From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
History may have given naval aviator/navigator extraordinaire Richard E. Byrd a mulligan for his flight over the North Pole, but there has never been any question about his historic flight over the South Pole shortly after midnight on Nov. 29, 1929, 85 years ago today.
And as it is with most great achievements, it came as a result of a life-changing event.
When it comes to lucky breaks, Richard E. Byrd had plenty of them. He was born into one of the founding families of Virginia, a family that dabbled in politics and publishing. That sort of privilege allowed a teenage Byrd to travel alone to visit relatives in the Philippine Islands. He wrote of his experiences, published in his family’s newspapers, and returned home a year later smitten by ships and the sea. Byrd attended Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia for a year before entering the U.S. Naval Academy at the age of 20.
Not all of his breaks, however, were fortuitous. More drawn to sports than academics, Byrd broke his right ankle while playing football at the Academy. As captain of his gymnastics team, he shattered that right ankle again after falling 13 feet while performing a daring routine off the high rings. Although recommended for “retirement” due to the injury, Byrd persevered and graduated from the Academy in 1912. It was during his stint on the battleship Wyoming (BB 32) when Ensign Byrd suffered yet another injury to his weakened leg. That set into motion his retirement from active duty on March 15, 1916, and what appeared to be the end of his sea-faring career.
Au contraire, mon cheri, the Navy said two months later when the sea service recalled Byrd to limited service active duty as Instructor-Inspector of Naval Militia, Providence, East Providence, Bristol and Newport, R.I. After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Byrd organized a commission on training camps.
So where might a naval officer with weakened leg best serve his country sitting down, other than behind a desk? As a naval aviator.
Byrd attended flight training at Pensacola, Fla., and that was where he met fellow aviator and comrade-in-air Floyd Bennett. Byrd was designated Naval Aviator No. 608 on April 17, 1918 and served during the remainder of World War I as Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Air Stations in Canada.
Lt. Cmdr. Byrd’s aviation skills were exceeded, however, by his navigational skills. In planning and executing antisubmarine patrols, Byrd pioneered techniques for navigating over the ocean at night, which included drift indicators and bubble sextants.
He proposed and devised a plan for a transatlantic flight, which resulted in the historic NC-4 flying boats flight, the first crossing of the Atlantic by air in 1919. After studying in England at the Royal Air Force School of Aerial Navigation, Byrd helped to establish naval reserve air stations throughout the United States.
Another break Byrd’s career came in 1925 when he was appointed navigator of the lighter-than-air craft Shenandoah (ZR-1) proposed flight over the North Pole. The expedition was canceled when the craft was damaged in a storm.
With an explorer’s passion and his connections to the wealthy, Byrd began to fundraise for his own Navy flight with heavier-than-air craft over the North Pole. He obtained funds from private sources to pay for the expedition and borrowed equipment such as planes, tractors, and ships from government agencies. Byrd pitched the idea to Secretary of Navy Curtis D. Wilbur, arguing the arctic regions should be explored, and, well, it wouldn’t hurt to take the wind out of the Army’s sails on their claims of having air superiority. Wilbur agreed and after getting the nod from President Calvin Coolidge, Byrd’s expedition was a go.
Except he had a lot of competition for resources, most notably from Naval Reservist Lt. Cmdr. Donald MacMillan who had been with Cmdr. Robert E. Peary April 6, 1909 when he first set foot on the North Pole. The veteran explorer already had sponsorship by the National Geographic Society and E.F. McDonald Jr., CEO of the Zenith radio manufacturing firm and a fellow lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve.
Byrd joined forces with the MacMillan Expedition. It was an uneasy alliance, with MacMillan in charge of the overall expedition and Byrd serving as commanding officer of the military personnel. Although a flight to the North Pole was never achieved during the joint venture, Byrd and Bennett completed aviation surveys over Ellsmere Island and the interior of Greenland. After the expedition returned to the states in the fall of 1925, Byrd’s first story appeared in the National Geographic Magazine, beginning a valuable association with the National Geographic Society that continued over the next three decades.
The following year, navigator Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett took off from King’s Bay, Spitzbergen, 750 miles from the Pole, May 9, 1926. After 7 hours of flight they were over the North Pole. Byrd, the first man to fly over the Pole, was second only to Peary to reach that point. Byrd and Bennett returned home as heroes, were given the Medal of Honor and the first of his three New York ticker tape parades. Many now question Byrd’s claim for that North Pole flight, based on discrepancies between his hand-written notations and those published later, and the top flight speed of the plane.
In 1926 Byrd acquired an improved three engine Fokker and named it America, and prepared for a nonstop transatlantic flight to establish the feasibility of regular passenger service across the Atlantic. However, while bad luck delayed Byrd, Charles Lindbergh took off from New York on May 20, 1927 and landed in Paris 33 hours later. America departed New York June 29, 1927, found Paris fogged in, and so landed in the ocean just off the French coast. Cmdr. Byrd and his three crewmen were rescued, taken to Paris, and then returned to an enthusiastic welcome in New York, his second ticker-tape parade.
Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition, consisting of City of New York and Eleanor Bolling, departed the United States Aug. 28, 1928; steamed via the Panama Canal and New Zealand; and, on Jan. 1, 1929, established a base named Little America on the face of the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales, Antarctica. The base was made of prefabricated buildings that included housing quarters, a library, hospital, radio laboratory, photography lab and mess hall. Some were igloos with tarps. Many were connected by snow tunnels, for good reason.
During the expedition, subzero temperatures were the norm, with minus 72.2 degrees Fahrenheit recorded July 28, 1929. According to one of the expedition meteorologists, a 25-mph wind coupled with a minus 64 temperature, also in July, created a wind-chill equivalent of less than minus 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The highest temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit a few weeks later on Aug. 19.
Although well-equipped and with lots of personnel, Byrd was without his long-time, trusted pilot, Floyd Bennett, who had died from pneumonia just months before. Byrd made sure Bennett would be part of his historic flight, naming his ski-equipped tri-motored monoplane Floyd Bennett.
It was in this plane that Byrd and three others – pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot and radioman Harold June and aerial photographer Capt. Ashley McKinley, with his Navy-issued Fairchild K-3 camera, took off from Little America at 3:29 p.m. Nov. 28, 1929 headed for the South Pole.
After dropping supplies for a geological party, the Floyd Bennett climbed to 9,000 feet but was still shy of the 11,000 altitude needed to get over the pass at the head of Liv Glacier and reach the Polar Plateau.
Empty gasoline tins were dropped, as well as more food and the plane made it through the pass. At a little past midnight, Byrd and his crew in the Floyd Bennett came upon the South Pole, where a weighted American flag was dropped. At 1:25 a.m., they headed back to Little America. After a short refueling with gasoline cached at the foot of Liv Glacier, the plane returned to its base camp at 10:10 a.m., 18 hours and 41 minutes after leaving the previous day.
The expedition was far from over. By the time Byrd and his expedition returned to New York on June 18, 1930, they had:
* Discovered Jan. 27, 1929 at 4,000 feet in altitude a new mountain range and named them the Rockefeller Mountains;
* Completed a triangulation survey March 13 of the Rockefeller Mountains.
* Supported a six-man geological survey party of the Queen Maud Mountains with dropping of supplies and equipment along the 1,500 mile course over 2 ½ months.
* A flight Dec. 5, 1929 that discovered a body of water named Sulzberger Bay, the Paul Block Bay and a glacier named for his pilot Balchen with its associated mountain range the Edsel Ford Range.
* On Dec. 21, 1929, the geological party claimed all land east of 150 degrees west as Marie Byrd Land (named after Byrd’s wife) and the territory for the United States.
After this expedition, Byrd was promoted to rear admiral and treated to his third ticker-tape parade, the most by any individual.
In 1933-35 he led a second expedition to Antarctica. Living at an advanced base to record weather data during the long winter night, Byrd nearly died from carbon monoxide. Although rescued in time, he suffered from the ill effects of the poisoning for the rest of his life.
Byrd’s third expedition consisted of the Navy commissioned and manned Bear (AG-29) and Department of the Interior’s North Star. Two wintering over bases were established and scientific investigation was intensified.
During World War II, Admiral Byrd studied and reported on their suitability for airfields.
After the war ended, Byrd resumed polar exploration. During Operation “Highjump” he led an expedition of 4,700 men and modern support equipment in 13 ships to the Antarctic. They explored much of the little known continent and added greatly to man’s knowledge of the region.
In 1954 the Secretary of Defense agreed to furnish logistical support for American scientists in the Antarctic for the International Geophysical Year which would begin on 1 July 1957. President Eisenhower appointed Byrd, Officer-in-Charge of U.S. Antarctic programs.
Admiral Byrd remained active in exploration of Antarctica until he died in his home at Boston on March 11, 1957.