Seventy years ago, on May 9, , in a decade notable for pioneering aviation exploits, Richard E. Byrd and his pilot-mechanic, Floyd Bennett, won fame as the first to fly an airplane to the North Pole. Or so they claimed. Doubts that they reached the pole have persisted to this day, and a few skeptics have suspected that they never even made a serious attempt. Now archivists at Ohio State University have found the diary Byrd kept on the flight.
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Seventy years ago, on May 9, , in a decade notable for pioneering aviation exploits, Richard E. Byrd and his pilot-mechanic, Floyd Bennett, won fame as the first to fly an airplane to the North Pole.
Or so they claimed. Doubts that they reached the pole have persisted to this day, and a few skeptics have suspected that they never even made a serious attempt. Now archivists at Ohio State University have found the diary Byrd kept on the flight. After a meticulous examination of the diary's contents, including some erasures at critical points, a specialist in navigation and science history has concluded that Lieutenant Commander later Rear Admiral Byrd almost certainly fell short of his polar destination and must have known at the time that he had not succeeded.
Other scholars have yet to examine the diary. If Byrd did not succeed, historians of polar exploration said, the team aboard the dirigible Norge -- the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the American Lincoln Ellsworth and the Italian Umberto Nobile -- should be recognized as the first to fly over the North Pole. Their flight occurred three days later than Byrd's, and its success in reaching the pole has never been questioned in light of the many precise navigational fixes taken by the crew.
At the time, Byrd was hailed as a national hero, paraded up Broadway and welcomed with medals by President Calvin Coolidge. The New York Times, under a front-page banner headline, reported from Spitsbergen, Norway, that "America's claim to the North Pole was cinched tonight. With his reputation as a daring explorer established, he went on to become the first person to fly over the South Pole and lead several expeditions to Antarctica, for which The New York Times had exclusive story rights.
Dennis Rawlins, an independent scholar in Baltimore who specializes in navigation studies and analyzing the records of polar explorers, had previously been instrumental in discounting Robert E. Peary's claim that in he was the first to reach the North Pole by the surface. Rollins examined the Byrd diary's notes and calculations and said they appeared to exonerate Byrd in the case of an especially damning accusation, circulated by a former colleague in , that the explorer had not made a genuine attempt.
The accuser, Bernt Balchen, maintained that Byrd and Bennett had merely disappeared over the horizon, flown around for a certain time and returned to their base at Spitsbergen, Norway, with the claim that they had reached the North Pole. Rawlins said. As it was, Mr. Rawlins said in an interview, Byrd's airplane, a tri-motor Fokker monoplane named Josephine Ford, probably came within two and a quarter degrees of the pole before the two men, concerned about an engine leak, decided to turn back.
That would have put the plane some miles short, nearly close enough to see the top of the world. Rollins emphasized that the diary "should go a long way toward restoring Byrd's reputation for courage and ability" because he flew so far into the unknown, apparently navigated a straight course and, when it looked as if the leak would knock out an engine, had the good sense to turn back. Rawlins, who publishes DIO, a journal on navigation and astronomy, was commissioned by Ohio State to analyze the diary entries.
Raimund E. Goerler, the university's archivist, found the diary among a collection of the explorer's papers housed at the Byrd Polar Research Center at the campus in Columbus.
The diary had been overlooked, Dr. Goerler said, because its cover bore the date , so no scholars had previously thought of examining it for information of Byrd's later activities. The book did include 37 pages of an expedition to Greenland in that year. But, out of frugality, perhaps, Byrd used 76 pages of the same book for the North Pole flight and an additional 8 pages for his trans-Atlantic flight in , four months after the crossing by Charles Lindbergh. Most of the diary entries consist of Byrd's notes to the pilot, Bennett.
The engine noise inside the cabin made oral communication impossible. Byrd would write questions, and Bennett would respond with written answers. Or Byrd would make calculations on distances traveled and time elapsed and also record results of his sextant observations of the sun, one of his means of determining position relative to the pole.
One page records critical moments in the flight. One of the engines develops an oil leak at about 9 A. Byrd, using 85 miles an hour as the average air speed, does some arithmetic on the page, arriving at miles covered since takeoff.
Byrd writes, "20 miles to go to pole. These calculations were, however, dead reckoning, an imprecise form of navigation. Based on a A. This sextant reading was changed in his final report to one that was consistent with his claim to have reached the pole.
Then there is a blank, where something has been erased. By whom, no one knows, but the words were not completely removed. Rawlins and others determined that the erased line was a question by Byrd to Bennett: "How long were we gone before we turned around? Rawlins said in his report to Ohio State.
And it doesn't feel like the words of someone who has just reached a great goal and lingered there for 13 minutes of circling. In his later statements, Byrd reported, "At A. The dream of a lifetime had at last been realized.
But the two men failed to drop flags to the surface, as planned, a lapse that has often provoked suspicion that Byrd doubted that he had reached his goal. Rawlins notes other discrepancies. In the diary was recorded as a time when Byrd was a few miles short of the Pole.
In a May 12 telegram to the Navy, was the time of arrival at the pole. And in his final report was the time of departure from the pole, after 13 minutes of circling it. Goerler said the university planned to have a facsimile edition of the diary published so that it would be widely available for research.
Did Byrd Reach Pole? His Diary Hints 'No'. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. Home Page World U.
The Secret Lost Diary of Admiral Richard E. Byrd and The Phantom of the Poles
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Richard E. Byrd
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Secret Diary of Admiral Byrd
The reader will relive that period as he reads this docu ment. To say it is fascinating is to place it mildly, but to read it now for yourself, I know that you will conclude, in the Admi rals own words " Just as the long night of the Arctic ends, the brilliant sunshine of truth shall come forth again, and those who are of Darkness shall fall in its Light". I must write this diary in secrecy and obscurity. It con cerns my Arctic flight of the nineteenth day of February in the year of Nineteen and Forty Seven. There comes a time when the rationality of men must fade into insignificance and one must accept the inevitability of the Truth! I am not at liberty to disclose the following documenta tion at this writing In a world of greed and exploitation of certain of mankind can no longer suppress that which is truth.
The Inner Earth My Secret Diary by Admiral Richard B. Byrd (Feb. Mar. 1947 )