• July 31, 2014

Navy rear admiral who led flights to Antarctica dies at 94

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Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 4:30 am

WASHINGTON — J. Lloyd Abbot Jr., a retired Navy rear admiral who was a naval aviator during World War II and later commanded the first regularly scheduled wintertime support flights to Antarctica in the 1960s, died Aug. 10 in Alexandria, Va. He was 94.

He had congestive heart failure, his son Steve Abbot said.

In 1966, Abbot was named commander of the U.S. Naval Antarctic Support Force, based for half the year in Christchurch, New Zealand. The force provided logistical support to people involved in scientific and naval projects on Antarctica.

Except for the occasional emergency medical evacuation flight, no airplanes flew in or out of Antarctica during the harsh winter months, when the sun didn’t shine and the weather could be brutal.

In coordination with the National Science Foundation, Abbot organized the first scheduled winter flight to Antarctica in June 1967. (In the Southern Hemisphere, the order of the seasons is reversed.) Scientists conducting experiments would be flown to Antarctica, along with supplies and mail. On the return trip, people who were sick or injured could be taken out for medical treatment.

Monumental undertaking

Abbot wrote about the monumental undertaking in a National Geographic article in November 1967.

A giant C-130 Hercules transport airplane was equipped with Teflon-coated skis for the 2,400-mile flight from New Zealand. There were 22 people onboard, along with 5,000 pounds of mail and almost 3,000 pounds of fresh food. Abbot sat in the cockpit alongside the pilot, Navy Cmdr. Fred Schneider.

“Even in summer,” Abbot wrote in National Geographic, “though we call it ‘routine,’ flying to and from Antarctica is hazardous. A man down in that icy water could live only about 10 minutes.

“In winter’s darkness and more intense cold, the perils are multiplied.”

The eight-hour journey began at 6:15 a.m., but most of it took place in the darkness of the Antarctic winter. The only illumination came from the moon.

When the plane touched down on a cleared ice field at McMurdo Station, the principal U.S. research base in Antarctica, the temperature was minus-39 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The crew door dropped open, and we all tumbled out to handshakes and shouted hellos,” Abbot wrote in National Geographic. “Hooded figures converged to unload the airplane. Fresh fruit and vegetables were rushed to the galley before they could freeze.”

Abbot inspected naval facilities and shared a meal with workers and military personnel who hadn’t had visitors — or letters from home — in months. After six hours, he was back aboard the C-130 on his way to New Zealand. The entire mission lasted less than 24 hours.

In the decades since, winter flights to Antarctica have become commonplace, but there were no scheduled journeys into winter darkness at the bottom of the world before Abbot took the first step.

Years of service

James Lloyd Abbot Jr. was born June 26, 1918, in Mobile, Ala. He was a 1939 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. and received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University in 1963.

From 1942 to 1944, when he was a young naval officer, Abbot participated in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II.He flew OS2U Kingfisher observation planes that could land on water. He also piloted dive bombers from improvised airfields carved onto remote islands.

After the war, he led a fighter squadron and commanded ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid from 1961 to 1963. The Intrepid was the recovery ship for astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Mercury spaceflight in May 1962.

When Abbot’s two-year tour of duty with the Antarctic support group ended in 1969, an ice shelf in Antarctica was named for him. His final naval assignment before his retirement in 1974 was as inspector general of the U.S. Atlantic fleet in Norfolk. His decorations included two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal and the Navy Commendation Medal.

His first wife, Marjorie Grubbs Abbot, died in 1974 after 33 years of marriage. Their daughter, Mary N. Abbot, died in 2009.

His second wife, Margaret White Abbot, died in 2010 after 35 years of marriage.

Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, retired Navy Capt. J. Lloyd Abbot III of Placida, Fla., and retired Navy Adm. Charles Stevenson “Steve” Abbot of Arlington County, president of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society; and five grandchildren.

Both of Abbot’s sons were Navy aviators, as are two of his grandchildren.

Abbot spent much of his retirement in his home town of Mobile. He served on the boards of many veterans and naval organizations and often delivered lectures about the Navy and the training of fighter pilots.

He bought a private plane when he was 84 and continued to fly until shortly before his death.

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