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The Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a gigantic transportation vehicle designed for Admiral Byrd's third Antarctica expedition (1940). The vehicle was designed to withstand the harshest environmental conditions, and traverse thousands of miles across the ice. Unfortunately, when it arrived in Antarctica, the design failed miserably, and the vehicle was eventually abandoned and lost for good.

After Byrd's first two expeditions to Antarctica (in 1929 and 1933), the United States were very excited over polar exploration. The government was setting up a new expedition named the United States Antarctic Service Expedition. The popular Admiral Byrd would lead the expedition that was soon to be nicknamed BAE III, Byrd Antarctic Expedition III.

The second Byrd expedition had not been without any troubles: Richard Byrd had suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the advance bases and nearly died. His second-in-command, Dr. Thomas Poulter traveled several 123 miles in a snow tractor to rescue Byrd. It was by no means an easy rescue; it took Poulter three attempts to make it through the inhospitable conditions. The experiences of this rescue formed the basis for investigating alternative means for shelter and transportation.

What Poulter envisioned for the third Byrd expedition was a Gargantuan vehicle; a Wellsian behemoth on wheels. Consider the following specifications of the vehicle that was to be dubbed the Snow Cruiser:

  • Length: 55 feet 8 inches (more than the width of a basketball court)
  • Width: 19 feet 10.5 inches (more than two-and-a-half times wider than a Hummer)
  • Height: 16 feet
  • Wheel base: 20 feet
  • Gross Weight (loaded): 75 000 pounds
  • Action radius: 5000 miles
  • Engines: 2x six cylinder Cummins diesel, 150 horsepower each
  • Drive motors: 4x 75 horsepowerGeneral Electric
  • Features:
    • Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing biplane mounted on roof
    • Room for a crew of five, and supplies for one year

As director of the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology , Poulter raised the $150 000 to design and build the vehicle. Once the design was approved by government officials, there were only 11 weeks left to build the vehicle. The car ---built in the Pullman shops in Chicago--- needed to be in Boston in time to be loaded onboard the North Star for the journey to Antarctica.

The 1021 mile trip to Boston was not only a race against time, but also a trial to evaluate proper functioning of the vehicle. Roads had to be cleared for the monster, and crowds were gathering along its route to catch a glimpse of it. During the trip, the engineers could already have foreseen some of the problems that would haunt the Cruiser when it arrived on the Ice. In Ft. Wayne, Indiana, a fuel pump broke. In the area of Lima, Ohio, the Snow Cruiser dropped off a bridge, and fell eight feet down into a creek. It was stuck in the creek for three days.

Nevertheless, the Snow Cruiser pulled up 19 days later at Boston's Army Wharf, where it was loaded onto the North Star. The vehicle was so big that the tail section had to be removed to fit on the deck. During the journey, the crew almost lost the vehicle in a storm, because high waves caused the Cruiser to shift.

On January 12, 1940, the North Star arrived at the Bay of Whales, on the Ross Ice Shelf. The Snow Cruiser was to be stationed at Little America, Byrd's station on the continent. The crew constructed a heavy ramp out of timber to unload the Cruiser. But when Dr. Poulter drove the vehicle across the ramp, the timber began to break. Poulter applied full throttle and reached the safety of the ice.

But the real difficulties with the vehicle started on the ice. The major problem was traction, or the lack thereof. Whereas most previous vehicles on the Ice made use of treads, the Snow Cruiser only had wheels. Dr. Coulter's idea was that four retractable wheels close to the center of mass would help the Cruiser across the many crevasses on the Ross Ice Shelf: by retracting the front wheels, the rear wheels would push the front of the car past the obstacle. Then the front wheels would be extended, and the rear wheels retracted to pull the remaining part of the vehicle past the chasm.

Theoretically, of course, because this concept had not actually been tested on the Ice. It should come to no surprise that the Snow Cruiser got hopelessly stuck even in the smallest crevasses. In fact, even on flat terrain, the huge Goodyear tires often would not provide enough traction, making the Cruiser sink down three feet into the snow.

Poulter remained optimistic about the Snow Cruiser, and tried to implement some changes to generate more traction. Two extra wheels were added to create more traction, but it was to no avail. They discovered that the vehicle operated better driving in reverse, but it was only a marginal improvement. The largest distance that the Snow Cruiser ever made was 92 miles; a fraction of the intended 5000 miles.

After several months of trying to improve the Snow Cruiser's mobility, winter was setting in, and the crew gave up hope. They covered the vehicle with timber and snow and used it as a stationary shelter. The Snow Cruiser was abandoned in 1941, when Byrd's group returned to the United States. Because of the threat of World War II, Congress cut the funding of the Antarctic program, thereby halting further development of the Snow Cruiser.

In the late 1940s, the Snow Cruiser was rediscovered. in the dry, cold climate, the vehicle was in fine condition. The last year the Snow Cruiser was seen was 1962. One urban legend has it that at some point, the Soviets took possession of the Snow Cruiser; but what vehicle did they use to move it? They certainly wouldn't have driven it.

Around the mid 1960s, a large portion of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off and drifted away. If the Snow Cruiser was on this part of the Shelf, it is now resting somewhere in the Southern Ocean. Otherwise, it may still be at Little America, buried under a thick layer of snow. Maybe some day, someone will discover the remains of the gigantic engineering project gone south


References (with lots of cool photos)

H. Scott Fogler, Steven E. LeBlanc, Strategies for creative problem solving, Prentice hall, 1995
http://www.polar.org/antsun/oldissues99-2000/99_1024/byrdflop.html
http://www.joeld.net/snowcruiser/snowcruiser.html
http://www.thule.org/snowcruiser.html
http://www.qsl.net/kg0yh/cruiser.htm
http://cars.hemmings.com/features/oddies/oddies.cfm?id=12

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