Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888-1957), American aviator, explorer, and scientist, was the first man to fly over both poles and for his daring feats became one of America's genuine folk heroes.
Richard E. Byrd was born in Winchester, Va., on Oct. 25, 1888, into a distinguished Tidewater family. His early education included study at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy and a trip around the world alone at the age of 13. He attended Virginia Military Institute, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1912. At the academy Byrd established himself as a class leader and athlete, although leg injuries suffered in football threatened his military career.
After briefly retiring from active duty, Byrd returned to the service when the United States entered World War I. He requested assignment to the Navy's aviation division. In 1918 Byrd developed a plan to fly the Navy's trimotored NC-1 flying boat across the Atlantic. His wartime assignment, however, was as commander of U.S. Navy aviation forces in Canada, where a submarine patrol was maintained. Byrd worked on improving aerial navigation when neither land nor horizon was visible, and developed a "bubble" sextant and a drift indicator. After the war he took charge of the navigational preparations for a one-stop transatlantic flight of three Navy planes but was not himself permitted to make the May 1919 flight.
Eight years later Byrd would make one of the early nonstop transatlantic flights; in the meantime he influenced flight development in other important ways. He successfully lobbied for legislation to establish a Bureau of Aeronautics in the Navy; and he commanded the Navy flying unit that accompanied Donald MacMillan's Arctic expedition of 1925, during which over 30,000 square miles of northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island were explored.
Convinced of the practicability of the airplane for polar exploration, in 1926 Byrd undertook a privately sponsored expedition to the North Pole. Flying from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, Byrd and his copilot circled the North Pole on May 9, 1926. Byrd returned to the United States to a tumultuous reception and promotion to the rank of commander.
Byrd's new goal was to demonstrate the scientific and commercial value of multiengine planes on sustained flight over long distances. He entered the "transatlantic derby" of 1927, but the crash of his new plane during tests delayed his departure until after Charles Lindbergh's flight. His aviation experiences are detailed in his first book, Skyward (1928).
Byrd's subsequent career centered on his Antarctic adventures. Buoyed by scientific and technological developments, he planned a large-scale exploration of Antarctica. Reaching the Bay of Whales in December 1928, Byrd established his camp, Little America, on the Ross Ice Shelf. In constant radio communication with the outside world, he and his companions carried out their scientific studies and aerial surveys. On Nov. 28-29, 1929, Byrd and three companions successfully completed a hazardous flight to the South Pole and back, a distance of 1,560 miles, discovering several new mountain ranges and obtaining valuable geological, meteorological, and radiowave propagation data. When Byrd came home in 1930, he was showered with additional honors and awards, including promotion to the rank of rear admiral. His Little America (1930) is a full account of the expedition.
Byrd returned to Antarctica in 1933-1935. He spent 5 months in solitude at Advance Base, making careful meteorological and auroral observations. This expedition nearly cost him his life when he was stricken by carbon monoxide fumes. Rescued in August 1934, Byrd could not return to Little America II until 2 months later. He wrote about this expedition in Discovery (1935) and later in Alone (1938).
In 1939 the United States government sponsored its first Antarctic expedition in a century, with Adm. Byrd in charge. He made several flights over the continent, delineated hundreds of additional miles of coastline, and mapped mineral deposits. Further work in the Antarctic awaited the cessation of World War II, a conflict in which Byrd served with distinction.
In 1946-1947 Byrd led his fourth expedition to the Antarctic as part of the Navy's Operation High Jump. Thirteen ships and 4,000 men participated, photographing and mapping vast areas of the ice continent. Byrd again flew over the South Pole, dropping a packet containing flags of all the members of the United Nations. Byrd's final labors in Antarctica were made in Operation Deep Freeze (1955-1956) and in planning the United States Antarctic Program for the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). He died in Boston on March 11, 1957, survived by his wife and four children. A scientist and inventor as well as a daring adventurer, Byrd had also lent his name and energy to many humanitarian and world peace organizations.
The best biography of Byrd is Edwin P. Hoyt, The Last Explorer: The Adventures of Admiral Byrd (1968), although it was compiled only from the public record and should be read in conjunction with other accounts. See particularly Fitzhugh Green, Dick Byrd: Air Explorer (1928); Charles J. V. Murphy, Struggle: The Life and Exploits of Commander Richard E. Byrd (1928); and the brief appreciation by Alfred Steinberg, Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1960). Walter B. Hayward, The Last Continent of Adventure: A Narrative of Gallant Men and Bold Exploits in Antarctica (1930), puts Byrd's early work in context. □