Richard E. Byrd
The Byrd Expedition was the first American expedition to explore Antarctica since the U. S. Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes in 1840. The expedition launched a revival of interest in the Antarctic for Americans, an area much in the public mind during the early 1800's.
The exploring expedition organized by Richard E. Byrd in 1928 may be considered the first of the mechanical age of exploration in Antarctica. The program was the first of its kind to utilize the airplane, aerial camera, snowmobile and massive communications resources. Although Sir Hubert Wilkins, on November 6, 1928, was the first to fly an airplane in Antarctica, he preceded Byrd by only ten weeks. (Byrd first flew on January 15, 1929). However, Byrd's flights, made with three planes (Ford monoplane, Fokker Universal and a Fairchild monoplane), were much more significant than Wilkins since they were made in higher latitudes and were tied in with ground surveys. Sir Douglas Mawson was the first to use radio in the Antarctic, and the whalers, RRS DISCOVERY, the Norwegian exploring ship NORVEGIA and Sir Wilkins had all been using radio in the Antarctic at the time the Byrd Expedition entered the field but Byrds use of communications equipment overshadowed that of the others as regular wireless communications were established with the outside world, as well as with all flights and field parties. As Byrd put it, "...this single department received more attention than any other, for our program called for the most elaborate system of communication ever proposed in a Continent where radio conditions are notoriously bad". Assistance was provided for the selection of equipment by the US Navy, the New York Times and several corporations. Five radio engineers were assigned to the communications team. Although very costly, a total of 24 transmitters and 31 receivers were supplied for the two expedition ships, the main base at Little America, three airplanes, three dog teams and two sub-bases. As for photography, Wilkins took photos from his plane while in flight, but they were taken with a hand-held camera. On the Byrd Expedition, Captain Ashley McKinley used a Fairchild K-3 for aerial mapping. It was the finest camera available at the time for this purpose and by present-day standards can still provide satisfactory results. Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott and Sir Douglas Mawson had all tried, with mixed success, to use automobiles for land transportation. Byrd had more success with a Ford snowmobile, but it too broke down only 75 miles from the base while hauling supplies.
The SIR JAMES CLARK ROSS was the first to arrive in New Zealand. The C.A. LARSEN arrived in Wellington on November 5, unloaded the men and supplies, and then embarked on a whaling mission. The ELEANOR BOLLING arrived at Dunedin on November 18 and soon left for Wellington to pick up the supplies left there by the C.A. LARSEN. The CITY OF NEW YORK didn't arrive at Dunedin until the 26th of November, after being at sea three months. At Dunedin, the cargo was reloaded so that if the CITY OF NEW YORK was the only ship to make it through the pack into the Bay of Whales, she would have enough supplies aboard to maintain a limited scientific expedition for one year. The Fairchild airplane was lashed to her deck. Heavily laden, the ELEANOR BOLLING and CITY OF NEW YORK left Dunedin for the Antarctic at 6 a.m. on December 2, 1928. There were a total of 29 men on board the CITY OF NEW YORK and 54 aboard the ELEANOR BOLLING.
The expedition experienced fine weather at the beginning. If the wind was right, the CITY OF NEW YORK could proceed under both sail and steam; when the wind died, the ELEANOR BOLLING would take her in tow. The first storm hit during the evening of December 6. The tow line broke but other than a torn sail on the CITY OF NEW YORK, no other serious damage occurred as the storm subsided the following day. The first iceberg was sighted on Sunday, December 9. Snow squalls and foggy weather was encountered the following day which made for difficult navigation. Scott Island was sighted the same day, after which the course was set due south until reaching the edge of the ice pack. The following day the C.A. LARSEN was sighted. By 11 a.m. the next morning some 90 tons of coal had been transferred in sacks from the ELEANOR BOLLING to the CITY OF NEW YORK. The ELEANOR BOLLING then steamed for Dunedin (arriving December 20) while the CITY OF NEW YORK stood by to be taken in tow by the C.A. LARSEN. On December 15 the leads opened sufficiently for Captain Nilsen to enter the pack in about 178° E. The struggles were great but the C.A. LARSEN finally broke through into the open water of the Ross Sea on December 23. At 2 p.m. the tow line was cast off and the CITY OF NEW YORK was now on her own. The edge of the Ross Ice Shelf was reached in about 177° W. on Christmas Day. Following the shelf eastward, the CITY OF NEW YORK reached the Bay of Whales on December 28.
Unfortunately, the Bay of Whales was nearly full of ice. The CITY OF NEW YORK found a place along the edge of the ice to tie up and once accomplished, Byrd, Balchen, Petersen, Vaughan and Waldon went ashore with two dog teams to locate a suitable place to build the base camp. After several days of exploration in the vicinity, a site was selected on top of the Ross Ice Shelf on the east side of the bay, approximately eight miles from where the ship was tied up and four miles north of Amundsen's base camp, Framheim. On January 2 the unloading began and soon teams of men and dogs were hauling supplies over the ice to their new home, Little America. On a good day, each team made two round trips, totaling 30 miles until a total of 650 tons of stores and materials had been transferred. The CITY OF NEW YORK had successfully transported one airplane, 1200 gallons of gasoline, 75 tons of coal, 54 men, 80 dogs and enough food for 15 months. Two main buildings were constructed at Little America along with several prefabricated buildings which were used for special purposes. The primary building was used for a library, hospital, radio laboratory and housing quarters for the physician, geologist, meteorologist and physicist. Another building, built from boxes and crates, served as the machine shop while a third building was used for the mess hall, bunk house and photographic laboratory. A magnetic observatory and weather station was also built. The radio storeroom and aviation workshop were also built from boxes while other rooms were simply carved out of the snow and roofed with tarpaulins. As a prevention against fire, all main structures were built with some distance between them and connected by a series of snow tunnels.
After leaving the CITY OF NEW YORK at the edge of the ice pack on December 11, the ELEANOR BOLLING sailed for and arrived at Dunedin on December 20 where she promptly took on a second cargo, departing on January 14 for the return trip to the Bay of Whales. She arrived at the bay on January 27 with two airplanes, additional dogs and 7500 gallons of gasoline. The ice in the bay continued to break up which forced both ships, on January 29, to move and two days later a large piece of shelf ice broke off and nearly capsized the ELEANOR BOLLING. The ELEANOR BOLLING was unloaded in little more than five days and on February 2 she departed for New Zealand, arriving in Dunedin on February 16. Meanwhile, the CITY OF NEW YORK continued to battle the ice conditions. Forced from her moorings time and time again, Byrd finally cruised her eastward to the vicinity of Edward VII Land but was again stopped by the pack ice. Abandoning any further attempts to tie up, the CITY OF NEW YORK departed on February 22 for New Zealand. Captain Nilsen of the C.A. LARSEN met the expedition ship on February 28 and transferred 90 tons of coal to her. Meanwhile, the ice conditions were so poor that Byrd radioed orders to the ELEANOR BOLLING, which was returning to the Bay of Whales with a third load of cargo, to wait at the edge of the ice pack for the CITY OF NEW YORK and return with her to New Zealand.
The Fairchild airplane had been unloaded on January 14 and assembled the following day after which seven short flights took place. Byrd, with Bernt Balchen as pilot and Harold June as radioman, left on January 27 for a longer flight eastward to the Alexandra Mountains, which had been discovered in 1902 by Robert F. Scott. They flew in fine weather and soon spotted the two inlets east of the Bay of Whales, Kainan Bay and Okuma Bay, that had been named after Nobu Shirase's Japanese expedition in 1911-12. They flew to the Scott Nunataks and Alexandra Mountains and then were forced south due to intermittent snow showers. Suddenly, at an altitude of 4,000 feet, a new mountain range came into view which Byrd named the Rockefeller Mountains. Running short on fuel, the men turned back for Little America and arrived having completed a five-hour flight. On February 18, Byrd and Balchen took off in the Fokker while June and Harold Parker left in the Fairchild on another flight to the east. Byrd's course took him east to the Rockefeller Mountains and then south for 100 miles further than his previous mission. High land appeared in the distance but once again they were forced to turn back to Little America. When they had landed, permission was given to McKinley to make a photographic flight to the Rockefeller Mountains. He too saw the other mountains east of the Rockefellers. In the afternoon of March 7 Gould, Balchen and June flew out of Little America aboard the Fokker for the Rockefeller Mountains. Two hours and ten minutes later they arrived and landed at the southern extremity of the range. Over the next few days extensive survey work was accomplished. By March 13 they were able to finish a triangulation survey and collect a few geological specimens but the following day turned tragic as high winds overwhelmed them. They struggled to save the plane but a huge gust of wind in the evening ripped the plane from its moorings blowing it airborne for half a mile before smashing it to pieces on the ice.
The lowest temperature recorded at Little America was -72.2°F on July 28. However, according to Harrison, "...a far more severe condition than this prevailed in July when a combination of a 25-mile wind and a temperature of -64° was experienced", creating a wind-chilled equivalent -2800°F. Subzero temperatures were recorded every month throughout the winter at Little America with the highest temperature being 17°F on August 19. The sun came up on the horizon for the first time on August 23.
Geological investigation of the Queen Maud Mountains would be a primary effort as spring arrived. This would require significant depots layed across the Ross Ice Shelf. Five teams started out from Little America on Sunday, October 13, with 1,600 pounds of supplies. The dogs soon tired from pulling in soft, dry snow so the loaded sledges were abandoned at this point and the entire team jumped on an empty sled and returned to Little America to wait for more favorable conditions. On October 15 a supporting party of four, led by Arthur Walden, started on a southern journey. Joining them were the geological party and Peterson, who went along to test the radio equipment. They picked up the loaded sledges that had been left a few days before and proceeded on to 20-mile depot. Upon arrival the geological party cached their supplies and along with Peterson returned to Little America. Meanwhile, the supporting party headed south with two sledges carrying a total of 800 pounds. Depots were built and supplied every 50 miles. On November 1 the last depot (Depot #4) was laid at 81° 45'S, 220 miles from Little America. At this point the men turned for Little America and arrived back at base camp on November 8. After returning from the 20-mile depot, the geological party on Sunday, October 20, started hauling supplies again to the depots out on the Ross Ice Shelf. By October 25 they had reached the 100-mile depot where they cached their supplies and prepared for the return journey. The return was uneventful with the crew arriving at Little America on October 29. Meanwhile, on October 25 Strom, Black and Feury set off in the Ford snowmobile, pulling three sledges loaded with supplies. The men had to abandon the vehicle when it broke down 75 miles south of base camp. Walking back to Little America, the men arrived on November 5. Finally, on the same day, the geological party departed for the Queen Maud Mountains. The party consisted of Gould, who was the leader, Vaughan, Crockett, Thorne, Goodale and O'Brien.
While the sledge parties were busy with depot-laying, the aviation crew were likewise busy digging out the planes and preparing them for exploratory flights. On November 18 with Dean Smith as pilot, Commander Byrd, Harold June and Captain McKinley took off in the Ford tri-motor, the FLOYD BENNETT, on a base-laying flight to the edge of the Queen Maud Mountains, 440 miles distant. About 200 miles out the men spotted the geological party struggling along so they swooped low and dropped mail and additional equipment to them before heading off for the mountain range. They landed at the foot of the Liv Glacier where, leaving the engines running, they deposited gasoline, oil and 350 pounds of food along with a pressure cooker and trail equipment. They were soon back in the air heading for Little America. About 100 miles south of Little America, on the edge of the worst crevassed area, the plane was forced to land as a leak had developed and they'd run out of fuel. The emergency radio failed to work but fortunately Balchen and Petersen flew out in the Fairchild, suspecting they had run out of fuel, and quickly located them on the ice below. They landed and fuel was loaded aboard but, unfortunately, the engines were too cold to start. Besides, 100 gallons of fuel was not enough to get the plane back to Little America. The Fairchild returned to Little America, loaded additional fuel and brought it out the following day. With help from the booster on the Fairchild, the engines on the Ford tri-motor were started and together both planes arrived back at Little America about midnight.
At 3:29 p.m., on November 28,1929, the FLOYD BENNETT took off from Little America on its historic first-flight over the South Pole. With Byrd as navigator, Harold June as co-pilot and radio operator and McKinley as aerial photographer, the heavily loaded plane proceeded to climb towards the Queen Maud Mountains. For purposes of navigation, magnetic compasses were useless so close to the South Magnetic Pole. Thus, reliance was solely on the sun compass. Balchen flew south on the meridian of 163°45'W and when they reached 85°S they scanned the horizon, in vain, for Amundsen's Carmen Land. At 8:15 p.m. the geological party was spotted below, 100 miles from the base of the Queen Maud Mountains. A bag containing messages and photographs taken during the base-laying flight were dropped by parachute. The geological party radioed their position from which Byrd checked his navigation. From this point the plane began to gain altitude as it neared the glacier-filled passes of the Queen Maude Mountains. By 9:15 p.m. they had climbed to 9,000 feet but were still 2,000 feet too low to attain the Polar Plateau. As the plane ascended the Liv Glacier, empty tin containers of gasoline and 300 pounds of food were dumped out in order to reduce weight. For the next 30 minutes the FLOYD BENNETT struggled to gain the necessary altitude to clear the 11,000-foot pass between Mount Fridtjof Nansen and Mount Fisher at the head of the Liv Glacier. With only a few hundred yards to spare, the plane gained enough altitude to attain the Polar Plateau. As they flew over the Polar Plateau, a new mountain range, the Grosvenor Mountains, was viewed to the west and southwest. Looking back, they could identify the Mount Thorvald Nilsen massif, now called Nilsen Plateau. On the Polar Plateau the plane passed over a heavily crevassed area, the Devil's Ballroom, named by Amundsen. Observations at 12:30 a.m. showed them to be 50 miles from the Pole. Shortly after midnight on November 29, 1929, the FLOYD BENNETT flew over the South Pole. They flew a few miles beyond the Pole and then to the right and left to compensate for any possible navigational errors. Byrd dropped a small American flag and at 1:25 a.m. directed the plane for Little America. They descended down the Polar Plateau and the Axel Heiberg Glacier on the east side of Mount Fridtjof Nansen. At the foot of the glacier they flew along the front of the Queen Maud Mountains to the base of Amundsen Glacier. At this point a short fuel supply forced them to turn west for the gasoline that had been cached at the foot of the Liv Glacier on November 18. They landed beside the gasoline, took aboard 200 gallons and left 350 pounds of food for the geological party. Within an hour, they took off again and landed at Little America at 10:10 a.m. on November 29...they had been gone 18 hours and 41 minutes.
By the time the polar flight had been completed, the geological party still had some distance to go to reach the Queen Maud Mountains. On November 30 they managed 35 miles and that night camped at the foot of the Liv Glacier. Heavily crevassed folds in the ice prevented them from reaching the edge of Mount Fridtjof Nansen via the Liv Glacier. However, a smaller glacier on the north side of the mountain was accessible and subsequently allowed them to ascend. During the climb, Gould determined the low ragged mountains to be composed of "...an extensive complex of ancient gneisses, schists, and granites which later investigation have shown to be pre-Cambrian". Above this, a series of sedimentary rocks 7,000 feet thick was found. Extensive geological studies were conducted over the course of the next few weeks. On December 20 the party reached the mouth of a glacier which Gould named Leverett Glacier. Their easternmost camp was located a short time later at the base of a small mountain, properly named Supporting Party Mountain, on the north side of the foot of Leverett Glacier...their bearings were 85°25'17"S, 147°55'W. The next day, December 21, the men built a cairn on top of the mountain and deposited a record of their visit and a claim, in the name of Commander Byrd, of all the land east of 150°W as part of Marie Byrd Land and territory of the United States. The geological party had now mapped 175 miles along the front of the Queen Maud Mountains and had been the first to set foot on Marie Byrd Land. On December 21 they turned for Little America and on Christmas Day discovered the cairn built by Roald Amundsen. Inside, Gould found a small tin containing a page from Amundsen's notebook on which he had written a short account of his journey to the South Pole. They took the page and continued on towards base camp. From December 26 to 30 they camped at Strom Camp, in front of Mount Fridtjof Nansen, as they made preparations for their final push to base camp. They left on December 30, sledging at night and camping during day, with as light a load as possible. Despite the heavily crevassed area south of Little America, base camp was reached without serious injury on January 19, 1930 after sledging 1500 miles in two-and-a-half months.
Meanwhile, after the successful polar flight plans were made for a second major flight of discovery. With favorable weather conditions, Byrd, Alton Parker, June and McKinley took off at 10:50 a.m. in the FLOYD BENNETT on December 5 heading northeast into the area Robert Scott had explored in 1902 called Edward VII Land. They flew along the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf to Okuma Bay and subsequently passed over the Scott Nunataks. Byrd could now see a great expansion of water extending southeast which he named Sulzberger Bay. They flew northeast across 35 miles of open water in the bay and at 1:13 p.m. changed course to a little east of north in order to follow what they believed to be coastline. At 1:48 p.m. they found themselves opposite the mouth of a large bay which extended considerably inland. Byrd named this Paul Block Bay and named the glacier which entered the bay for Balchen. The associated mountain range, with the glacier in its valley, was named the Edsel Ford Range. At this point they changed course again to the northeast and at 2:10 p.m. they turned south to fly across the mouth of Paul Block Bay. They were now at 150°W which was the extremity to which any prior explorers could have made discoveries. Byrd named the land, including the Edsel Ford Range, Marie Byrd Land in honor of his wife. On the trip back to Little America, they flew to the north of Sulzberger Bay to investigate the great ice island that appeared to be aground and surrounded by old sea ice. At 3:10 p.m. they flew across the open water of Sulzberger Bay and the large, grounded ice island. From the air it was obvious to Byrd that Scott's Edward VII Land was actually a peninsula between Sulzberger Bay and the Ross Sea. The plane now set a course to the southwest, passing near La Gorce Mountain at the southern end of the Alexandra Mountains. At 6:42 p.m., after nearly eight hours of flight, the FLOYD BENNETT landed safely at Little America. The accomplishments were great as many miles of previously unknown coastline and a new mountain range had been photographed for the first time.
The final flight was
made on January 21 when Byrd, Smith, Peterson, June and McKinley took
off in the FLOYD BENNETT and flew 100 miles west to Discovery
Inlet, then south for 140 miles across the middle of the Ross Ice Shelf,
and then returning to Little America. Meanwhile, the geological party
concluded their investigations and ground survey of the Bay of Whales
so that preparations could begin to close Little America. Radio reports
were coming in from the whalers that the pack ice was unusually thick.
The CITY OF NEW YORK left Dunedin for Little America on
January 6, 1930. Fighting a fierce storm along the way, she made it to
the edge of the ice pack on January 20 and rendezvoused with the whaler
KOSMOS. The ELEANOR BOLLING left Dunedin on
January 20 and reached the CITY OF NEW YORK on January 29.
The CITY OF NEW YORK had used up so much of her coal while
steaming around the edge of the ice pack waiting for the arrival of the
ELEANOR BOLLING that Byrd instructed the ELEANOR BOLLING
to return to Dunedin for more coal, which she did on January 31. While
this was going on, the men at Little America were packing up their equipment
in three different classes, each with a lower priority, in the event there
would not be enough room for all the gear. McKinley was put in charge
of transporting the equipment to the edge of the Bay of Whales where a
camp was established in order to load the gear aboard as quickly as possible
once the ship arrived. Byrd was fairly certain that only one ship would
make it through so the planes were secured nearby where the wind would
keep the snow swept away after they were left behind. On February 6 the
CITY OF NEW YORK took on 50 tons of coal from the whaler
SOUTHERN PRINCESS and immediately started her journey into
the pack for Little America. Incredibly, it took 12 days to reach the
men at the edge of the Bay of Whales. On February 8 a strong gale struck
and lasted for 24 hours. On February 10 another storm hit with such ferocity
that the ship was in danger of sinking as ice accumulated faster than
the men could chip it off. She was blown 300 miles off course, to the
vicinity of Ross Island, over the four-day gale. It was 6:45 p.m. on November
18 before the CITY OF NEW YORK reached the Bay of Whales.
She was loaded at night and cast off at 9:30 a.m. on February 19. By February
26 she was clear of the pack ice. She met up with the KOSMOS
and ELEANOR BOLLING and transferred the dogs along with
medical officer Dr. Haldor Barnes, from the ELEANOR BOLLING,
and radio operator Howard Mason, who had been suffering from appendicitis.
The ELEANOR BOLLING transferred a new supply of coal to
the CITY OF NEW YORK and the two sailed together for Dunedin,
arriving on March 10, 1930. The expedition reached New York on June 18,