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Richard Byrd’s Epic Flights

Richard Byrd on Antarctica. Photo: Public Domain

US Navy Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was one of the greatest American polar explorers, leading the first flight over the South Pole in 1929.

He was born on 25 October 1888 to a wealthy family in Winchester, Virginia. He served in the US Navy at Annapolis, Maryland and was awarded the Congressional Life-Saving Medal for rescuing two fellow seamen from drowning. He later injured his right foot in a fall on the USS Wyoming and was retired from duty. (1)

In April 1918, he became a naval aviation cadet at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. There he discovered that his passion was more for navigating than aviating.

He made his first flight to the Arctic in 1925 but made no monumental achievements. He later secured funding from such well-known people as John D. Rockefeller and Edsel Ford. He also convinced some media outlets such as the New York Times and CBS to help fund his next flight in exchange for news coverage. (3)

Reaching the North Pole

On 9 May 1926, Byrd flew a Fokker F-VII called “Josephine Ford” from Spitsbergen Norway toward the North Pole in one of the most controversial flights in history. Based on his flight logs, people still debate whether or not he actually made it to the Pole. But after analysing Byrd’s diary, archivist Raimund Goerler came to the conclusion that Byrd genuinely believed that he had reached the pole. (1)

Byrd’s next attempt was to be the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, after a test flight crashed on 20 April 1927, he would eventually become the third to cross on 29 June.

Heading to the Antarctic

Byrd was highly driven to have a crowning achievement in his name and began planning his first Antarctic voyage in early 1928. His main motivation remained purely personal. “I really wanted to go for the experience’s sake,” Byrd said. (1)

But the main objective of his trip was to study polar meteorology, weather and the Aurora Australis. Byrd knew that strong storms originated from the inland parts of Antarctica which affected the weather in the rest of the world. Yet at the time, very little was known about this phenomenon. (2)

Richard E. Byrd in front of a Vought VE-7 Bluebird seaplane. (Photo: Public domain)

The Flight to the South Pole

On 25 November 1929, Byrd took off from their base on the Ross Ice Shelf called Little America. Byrd was the navigator along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June and radio operator Ashley McKinley. They had packed the Ford Trimotor full of supplies in case they had to crash-land along the way.

As they flew toward the southern edge of the ice shelf, the men decided to jettison some of the supplies to allow the plane they called “The Tin Goose” to clear the mountains. The mission was a success. Byrd dropped an American flag over the South Pole during the flight which lasted 18 hours and 41 minutes. (3)

Return to America

When Byrd arrived back in America in 1930, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and welcomed as a hero. But the restless explorer was not happy to leave it at that.

“An expedition was hardly finished before I was engaged in putting a new one together; and meanwhile I was lecturing from one end of the country to the other in order to make a living and pay off the debts from the completed expedition, or else scurrying around to solicit money and supplies for a new one,” Byrd said. (1)

Alone on the Ice

In 1934 his curiosity about Antarctic atmospheric conditions drove him to plan a six month sojourn to man the Bolling Advance Weather Base by himself. The base was 123 miles from base camp Little America and experienced temperatures around 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Byrd worked and lived in a small hut built in a deep depression in the ice taking readings for temperature, moisture and wind. But the real success of Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica was accomplished by his team working out of Little America. His men mapped 450,000 square miles of the continent near the Ross Ice Shelf. They studies moss, lichens, seals and bird life. (3)

Trouble at Bolling Base

For Byrd the trip was the closest he would come to death. Fumes from a small gasoline generator infiltrated his cabin and nearly poisoned him. Byrd’s health continued to deteriorate which was noticeable in his radio transmissions. His team at Little America eventually rescued him and airlifted him out of Bolling Base on 12 October 1934. Byrd’s dog driver Stuart D. Paine is largely credited with his rescue.

Paine wrote in his diaries: “We do not belong here. Little America, its towers and telegraph poles and wires and smokestacks and inhabitation are dirty spots on a spotless white prairie. Ugly manifestations of man and his uglier ambitions.” (3)

The Later Years

Byrd would return to the ice three more times. The US Navy deployed Byrd to lead its Antarctic Service Expedition in 1939 but later recalled him in 1940. In 1946, the US Navy called on Byrd to lead its Antarctic Developments Project. There he launched Operation High Jump which mapped and gathered weather data across 1.5 million square miles of Antarctica below Australia. Byrd’s fifth and final expedition to the Antarctic began in 1955 with Operation Deep Freeze which laid the groundwork for permanent US bases on the Ice.

On 11 March 1957, Byrd died in his sleep at his home in Boston. A statue honours his achievements where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His research papers now reside at Ohio State University’s Institute of Polar Studies which changed its name in 1987 to the Byrd Polar Research Center. (2)


1. - Alone, Richard E. Byrd, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1938

2. - The Life of Richard E. Byrd, Lisle A. Rose, University of Missouri Press, 2008

3. - Footsteps on the Ice, The Antarctic Diaries of Stuart D. Paine, Second Byrd Expedition 

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