The North Pole Flight of Richard E. Byrd:

An Overview of the Controversy


Questions about the exploration of the North Pole have been debated by generations of scholars.  One such question is, Who reached the North Pole first?  Some scholars claim that Commander Robert Peary was the first in 1909.  Others believe that Peary stole that honor from Dr. Frederick Cook who claimed that he had reached the North Pole in 1908.  Still others argue that both Cook and Peary stopped short of actually reaching the Pole. On May 9, 1926 another controversy about the North Pole began when Commander Richard Byrd announced that he had been the first to fly over the North Pole in his Fokker tri-motor airplane, the Josephine Ford.  Byrd submitted his navigational records to the U.S. Navy and a committee of the National Geographic Society, which verified his claim.

From 1926 to the present skeptics have doubted Byrd’s claim.  Most focus their attention on the speed of the Josephine Ford and argue that Byrd’s airplane did not have enough speed to accomplish a flight from Spitzbergen in Norway to the North Pole and return in the sixteen hours Byrd’s flight took.  To do so would have required a significant wind, which meteorological records do not indicate. 

The announcement and publication of To the Pole: the Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University, 1998) rekindled the controversy.  Byrd had carried this notebook and diary on the Josephine Ford.  Included in this document are messages from Byrd to his pilot, Floyd Bennett.  One of them states “We should be at the Pole now.  Make a circle.  I will take a picture.  Then I want the sun.  Radio that we have reached the pole and are now returning with one motor with bad oil leak but expect to make Spitzbergen.”  This was proof that Byrd had made an effort to reach the Pole and had not simply circled out of sight and then returned, which one skeptic had speculated.

The diary also contained eye-legible erasures of navigational calculations and of the note “How long were we gone before we turned around.”  Dennis Rawlins, the editor of DIO who is an historical astronomer and a skeptic of Byrd’s accomplishment, has maintained that the erasures are compelling evidence that Byrd did not reach the North Pole and knew he had not before submitting his claim.  (See Dennis Rawlins, “Byrd’s Heroic 1926 North Pole Failure,” Polar Record 36 (196) 2000: 25-50.)

Others disagree with Rawlins.  In 1998, Colonel William Molett, an experienced navigator published “Due north?” ( Mercator’s World, 3, ( 5) 1998: 58-63).  He maintained that Rawlins had put too much faith in erased navigational calculations which may have  resulted from lack of sleep and too much stress.  Another critic of Rawlins is Joe Portney, former president of the Institute of Navigation and an expert in guidance and control systems.  His book Portney’s Ponderables (Woodland Hills California: Litton Guidance and Control Systems, 2000) dedicated a chapter to “The Polar Flap” and concluded that the erased data should not be used as a record of the flight, that favorable winds may have existed, and that Byrd may well have reached to North Pole “within the instrument error uncertainty” of his era.

The Byrd Polar Research Center of The Ohio State University does not endorse claims or take positions.   It fosters research, encourages scholarly debate and seeks to create and share new knowledge.   In 1998 the Ohio State University published the controversial diary and notebook to make the document more available for research. For years the Center has made available to scholars the enormous amount of documentation created by Admiral Byrd during his career.   One of the items in the collection is Byrd’s “Santa Claus at the North Pole,” a children’s story in which Byrd has to explain to his children how he could fly to the North Pole and not see Santa.  The story ends “There is a Santa Claus! I know it for I have been to the Pole and seen!”   Historians who debate this flight must regret that Byrd did not have a camera to record both seeing Santa Claus and flying over the North Pole!