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

Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett

Portrait of Richard Byrd.

Exploration of the uncharted areas of the globe by airplane and airship became very active in the 1920s for a variety of reasons. Looking forward to the establishment of aerial transportation from continent to continent, it was necessary to know what aircraft were capable of, whether aerial navigation techniques were adequate, and whether or not ground support could be provided en-route. These reasons, combined with the general adventurousness that pervaded the 1920s, led to many path finding flights across oceans and continents, but an additional set of reasons came into play in motivating aerial exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Three aviators pose at a dinner in their honor at New York’s McAlpin Hotel. Known as “the three B’s of aviation,” they are Commander Richard E. Byrd (left) and Floyd Bennett (right) in their  dress-white uniforms and Captain Homer M. Berry (Centre), who was already being feted as the pilot of the first New York-to-Paris nonstop flight, scheduled to take place some months in the future. Berry was a respected air hero of World War I, and there was little doubt that he would be the winner of the Orteig challenge. As it turned out, however, he was soon thereafter replaced as the pilot and the aircraft crashed on take-off

In the late twentieth century, it is difficult to believe that as late as the mid-1920s there was thought to be land north of the Alaska in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, in an area known as the “blind spot,” in the middle of which was the “Pole of Inaccessibility,” a point equidistant from all land masses and about four hundred miles (643.5km) south of the North Pole. On official charts, it was called Crocker Land or Keenan Land, and appeared with question marks and purported outlines, arrived at from unreliable sightings and calculations based on measured anomalies of the currents passing through the Bering Strait.

Three teams were deeply involved in the aerial exploration of the Arctic: the Norwegians, led by the famed explorer Roald Amundsen, who had reached the South Pole over land in 1912; an American team headed by Richard E. Byrd, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy; and a group led by the Australian George H. Wilkins, who sought and accepted help from many sources.

First out of the gate was Amundsen. After being forced into bankruptcy in 1924 through mismanagement on the part of a ship broker who had failed to purchase planes for a flight over the North Pole (after all other provisions for the flight were bought and paid for), he teamed up with a wealthy American who simply called him in his New York hotel room and offered to finance the expedition to the North Pole, if he could come along.

This was how Lincoln Ellsworth, by then a man of over forty and with virtually no connection to flying (he had flown some in the war) and no Arctic experience, entered the annals of Arctic aerial exploration. Amundsen had the resources now to purchase the planes he needed. He and Ellsworth acquired two Dornier-Wal all-metal boat planes with two powerful Rolls-Royce engines arranged in tandem atop the wing. Amundsen and Ellsworth took off in May 1925 in two planes, the N-24 and the N-25, each with a crew of three, from King’s Bay, Spitsbergen.

Both planes were forced down short of the Pole. In one of the most dramatic feats of perseverance and survival on record, all six crew members managed to survive for three weeks, repair one of the planes (the N-25), and make it back to Spitsbergen on June 15. Amundsen and Ellsworth were determined to try for the Pole again, and in 1926 they purchased a semi- rigid dirigible, the N-1, from the Italian designer Umberto Nobile. While they were preparing the dirigible—renamed the Norge (or “Norway”), much to the consternation of the Italians—for flight, an American team arrived at King’s Bay.

 Seen here is Lincoln Ellsworth, one of the great aviators in the grand tradition of Arctic (specifically Alaskan) aviation.

The Americans had tried an over-the-pole flight two years earlier, using three Loening amphibian biplanes with open cockpits. The team, headed by Captain Donald P. MacMillan and Richard E. Byrd, was sent by the navy to find Crocker Land (or whatever was out there) and to perform a flying feat that could diminish some of the lustre of the army’s Douglas World Cruisers.

It was clear from the start that the planes were not nearly durable enough, especially not their landing gear, and MacMillan abandoned the project. But Byrd and his very able pilot, Floyd Bennett, sought private funding for another try. With the help of Edsel Ford, Byrd purchased a Fokker Trimotor and named it the Josephine Ford (much to Anthony Fokker’s consternation). The third group to arrive in 1926 was headed by George Hubert Wilkins, flying a Fokker Trimotor called  the Detroiter, and a single-engine Fokker called the Alaskan. 

He too had a talented pilot at his disposal, a North Dakotan named Carl Ben Eilson who had become the foremost Alaskan bush pilot. Wilkins was more interested in exploring the “blind spot” than in making an over-the-pole flight, hut the newspaper publishers who were his hackers insisted that he try for being the first to fly over the pole.

ABOVE: Flying over the Arctic was a treacherous and dangerous undertaking. Here, Amundsen (right) inspects the mono-plane in which he plans to attempt a fly-over of the North Pole; on the wing is his mechanic, Oskar Omdal.
After the successful flight of Byrd and Bennett over the Pole in 1926, the pair teamed up to cross the Atlantic, but Bennett was injured in the last test flight before the planned attempt. Bennett (on crutches) is greeted by Byrd in front of the America

Thus, as May 1926 dawned, the three teams preparing to fly into the Arctic region were not really competing with one another. The Detroiter was soon Out of commission after its landing gear collapsed, and the Alaskan, considered a hard-luck ship because a reporter had been decapitated accidentally by the propeller, was not powerful enough to make a polar flight. That left the field to Amundsen and Byrd.

The newspapers promoted the notion that a race was underway, but in fact, the two teams assisted one another throughout the preparations. Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian flier who had been sent to search for Amundsen back in 1925 and who had become a close friend of Amundsen and a valuable member of his crew, gave Byrd much advice (with Amundsen’s blessing) on the best construction of landing gear for the Arctic. Balchen would later be invited by Byrd to join him in subsequent history-making flights. (After Byrd’s death in 1957, Balchen claimed that Byrd had not flown to the North Pole, but this claim was never substantiated.) At 12:37 A.M. on May 9, 1926, Byrd and Bennett took off in the Josephine Ford and flew toward the North Pole. They reached the Pole (by Byrd’s calculations) at 9:02 and circled for fifteen minutes taking pictures.

They had intended to return by way of Cape Morris Jesup on the north-western corner of Greenland, but an oil leak prompted them to take no chances and they returned directly to Spitsbergen, arriving to cheering Norwegians (and an uncharacteristically effusive Amundsen) at 4:07 P.M. The Norge took off two days later, and while it passed over the Pole and made it to Teller, Alaska, in just under seventy-one hours, the flight was a torture to both Amundsen and Nobile.

The two men were determined not to let their countries be deprived of the honour that was due to the nation that sponsored the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean. Amundsen, a stoic, imperious-looking figure (hut by all accounts a man of great warmth and humour), irritated the excitable Nobile at every opportunity. None of the crew of sixteen (and one dog) slept for the three-day flight—the cabin was simply too cramped— but Amundsen insisted on sitting in the only chair and mercilessly needled Nobile and his Italian crew (who in truth knew much more about dirigible flying than the Norwegians), believing there was little point in even making the flight now that Byrd and Bennett had reached the Pole.

It was considered the height of irony when, in June 1928, Amundsen perished while flying a rescue plane in search of Nobile and the !talia, a refitted version of the Norge. Wilkins and Eilson returned to Alaska in the spring of 1927 with two Stinson biplanes and attempted to cross the Arctic from Point Barrow to King’s Bay. They landed successfully and took off on the polar ice, the first time an airplane had managed that feat, but they crash-landed only sixty-five miles (104.5km) out of Barrow. The fliers trekked over treacherous ice for more than thirteen days, racing not only the cold, but the frostbite that had set in to Eilson’s fingers and threatened to take his entire arm if they did not reach help soon. They soon made it to  Beachey Point, an Eskimo trading post east of Barrow, where Eilson was rushed to the hospital. (He lost only One finger to the ordeal.)

A year later, Wilkins and Eilson were back for another try. This time they flew one of the first Lockheed Vegas produced. The plane performed excellently and the flight, which began on April 15 and ended six days later because of a five-day storm that the fliers waited out on the ground, was hailed as one of the great Arctic flights of the period. Wilkins was knighted and the pair became international celebrities. Their flight had accomplished a number of things. It demonstrated the capabilities of the Vega, a plane that was to become a favourite of long distance fliers for to years come. It put to rest once and for all the notion that there was any land mass between Alaska and the North Pole. And it demonstrated that trans-Arctic flights might not be as dangerous as once thought, which meant that great circle air routes from North America to Europe and Asia should be seriously considered for commercial aviation when planes improved.

Byrd received the Congressional Medal of Honour for his Arctic flight (which makes Balchen’s later claim all the more curious). Just as he had assisted the NC aircraft crews and Alcock and Brown in their trans-Atlantic flights, he provided navigational assistance to Lindbergh for his historic 1927 flight. After a June 1927 flight across the Atlantic with Balchen (Bennett was nursing a broken leg at the time), Byrd turned his attention to the Antarctic. By now an admiral and an international celebrity, Byrd raised private funds with the help of Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and began a period of adventure and exploration that captivated the world from  1928 to the mid-1930s.

Flying the Fokker Trimotor Floyd Bennett, named after his pilot (who died in 1928 of pneumonia, contracted while on a rescue flight in Canada), with Balchen and two other fliers, Byrd flew over the South Pole on November 29, 1928, setting yet another milestone in polar aviation.