This day in history, November 29, 1929, Medal of Honor Recipient Richard Byrd and three others made the first flight over the South Pole by flying from their base on the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole and back in 18 hours and 41 minutes.
Richard Byrd learned how to fly in the U.S. Navy and served as a pilot in World War I. An excellent navigator, he was deployed by the navy to Greenland in 1924 to help explore the Arctic region by air. He later decided to attempt the first flight over the North Pole.
On May 9, 1926, the Josephine Ford left Spitsbergen, Norway, with Byrd as navigator and Floyd Bennet as pilot. Fifteen hours and 30 minutes later, the pair returned and announced they had accomplished their mission. For the achievement, both men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, people were skeptical about whether they had actually flown over the North Pole, and in 1996 a diary Byrd had kept on the flight was found that seemed to suggest that the Josephine Ford had turned back 150 miles short due to an oil leak.
In the late 1920s, however, few suspected Byrd had failed. In 1927, Byrd’s prestige grew when he made a harrowing nonstop flight across the Atlantic with three companions. Famous as he was, he had no trouble finding financial backers for an expedition to Antarctica. Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition was the largest and best-equipped expedition that had ever set out for the southern continent. The explorers set out in the fall of 1928, building a large base camp called “Little America” on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales. From there, they conducted flights across the Antarctic continent and discovered much unknown territory.
At 3:29 p.m. on November 28, 1929, Byrd, the pilot Bernt Balchen, and two others took off from Little America in the Floyd Bennett, headed for the South Pole. Magnetic compasses were useless near the pole, so the explorers were forced to rely on sun compasses and Byrd’s skill as a navigator. At 8:15 p.m., they dropped supplies for a geological party near the Queen Maud Mountains and then continued on.
The most challenging phase of the journey came an hour later, when the Floyd Bennett struggled to gain enough altitude to fly safely above the Polar Plateau. They cleared the 11,000-foot pass between Mount Fridtjof Nansen and Mount Fisher by a few hundred yards and then flew on to the South Pole, reaching it at around 1 a.m. on November 29. They flew a few miles beyond the pole and then to the right and the left to compensate for any navigational errors. Byrd dropped a small American flag on the pole, and the explorers headed for home, safely landing at Little America at 10:11 a.m.
Byrd led five expeditions to Antarctica in total and more than 500,000 miles of the continent were mapped by his planes. Byrd died in 1957.