Quite early in his Navy career, while a lowly ensign, Richard Byrd was sent to the bench. He was forced, by a battered ankle, to retire in 1916 and the Navy stuck him behind a desk. Even with his dreams of a great Navy career seemingly shattered he refused to give up and steadily rose up the ranks to lieutenant commander before the Great War ended. But it was his time on shore that led him to take up flying and he quickly became an aviation pioneer.
He was involved in the first transatlantic flights and was the first to fly over both poles, and also charted the best flight path over the Pacific among his many groundbreaking accomplishments. These accomplishments led to his promotion up to Rear Admiral, a distinguished position.
Byrd planned the Navy’s island hopping flight over the Atlantic which became the first ever successful trans-Atlantic flight and then became the first to fly across Greenland’s enormous ice cap.
In Greenland Byrd got his first taste of the Arctic and immediately wanted more. He quickly set his sights on crossing the North Pole and asked the Navy to support his venture. However they refused so Byrd embarked on the unenviable task of prying money from wealthy American businessmen.
However one of the wealthy businessmen he approached, Edsel Ford, was at first reluctant to support his venture. So the devious Byrd named the plane he would fly on the trip, Josephine Ford, after Edsel’s daughter. Needless to say Edsel then jumped onboard and helped Byrd pay for this expensive private endeavor.
Together with his trusty co-pilot, Floyd Bennett and their large crew, many of whom were volunteers, Byrd arrived in Spitsbergen in early May 1926 around the same time as a team led by Roald Amundsen that was likewise aiming to fly across the Pole having failed in a previous attempt only a year earlier. Many thought that meant a race to the pole would ensue, however both explorers strongly denied that was the case.
Flying in the Arctic was no small undertaking as the conditions were less than favorable.
Byrd and Bennett were forced to contend with strong winds threatening to blow them off course, snow blindness, fog and a lack of a discernible horizon leaving no landmarks to guide them, and the environment of the pole messing with their compass making traditional navigation impossible. Add to that sub-zero temperatures threatening to stall the engine and unstable sea ice making landing risky they had their work cut for them.
To overcome most of these obstacles the weather had to be perfect and luckily shortly after Byrd’s team arrived at Spitsbergen it was. Without the aid of a compass Byrd had to use less traditional methods to navigate and chose to use a sun compass as in May in the Arctic the sun never set. The sun compass, essentially a reverse sundial, allowed Byrd to verify his position based on the sun.
Byrd arrived in Spitsbergen to find that the only dock in Kings Bay was occupied but instead of waiting he had his men tie planks to their rowboats making a raft to which they lowered the Josephine Ford and clumsily rowed her and all their supplies to shore before the converging ice fully covered the bay.
They then dug a runway out of the snow and ice and after some trial and error had the plane in the sky for a test flight. This flight led Byrd to discover that fuel consumption was much lower than expected allowing him to make the flight non-stop.
Shortly thereafter the Josephine Ford took to the skies and headed north. Once they had arrived at the Pole Byrd and Bennett circled for some time to allow Byrd to verify their position before heading back to Spitsbergen. Of crossing the North Pole Byrd wrote ‘We felt no larger than a pinpoint and as lonely as a tomb; as remote and detached as a star.’
The Arctic Flight ended in success fifteen and a half hours after first leaving the Spitsbergen ice despite an oil leak from one of the engines and returned to King’s Bay to much celebration.
The historic flight led to both Byrd and Bennett being presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor.
Soon afterwards, Bernt Balchen, a then competitor but future accomplice of Byrd’s questioned whether the Byrd had actually reached the North Pole. He claimed that the Josephine Ford was not capable of flying to the Pole and back in sixteen hours. Then in the 90’s a diary of Byrd’s was discovered in which he had scribbled notes and calculations during the Artic flight. Some of the calculations that suggested Byrd had not reached the Pole were erased leading some to claim it as proof that Byrd was not the first to reach the North Pole. However leading aviation and navigation experts came to the conclusion that the Josephine Ford was in fact capable of making the flight and the erased calculations were simply a mistake that Byrd corrected. The debate continues today with many arguing on both sides.