12 July, 2008

Richard E. Byrd

Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, USN was a pioneering American polar explorer, famous aviator and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

On May 9, 1926, Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker F-VII Tri-motor called the Josephine Ford. Byrd claimed to have achieved the pole. This trip earned Byrd widespread acclaim, including being awarded the Medal of Honor, and enabled him to secure funding for subsequent attempts on the South Pole.

From 1926 until 1996, there were doubts, defenses, and heated controversy about whether or not Byrd actually reached the North Pole. In 1958 Norwegian-American aviator and explorer Bernt Balchen cast doubt on Byrd's claim based on his extensive personal knowledge of the airplane's speed. In 1971 Balchen speculated that Byrd had simply circled aimlessly while out of sight of land.

The 1996 release of Byrd's diary of the May 9, 1926 flight revealed erased (but still legible) sextant sights that sharply differ with Byrd's later June 22 typewritten official report to the National Geographic Society. Byrd took a sextant reading of the Sun at 7:07:10 GCT. His erased diary record shows the apparent (observed) solar altitude to have been 19°25'30", while his later official typescript reports the same 7:07:10 apparent solar altitude to have been 18°18'18". On the basis of this and other data in the diary, Dennis Rawlins concluded that Byrd steered accurately, and courageously flew about 80% of the distance to the Pole before turning back due to an engine oil leak, but later falsified his official report to support his claim of reaching the pole.

Accepting that the conflicting data in the typed report's flight times indeed require both northward and southward groundspeeds greater than the flight's 85 mph airspeed, a remaining Byrd defender posits a westerly-moving anti-cyclone that tailwind-boosted Byrd's groundspeed on both outward and inward legs, allowing the distance claimed to be covered in the time claimed. (The theory is based on rejecting handwritten sextant data in favor of typewritten alleged dead-reckoning data.) This suggestion has been refuted by Dennis Rawlins who adds that the sextant data in the long unavailable original official typewritten report are all expressed to 1", a precision not possible on Navy sextants of 1926 and not the precision of the sextant data in Byrd's diary for 1925 or the 1926 flight, which was normal (half or quarter of a minute of arc).

Some sources claim that Floyd and Byrd later revealed, in private conversations, that they did not reach the pole. One source claims that Floyd later told a fellow pilot that they did not reach the pole. It is also claimed that Byrd confessed his failure to reach the North Pole during a long walk with Dr. Isaiah Bowman in 1930.

Lt. Com. Byrd and aircraft Byrd was one of several aviators who attempted to win the Orteig Prize in 1927 for making the first nonstop flight between the United States and France. His flight was sponsored by department-store magnate Rodman Wanamaker, an early visionary of Trans- Atlantic commercial flight. Once again Byrd named Floyd Bennett as his chief pilot, with support from Bernt Balchen, Bert Acosta, and George Noville. During a practice takeoff with Bennett alone at the controls, the Fokker Trimotor airplane, America, crashed, severely injuring Bennett. As the plane was being repaired, Charles Lindbergh won the prize. But Byrd continued with his quest, naming Balchen to replace Bennett as chief pilot. Byrd, Balchen, Acosta, and Noville flew from Roosevelt Field East Garden City, New York on June 29, 1927. Arriving over France, cloud cover prevented a landing in Paris; they returned to the coast of Normandy, crash-landing near the beach without fatalities on July 1, 1927.

In 1928, Byrd began his first expedition to the Antarctic involving two ships, and three airplanes: a Ford Trimotor called the Floyd Bennett (named after the recently deceased pilot of Byrd's previous expeditions); a Fokker called The Stars and Stripes; a Fairchild called the Virginia (Byrd's birth state). A base camp named "Little America" was constructed on the Ross Ice Shelf and scientific expeditions by dog-sled, snowmobile, and airplane began. Photographic expeditions and geological surveys were undertaken for the duration of that summer, and constant radio communications were maintained with the outside world. After their first winter, their expeditions were resumed, and on November 29, 1929, the famous flight to the South Pole and back was launched. Byrd, along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot/radioman Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley, flew the Ford Trimotor to the South Pole and back in 18 hours, 41 minutes. They had difficulty gaining enough altitude, and they had to dump empty gas tanks, as well as their emergency supplies, in order to achieve the altitude of the Polar Plateau. However, the flight was successful, and it entered Byrd into the history books. After a further summer of exploration, the expedition returned to North America on June 18, 1930. A 19 year-old American Boy Scout, Paul Allman Siple, was chosen from to accompany the expedition. Unlike the 1926 flight, this expedition was honored with the gold medal of the American Geographical Society.

Byrd, by then an internationally recognized pioneering American polar explorer and aviator, served for a time as Honorary National President (1931-1935) of Pi Gamma Mu, the international honor society in the social sciences. In 1928, he carried the Society's flag during a historic expedition to the Antarctic to dramatize the spirit of adventure into the unknown, characterizing both the natural and social sciences.

As a senior officer in the United States Navy, Byrd performed national defense service during World War II (1941-45), mostly as a consultant to the U.S.N. high commanders.

On his second expedition, in 1934, Byrd spent five winter months alone operating a meteorological station, Advance Base, from which he narrowly escaped with his life after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a poorly-ventilated stove. Unusual radio transmissions from Byrd finally began to alarm the men at the base camp, who then attempted to go to Advance Base. The first two trips were failures due to darkness, snow, and mechanical troubles. Finally, Dr. Thomas Poulter, E.J. Demas, and Amory Waite arrived at advanced base, where they found Byrd in poor physical health. The men remained at advanced base until October 12 when an airplane from the base camp picked up Dr. Poulter and Byrd. The rest of the men returned to base camp with the tractor. This expedition is described by Byrd in his autobiography Alone. It is also commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp issued at the time, and a considerable amount of mail using it was sent from Byrd's base at Little America. Later a souvenir sheet was also issued. All of this philatelic material is readily available at modest prices.

In late 1938, Byrd visited Hamburg and was invited to participate in the 1938/1939 German "Neuschwabenland" Antarctic Expedition, but declined.

Byrd's third expedition was his first one on which he had the official backing of the U.S. government. The project included extensive studies of geology, biology, meteorology and exploration. Within a few months, in March 1940, Byrd was recalled to active duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The expedition continued in Antarctica without him. From 1942 to 1945 he headed important missions to the Pacific, including surveys of remote islands for airfields. On one assignment he visited the fighting front in Europe. He was repeatedly cited for meritorious service and was present at the Japanese surrender.


The fourth culminating expedition, Operation High jump, was the largest Antarctic expedition to date. Conspiracy theorists specializing in alleged Aryan or Nazi activities in Antarctica have extensively speculated about this mission. In 1946, US Navy Secretary James Forrestal assembled a huge amphibious naval force for an Antarctic Expedition expected to last six to eight months. Besides the flagship Mount Olympus and the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea, there were thirteen US Navy support ships, six helicopters, six flying boats, two seaplane tenders and fifteen other aircraft. The total number of personnel involved was over 4,000. The armada arrived in the Ross Sea on 31 December 1946, and made aerial explorations of an area half the size of the United States, recording ten new mountain ranges. The major area covered was the eastern coastline of Antarctica from 150 degrees east to the Greenwich meridian. The expedition was terminated abruptly at the end of February 1947, six months early, the entire remaining armada returning immediately to the United States. The early termination of the mission was never explained.

As part of the multinational collaboration for the International Geophysical Year 1957–58, Byrd commanded the U.S. Navy Operation Deep Freeze I in 1955-56, which established permanent Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales, and the South Pole.

Richard Byrd died on March 12, 1957 in his sleep at his Brimmer Street home in Boston. Admiral Byrd was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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