Richard E. Byrd Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Naval aviator and premier twentieth-century polar explorer.

Born in Virginia, Richard E. Byrd was the son of Richard Evelyn Bird, a lawyer, and Eleanor Bolling Flood. After graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1912, Byrd received an ensign’s commission and made his first airplane flight in 1914. During World War I (1914-1918), he was forced into retirement by continuing problems with an injured ankle but was recalled to active duty and won his wings as a naval aviator in 1918.

After the war, Byrd worked on NC flying boats, pioneering seaplane landings. He helped create a government bureau of aeronautics. In 1925, he commanded a naval unit on an expedition to northern Greenland sponsored by, among others, John D. Rockefeller and Edsel Ford. During this expedition, he flew over Ellesmere Island and the interior regions of Greenland.

On May 9, 1926, Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew north from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen Island, in a Fokker monoplane, the Josephine Ford. The two journeyed for more than fifteen hours and recorded that they had passed over the North Pole during their flight. Although their claim would later be disputed, both men returned to the United States as heroes and were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In June, 1927, less than a month after Charles A. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Byrd and three companions crossed the Atlantic in a Fokker trimotor, crash-landing in France after a forty-two-hour journey.

Byrd turned his attention toward the South Pole, gaining private funding for his five visits to Antarctica, which included a flight over the South Pole in November, 1929, aboard a Ford trimotor plane, the Floyd Bennett. The round-trip flight, with three other fliers, took nineteen hours and earned Byrd a promotion to rear admiral. It departed from a base named Little America that was constructed on the Ross Ice Shelf, a flat area of ice fronting the Ross Sea.

From 1933 to 1935, Byrd conducted a second expedition, extending the exploration of Antarctica. He continued his exploration of territory that he had previously named Marie Byrd Land, in honor of his wife. He caused some controversy when he spent the winter of 1934 alone in a station hut and had to be rescued, frostbitten and sick with carbon monoxide poisoning.

After being named as head of the U.S. Antarctic Service by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Byrd led a third Antarctic expedition in 1939 and 1940. He established two bases on the continent and discovered Thurston Island. During World War II, Byrd served on the staff of the chief of naval operations.

At the end of World War II, Byrd led his fourth Antarctic expedition, named Operation Highjump, which mapped and photographed more than half a million square miles of the continent. This massive operation involved approximately five thousand men and thirteen ships, including an aircraft carrier. During this expedition Byrd flew over the South Pole for a second time on February 16, 1947.

Byrd’s fifth and final expedition, Operation Deep Freeze, was an exploratory and scientific project conceived to coincide with the International Geophysical Year (IGY) activities involving thirteen nations. Traveling to his base aboard the icebreaker Glacier, Byrd made his final flight over the South Pole on January 8, 1956. Skilled at applying technology to his explorations, Byrd employed helicopters, seaplanes, and skibased airplanes. His expeditions to Antarctica claimed thousands of square miles for the United States.

  • Byrd, Richard Evelyn. To the Pole: The Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925-1927. Edited by Raimund E. Goerler. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998. The publication of Byrd’s diary and notebook, including the official navigational report of the 1926 expedition, was prompted by allegations in Richard Montague’s Oceans, Poles, and Airmen that Byrd did not reach the North Pole in 1926. Rather than providing clear answers, however, Byrd’s diary and notebook only extend the controversy.
  • DeLeeuw, Adele. Richard E. Byrd: Adventurer to the Poles. 1963. Reprint. New York: Chelsea House, 1992. An account of Byrd’s career and achievements written for younger readers.
  • Montague, Richard. Oceans, Poles, and Airmen: The First Flights over Wide Waters and Desolate Ice. New York: Random House, 1971. Conceived as a tribute to 1920’s and 1930’s aviators, this book questions whether Byrd’s plane actually reached the North Pole in 1926.

History of human flight

Navy pilots, U.S.


Transatlantic flight

World War I

World War II

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