Ninety years ago, on 9 May 1926, Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd and Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett, made their mark in aviation history by making the first flight to the North Pole.
Floyd Bennett has roots here in the North Country. Born near Lake George on 25 October 1890 he also was part owner of the “Peoples Garage” here in Ticonderoga. (The garage was located on the north side of Montcalm Street and the junction of Lake George Avenue, recently occupied by a consignment store.) In 1917, he enlisted in the United States Navy and signed up for aviation training. Although recognized for his piloting skills his naval service was recognized as an aviation mechanic.
Richard Byrd and Bennett’s friendship was permanently bonded when they were part of the Navy’s aviation unit assigned to the Macmillan Expedition to Greenland in 1925. Using their amphibian planes they explored nearly 30,000 square miles of polar skies. This artic flying contributed greatly to the knowledge that would be useful in planning for the future North Pole flight.
Flying an artic route was a hot issue at the time. Several polar expeditions had been announced, including one that would use a dirigible — the leaders were: Lincoln Ellsworth (American), Roald Amundsen (Norwegian) and Count Umberto Nobile (Italian.)
In 1926 Byrd received a leave of absence from the Navy and proceeded to get private sponsors that included Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Vincent Astor and Rodman Wanamaker. He leased for one dollar a month a WWI era collier, assembled a crew of volunteers that was comprised of expert mechanics, seamen, engineers, and radio operators. He also purchased two airplanes.
The primary airship was a used Fokker Trimotor; Byrd named the Josephine Ford. It was equipped with three powerful Wright Whirlwind J4 air-cooled engines producing 200 horsepower that could pull the aircraft at a speed of 122 mph. Each wing had 100 gallons of fuel capacity, while two other tanks in the cabin held 110 -gallons each. To amend the fuel capacity they would also carry a number of 5-gallon tanks full of aviation fuel.. At the plane’s cruising speed the engines would expend about 28 gallons per hour.
For a number of reasons, both the Byrd and the Joint Expedition had chosen King’s Bay in the Spitsbergen Islands of Norway as their base camp. Arriving on the 29th of April Byrd’s crew were surprised to see the other Expedition had settled in awaiting the dirigible Norge from Leningrad. This created a spirit of competition and Byrd’s crew worked hard to off load, (and reassemble) the airplanes and other gear, prepare a ski-way, and establish a land base camp. A trial run was made on the 2nd of May. On taxing one ski got stuck and the plane severed off the path into a snow bank damaging the center propeller and smashing one ski. Lack of hard wood created a problem for the repair to the ski, so they fitted out oars from the whaleboats to make the necessary repairs and new braces. Also, instead of graphite they waxed the skis with a mixture of paraffin and resin to reduce friction. The second trail run was successfully launched and verified the fuel consumption and the disadvantages of a cold-weather cowling on the engines. Final preparations were completed on the 8th of May. The meteorologist said the weather was just right. They loaded up the plane and took off, but not up. The load proved to heavy, they couldn’t get airborne and again had landed in a snowdrift. To lighten the load they reduced some of their fuel and removed all but the most necessary equipment and survival gear. Of this gear they did keep a sled, food for 10 weeks, two rubber rafts, tent, stove, guns and ammunition, artic type clothing, smoke bombs and a short wave radio set.
Finally at approximately a half-hour past midnight on 9 May, Byrd and Bennett entered the cockpits. Neither man had slept for about 36 hours. Earlier the ski-way had been lengthening and iced and a stake had been placed in the rear with a rope tied around it so they could rev up the motors to full power. They were ready. Bennett rev the motors up to full power, the crew cut the rope and the Fokker lumbered down the ski-way and slowly crept into the air.
They circled the bay to establish their exact location by landmarks then flew north. Bennett acted as the pilot while Byrd was the navigator. When tired they alternated piloting, Bennett keeping the tanks full. Navigation was difficult. At the Polar Regions traditional navigating instruments were not reliable, or in some case not useful due to the uniqueness of the polar region. However, for this adventure they did have a sun compass, invented by Albert Bumstead of the National Geographic Society that proved very beneficial. About an hour’s distance from the North Pole Byrd noticed a leak in the oil tank in the starboard engine. Bennett suggested making an emergency landing but Byrd preferred going on two engines. Bennett continued emptying the five-gallon tanks and tossing the cans overboard to lessen the load. So far away from Spitsbergen, the decision to land was really meaningless. What would one hour more or less do if they had to land? They proceeded on. After eight hours and 25 minutes of flying and at 9:20 passed over the North Pole. Byrd wrote: “We felt no larger than a pinpoint and as lonely as a tomb; as remote and detached as a star.” They circled the North Pole to re-verify their location and to take photos. At 9:25 they turned back. To the aviator’s surprise the oil leaked stopped and the trip back was uneventful.
For their achievement both Byrd and Bennett were awarded the Medal of Honor for their feat by President Calvin Coolidge, one of the rare peacetime awards of the Medal. Both also received a Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society, and a place in history. In later years, there has been some concerns that they may not have been the first due to discrepancies noted in the navigational records.
Bennett Monument Arlington National Cemetery
I wrote this article on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of this artic aviati0n adventure for the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s “The Attic.” It was published in their May/June 2001 issue. William G. Dolback, President – Ticonderoga Historical Society.
The Ticonderoga Historical Society’s is providing a public opportunity to get a sneak preview of its third major 2016 exhibit ~~ “From the Adirondacks to Artic and Beyond” this coming May 6th at 6:30 PM. At 7 PM William Dolback will present a program in the Meeting Room on the life and career of Floyd Bennett and speak more about this artic aviation adventure. To bring the exploration theme into more current history he will take look at the role of the USS Ticonderoga’s (CVS -14) role in space craft recovery as it relates to being the primary recovery ship for the Skylab and Apollo 16 & 17 moon programs.