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The Polar obsessions of Rear-Admiral Richard Byrd

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Richard Byrd originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Richard Byrd, picture, image, illustration

Richard Byrd conquered the South Pole from the air in 1928, by Graham Coton

He was lost in the frozen wilderness – yet his camp was not far away. Could he reach it before the intense cold killed him?

He was in the Antarctic, the Sixth Continent, the graveyard of so many other brave men who had tried to explore it. He was in the ice wilderness – and he was lost in it, without food and shelter, and with only his already half frozen furs to protect him against the cold that was so intense that he could hardly breathe in it.

Rear-Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was facing death himself now, and yet, ironically, shelter, food and heat were only a few hundred metres away. Standing there in the vast stillness of the Antarctic night, he fought down his rising panic, and tried to analyse calmly what had happened to place him in this terrifying predicament.

His routine, to begin with, had been the same as it had always been. Each night he had left his shelter for the exercise he so badly needed, and each time he had taken the precaution of marking his tracks along his walk with a series of flagged bamboo poles that had guided him back within the closed circle which he had made for himself.

But this time, perhaps because his mind had been dulled by the deadly fumes from his leaking stove, Byrd had been less careful than usual. He could only assume, therefore, that he was lost outside the circle.

His life now depended on finding one of those flagged poles. To do that a new reference point was needed so that he would not keep going back over his tracks.

He made this simply by building up a snow heap. Then slowly, laboriously, he began to mark out a hundred paces, backwards and forwards from the snow heap, towards each of the different points of the compass.

Time seemed to pass like an eternity as he paced backwards and forwards from the snow pile which he had made. He was getting tired now, and more conscious than ever of the penetrating cold that seemed to be freezing the very blood in his veins.

Suddenly, almost miraculously, the beam of his flash light caught a fluttering flag. Sobbing with relief, he hurried forward, knowing that on this occasion, at least, he had managed to cheat death. He would, perhaps, have been less elated if he had known something of the dangers and trials that were still to come.

It was the winter of 1934, and Admiral Richard Byrd, of the US Navy, was manning, single handed, a meteorological station in the desolate wastes of the Antarctic.

It was the climax to an exciting and dangerous career which had begun when he had decided to go on the Navy’s inactive list, in order to take up civil flying.

For a long time he had been interested in Polar exploration – and especially in the possibility of carrying out pioneer aeroplane flights over the North and South Poles.

A preliminary and successful expedition in North Greenland convinced him that his dreams were a practical possibility, and in the following year 1926 he set off for the North Pole from Spitzbergen, with his co-pilot, Floyd Bennett.

Their voyage in an old Fokker three-engined monoplane was without mishap, and the two men returned triumphant, after narrowly beating the famous Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, who made a successful flight to the North Pole in an airship shortly afterwards.

Byrd’s heart was now set on flying over the South Pole. This time, however, it was to be a major expedition. It would include a land party that would explore and chart as much as possible of the vast regions between the Bay of Whales on the Ross Sea, and the South Pole.

An undertaking of this sort involved a great deal of organising and would cost a large amount of money; so that it was not until the last months of 1928 that Byrd was ready to set off on his expedition.

A base named Little America was eventually set up a little way inland from the Bay of Whales, and from there a geological party was despatched on a series of expeditions which took them over 2,500 km of unexplored territory before the Arctic winter finally closed in on them.

Then the men settled down to prepare for the next season’s work, which, of course, included Byrd’s flight to the South Pole.

As soon as the weather began to clear, a sledge party was sent out to relay weather conditions back to base. On 28th November, 1929, they were able to report that flying conditions were excellent. Less than four hours later, a big Ford monoplane climbed steadily into the sky. The epic flight to the South Pole had begun. Unlike the flight to the North Pole, it was not to be without its hazards.

All went well until the plane came to the Liv Glacier, an awe-inspiring pass whose walls hemmed in the plane as it tried to fight for altitude. The plane seemed unable to rise, and it now began to rock dangerously as it was buffeted by a stream of cold air pouring down from the plateau beyond.

Byrd quickly realised that the plane was on the point of stalling. Working feverishly he and the three other members of his crew jettisoned two heavy sacks of food, and immediately the plane rose and passed easily over the summit. Nearly ten hours after they had left Little America they were directly over the South Pole.

With their mission achieved, they turned the plane immediately and raced for home to a heroes’ welcome from the jubilant party waiting for them at the base.

Most men would have been content with this achievement, but Byrd was by no means finished with the Antarctic. In September, 1933, he left America with another expedition, planning among other things to set up a one-man meteorological station.

Close Escapes

From this station he could study the weather conditions of the Antarctic winter. It was this project that was responsible for him nearly losing his life on a number of occasions.

It seemed from the very beginning that the fates were conspiring to destroy him. His first, most deadly hazard had been his stove, which began to leak at the joints, emitting deadly fumes of carbon monoxide that made it impossible for it to be kept alight for more than a few hours at a time.

It was this that had forced Byrd to take his nightly walk, which in turn had nearly led to him getting lost in the Antarctic wilderness.

There is little doubt that he would have died there had not the party at base been quick to sense from his guarded radio messages that something was seriously wrong.

Rightly guessing that Byrd was being deliberately evasive because he did not want them to risk their lives, they sent out a rescue party that reached him when he was on the point of collapse. Incredibly, he had managed to keep his records up to the very last.

Although Byrd afterwards made several other expeditions to the Antarctic, he was never quite the same man again, as the result of a serious heart condition which had developed as a result of his lone ordeal. He died on March 11, 1957, while gallantly planning yet another expedition.

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