The Greenland Expedition of 1925

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"The Greenland Expedition of 1925"

Book excerpt

By: Richard Evelyn Byrd

Date: 1925

Source: Byrd, Richard E. "The Greenland Expedition of 1925." To the Pole. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

About the Author: Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888–1957) was a naval aviator and transatlantic flyer who instilled such confidence in the public with his naval record and early explorations that his admirers financed his early trips to Antarctica. Prior to his southerly trip, Byrd's explorations took him to Greenland and then over the North Pole, a trip that he documented in his diary.


Admiral Byrd began his career in the U.S. Navy and earned his wings as an aviator in 1918. His early career was marked by his successful attempts at nighttime water landings of seaplanes, experiments flying over water out of sight of land, and his contributions to the war. His high-risk flights led him to further experimentation, this time with various scientific instruments used for navigation when there were no solid land-based points of reference. In 1919, he was involved in prepping the Navy-Curtiss (NC) flying boats for their first transatlantic flights, assigned by the Navy to plan the flight navigation. But a childhood fascination with polar exploration led to his eventual involvement in flights to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. When Byrd announced in 1926 that he, with copilot Floyd Bennett, had flown over the North Pole during a trip to Greenland, his claim was met with a certain amount of skepticism as it was the first time such a trip had been completed successfully. The primary reason behind the skepticism was that Byrd stated the entire trip took sixteen hours, and it was believed that his plane would have been incapable of making the trip in such a short amount of time.

The years 1924 and 1925 were eventful both for aerial Arctic exploration and Byrd. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge authorized a plan according to which a U.S. Navy dirigible, the Shenandoah, would fly from Point Barrow in Alaska, pass over the North Pole, and then land at Spitzbergen in Norway. Scientists and veterans of polar exploration like Captain Robert Bartlett, who had accompanied Robert Peary in 1909, lobbied for the attempt. The expedition was the project of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and Admiral William Moffett. Byrd, who reported to Moffett, was responsible for planning the expedition and doing the navigating. Unfortunately, in January, storms damaged the Shenandoah, and the expedition ended before it began.

Byrd and Bartlett, undaunted, continued to plan for an aerial expedition to the North. Because Congress seemed reluctant, they decided to raise the money from private backers, as Peary and Cook had done. Bartlett agreed to find a suitable vessel and generous donors; Byrd's job was to ask the Navy for seaplanes and help with fund-raising. Byrd went to Detroit, met with Edsel Ford, and won his promise of $15,000. John D. Rockefeller contributed a similar amount, and the expedition seemed likely to become a reality.

Byrd and Bartlett were not without competitors. In 1924, Roald Amundsen, who had reached the South Pole by dogsled in 1911, planned to fly airplanes into Greenland and the Arctic. Amundsen allied himself with Commander Lincoln Ellsworth, the son of an American millionaire, to purchase planes and begin an expedition in 1925. Byrd had originally volunteered to join Amundsen, but he was rejected.


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In 1924, when Byrd's assigned transport flight by dirigible from Alaska to Spitzbergen was cancelled, he began looking for other ways to make a flight expedition to the Arctic. He ended up joining a National Geographic Society-sponsored trip to Greenland in 1925. The journey was the MacMillan Expedition, and with it Byrd made his first flights to Ellsmere Island and interior portions of Greenland. This was the first of his expeditions to be chronicled in a slim diary that was discovered among Byrd's papers in the late 1990s. In it, he included details of the dangers faced during the voyage, not all of which were related to the wildness of the region.

For his next trip, Byrd joined a privately-funded expedition to the Arctic in 1926. The purpose of the venture was to make a number of flights over the pack ice, including over the North Pole. At the time Byrd and his copilot claimed to have made the North Pole flight, there was controversy over whether or not they were telling the truth, based primarily on the short time frame and unfavorable wind direction during the reported journey. Byrd's diary, however, serves as an indication that they did, in fact, make the trip over the North Pole successfully.

Beyond being a record of Byrd's flights, his diary chronicles many of the experiences he had during his expeditions, and reflects the uniqueness of the regions he was one of the first people to explore. It also bears witness to the hardships of traveling through less populated parts of the world, illustrating that the explorers not only faced their own problems, but created them for others as well. On one occasion they faced coal shortages that threatened their progress, while on another they found themselves shut out of an Eskimo village where there was an epidemic of the whooping cough, for fear that they would transport the disease to regions that had no experience with the ailment. Thick fog stranded the explorers on several days, preventing them from traveling due to lack of visibility. Sea-bound portions of the journey were sometimes hindered by cold northerly temperatures, when the water froze around the boat to the point where it was no longer able to break through the ice.

Byrd's early expeditions set the foundation for his later explorations to Antarctica. He worked to adapt various types of machinery to accompany him on his trips, whether for the purpose of collecting samples of the ecosystems he studied on his voyages, or simply for hauling supplies over different types of ice and terrain when he had reached his destinations. Only the onset of World War II and his return to active Naval duty as Chief of Naval Operations slowed his explorations, but he continued to promote expeditions to the polar regions, particularly Antarctica, once the war was over, up until his death in 1957. The Institute for Polar Studies was founded in 1960, to unite scientists dedicated to polar research, and in 1985, the Institute acquired Byrd's collected papers. In 1987, they renamed the Institute the Byrd Polar Research Center.


Web sites

Browne, Malcolm W. "Byrd's-Eye View," review of To the Pole: The Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925–1927, edited by Raimund E. Goerler. New York Times Book Review Online, June 7, 1998. 〈〉 (accessed March 17, 2006).

Goerler, Raimund, and Richard Cullather. "Admiral Robert E. Byrd, 1888–1957." Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University. 〈〉 (accessed March 17, 2006).

"Richard Byrd's Greenland Expedition, 1925." 〈〉 (accessed March 17, 2006).