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The U.S. Navy officer and his chief pilot were the first to explore the Antarctic.
The planet had not yet been fully discovered: there were still ice-cold, distant pockets of the earth that no man dared to touch. But there was Richard Byrd, lieutenant of the U.S. naval forces. He knew it was going to be a dangerous trip when he took off at Spitsbergen to discover the North Pole on 9th May 1926. He would be soaring above a icy, inhospitable terrain with no landmarks to guide him. Together with his chief pilot Floyd Bennett, he explored the North Pole region during a flight lasting more than 15 hours. An oil leak in the engine forced them to turn back earlier than planned; they probably did not reach the true North Pole. But back in the USA they were acclaimed as national heroes.
Richard Byrd continued exploring unchartered territories. In 1928, Byrd announced an expedition to the last unknown continent: Antarctica. He got financial backing for his project from American industrialists, such as Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
In October 1928, Byrd and his crew sailed south and landed on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, where they established their base. They named the “Rockefeller Mountains”, and a yet unknown region “Mary Byrd Land”, after Byrd’s wife.
On Friday 29th November 1929, Byrd and his crew took off in their Ford Trimotor aircraft from their base camp “Little America”. To reach the South Pole, the explorer had to fly about 800 miles (1,290 km). Byrd navigated using a sun compass and Longines watches. Glaciers, massifs and crevasses marked the rugged landscape unfolding beneath them. Most imposing were the Queen Maud Mountains, towering over 11,000 ft (3,350 m). To get their aircraft over the high mountains, the crew jettisoned empty fuel cans and hundreds of pounds of precious food to reduce the load. They eventually managed to clear the terrain by a tiny margin – and some hours later Byrd and his crew were the first men to fly over the South Pole. The flight took nearly 19 hours, with one stop to refuel the airplane.
After this venture, the Swiss watch manufacturer in Saint-Imier received a radiogram: “The Longines instruments and chronometer watches supplied by Wittnauer Company New York have given the most satisfactory service. With hearty appreciation, Byrd Antarctic expedition”.
Byrd undertook four further expeditions to the Antarctic enduring sometimes temperatures between –50° to –60°C (–58° to –76°F) alone at a weather station, and was promoted to rear admiral for his achievements.
Richard Byrd and his crew made the first flight to the North Pole on 9th May 1926 in this Fokker F.VII aircraft.