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Richard E. Byrd

establisher of the first scientific base in Antarctica and one of the first to fly to the South Pole and back

Admiral Richard E. Byrd

Richard Evelyn Byrd was born in Winchester, Virginia, on October 25, 1888. He attended the University of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute before enrolling at the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1912. Byrd learned to fly while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I and pioneered many techniques for navigating airplanes over the open ocean. His expertise in this area resulted in his appointment to the committee that planned the flight path for the U.S. Navy's 1919 transatlantic crossing.

First Arctic Flights

In 1925, Byrd commanded the MacMillan Arctic Expedition's airplane flights over Greenland and Ellesmere Island. On May 9, 1926, Byrd and Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole. Although they claimed to have actually flown over the Pole, they were never able to present credible navigational data to support their claim. Subsequent research into Byrd's diary of the flight has since revealed that Byrd and Bennett did not actually reach the Pole -- but they did get closer than any previous aviators. Despite contemporary doubt over his claim, Byrd's trip earned him the Medal of Honor and enabled him to secure funding for subsequent flight attempts to the South Pole.

First Trans-Atlantic Flight

Like many other pilots, Byrd was determined to win the $25,000 prize which was offered to the aviator making the first New York-to-Paris nonstop flight. The prize had been offered in 1919 by Raymond Orteig, a New York City hotel owner, but no one had yet won it. Again teaming with Floyd Bennett, Byrd made plans for an attempt at the prize in 1927. During a practice takeoff, however, the plane crashed, severely injuring Bennett. As the plane was being repaired, the prize was claimed by Charles Lindbergh. Byrd wasn't prepared to give up yet, however. He got another plane and chief pilot, and, along with two other men, took off from Roosevelt Field near New York City on June 29, 1927. Cloud cover prevented a landing at Paris, so they returned to the coast of Normandy, where they crash-landed on July 1 (no one was injured in the crash).

First Antarctic Expedition

Byrd's first Antarctic expedition, from 1928 to 1930, was equipped with aircraft to fly to the South Pole. The expedition established its Antarctic base, Little America, on the Ross Ice Shelf at the Bay of Whales, and scientific expeditions by dog-sled, snowmobile, and airplane began. On November 28 and 29, 1929, Byrd, chief pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley became the first persons to fly to the South Pole and back. After another summer of exploration, the expedition returned to the United States on June 18, 1930.

Subsequent Antarctic Expeditions

The second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, from 1933 to 1935, undertook many scientific research projects. These included studies of meteors, cosmic rays, weather, geography, the earth's magnetic field, and seismograph studies of Antarctica's icecap. Byrd himself manned an advance base alone for five months during the winter of 1934. He described this experience in his book Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (1938).

In 1939, Byrd led the United States Antarctic Service Expedition. The expedition built Little America III, and sent out five major exploring parties. In March 1940, Byrd was recalled to active duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The expedition continued in Antarctica without him, but the U.S.'s entry into World War II forced the expedition to abandon its bases in 1941.

From 1942 to 1945, Byrd headed important missions to the Pacific Theater, including surveys of remote islands for airfields. He was repeatedly cited for meritorious service and was present at the Japanese surrender.

In 1946, the Department of the Navy appointed Byrd officer in charge of Operation Highjump. Fifteen U.S. Navy ships, six helicopters, six flying boats, two seaplane tenders, and 4,700 persons took part in this expedition during 1946 and 1947. The expedition made aerial explorations of an area about half the size of the United States, recorded ten new mountain ranges, and did extensive mapping. On February 16, 1947, Byrd made his second flight over the South Pole.

Byrd did not return to the Antarctic again until 1955, when he commanded Operation Deep Freeze, which established permanent bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales and the South Pole. In January 1956, he made a survey flight to scout locations for an International Geophysical Year Station (established in 1957).

Byrd continued to work on plans for future Antarctic explorations until his death, on March 11, 1957.

Honors and Awards

During his naval career Byrd received twenty-two citations and special commendations, including nine for bravery and two for extraordinary heroism in saving the lives of others. He was also the receipient of the Medal of Honor, the Congressional Life Saving Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Navy Cross.

In 1927, the city of Richmond, Virginia, dedicated the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field (since replaced by Richmond International Airport). Byrd's Fairchild FC-2W2, NX8006, Stars and Stripes, is on display at the Virginia Aviation Museum, located at the airport.

Mount Byrd on Ross Island, the lunar crater Byrd, and the dry cargo ship USNS Richard E. Byrd are all named in his honor.

Antarctic Explorers

World War I
Floyd Bennett
Charles Lindbergh
World War II

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This page was last updated on 10/24/2017.