On May 9, 1926, Richard Byrd realized the dream of a lifetime by flying 600 miles to the North Pole in a trimotor plane using rudimentary navigational aids.
Or did he?
Years after the 39-year-old explorer claimed to have reached the North Pole, critics questioned whether he really made it. They said the airplane couldn’t possibly have flown that fast, or they said a tailwind wasn’t that strong. There were even stories published posthumously that said both Byrd and the pilot admitted they hadn’t reached the Pole.
Whether he did or not, he returned to the United States to a hero’s welcome, complete with a ticker tape parade and a Medal of Honor.
Richard Byrd was born in Virginia on Oct. 25, 1888, to an old Virginia family. In 1917 he married Marie Ames, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who gave them as a wedding present a house on Boston’s Beacon Hill. He lived there until he died in 1957. When he made his North Pole expedition, his brother Harry was governor of Virginia, later a powerful U.S. senator.
Why did Richard Byrd go to the North Pole? For the adventure. He called it a ‘clean sport.’
It was also a dangerous sport.
In 1925, Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and four others had tried to reach the North Pole in two airplanes. One of the planes developed mechanical problems and both landed in the Arctic. The men spent nearly a month on the ice clearing off an airstrip. Then all six men packed into a single twin-engine plane, which they managed to get airborne over the cracking ice and flew home.
Byrd was thinking of using a dirigible to fly over the North Pole because it wouldn’t have to refuel. Had he done so, he might have avoided considerable controversy.
He decided to fly an airplane when a Fokker F-VII Tri-motor became available at a reasonable price. There was also an advantage to flying in an airplane over the Pole: it would give an impetus to commercial aviation by proving planes were safe enough for commercial use.
He named the plane the Josephine Ford after the three-year-old daughter of Edsel Ford, who helped finance the expedition. He also got funding from John D. Rockefeller and Vincent Astor. He sold the movie rights and agreed to give the New York Times stories in exchange for an investment.
Byrd, along with 50 volunteers, sailed out of New York Harbor on the surplus merchant ship the Chantier with the disassembled plane aboard. He was bound for Spitzbergen, Norway.
At half-past midnight on May 9, 1926, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett climbed into the Josephine Ford and took off. Bennett flew the plane while Byrd navigated. He had to verify positions and direct the pilot every few minutes after consulting the Bumstead sun compass, a chronometer, a bubble sextant, smoke bombs and a drift indicator. The engines were so noisy he and Bennett communicated using hand signals.
At some point in the flight, oil was spraying from the starboard engine. They were close enough to the Pole that Byrd decided to fly there and back on two engines.
Byrd reported what happened next for in National Geographic:
“At 9:02 a.m. Greenwich Civil Time, our calculations showed us to be at the Pole! The dream of a lifetime had at last been realized.”
At the time, flying 600 miles from land and returning to the point of departure was a remarkable feat of navigation.
He returned a national hero. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor as well as financing for his next venture – an expedition to the South Pole.
Byrd submitted his records to the U.S. Navy to be examined by a panel of experts at the National Geographic Society. They confirmed his calculations and instrumentation as accurate. Therein was the problem: His claim to have flown over the North Pole was based on his word and his pilot’s alone.
Three days later, Roald Amundsen and a crew flew over the North Pole in an airship. Since they flew straight from Spitsbergen to Alaska nonstop, there isn’t much doubt they flew over the Pole. Amundsen is considered the first person to have made a verifiable flight over the North Pole.