Richard Byrd May Never Have Flown Over The North Pole
April 8, 2013

Researcher Claims Byrd Didn’t Reach The North Pole

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

On May 9, 1926, Richard E. Byrd attempted the first-ever roundtrip flight over the North Pole. While Byrd claimed to have reached the pole, the journey has been dogged by controversy and debate ever since, with some saying he never flew over the Earth´s northernmost point.

According to a new report from Ohio State University astronomy professor Gerald Newsome in the Polar Record, Byrd never made it to the actual North Pole, but did come close.

In his report, Newsome detailed the complex atmospheric simulations that suggest the explorer never reached his goal.

“I worked out that if Byrd did make it, he must have had very unusual wind conditions. But it´s clear that he really gave it a valiant try, and he deserves a lot of respect,” Newsom said.

Byrd´s flight took 15 hours and 44 minutes, which was much shorter than the expected flight time of about 18 hours. In his defense, Byrd claimed that strong tail wings allowed him to beat expectations.

“The flight was incredibly controversial,” Newsom explained. “The people defending Byrd were vehement that he was a hero, and the people attacking him said he was one of the world´s greatest frauds. The emotion! It was incredibly vitriolic.”

Newsome began his investigation by culling information from official Byrd archives — including journal entries and reports from National Geographic Society, Byrd´s sponsor.

Since the plane had a partially open cockpit, Byrd would have to navigate the plane´s course using state-of-the-art technology and then write suggested course corrections in his journal so that his pilot, Floyd Bennett, could make the necessary adjustments. In one instance, Byrd wrote a note to Bennett asking him for a three-degree correction to the west to compensate for a crosswind.

Newsome found Byrd´s lack of detail in his notes to be a problem in determining the flight´s actual course.

“I would have thought he´d have pages and pages of calculations,” Newsom said. “Without that, there´s no way of knowing for sure, but deep down there´s a worry I have–that he did it all in his head.”

Newsome also found that Byrd´s instruments and flight calculations left remarkably little room for error. Based on an analysis of Byrd´s barograph recording and calibration graph, the explorer could have come up 78 miles short or overshot the pole by as much as 21 miles.

“This type of analysis by itself will not resolve any controversy over whether Byrd reached the pole,” Newsome wrote in his report. “But it does indicate that he was considerably more likely to have ended up short of his goal than to have exceeded it.”

Newsome also decided to investigate Byrd´s “strong winds” claim based on NOAA´s 20th Century Reanalysis dataset, which is a computer-generated analysis of probable global atmospheric conditions for every six hours between 1870 and 2010.

“For the most part, he probably had a headwind going north, and a tailwind going south,” Newsome said. “But there´s no evidence of the winds shifting as much as he described.”

“Of course, the models are NOAA´s best guesses for what the conditions were that day, not an actual measurement, so Byrd could have had strong tailwinds just like he said,” Newsome continued. “But the simulations suggest that if he did have strong tailwinds that day, he was very lucky.”

Despite asserting that Byrd probably did not reach the North Pole, Newsome still praised the explorer´s skill and courage.

“That they returned at all is a major accomplishment, and the fact that they arrived back where they were supposed to–that shows that Byrd knew how to navigate with his solar compass correctly,” Newsom said.