Thursday, December 21, 2017

Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd's Flight Over the South Pole

Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd's Flight Over the South Pole
By Laurie Gwen Shapiro

On this day, December 21, 1929, Congress made handsome 41-year-old Virginian Richard Evelyn Byrd the youngest admiral in US Naval history in recognition of his flight over the South Pole.

Sixteen months earlier, Admiral Byrd had departed New York to great fanfare on the first American expedition to Antarctica. After almost a year on ice waiting for the right conditions – enough hours of sunlight, little wind and less snow – a meteorologist from the US Weather Bureau finally gave the okay. On November 29, Byrd left the expedition’s base camp of Little America, headed for the pole.

Richard Evelyn Byrd. Used with permission.
The plane for the historic trip would be a Ford trimotor, the Floyd Bennett, named in memory of Byrd’s best friend and pilot on a joyride over the North Pole three years before. At the control wheel sat twenty-nine-year-old Norwegian Bernt Balchen. Byrd was a mere passenger - yet he would get most of the glory.

Navigation, not flying, was Richard Byrd’s true skill—ironic given the rumors that he had either fudged or botched the coordinates of the earlier flight he’d claimed had made him the first to fly over the North Pole. Three years later and at the other end of the earth, Byrd had a Paramount film crew along in the cockpit to document his success. There would be no naysayers this time.

The Floyd Bennett traveled 800 miles from the base camp alongside the Ross Sea deep into the interior of the frozen continent, reaching an elevation of 11,500 feet. (To clear mountain peaks, they had to discard a 250-pound bag of food.) If there was no sign of the dinosaurs and lost peoples that some back home had hoped for, at least the vista was breathtaking from above. Byrd would name one snow-covered range after sponsor John D. Rockefeller. His second in command cracked later that his boss had named the mountains after the signature on a $100,000 check.

A standard compass was of little use so close to magnetic south, so as they drew close, Balchen flew circles as Byrd used a sun compass and his self-invented bubble sextant to calculate their position. When he determined the likely spot of the South Pole, he dropped an American flag weighted with stones taken from Floyd Bennett’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The cameraman filmed as it fluttered toward the ice.

With Byrd at the South Pole, a Paramount Picture. Used with permission.
Byrd’s name was added to the list of Antarctica firsts, there alongside sealer Captain John Davis, the first to tread on Terra Australis Incognita in 1821, and Roald Amundsen, first to the pole in 1911.

Then it was back in triumph to Little America, that “clump of huts buried in snow, the only speck of civilization on the Antarctic continent,” as Russell Owen, the New York Times reporter along for the expedition, put it so beautifully. (Owen would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.) After months of waiting and years of preparations, Byrd had made it to the pole and back in eighteen hours, forty-one minutes.

When word reached Americans that their fellow countryman had been first to see the South Pole from the skies, it was that rare bright news that aroused pride and wonder—a respite from the gloomy economy brought on by that October’s stock market crash. Everywhere, newspapers sold out.

Imagine the laughter in the New York Times editorial room the next day when they received an angry letter from multimillionaire Wilbur Glenn Voliva, an evangelist priest, radio broadcaster, and forceful proponent of the flat-earth theory, who, in an unfortunate mix-up of homophones, wrote indignantly: “Commander Byrd must know that... the truth is, the Earth is a circular plane.”

Those on Capitol Hill better appreciated Byrd’s feat. A most uncontroversial bill was voted on in Congress on December 21 and signed immediately by President Hoover. Commander Byrd was now Rear Admiral Byrd, a two-star rank just below vice admiral. Americans soon would have it in their heads that Admiral Byrd had been the one to fly the plane over the South Pole. Whatever bitterness the actual pilot Bernt Balchen had over this he kept to himself, for a time.


About the Book
The spectacular, true story of a scrappy teenager from New York’s Lower East Side who stowed away on the Roaring Twenties’ most remarkable feat of science and daring: an expedition to Antarctica.

It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier? This was the moon landing before the 1960s. Everyone wanted to join the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage.

The night before the expedition’s flagship launched, Billy Gawronski—a skinny, first generation New York City high schooler desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business—jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard.

Could he get away with it?

From the grimy streets of New York’s Lower East Side to the rowdy dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a gutsy young stowaway who became an international celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your bootstraps age.


About the Author
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist whose writing has appeared in New York, Slate, Aeon, The Forward, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Stowaway is her first full-length work of nonfiction.


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