Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
Australian record flights
equal flying rights for women!
Calbraith Rogers
Cobham and Hinkler
Byrd and Bennett
Wiley Post
Amelia Earhart
Howard Hughes
Kingsford Smith
Amy Johnson
Beryl Markham
Italo Balbo
Jimmy Doolittle

Arctic Aerial Exploration

Photo shows the Curtiss Oriole Kristine presented to Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation, 1922.
Photo at top left is Lt. Oskar Omdal. Capt. Roald Amundsen as at the right.

During the late 19th century, many Americans and Europeans romanticized distant and unexplored lands; the more exotic a place seemed, the more exciting it was. Africa and the Arctic consequently captured people's attention. Although many individuals had contemplated exploring the north polar region throughout history, it was not until the late 1800s--after several scientific and technological advances had taken place--that adventurers could mount serious expeditions into the area. As explorers set out into the Arctic, a major race began to see who could be the first to reach the North Pole. Land-based expeditions got to the Pole first in 1909 (although some scholars are still debating this "fact"), but another contest quickly ensued among aviators to see who could be the first to fly to the "top of the world." Pilots also began battling to see who could be the first to soar across the entire width of the Arctic. In all, from the late 1800s to the mid 1950s, several aviators competed to establish records in the Arctic.

Polar projection map of the Arctic Ocean, centered on the North Pole, showing the route of two flights of pilot Carl Eielson and George Hubert Wilkins over the region. Their aborted March 1927 flight (and route followed by foot back to Alaska), and their more successful April 1928 flight from Point Barrow Alaska, to Dead Manīs Island in the Svalbard Group, near Spitsbergen, Norway, are shown.

The first flight over the Arctic occurred in 1897 when Swedish engineer Solomon Andree tried to pilot a hydrogen-filled balloon from Spitsbergen, Norway, to the North Pole. Andree lifted off on July 11 and reached almost 83° N latitude before his balloon went down and he disappeared. It was not until 1930 that another team of explorers discovered his remains. Although Andree's expedition failed, it did start others thinking about using balloons to explore the polar region.

The first serious attempt to use airplanes in the Arctic occurred in 1923 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen--who in 1911 had been the first person to reach the South Pole--tried to fly from Wainwright, Alaska to Spitsbergen with fellow Norwegian Oscar Omdal. Unfortunately, Amundsen and Omdal's aircraft became damaged and they had to abandon their journey. Nevertheless, by May 1925, Amundsen was back at it again, this time with American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, and a small crew. On May 21, the group tried to reach the North Pole using two Dornier Wal "flying boats." After taking off from Kings Bay in Spitsbergen, they made it to approximately 88° N latitude before making an emergency landing due to mechanical problems. Stranded, they spent more than three weeks carving out a runway on the ice so that they could takeoff and return home. Although the expedition ultimately failed, it was the first attempt to fly an airplane to the pole.

Portrait of Richard Byrd.

A year after the Amundsen-Ellsworth expedition, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett joined the ranks of those trying to reach the Pole via the skies. On May 9, 1926, the two men took off from Kings Bay in a trimotor Fokker aircraft and headed toward the top of the world. After 15 hours, 30 minutes (or 15 hours, 57 minutes, depending on the source), Byrd and Bennett returned to Spitsbergen and claimed to have circled the North Pole. Within the year, both men would receive the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honour.

The Josephine Ford, the plane that Richard Byrd flew to the North Pole on his 1926 polar expedition.

However, despite Byrd and Bennett's apparent triumph, controversy quickly marred their feat. Several people questioned whether they had even made the trip. Some aviators doubted that the men could have flown that far given the trip's short elapsed time and whether a trip that fast was within their plane's capabilities, given its usual average speed. There are several other reasons why some historians doubt whether Byrd and Bennett made it to the North Pole, but generally, most people continue to regard them as the first to fly over the top of the world.

The Norge dirigible in England.

Roald Amundsen, somewhere in Alaska, around 1925.

Only a few days after Byrd and Bennett returned, Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth boarded the Italian dirigible Norge (meaning Norway) in Spitsbergen and headed for the Pole. They had wanted to be the first to fly over "the top," but after Byrd and Bennett's record setting journey, they could hope only to be the first to fly over the Pole in a dirigible. On May 12 (or 13, depending on which side of the globe and international date line one is on), the Norge, piloted by Italian Umberto Nobile, crossed the Pole en route to Alaska. The flight marked both the first dirigible journey over the Pole and also the first crossing of the entire Polar Sea. It also enabled Amundsen to become the first person to have visited both the North and South Poles.

The Norge preparing for the second stage of its polar flight, in its hangar in Pulham, England, 1924.

At approximately the same time that the Byrd-Bennett and the Nobile-Amundsen-Ellsworth expeditions were taking place, Australian adventurer George Wilkins joined forces with Alaskan bush pilot Carl Ben Eielson and began a series of attempts to traverse the Arctic Ocean in an airplane. They tried several times in 1926 and 1927, but failed each time. Then, in April 1928, they flew a single-engine Lockheed Vega from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen. It was the first successful crossing of the Polar Sea in an airplane. Both men became international celebrities. Wilkins received a knighthood and became known as Sir Hubert, while Eielson claimed the Harmon International Trophy for being the year's best aviator.

This photo shows the flying boat used on Roald Amundsenīs North Pole expedition on the return of the expedition to Oslo, Norway, in June 1925.

In May 1928, about a month after Wilkins and Eielson's achievement, the first major Arctic aerial tragedy occurred and claimed the lives of several polar explorers. The incident began when Umberto Nobile and his crew attempted to fly a new dirigible, the Italia, over the Arctic. Nobile and the Italia crashed during the return journey and Roald Amundsen and several adventurers immediately mounted the first significant Arctic aerial search and rescue mission. Amundsen and his crew died when their plane went down during the search. Even though Nobile and five of his crew eventually made it to safety, some of the era's best polar explorers had died in the process.

In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Russians began to dominate Arctic aviation. On June 18, 1937, pilot Valery Chkalov and two crewmembers flew a single-engine ANT 25 airplane from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, via the North Pole. The entire flight took 62 1/2 hours, some 5,500 miles (8,851 kilometres), and established a new nonstop, long distance flight record. Within a month, another three-man crew, led by Mikhail Gromov, piloted his ANT 25 to yet another endurance record when they flew non-stop from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, by way of the North Pole, a journey of some 6,300 miles (10,139 kilometres), in 62 hours, 20 minutes. Then, on April 23, 1948, three Russian aircraft carried several scientists to the North Pole to establish a scientific base, landing at exactly 90° N latitude. It was the first time that any aircraft had ever actually touched down precisely at the North Pole. A year later, on May 9, two Soviet scientists set another record when they became the first people to parachute onto the Pole.

In the 1950s, two Americans established a couple of important Arctic aviation records. On May 29, 1951, U.S. Navy Captain Charles Blair flew a P-51 Mustang fighter from Bardutoss, Norway to Fairbanks, Alaska, via the North Pole. It was the first solo flight over the North Pole and the Arctic. The non-stop journey had taken 10 hours, 27 minutes, and traversed some 3260 miles (5,246 kilometres). Blair received the Harmon International Trophy for his achievement. A few years later, in 1955, American Louise Arner Boyd became the first woman to reach the North Pole by air. Boyd, a woman who had explored the Arctic on foot for many years, chartered a DC-4 aircraft at age 67 and had a Norwegian crew fly her over the Pole.

From the 1960s to the present day, aircraft and pilots have largely helped transport and support land-based expeditions across the Arctic region as well as played a key role in search and rescue missions. However, there have been a few significant polar flights in the second half of the 20th century. On November 14-17, 1965, the Rockwell Polar Flight took place under the sponsorship of Rockwell-Standard Corporation. This flight was the first round-the-world flight to pass over both the North and South Poles, basically going "over the top" and "under the bottom." The flight established eight world speed records for jet transport aircraft and also conducted scientific studies that focused on cosmic ray absorption and high-altitude meteorology. In addition, as recently as the year 2000, two other Arctic aerial "firsts" took place. That year, British adventurer David Hempleman-Adams finally realized the dream of 19th century Solomon Andree when he flew to the North Pole in a hot-air balloon. And on April 17, 2000, American aviator Gus McLeod became the first person to reach the North Pole in an open-cockpit plane. Perhaps these two flights will help renew interest in Arctic aerial exploration, one of aviation history's most fascinating chapters.