On Oct. 31, 1956, (65 years ago this month) -the Que Sera Sera- a US Navy R4D Skytrain transport plane, touched down at the South Pole as part of an international scientific study. The scientists would be the first people to visit there in 44 years and the first aircraft to land at the pole.

A global proposal to conduct wide-ranging scientific studies of the Earth for two years had recently been established. It was part of The International Geophysical Year. It lasted from July 1 of 1957- to Dec. 31, 1958. This study marked the end of a long era during the Cold War when scientific interchange had ceased. In all, 67 countries participated.

Nine countries- including the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and Japan announced they would send expeditions to the South Pole to participate in the Antarctic study.

The U.S. Navy contributed to the effort and formed Task Force 43, consisting of icebreakers, cargo ships,  and tankers necessary to carry out Operation Deep Freeze to map the Antarctic coast and establish scientific observation posts on the ice.

One of the Navy’s R4D-5L Skytrains- Que Sera Sera (whatever will be, will be) was the vehicle of choice for landing at the south pole. 

About the Skytrain

DC-3 airliners were put into service in 1936 and would end up propelling the budding air travel industry to record numbers.  The U.S. Army version was the C-47, and the U.S. Navy version was designated the R4D. Its official name became the Skytrain, and it was universally known as The Gooney Bird.

The aircraft was best suited for long-distance air transport and more than 10,000 were manufactured during World War II.  Almost 600 of them went to the Navy.

Landing at the South Pole

When the Que Sera Sera landed at the Pole, the engines were left running to protect them from the freezing temperatures. They took some scientific measurements to determine the possibility of establishing a permanent air station in the area. The American flag was planted next to the Norwegian flag left by Roal Amundsen (1911) and the British flag left by Robert Scott (1912). 

An Air Force C-124 Globemaster circled overhead with supplies if the crew were to become stranded. Another Skytrain carrying newspaper reporters and photographers to the site had turned back with engine trouble.

Take-off

With the temperature at minus 60 degrees and at an elevation of 10,000 feet (limiting the amount of lift the wings could generate at 28,000 pounds), the plane was already testing its limits. The landing skis had become stuck in the ice so they outfitted the aircraft with four Jet-Assisted Taff-Off (JATO) pods. The pods were ignited on takeoff to provide extra thrust. After almost 10 attempts there was some slight movement. Eventually, the plane successfully left the ground, destined for the support base near the Duncan Mountains. On the way, a storm blinded them, forcing them to fly on instruments alone.  Engine trouble soon followed, and with the C-124 accompanying it, they diverted to a smaller base at the Liv glacier. After some repair and fueling up, they eventually made it to the American base at McMurdo Sound.

Today

By the next month, more planes began arriving and construction of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station began.  Eventually, the original structure succumbed to the harsh conditions and the facility was rebuilt in 1975. Modifications have continued over the years, and it continues to operate today as a supply base for scientific research in the Antarctic.

The Que Sera Sera was given to the Smithsonian Institution and was restored in 1966. It is on display at the National Naval Aviation History Museum in Pensacola, Fla.

The R4D Skytrain – Que Sera Sera, on display in Pensacola, Fla. Photo Courtesy of Orlando Suarez, Jetphotos.com.