November 29 1929 – Richard Byrd Becomes the First Person to Fly Over the South Pole

November 29 1929 – Richard Byrd Becomes the First Person to Fly Over the South Pole
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just over a year after arriving in Antarctica, Admiral Richard Byrd made one of the most difficult journeys of his life — and fulfilled a major personal goal — by flying over the South Pole on November 29, 1929. Three years after a dubious attempt to clear the North Pole, he managed to secure his legacy as a daring aviator.

Byrd first gained experience at the controls of an aircraft during World War I, serving in the United States Navy. When peacetime arrived, he continued his career with a special commission in 1924 to explore the Arctic from a base in Greenland. Flying at the top of the world with nothing but massive sheets of ice below, Byrd spent two years making observations before scheduling an effort to pass over the North Pole.

Putting his skills as a navigator to the test, Byrd tapped Floyd Bennett to fly the pair on the 15-hour flight from Norway and back. Once they landed safely back at the airfield in Spitsbergen, the men were quick to claim success. Celebrated widely by the American people despite some questions as to the completion of their mission, the two received the Congressional Medal of Honor upon returning to the US. (Seventy years later, researchers found a diary entry which hinted doubts about the two being able to manage such an effort were fair: Byrd wrote in his notes they had to turn back about 150 miles short due to decreasing oil pressure.)

The next year, in an attempt to raise his reputation even higher, Byrd led a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps the most famous aviator in the world at the time, he announced plans to take on the opposite side of the world. Using his notoriety to secure funds for what was the largest exploration to Antarctica up to that point, he and his team left in 1928 for the tip of South America, eventually building “Little America” as a home base on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Byrd and his fellow explorers spent months flying over the large frozen continent, taking copious notes about the terrain. By late November 1929, they had learned much about how the region’s weather and the shifts in magnetic current affected the plane’s instruments, so Byrd and three others launched the Floyd Bennett on a roundtrip in search of the South Pole. Due to the vast amount of sunlight at that time of year and the uselessness of a traditional magnetic compass, the expedition had to rely on the most basic of tools and Byrd’s talent with them.

After about five hours in the air, Byrd located a group of geologists researching the ice, dropping much-needed provisions to the team as the aircraft passed around the Queen Maud Mountains. Battling the elements, pilot Bernt Balchen guided the plane to an altitude of 11,000 feet in order to slip between the towering peaks guarding the southernmost point on the planet. At 1am on November 29, 1929, the Floyd Bennett swept over the South Pole, flying in either direction for several miles to ensure Byrd’s calculations could not be questioned. The crew released an American flag, then turned for Little America.

Shortly after 10am, the crew returned to the makeshift base on the Ross Ice Shelf. Cheered as a hero once again, Byrd returned four more times: in 1934 (nearly dying after getting trapped) and 1939, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, then twice after World War II.

Also On This Day:

1394 – Seoul, then known as Hanyang, becomes the capital of South Korea

1890 – The Meiji Constitution establishes a constitutional monarchy in Japan

1963 – United States President Lyndon Johnson appoints the Warren Commission to lead the investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy

1972 – The video game Pong is announced by Atari

1990 – The United Nations Security Council gives Iraq a deadline of January 15, 1991 to leave Kuwait and free foreign hostages

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