Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd

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Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd


American Naval Officer, Polar Explorer, and Aviator

Richard Evelyn Byrd was an American naval officer, polar explorer, and aviator who is best known for his contributions to polar exploration. He is credited for being the first to fly over the North Pole and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for this feat. However, there is considerable debate whether he actually reached the North Pole on that flight. Later, he participated in the first airplane flight over the South Pole. Throughout his life, Byrd made significant contributions to the areas of science and exploration. He had a tremendous ability for organization and made extensive use of technology on his explorations that served as a model for future endeavors. Byrd invented instruments that had application to his journeys and these greatly advanced the area of aerial navigation. Despite his controversial flight over the North Pole, Richard Byrd is considered to be an American hero.

Richard Evelyn Byrd was born in Virginia on October 25, 1888. He was part of a high-achieving family, as his father was a successful lawyer and his brother became a United States Senator. Byrd was often described as an intense person who wanted to distinguish himself through his actions. As an early example, at the age of 11, Byrd was allowed to travel alone to the Philippines to visit a relative. This sense of adventure seems to have followed him throughout his life. Byrd graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1912 and learned to fly in 1916. He commanded a United States air station in Canada during the latter parts of World War I.

Byrd's fascination with the polar regions was certainly stimulated when he commanded an aviation detachment in 1924 during an expedition to Western Greenland. After several unsuccessful attempts to fly over the North Pole with the Navy, Byrd raised funds to embark on a private mission in 1926. He was racing another explorer, Roald Amundsen (1872-1928?), for the honor of being the first to fly over the North Pole. An unsuccessful first try caused Byrd to make a furious effort for the North Pole. A triumphant Byrd claimed that on his next try, May 9, 1926, he and his pilot, Floyd Bennett (1890-1928), were the first to fly over the North Pole. Skeptics immediately contended that Byrd's flight time was not long enough to cover the distance to the Pole and back. In addition, the plane had developed an oil leak that would have compromised their chances of attaining their goal. Despite this criticism, Byrd was declared a national hero and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Byrd traveled next to Antarctica with intentions to fly over the South Pole and claim the land for the United States. His first expedition established a base called Little America. On his explorations, he mapped and claimed a significant area of uncharted territory he called Marie Byrd Land after his wife. On November 29, 1929, he was part of the first airplane flight over the South Pole. When he returned to the United States in 1930, he was commissioned as a rear admiral for this feat.

On his return visit, Byrd wanted to do something noteworthy, so he spent five solitary months at a weather station 123 miles (198 km) south of Little America. He endured extreme weather and living conditions that left him ailing with frostbite and carbon monoxide poisoning when he was rescued. He published an account of this experience in Alone (1938).

Byrd made a total of five expeditions to the Antarctic with each successive trip more elaborate than before. Among his many achievements was his pioneering use of technological resources for polar expeditions that provided abundant information regarding the southernmost continent. He was also directly responsible for the large-scale Naval maneuvers, Operation High Jump and Operation Deep Freeze, which further extended the knowledge of the Antarctic. Byrd died at his home in Boston on March 11, 1957.