A Byrd conquers Antarctica from the air

Posted in Aviation, Exploration, Historical articles on Friday, 14 October 2011

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This edited article about Polar exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 842 published on 4 March 1978.

Richard Byrd, picture, image, illustration

Commander Richard Byrd conquers the South Pole from the air, by Graham Coton

Low over the horizon hovered the pink Antarctic sun. It cast shadows across the ridged snow at the South Pole where Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain had placed their nations’ flags some eighteen years earlier.

This selfsame pole was about to become the subject for another conquest . . . not upon the ground this time, however, but from the air.

The conqueror was Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd of the US Navy, the first man to fly over the North Pole. Byrd intended to complete his conquest of the polar regions by doing what no man had done before him – fly above the South Pole.

His expedition began in 1928 when he set out for two years in the Antarctic. His men sailed in a ship built to resist the ice. It carried sledges pulled by tractors, several aeroplanes, an electric generating plant and a radio transmitter and receiver so that he could keep in touch with the outside world.

He was following earlier expeditions in which aircraft had been used. Among the flying explorers who went on these journeys was Hubert Wilkins. Who flew over the Antarctic peninsula in 1928, 1929 and 1930. Wilkins failed in his attempt to make a transantarctic crossing by air. But Byrd determined that his attempt to see the Pole from the air should succeed.

In preparation for his epic flight. Byrd was undertaking a busy programme of exploration. He charted an enormous stretch of land and found a great range of mountains, and he and his companions made many flights over the continent.

At last the day came when the conditions were favourable for an attempt on the Pole. On 28th November, 1929. Byrd flew 2,500 km (1,600 miles) in 19 hours. He piloted an all-metal, three-engined Ford plane named Floyd Bennett, for which a fuel depot had been laid down upon the route.

Byrd and his companions reached the Pole successfully but made no attempt to land at it. They circled overhead a few times before setting course for their base at a place they had named Little America.

Further aerial explorations were made by Byrd and another flyer named Lincoln Ellsworth. And the Germans sent an expedition in 1938. However, while aeroplanes could go over areas to which men on foot could not travel, it was not always easy to distinguish features accurately from the air. What appeared, from the cockpit of a plane, to be a chain of islands could turn out to be mountain peaks when seen from the ground.

Therefore there was a great need for Antarctica to be traversed overland. The opportunity for this to be done occurred during the International Geophysical Year which, in reality, lasted more than a year, from July 1957 to December, 1958.

At this time, scientists from 12 nations were working peacefully together in Antarctica learning all they could about the continent and its wildlife.

Among them was Sir Vivian Fuchs of Britain who was leading the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He and his party camped on part of the frozen Weddell Sea called South Ice. They had dog teams, tractors, radio communications and an aircraft. On the other side of the continent was New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the conquerors of Everest, with another party.

On Christmas Day, 1957, Fuchs and his party started on their 1,300 km (800 mile) journey to the Pole. Eight tracked vehicles, 12 large sledges and a number of smaller ones towed by the vehicles or dog teams, carried petrol, oil, tools, explosives (for testing the thickness of the ice), food, scientific equipment and camping gear.

The tractors, travelling at an average speed of 35 km (22 miles) a day in first or second gear, were drinking petrol greedily. The expedition crept steadily across the corrugated Snow. Vehicles broke down and had to be repaired in driving blizzards, or towed out of crevasses hidden from sight by a thin roof of snow.

After a journey that was a test of endurance, even if it lacked the drama of the old explorations, they reached the South Pole on 20th January. There they spent three days resting and overhauling their equipment at a large American station to which men and supplies had been flown. Many newspaper reporters had been flown to the Pole to meet them and to tell the world of their success.

Fuchs and his men had come 1,300 km (800 miles) but they still had more than 2,000 km (1,250 miles) to go to reach the other side of the continent. Hillary advised Fuchs by radio to postpone that part of his journey until the weather conditions, then bad, had improved. But Fuchs decided to continue. Hillary withdrew his opposition and became Fuchs’ guide towards the end of the crossing.

Compared with the excitements of earlier explorers, who were probing into the unknown, this expedition was a brilliant example of planning and leadership. Fuchs, with the advantage of air reconnaissance, reached Scott base at McMurdo Sound after an amazingly successful journey which took his expedition across an entire continent.

Throughout the journey, his scientists were busy taking soundings to discover the depth of the ice, learning all they could from its formation and composition, and studying the terrain as thoroughly as possible.

But by crossing the Antarctic by land, they had learnt far more than would ever be possible to learn from the air.

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