Richard E. Byrd

Richard E. Byrd, American naval officer, aviator polar explorer, and scientist who led five expeditions to Antarctica and was the first man to fly over the North and South poles and for his daring feats became one of America’s genuine folk heroes.

The early life of Richard E. Byrd

Richard E. Byrd was born in Winchester, Virginia On Oct. 25, 1888, into a distinguished Tidewater family, a direct descendant of William Byrd one of the earliest plantation owners in Virginia. He was the younger brother of Harry F. Byrd, who was a U.S. senator from Virginia from 1933 to 1965.

Education and early carrier

Richard E. Byrd’s early education included study at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy and a trip around the world alone at the age of 13. He attended Virginia Military Institute, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1912. At the academy, Byrd established himself as a class leader and athlete.


After four years of service in the Navy, he retired in 1916 because of a leg injury. However, in 1917, on the eve of American participation in World War I, he was recalled to active duty and trained as an aviator at Pensacola, Fla. From July to November 1918 he was commander of the U. S. Air Forces of Canada.

Interested in aviation

Richard E. Byrd became interested in aviation, after briefly retiring from active duty, he returned to the service when the United States entered World War I. He requested assignment to the Navy’s aviation division. In 1918 Byrd developed a plan to fly the Navy’s tri-motored NC-1 flying boat across the Atlantic. His wartime assignment, however, was as commander of U.S. Navy aviation forces in Canada, where a submarine patrol was maintained.


 Byrd worked on improving aerial navigation when neither land nor horizon was visible and developed a “bubble” sextant and a drift indicator. After the war, he took charge of the navigational preparations for a one-stop transatlantic flight of three Navy planes but was not permitted to make the May 1919 flight. In 1921 he crossed the Atlantic in an airship.


Eight years later Byrd would make one of the early nonstop transatlantic flights; in the meantime, he influenced flight development in other important ways. He successfully lobbied for legislation to establish a Bureau of Aeronautics in the Navy; and he commanded the Navy flying unit that accompanied Donald MacMillan’s Arctic expedition of 1925, during which over 30,000 square miles of northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island were explored.

Richard E. Byrd

First flight over the North Pole

In 1926 Richard E. Byrd undertook a privately sponsored expedition to the North Pole and Convinced of the practicability of the airplane for polar exploration. On May 9, 1926, with Floyd Bennett as his copilot, Richard E Byrd made the first flight over the North Pole. Flying from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, Byrd, and his copilot circled the North. Byrd returned to the United States to a tumultuous reception and promotion to the rank of commander.


In the following year, with three companions, he made a 42-hour nonstop flight, June 29-July 1, from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, N. Y. to France. Poor visibility made it impossible for him to land in Paris, so he set his plane down in the surf off VersurMer in Normandy.


Richard E. Byrd’s new goal was to demonstrate the scientific and commercial value of multiengine planes on sustained flight over long distances. He entered the “transatlantic derby” of 1927, but the crash of his new plane during tests delayed his departure until after Charles Lindbergh’s flight. His aviation experiences are detailed in his first book, Skyward (1928).

Antarctic expedition of Richard E. Byrd

Richard E. Byrd’s five Antarctic expeditions were groundbreaking for polar exploration. He pioneered the use of airplanes, radios, and cameras, significantly increasing geographical knowledge. Notably, he claimed the first South Pole airlift in 1929 (though later disputed). His later expeditions, like Operation High Jump, used advanced technology for large-scale aerial mapping and paved the way for sustained scientific research stations in Antarctica. Byrd’s accomplishments not only advanced scientific understanding but also helped establish the US as a leader in polar exploration.

First Antarctic expedition (1928-1930)

Richard E. Byrd’s subsequent career centered on his Antarctic adventures. Buoyed by scientific and technological developments, he planned a large-scale exploration of Antarctica.  With Experiences behind, he led his first expedition to the Antarctic in 1928. He made it in 1928-30. He established his base camp, Little America, on the Bay of Whales Ross Ice Shelf in December 1928.


In constant radio communication with the outside world, he and his companions carried out their scientific studies and aerial surveys. On Nov. 28-29, 1929, Byrd and three companions completed a hazardous flight to the South Pole and back, a distance of 1,560 miles, discovering several new mountain ranges and obtaining valuable geological, meteorological, and radio-wave propagation data.


Byrd’s companions on this privately financed South Pole flight were Bernt Balchen (pilot), Harold I. June (radio operator), and Capt. Ashley C. McKinley (photographer). They took off on the 1,600-mile (2,575-km) flight from Little America.


When Byrd came home in 1930, he was showered with additional honors and awards, including promotion to the rank of rear admirably special act of Congress.

Second Antarctic expedition (1933-1935)

In 1933-1935, Byrd led a second privately financed expedition to Antarctica and again established his base at Little America. On his second expedition (1933-5) he discovered Edsel Ford Mountain and Maria Byrd Land. Using modern transportation equipment, his party discovered and photographed vast new areas of the continent.


In the winter of 1934, Byrd lived alone at a weather station 123 miles (198 km) south of the base camp. He spent 5 months in solitude at Advance Base, making careful meteorological and auroral observations. This expedition nearly cost him his life when carbon monoxide fumes struck him. He nearly died of monoxide poisoning. Rescued in August 1934, Byrd could not return to Little America II until 2 months later. He wrote about this expedition in Discovery (1935) and later in Alone (1938).

Third Antarctic expedition (1939-1940)

In 1939 the United States government sponsored its first Antarctic expedition in a century, with Adm. Richard E Byrd in charge. Named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to command the U. S. Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939-1941, Byrd for the first time made the trip under government auspices and with government money, thus setting a precedent for future U. S. operations in the Antarctic.


Richard E. Byrd made several flights over the continent, delineated hundreds of additional miles of coastline, and mapped mineral deposits. On this third expedition, two wintering-over bases were established and scientific investigation assumed a more important role.


As commander of the U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1939, he claimed some Antarctic territories for his country.


During World War II, Byrd served on special assignments for the Navy. In World War II he was employed in confidential work connected with American bases abroad. Further work in the Antarctic awaited the cessation of World War II, a conflict in which Byrd served with distinction.

Fourth Antarctic expedition (1946-1947)

In 1947, Richard E. Byrd was named officer-in-charge of the largest Antarctic expedition in history, the Antarctic Developments Project known as Operation High Jump. This expedition is known as the Special Antarctic Survey. Its 13 ships, modern aircraft and tractors, and 4,700 men were under the tactical command of Rear Adm.


Byrd again flew over the South Pole, photographing and mapping vast areas of the ice continent, dropping a packet containing flags of all the members of the United Nations. In this expedition, he made a special Antarctic survey to study meteorology, test personnel and equipment, and scout for uranium deposits.

Fifth Antarctic expedition (1955-1956)

Admiral Richard E. Byrd made his fifth and last trip to Antarctica in 1955-1956 when he again raised the American flag at the 27-year-old base camp at Little America. This expedition was preparatory to U. S. participation in the International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958. Byrd was named officer-in-charge of the United States Antarctic Programs by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and helped supervise preparations for Operation Deepfreeze, as America’s IGY expedition under Adm.


George Dufek was called. Byrd’s final labors in Antarctica were made in Operation Deep Freeze (1955-1956) and in planning the United States Antarctic Program for the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958).


Before Deepfreeze was carried out, Richard E. Byrd died in Boston, Mass., on March 11, 1957.  He was buried with full military honors at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.  A scientist, inventor, and daring adventurer, Byrd had also lent his name and energy to many humanitarian and world peace organizations.


See → John C.Fremont

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