Double-check of conditions and calculations reveals at least he likely was able to see it out his window
By Pam Frost Gorder
When renowned explorer Richard E. Byrd returned from the first-ever flight to the North Pole in 1926, he sparked a controversy that remains today: Did he actually reach the pole?
Studying supercomputer simulations of atmospheric conditions on the day of the flight and double-checking Byrd’s navigation techniques, a researcher at Ohio State has determined that Byrd indeed neared the pole, but likely only flew within 80 miles of it before turning back to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.
Gerald Newsom, professor emeritus of Astronomy, based his results in part on atmospheric simulations from the 20th Century Reanalysis project at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The study appears in a recent issue of the journal Polar Record.
“I worked out that if Byrd did make it, he must have had very unusual wind conditions. But it’s clear that he really gave it a valiant try, and he deserves a lot of respect,” Newsom said.
At issue is whether Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett could have made the 1,500-mile round trip from Spitsbergen in only 15 hours and 44 minutes, when some experts were expecting a flight time of around 18 hours. Byrd claimed that they encountered strong tail winds that sped the plane’s progress. Not everyone believed him.
“The flight was incredibly controversial,” Newsom explained. “The people defending Byrd were vehement that he was a hero, and the people attacking him said he was one of the world’s greatest frauds. The emotion! It was incredibly vitriolic.”
Newsom was unaware of the debate, however, until Raimund Goerler, now-retired archivist at Ohio State, discovered a flight journal within a large collection of items given to Ohio State by the Byrd family at the naming of the university’s Byrd Polar Research Center. In 1995, Goerler found a smudged and water-stained book containing hand-written notes from Byrd’s 1926 North Pole flight and his historic 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, as well as an earlier expedition to Greenland in 1925.
Goerler looked to Newsom for help interpreting the navigational notes. With the help of current Byrd Polar archivist Laura Kissel, Newsom pored over copies of the notebook and other related writings, including the post-flight report by Byrd’s sponsors at the National Geographic Society.
Newsom was particularly curious about the solar compass that Byrd used to find his way to and from the pole. The compass was state-of-the-art for its time, with a clockwork mechanism that turned a glass cover to match the movement of the sun around the sky. By peering at a shadow in the sun compass, Byrd gauged whether the plane was heading north.
Among the artifacts in the Byrd Polar Research Center is a copy of the barograph recording made during the flight, showing atmospheric pressure. A small calibration graph was labeled with altitudes for different pressures, allowing Byrd to determine how high the plane flew throughout the flight. Byrd used the altitude to set a device mounted over an opening in the bottom of the plane, and with a stopwatch he timed how long it took for features on the ice below to move in and out of view. The stopwatch reading then gave the plane’s ground speed.
Byrd could then calculate the distance traveled, and know when he and Bennett had traveled far enough to reach the pole. He would also be able to tell if a crosswind was nudging the plane off course. And he would have had to repeat the calculations every few minutes for the entire trip north.
Byrd wrote messages in his notebook so Bennett could read his suggested course corrections. The problem, Newsom quickly found, is that the notebook didn’t contain any calculations of ground speed, only the results of the calculations. “Without that, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but deep down there’s a worry I have,” Newsom said, “that he did it all in his head.”
Newsom found that the barograph recording and calibration graph were remarkably small. A change of atmospheric pressure of one inch of mercury would equal only one quarter of an inch on the barograph record.
“If Byrd was off by even a tenth of an inch on the barograph recording, then his altitude would be off 18 percent, and that means his ground speed would be off by 18 percent,” he said. “And he had the same chance for error every time he took a reading throughout the flight.”
Changes in the atmosphere at different latitudes meant that Byrd’s calibration graph lost accuracy during the duration of the flight. Newsom calculated that this could have led Byrd to believe that he had reached the pole when he was still as much as 78 statute miles away, or caused him to overshoot the pole by as much as 21 statute miles.
Next, Newsom decided to test whether Byrd could have experienced strong tailwinds as he claimed, and to do that, the astronomer turned to NOAA’s calculations of likely atmospheric conditions all over the Earth for every six hours between 1870 and 2010.
The model winds did not appear consistent with what Byrd said, so Newsom examined each NOAA scenario individually, to see if even one of them allowed for strong tailwinds during the trip. They didn’t.
It’s easy to forget, Newsom said, how difficult and dangerous navigation was before modern altimeters and GPS. Byrd was under a tremendous amount of pressure: He’d overloaded the plane with fuel to make sure he and Bennett wouldn’t run out over the Arctic (they likely would have died in that circumstance), but the extra load made the plane hard to control; he had to calculate the plane’s location constantly for nearly 16 hours, in a screaming-loud cockpit while worried about frostbite; and partway through the trip, one of the plane’s engines sprang an oil leak and seemed likely to stop working.
“That they returned at all is a major accomplishment, and the fact that they arrived back where they were supposed to — that shows that Byrd knew how to navigate with his solar compass correctly,” Newsom said.
And, since the plane was theoretically high enough to see nearly 90 miles to the horizon, Byrd may not have reached the pole, but even in the worst-case scenario, he almost certainly saw it through his cockpit window.