landscape, the beautiful but dangerous place where he made history.

Nearly six decades ago, while a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, Entrikin commanded the first land-based plane to reach the frozen continent.

He also managed to save his plane and crew during a research flight over the frozen terrain after one of his two engines sputtered, lost power and eventually died.

Entrikin won international press coverage for his "first," special recognition from the Navy, and had a glacier near Ross Sea named in his honor.

"I was a celebrity," he said, "not a hero."

In his personal account written years later, Entrikin describes his love-hate affair with the Navy, his occasional clashes with superiors, and his no-nonsense approach that saved lives and got the job done.

A former Lynden resident, Entrikin, 91, now lives in an assisted-living facility in south Bellingham. His health is poor and he aches for his wife of 62 years, Phyllis, who died five years ago.

A native of Pennsylvania, Entrikin became a Navy pilot in 1943 more by happenstance than by design. He accompanied a friend who wanted to become a pilot, and took the requisite Navy tests out of curiosity when told he had no obligation to enlist. Entrikin passed the tests and decided to sign up, in part, to show his step-father he was up to the challenge.

During the war, Entrikin flew people and cargo to and from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, good training, it turned out, for his time in Antarctica a decade later.


A friend in the Navy asked Entrikin if he wanted to join him in a 1955 assignment to Antarctica. Entrikin was hesitant but agreed to join his friend in the unusual challenge. Later, his friend had to back out at the last minute for family reasons.

The assignment was part of Operation Deep Freeze, a U.S. mission to prepare for the upcoming International Geophysical Year in which U.S. and other nation's scientists would research Antarctica and other parts of the globe.

The Navy's job in Antarctica was to establish a supply depot; conduct surveying, mapping and aerial photography; and construct a base camp, with an airstrip on thick ice over McMurdo Sound.

"It was the only place in the whole bloody continent to land," Entrikin said.

Joining other planes in the mission, he and his four crewmates flew a Lockheed Neptune P2V-5, a twin-engine, long-range patrol plane, from the East Coast to Hawaii and on to Christchurch, New Zealand, the launching point for the final, 2,400-mile leg to Antarctica.

En route, Entrikin's plane and the others were plagued by mechanical problems, requiring numerous repair stops and the replacement of at least five engines among the eight planes. Out of frustration, Entrikin gave his plane a Japanese name that translated to "never happen."

"The plane was a nightmare," he said.

Early on Dec. 22, four of the planes lifted off for McMurdo Sound. About 14 hours later, despite stiff head winds and losing radio contact for an hour, Entrikin and his crew were the first to touch down at the ice landing strip, where reporters and photographers were waiting to spread the news.

Their flight was comparatively smooth. That wasn't the case on Jan. 6, 1956, when Entrikin's crew began a research flight. The route: fly 1,400 miles to the east, go left for 200 miles, then return to camp.

About five hours out, the left engine began to run rough. Twenty minutes later, the right engine began to backfire violently and lost half of its power.

"That's when things got touchy," Entrikin said.

With the weakened plane losing altitude, he decided to eject two spare fuel tanks in the bomb bay, but feared the rusty shackles that held them in place wouldn't cooperate.

"The tanks jettisoned clean," Entrikin said.

They began dumping other equipment to shed weight, saving only vital navigation and survival gear. They dumped radio equipment, tools, personal belongings and the aerial cameras. To save fuel, they turned off the cabin heaters.

"Moisture from our breath froze our beards to the oxygen masks; the water in the canteens was solid ice," Entrikin later wrote about the experience. "It was a beastly day."

Luckily, their balky engines stabilized for awhile and they caught a tail wind. About 30 minutes from camp the right engine finally died, but they managed to land safely on one good engine.

Entrikin and his crew returned to New Zealand 11 days later. Soon after, with the weather warming, their ice landing strip broke off from the main ice shelf and drifted out to sea.


Entrikin moved to Whatcom County after he retired from the Navy in 1964 after 22 years in the service. He was familiar with the area from his time at the naval air station near Oak Harbor.

He worked for a local aviation business, directed the Whatcom County Development Council and sold real estate. He retired in the mid-80s after he and his wife put in a two-year stint with the Peace Corps organizing 4-H clubs in the rural highlands of Ecuador.

After that he and wife traveled the world. Asked whether he ever returned to Antarctica, his answer was brief but firm.

"God no," he answered. "I've seen enough of that place."


Whatcom Museum will host a "Polar Reunion" from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 7 as part of the Downtown Art Walk. An open mic will be available for people to share stories and photos about their experiences in the Arctic and Antarctica.

To reserve a 15-minute time slot, call Chris Brewer, 360-778-8960, or just show up to fill an open slot. People can email their photos to, along with a requested time, or can bring their images on a jump drive.

The museum's current exhibit, "Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012," looks at the beauty and fragility of glaciers and of the Arctic and Antarctica.