Richard Byrd’s North Pole Flight
30 artifacts in this set
Born in 1888, Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., was defined by determination. When he injured his right ankle while attending the U.S. Naval Academy, Byrd shifted his focus from the sea to the sky. He enrolled in the Navy’s new aviation school and trained as a pilot and navigator. From boyhood, Byrd dreamed of one day exploring the North Pole.
Richard E. Byrd Wearing Cold Weather Clothing during the MacMillan Expedition to North Greenland, September 1925
Byrd joined American explorer Donald MacMillan on a scientific expedition to northern Greenland in 1925. MacMillan's effort was funded partly by the National Geographic Society, and partly by Chicago radio manufacturer Eugene McDonald. The expedition fueled Byrd's desire to visit the North Pole, and it taught him valuable lessons about logistics and funding.
Assembling the Plane Richard E. Byrd Would Fly during the MacMillan Expedition to North Greenland, 1925
MacMillan's expedition included three seaplanes. Byrd led a team that made aerial studies of Greenland's icecap. They hoped to survey isolated Canadian islands too, but bad weather canceled those plans. Still, Byrd managed to fly over remote areas of the Arctic Ocean. Now more than ever, Richard Byrd was determined to lead his own air expedition to the North Pole.
Above all else, Byrd needed money. A mutual acquaintance connected him with Henry Ford and Edsel Ford in 1925. Ford Motor Company had recently joined the aviation industry, and Byrd's anticipated North Pole flight promised to boost commercial aviation. Edsel Ford was particularly impressed with Byrd's grand plans. In January 1926, he contributed $20,000 to the expedition.
Byrd intended to use a Ford Tri-Motor on his Arctic flight, but a factory fire in January 1926 prevented it. Instead, Byrd acquired a Fokker F.VII Tri-Motor. Manufacturer Anthony Fokker insisted on prominent "FOKKER" markings – lest it be confused with a Ford airplane – but Byrd acknowledged his patron by naming the plane for Edsel Ford's daughter: Josephine Ford.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd Shaking Hands before the Byrd Arctic Expedition, 1926
Edsel Ford persuaded oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to make his own $20,000 contribution to the Byrd expedition. Private funding was essential. Congress had supported several expeditions, via the Army and Navy, in the early 1920s, but those monies were exhausted by the time of Byrd's trek.
Richard Byrd, his airplane, and his 50-person crew boarded the ship Chantier and departed from New York on April 5, 1926. They sailed for Spitzbergen, Norway, which would be their base of operations. The island lay north of the Norwegian mainland between the Norwegian Sea and the Arctic Ocean -- some 675 miles from the North Pole.
Byrd had seen first-hand the benefits of shortwave radio communication during the 1925 MacMillan expedition. He arranged for the Chantier to be equipped with a 500-watt transmitter, and for the Josephine Ford to have a 50-watt unit. These radios allowed direct voice communication between the ship and the airplane.
Byrd would fly to the pole with pilot Floyd Bennett. They met at the Navy's flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and they later worked together on the MacMillan expedition. Bennett was calm and confident, but not cocky -- ideal qualities for a pilot on a difficult mission. Byrd was impressed with Bennett's character and abilities, and the two became close friends.
Byrd's arrival in Spitzbergen did not go smoothly. The harbor's single pier was occupied by a disabled ship, and Byrd couldn’t unload the Josephine Ford directly on land. Undaunted, Byrd ordered his crew to build a raft from several small boats. It was risky, but the team expertly moved the airplane ashore with their makeshift ferry.
Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth greet Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett before the North Pole Flight, May 1926
When Byrd's team arrived in Spitzbergen, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was already there. He had his own crew, including Italian aviator Umberto Nobile and American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, and his own polar ambitions. Having failed to reach the North Pole by airplane in 1923 and 1925, Amundsen selected a lighter-than-air craft for his 1926 attempt.
Airship "Norge," Designed and Piloted by Umberto Nobile, before Departure to the North Pole, May 1926
Amundsen intended to fly over the North Pole in the airship Norge, which Nobile had designed. Byrd and Amundsen treated each other's efforts with a blend of competition and cooperation. They shared advice and equipment as they prepared for their flights. But they also kept close watch on the calendar -- each man eager to be first to reach the pole.
Byrd and Bennett initially struggled to get the Josephine Ford into the air. The plane moved too slowly on its wooden skis. Bernt Balchen, a crewmember on the Norge, recommended that the fragile skis be reinforced and greased with pine tar and resin, and that Byrd and Bennett take off at night when hard-frozen snow provided a smoother surface.
Weight was another issue in getting the Josephine Ford off the ground. Byrd's expedition was well equipped with lifeboats, radios, cameras, weather-measuring equipment, and navigational instruments. It also had sufficient food including biscuits, bacon, pemmican, dried mutton, and tea. But the airplane could only carry about 1,400 pounds of gear -- including Byrd and Bennett.
Crew Member Adding Fuel to the "Josephine Ford," the Fokker Airplane Flown on the Byrd Arctic Expedition, 1926
Byrd's team took 615 gallons of gasoline on their expedition. The tanks in the wings of the Josephine Ford held 420 gallons. The rest of the fuel was carried in five-gallon cans that were used to refill the tanks during the flight. Byrd and Bennett used an average of 28 gallons an hour on their North Pole flight.
The additional fuel gave the Josephine Ford a range of nearly 2,200 miles. From the start, Byrd wanted to make his flight in a tri-motor airplane. Three engines provided a good safety margin if something went wrong -- indeed, one engine developed an oil leak during the polar flight -- and an emergency landing on Arctic ice was a last resort.
Roald Amundsen Watches as Richard Byrd Takes Off in the Fokker F. VII Tri-Motor Airplane "Josephine Ford," May 1926
The Josephine Ford lifted off at 12:37 a.m. on May 9, 1926, and then climbed to 2,000 feet and accelerated to a reported 90 mph. Bennett operated the controls while Byrd navigated. Throughout the flight, Byrd kept a detailed flight log of times, speeds, and locations. That log would be the only proof of success.
At 9:02 a.m., Byrd's navigational instruments showed that they'd reached the North Pole. Byrd and Bennett exchanged a congratulatory handshake, circled the site, and then returned south with help from a tailwind that boosted them to a reported 100 mph. The two men took turns piloting and napping as a combination of excitement and exhaustion overwhelmed them.
Richard E. Byrd, Floyd Bennett, and Others Celebrate the Arctic Expedition beside the Fokker Airplane, the "Josephine Ford," June 2, 1926
When the Josephine Ford arrived back at Spitzbergen at 4:34 p.m., both Byrd's and Amundsen's teams cheered its return. The Norwegians played "The Star-Spangled Banner," and Amundsen greeted Byrd with a warm embrace. The Norge -- with Amundsen, Ellsworth, Nobile, and a crew of 13 others -- completed its own successful flight over the North Pole three days later.
Commander Richard E. Byrd: Telling His Own Story of the First Flight to the North Pole, June 25, 1926
Upon returning to New York on June 23, 1926, Byrd immediately set out to share his story through lectures, newspaper stories, and magazine articles. Many of these efforts were made under an agreement that had given Byrd a $5,000 advance -- used to help fund the expedition -- in exchange for exclusive rights to news and photos from his North Pole flight.
Questions about Byrd's flight soon appeared. Could he have flown 1,350 desolate miles in 16 hours? If the Josephine Ford had a top speed of 100 mph, and if Byrd had a favorable tailwind, then yes. But later flights suggested the plane's top speed was closer to 70 mph, and area weather charts for May 9, 1926, recorded calm winds.
The National Geographic Society reviewed Byrd's typewritten report -- including a flight log and navigational data -- and certified that he had indeed reached the North Pole. But when Byrd's original handwritten log was made public in 1996, it revealed erased (but still legible) figures that differed from the typed report. Were these simple mistakes, or was data changed for the official report?
President Calvin Coolidge Presenting the Congressional Medal of Honor to Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, February 1927
Whatever the doubts today, Byrd and Bennett were celebrated as heroes at the time. As members of the U.S. Navy -- Byrd a Commander and Bennett a Machinist -- both men received the Medal of Honor for their feat. President Calvin Coolidge presented their medals in a ceremony at the White House on February 25, 1927.
Following the expedition, the Josephine Ford made a promotional tour across the United States. It soon found a permanent home. Edsel Ford purchased the Fokker airplane for $30,000. It was the first aircraft acquired for Henry Ford’s emerging museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The Josephine Ford was -- and remains -- the most significant artifact from Byrd's North Pole flight.
In the summer of 1927, Byrd flew across the Atlantic Ocean nonstop with crewmates Bernt Balchen, Bert Acosta, and George Noville. They intended to land their Fokker Tri-Motor America in Paris, but poor weather forced them to land in shallow water off the Normandy coast. Byrd recreated his unplanned arrival -- in a rubber lifeboat -- for this photograph.
Floyd Bennett made journeys of his own. In April 1928, Hermann Kohl, Ehrenfried Guenther von Huenefeld, and James Fitzmaurice made the first east-to-west nonstop transatlantic flight -- more difficult against prevailing winds. They damaged their airplane Bremen while landing on Canada's remote Greenly Island. Bennett, suffering from pneumonia, joined a team sent to retrieve the Bremen crew.
Bennett's heroic effort aggravated his illness, and he was taken to a Quebec City hospital. When Byrd learned of Bennett's condition, he rushed from Boston to see his friend. Byrd arrived too late to say goodbye. Floyd Bennett passed away on April 25, 1928. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Aviator Floyd Bennett and Explorer Richard Byrd with Edsel Ford at Ford Airport, Dearborn, Michigan, 1926
Richard Byrd already had plans to fly to the South Pole, again with considerable financial support from Edsel Ford. Byrd intended to have Floyd Bennett join him as pilot, but Bennett's death forced a change. Bernt Balchen, who'd helped Byrd and Bennett at Spitzbergen in 1926 and flown the Atlantic with Byrd in 1927, ultimately piloted Byrd's South Pole flight.
On November 28-29, 1929, Byrd, Balchen, and two crewmates became the first people to fly over the South Pole. Their airplane, a 1928 Ford Tri-Motor, was named Floyd Bennett to honor Byrd's fallen friend. Byrd also dropped a stone, taken from Bennett's grave, down to the pole during the historic flight.
Regardless of whether Richard Byrd reached the actual North Pole, no one can question the difficulty or determination of his 1926 effort -- and there is no doubt about the validity of his 1929 South Pole flight. Byrd made four further trips to Antarctica, with the last completed just a year before his death in 1957.