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Gilbert Eric Douglas, RAAF Pilot & Antarctic Explorer (1902-1970)

Glass Negative- Portrait of Eric Douglas, Eric Douglas, Antarctica, 1929-1931

Image: Glass Negative- Portrait of Eric Douglas, Eric Douglas, Antarctica, 1929-1931

Source: Museum Victoria

Gilbert Eric Douglas, known as Eric, was born on 6 December 1902 to Bessie and Gilbert Douglas at Parkville, Melbourne. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Swinburne Technical College. In 1920 he joined the Australian Air Corps as an Air Mechanic, becoming an Aero Fitter in the Australian Air Force when it was formed in March 1921. He graduated as a Sergeant Pilot with the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) in 1927.

In April 1929 he took part in the search for the crew of the Kookaburra in the Northern Territory and was recommended for the Air Force Medal for his part in the mission. Promoted to Pilot Officer in August, Douglas was selected to participate in the 1929-1931 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) along with the senior pilot, Flying Officer Stuart Campbell. Douglas was a keen amateur photographer and worked with professional photographer Frank Hurley during both BANZARE voyages.

Led by Sir Douglas Mawson BANZARE was supported by the British, Australian and New Zealand Governments and private backers, including the Melbourne businessman MacPherson Robertson. Conducted over two summers (1929-1930 and 1930-1931) the expedition made three new landings, and with the aid of the Gypsy Moth seaplane flown by Douglas and Campbell, traversed the whole Antarctic coastline from 45°E to 160°E. This stretch of land would later become the Australian Antarctic Territory. The pilots also helped guided the ship, Discovery, through the ice and made reconnaissance flights.

Not just an opportunity to claim British sovereignty over Antarctic lands (with the understanding they would later be handed to Australia) the expedition also undertook an extensive programme of scientific work and observations. In fact the scientific results were so voluminous that reports were still being published three decades later.

Following the expeditions Douglas resumed his duties with the RAAF working as an instructor and lecturer. In 1934 he married Ella Sevior and was awarded the Polar Medal in bronze with the clasp 'Antarctic 1929-31'.

Douglas' final journey to Antarctica was in 1935-1936 as part of the search team for the explorers and aviators Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant he was appointed Officer-in-charge of the RAAF contingent on the rescue ship Discovery II. From the RAAF Moth airplane Douglas sighted Hollick-Kenyon on 15 January 1936 at the United States' base, Little America. Following Douglas' successful sighting a rescue team was dispatched from the Discovery II to collect the two men.

From 1935-1940 he worked as an Officer-in-charge and Test Pilot at Point Cooke, Victoria and Laverton, Victoria, before being promoted to Commanding Officer in 1940. In 1946 Douglas was appointed Station Commander in Amberley, Queensland, where he had been stationed since 1942. He retired from the RAAF on 1 July 1948 with the rank of Group Captain.

Following his retirement Douglas worked as a civilian technician with the navy's Aircraft Maintenance and Repair Division, Melbourne until 1960. He passed away on 4 August 1970 at Heidelberg, survived by his wife, son and two daughters.

References
Wilson, David,1996, 'Douglas, Gilbert Eric (1902-1970), air force officer', in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 14, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, pp. 23-24.
McCarthy, G.J, 1993, 'Douglas, Gilbert Eric (Eric) (1902 - 1970)', Encyclopedia of Australian Science, retrieved 20 February 2013, http://www.eoas.info/biogs/P001563b.htm

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