The age of Endurance: Uncovering history through tech and innovation

Bell Textron highlights how a dedicated team of researchers and aviation specialists were finally able to locate one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world


Rohma Sadaqat

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Published: Tue 31 May 2022, 6:25 PM

Last updated: Tue 31 May 2022, 8:57 PM

For many, locating polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, has been a lifelong project, says Sameer Rehman, managing director for the Africa & Middle East region at Bell Textron.

The three-masted barquentine was backed by the British government and private donors, and supported by Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty. Sir Ernest Shackleton, and a crew of 27 men, sailed for the Antarctic in 1914 as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The plan was to deliver a group of explorers to the coast of Antarctica, where they would disembark and then travel overland across the continent via the South Pole. However, in the fall of 1915, the Endurance sank off the coast of Antarctica, stranding its crew on drifting sea ice. While all of the expedition’s 28-member crew were eventually rescued, the ship’s final resting place has remained a maritime mystery.

In 2019, the Falklands Heritage Maritime Trust mounted its first expedition to find the ship but was unable to locate the wreck. Finally, on March 9, 2022, a team of researchers announced that they had located the wreck at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, adjacent to the northernmost part of Antarctica. The Endurance22 expedition used the Bell 412, a long range helicopter to assist in the mission. The Bell 412 played a key role in the expedition with several technological features that proved invaluable such as four main display screens – with high-res maps, terrain data and touch controls – putting vital information at the pilot’s fingertips; easy scanning; smooth flying; high-tech Garmin avionics; and design features that offer strong stability and lift. The 412’s interior allows seating for 14 persons, along with the removal of seats to accommodate cargo. The helicopter also has its own insulation system where the interior maintains a passenger friendly temperature, and stock marinization that protects the exterior.

Sameer Rehman of Bell Textron, says that ice is one of the hardest conditions for a helicopter pilot to fly in, but the Bell 412 comes with a long history of research, design and development to cope with ‘icing’ scenarios.

“Ultimate Aviation, the South African-based operator of the Bell 412 used in the operation, spent 18 months helping to plan the expedition,” he revealed. “It is one of only four helicopter companies in the world that operate down in Antarctica. To lend further context to this incredible undertaking: due to the inhospitable terrain and sub-zero conditions, more people have been on the moon than have gone down to look for Shackleton's wreck!”

The near complete shipwreck is beautifully preserved under 10,000 feet of freezing water and constantly shifting ice. These and other factors, such as changeable weather, with strong winds and temperatures of -18C, combined to make it one of the world’s most difficult shipwreck searches of all time.

Rehman says that the Bell 412 was perfectly suited to its role in the expedition, due to its versatility. The mission involved the transportation of scientists and the submarine teams around the ice sheet as well as scouting missions and underslung load work. It was initially planned that if the ice was too thick to break, the helicopter could land and set up camps on the ice. It could then use large, powerful drilling rigs to penetrate the ice and allow for the launch of submarines to get down to the wreck. Ultimately, the icebreaking vessel was able to get really close to the wreck location so the camps weren’t necessary.

“The project’s task was made somewhat easier by the original notes of the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, who, using the now primitive navigation tools of the time, marked down the location of the Endurance as it sank into the frigid waters of Antarctica,” Rehman said. “When the wreck was finally discovered, Worlsey’s calculations were just over four nautical miles out, a remarkable achievement for coordinates recorded back in 1915 – not to mention a testament to his skills.”

He added that the success of the Shackleton mission represents another string to the Bell 412’s bow in terms of its capability and versatility. Having been so instrumental in this expedition certainly means it can be confidently utilised in others – without limitations in terms of temperature and terrain.

“Not just the 412 either – Bell platforms are dynamic and can undertake missions ranging from oil and gas, utility and military, to law enforcement, medical services and luxury travel – and of course, most recently, exploration. They can perform external load work, land in unprepared areas, operate ship to shore; and land on water, using flotation equipment. Commercial aircraft can be militarised too. Bell platforms are designed to be as versatile as possible so they can accommodate a wide array of missions,” he said.

The company has an overarching strategy to offer a variety of helicopters that meet customer needs, where each aircraft can be further customized to provide the best possible solutions for specific requirements. Bell also offers elements of VR training, which is being further developed to allow pilots from all over the world to undertake their training remotely.

“In short, Bell is working to redefine the future of aerial mobility for everyone, whatever their requirements,” Rehman stated. “Transportation, including aviation, has been developing and employing more technology, moving towards the use of greener, sustainable methods, for some time now. We will see increased use of sustainable aviation fuels and technologies, hybrid and fully electrified engines, and autonomy. Bell is always innovating, to stay at the forefront of its industry, to move people and goods safely and efficiently where they want to go.”

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