May 9th, a day— and a man — to remember
Eighty-eight years ago, in the wee hours of May 9, 1926, two Navy aviators boarded a large experimental airplane with three engines, a wooden wing and a canvas fuselage stretched over a metal skeleton. Her dubious ski landing gear had been reinforced with wood scavenged from the oars of lifeboats. She stood poised on a snowbound hill overlooking the coast of Spitsbergen, an island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, her cabin crammed with survival gear and extra fuel in five-gallon cans. Swathed in thick furs from head to foot, squeezed side by side before the dual controls, the two crewmembers nodded to one another. The throttles were engaged, the engines roared alive; the trimotor thundered down the incline and headed due north.
Roughly six weeks later, the aviators prepared to face a packed house at Carnegie Hall in New York, at the outset of a national lecture tour. They were preceded by a renowned poet, Edwin Markham, author of “The Man With a Hoe.” Markham strode onto the stage, threw back his long white hair and declaimed a 50-line ode he had written in honor of the North Pole flight of Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett. The poem, “To the Top of the World,” concluded with these lines:
Byrd would have perfectly grasped the poet’s meaning. Like Markham, he conceived of polar aviation in the larger context of human development. He foresaw air routes across the Arctic linking Europe and Asia, advancing commerce and cultural integration. He considered pioneer flights into unknown airspace as phases of a learning process, steps in the evolution of a technology that would enable civilization itself to evolve. He was most gratified by the interest, the enthusiasm his fellow citizens expressed for pioneer aviation and exploration. “They live the adventure with you,” he said. “It is an indication of the spirit of the country.”
What would he have made of that spirit today, one lifetime later? The aerospace enterprise has stalled in the very country that gave it momentum, its government preoccupied with furnishing social assistance beyond its financial means, its citizenry obsessed with attention-starved exhibitionists, pseudo-celebrities worshipped for their eccentricities or their cleavage. If Byrd is remembered at all today, it is with the profound skepticism that nowadays attaches to anything that smacks of heroism. Cynics snicker, casting aspersions on Byrd’s character and doubting if the North Pole flight approached anywhere near its intended destination.
Richard Byrd (1888-1957) carried the fire at the beginning of aerospace, mastering aviation technology in its infancy and moving it several important steps forward through his own creativity and resourcefulness. He developed one of the first sets of instruments for aerial navigation out of sight of land, demonstrated the effectiveness of the air-cooled engine and the multi-engine aircraft under the most hazardous conditions, and spurred the popular acceptance of the airplane. He was not a coward, not an alcoholic, and not disliked by his men. There is no foundation whatsoever to the raging controversy over the North Pole flight and no substantial evidence that he was afraid to fly or afraid of anything other than going broke trying to make ends meet at the ends of the earth.
The year after the Arctic flight, he commanded the first multi-engine transport plane to cross the Atlantic non-stop and was very likely the first aviator to navigate an aircraft by radio bearings over the middle of the ocean. Two years after the Arctic expedition, he assembled two ships, four planes, 94 dogs, 82 men and about 800 tons of equipment and provisions, and embarked for Antarctica. He successfully flew over the South Pole, conducted the first aerial surveys in the Antarctic to make use of modern photographic mapping techniques, facilitated the compilation of vast databases by the scientists who accompanied him, and brought the entire party back intact. He returned to the bottom of the world in 1933, adding a new element of surface transportation—tractors—and creating the model for Antarctic exploration for the next half-century.
He deserves to be celebrated and the events of May 9th commemorated, but not in verse, not with a movie, not with a statue, and not with another monument on the National Mall. He would be best remembered with a reinvigorated effort to “pass the earthly bars,” with the hands of American astronauts reaching out “among the stars.”
And when during the administration of a future President of the United States, after the Stars and Stripes is embedded in the plains of Mars, perhaps another flag might be unfurled—that of the Commonwealth of Virginia in honor of a man who rose from the Shenandoah Valley to become America’s greatest polar explorer and exploration visionary, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
Sheldon Bart is president and founder of Wilderness Research Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society. His most recent book, Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole, has just been published by Regnery History.