1st Guy to Fly Over North Pole Actually ... Missed

Explorer Richard Byrd probably wasn't first, though he got within sight: study

By Michael Franco,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 16, 2013 6:13 PM CDT

(Newser) – American explorer Richard Byrd gained renown 87 years ago when he became the first guy to fly over the North Pole, but a new report thinks he might have missed the mark by as much as 80 miles. As LiveScience reports, there's long been doubt cast on Byrd's 15-hour, 44-minute flight from Spitsbergen, Norway, which had been expected to take 18 hours. So retired Ohio State astronomy professor Gerald Newsom waded into Byrd's own navigation notes, which he found wanting. "I would have thought he'd have pages and pages of calculations," says Newsom, but Byrd apparently did some "all in his head."

So while Newsom's findings suggest Byrd undershot the Pole, he thinks it was a result of poor technology rather than ill intentions: Working in a freezing cockpit, Byrd relied on a solar compass, tracked atmospheric pressure with a tiny barograph, and measured speed with a stopwatch—via an opening in the plane's bottom. All while trying to avoid crashing and frostbite. Newsom says that Byrd likely saw the North Pole, given that his altitude provided 90-mile-long visibility, but the real record would belong to Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian who made the trip just days after Byrd. Nevertheless, "that they returned at all is a major accomplishment," he says.

A sign warning of polar bears is seen outside of Longyearbyen, Norway, as far north as you can fly on a scheduled flight. It is less than 620 miles from the North Pole.
A sign warning of polar bears is seen outside of Longyearbyen, Norway, as far north as you can fly on a scheduled flight. It is less than 620 miles from the North Pole.   (AP Photo/John McConnico)
Spitsbergen, the Norwegian island from which Richard Byrd took off in his quest to fly over the North Pole.
Spitsbergen, the Norwegian island from which Richard Byrd took off in his quest to fly over the North Pole.   (AP Photo/David Cheskin, Pool)
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This type of analysis by itself will not resolve any controversy over whether Byrd reached the pole. But it does indicate that he was considerably more likely to have ended up short of his goal than to have exceeded it. - Gerald Newsom, Ohio State University

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