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The 1926 Race to the South Pole

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 30, 2024 3:01 am

The 1926 Race to the South Pole

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 30, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, The History Guy remembers when explorers raced to go where no one had gone before, Amundsen, Byrd, and the future of aviation.

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The History Guy is also heard here at Our American Stories, where he's a regular contributor. Here's The History Guy with the fascinating story about the Medal of Honor recipient, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, the age of polar exploration and the future of aviation. We live in an era where air travel is common. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, 3.5 billion passengers were carried by scheduled air service in 2015. But a few flown. The odds are the two flew in a heavier than air aircraft, and the general alternative, lighter than air air travel, is largely relegated to a leisure activity. But that was not always the case. There was a time when great airships challenged the airplane for dominion of the skies. And the pinnacle of that era was arguably in 1926 with a competition between two of the world's greatest explorers.

It's history that deserves to be remembered. In general, aircraft come in two categories. A lighter than air aircraft or aerostat works by principles of buoyancy. The average density of the craft is lower than the density of atmospheric air, and so it rises.

Essentially, a bag filled with gas that is less dense than air produces lift. The alternative, aerodynes, fly due to aerodynamic lift, which requires movement of a wing surface through an air maze. In the 1920s, the competition between aerostat and aerodyne took on a particular importance in terms of polar exploration. The period of the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century included what was the so-called heroic age of polar exploration. Explorers from a number of nations went to explore the most hostile and least understood environments on Earth in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

This was called the heroic age because technology was limited, conditions were primitive, and the exploration was extremely dangerous and very often deadly. These explorers risked their lives in scientific pursuits, putting their lives on the line for the betterment of the world. These explorations made huge contributions to science, but national prestige was also on the line.

Scientific discoveries in first represented national honor and nations saw it as a way to prove themselves on the international stage. One of the most significant of these contests was the race to get to the poles. Despite little real scientific value in reaching the north and south poles, they represented the pinnacle of remote exploration at the time, and for the first time seemed to be within reach. Being the first to reach one of the poles would gain an explorer, international fame. Norwegian Roald Amundsen was one of the legendary explorers of the heroic age.

Born into a family of Norwegian shipbuilders in 1872, he had been inspired by explorers of the 1880s. Between 1910 and 1912, Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the south pole using sled dogs, and arrived at the south pole on December 14, 1911, five weeks ahead of a rival team led by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died on his return trip. But sometime in the early 1920s, most historians cite the 1920-21 quest expedition in which legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton died, the heroic age of polar exploration gave way to the mechanical age of polar exploration. The mechanical age of exploration represented a time when the mechanical advancements of the age, notably aircraft and motor cars, changed the nature and method of polar exploration. Now the exploration was not only a test of humans, but of machines.

Discovering not only meant national prestige, but it represented the reliability of modern technology, could mean a fortune for the companies who built those technologies. And the pinnacle achievement of the mechanical age, the race to be the first to overfly the north pole, represented two of the greatest explorers of the era. Born in Virginia in 1888, Richard E. Byrd was the quintessential example of the mechanical age of exploration. A pilot with the U.S. Navy during the First World War, he had planned the flight path for the first Atlantic crossing by air, done by the U.S. Navy in Curtis Flying Boats. In 1925, he commanded the aviation unit of an expedition to northern Greenland to become convinced of the value of aircraft in arctic exploration. In 1925, Amundsen had tried to fly to the north pole using flying boats, but when one was damaged during a landing, he and his crew barely made it out with their lives. He became convinced that the best possibility that crossed the pole by air was to use an airship, and planned an expedition for 1926. The same year, Richard Byrd, then a lieutenant commander of the United States Navy, become determined to fly to the pole in an airplane. It was now a race between Roald Amundsen and Richard Byrd.

It was also a race between Aerostat and Aerodine. While an airplane was faster, as Amundsen had learned in his attempt in 1925, if anything went wrong, they had to set down right away, which is not always possible in the arctic, and taking off again might be impossible. An airship, while slower, could repair its engines in flight if need be.

Airships also carry more weight. Amundsen signed a contract with Italian airship designer Umberto Nobli to use his semi-rigid airship, then called the N1. The N1 was 347 feet 9 inches long, and 85 foot 4 inches in diameter, powered by three six-cylinder engines. The N1 was officially sold to the Aero Club of Norway, which was financing the expedition, was modified for cold conditions, and renamed the Norg, meaning the Norway.

A wealthy American explorer named Lincoln Ellsworth also helped to finance the expedition, and accompanied Amundsen and Nobli on the trip. After several weather delays, and a wait to build a docking tower at their jumping off point at the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, they finally arrived in April of 1926. For his flight, Byrd decided to use a three-engine monoplane built by the Dutch airplane manufacturer, Fokker.

The Fokker F7, commonly called the Fokker tri-motor, was one of those popular passenger aircraft of the 1920s. Byrd needed financing, so he had named the plane Josephine Ford, after automobile manufacturer Edsel Ford's daughter, in order to procure a donation from Ford to fund the trip. When Byrd's ship carrying the Josephine Ford steamed into King's Bay on Spitsbergen, he found Amundsen's ship already taking the only space at the dock. Byrd was forced to last the ship's lightboats together, to carry his airplane to shore. Byrd made his attempt, accompanied by pilot Floyd Bennett, on May 9th. No one had ever taken off using a Fokker tri-motor on skis before, and it took three attempts to take off. Eight hours in, one of the engines started leaking oil.

Bennett wanted to sit down and try to fix the problem, but the ice below was broken, with no place to land. Byrd decided to press on, as they were only an hour from the pole. At just over nine hours in, they reached the North Pole, winning the race. The return was dicey, given the oil leak, but the plane was lighter, as it had burned so much fuel and made it back to Spitsbergen.

Byrd returned to international acclaim, and the United States awarded him the Medal of Honor. The Norg made its trip two days later, leaving May 11th and reaching the pole on the 12th, three days after Byrd. As they crossed the pole, Amundsen, Ellsworth, and Nobley each threw out their nation's flag to land on the pole. While Byrd had beaten them to the pole, the Norg was the first to fly over the ice cap between Europe and North America, making the voyage important to the understanding of the nature of the ice cap and its geography.

But of course there was a twist. Almost immediately there were questions whether Byrd's calculations were correct, arguing that given the plane's airspeed, it must have come short of the pole. The controversy became even more heated in 1996, when Byrd's diary was released and showed erased but still legible sextant recorders that differ from the official report.

The controversy rages on today. Byrd went on to become the first person to fly over the South Pole in 1929, became an admiral, and in World War II was a special advisor to Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. He was present for the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2nd, 1945, and helped to establish permanent Antarctic bases in the 1940s and 50s.

He died of a heart ailment in 1957, the age of 68. For a while airships competed against airplanes and ocean liners for passenger service, but they lost their appeal after the spectacular explosion of the Zeppelin Hindenburg in 1937. And fate played a strange trick on Roald Amundsen and Humberto Nobli.

In 1928 Nobli built another airship named it the Italia, or the Italy, and attempted to make an all-Italian flight over the North Pole. They reached the pole on May 24th, but the following day caught in a gale, the Italia crashed into jagged ice destroying the airship. In all, eight of the crew lost their lives and it took nearly two months to rescue the survivors.

And in that, another tragedy. Roald Amundsen, being one of the most experienced Arctic explorers in the world, was called to assist in the rescue. On June 18th, 1928, flying in dense fog, the plane in which he was flying, along with five other crew members searching for survivors of the Italia, disappeared.

The plane and the remains of the crew were never found. Amundsen was 55. Humberto Nobli survived the wreck of the Italia and passed away in 1978 at the age of 93. The last survivor of the 1926 race to the pole that represented the golden age of the competition between Aerostat and Aerodyne. An age that deserves to be remembered. Indeed, and it's why we bring you these stories. A great story, the 1926 treacherous race to the poles, here on Our American Stories.

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