It is not possible to know the history of the polar regions or undertake scientific investigation of the areas without being aware of Admiral Richard E. Byrd or benefiting from his contributions. As a navigational aviator, Byrd pioneered in the technology that would be the foundation for modern polar exploration and investigation. As a decorated and much celebrated hero, Byrd drew popular attention to areas of the world that would become focal points of scientific investigation in numerous disciplines. Finally, as a naval officer Admiral Byrd contributed to the role of government in sponsoring and facilitating research in polar regions and topics.
Richard E. Byrd first made his mark in the U.S. Navy. Graduating with the class of 1912 from the U.S. Naval Academy, he served in the battleship fleet until forced into medical retirement in 1916 from the aftereffects of a smashed ankle suffered while a midshipman. Recalled to active duty in a retired status, he organized the Commission on Training Camps. In April 1918 he won his wings as Naval Aviator 608.
From the start of his flying career he demonstrated unusual ability. Byrd pioneered the technique of nighttime landings of seaplanes on the ocean and flew out over the horizon, out of sight of land, and navigated back to his base. In 1918 he proposed flying the newly built NC-1 flying boats across the Atlantic to the war zone in France. His war service was in Canada as Commander, U.S. Naval Air Forces with responsibility for two air bases in Nova Scotia.
With the conclusion of hostilities, Byrd was called to Washington and made responsible for the navigational preparations for the transatlantic flight attempt of the NC flying boats in 1919 He was a skilled officer in representing Navy interests under consideration by the Congress. Byrd won wide acclaim for directing the lobbying effort that resulted in the first postwar pay-raise for military personnel. Byrd was also invaluable in the long campaign of Naval aviators to establish a Bureau of Aeronautics.
Interested in polar exploration from childhood, his adult involvement began in 1924 when he was appointed navigator for the proposed transpolar flight of the Navy’s dirigible Shenandoah from Alaska to Spitzbergen. When the flight was canceled by President Coolidge, Byrd began to organize his own Navy flight expedition to the Arctic. He was compelled to join forces with the MacMillan Expedition to northwest Greenland sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 1925. At that time Byrd completed the first flights over Ellsemere Island and the interior of Greenland. In 1926 he took leave from the Navy to organize a privately financed expedition to the Arctic, which was to be based in Spitzbergen.
Plans included several flights over the pack ice, including one to the North Pole. Supported by Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the New York Times and others, Byrd and his pilot, Floyd Bennett, claimed to have reached the North Pole on May 9, 1926. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor after their return to the United States. In later years scholars have raised questions about the success of the expedition in flying over the North Pole. Cheered by the outpouring of public support and admiration, Byrd continued his leave from the Navy. With commercial sponsorship, he completed the first multi-engine airplane crossing of the Atlantic to France. Byrd then turned his sights to Antarctica in 1928.
During the remaining years of his life he was involved in five expeditions to Antarctica. These explorations accounted for the discovery of hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory which were claimed for the United States. He personified the inception of the mechanical era of Antarctic exploration. No other person in Antarctic history has contributed more to the geographic discovery of the continent than Byrd.
With highly visible accomplishments, he thrilled millions and raised large amounts of funding. He flew over the South Pole in November 1929. He spent most of the winter of 1934 alone in a meteorological hut some 100 miles into the interior. His winter weather observations were the first taken from the interior. This effort almost cost Byrd his life when he was poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes.
Byrd remained a promoter of Antarctic exploration. He merged his plans for a third private expedition with governmental plans and became the commanding officer of the United States Antarctic Service.
With the onset of World War II he returned to active service and earned two decorations as the Chief of Naval Operations.
In the early postwar years, Byrd participated in the organization of the U.S. Navy Antarctic Developments Project in 1946-47 (Operation Highjump) He supervised the preparation of a study for the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Greenland as a site for military training and operations. In his final years he was called again to serve the nation as Officer in Charge of United States Antarctic Programs. This responsibility gave him authority to coordinate government supported scientific, logistic and political work in Antarctica. Admiral Byrd remained an influential figure in polar research until his death in 1957.