Who was the first to fly a plane over the North Pole?

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On May 9, 1926 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, who verified his claim.

Skeptics doubted Byrd’s claim from the outset.  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, Norway to the North Pole and return in the sixteen hours Byrd’s flight took.  To do so would have required a significant wind that historical 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 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.”  Many interpret this as proof that Byrd had made an effort to reach the Pole and had not simply circled out of sight and then returned, as some have speculated.

The diary also contains eye-legible erasures of navigational calculations and the note “How long were we gone before we turned around.”  Skeptics believe that these erasures were evidence of Byrd’s deception.  Others disagree and maintain that the erasures may have simply been Byrd’s recognition of an error his calculations, possibly resulting from lack of sleep and too much stress. 

So what is the answer, then, to the question – Who was the first to fly a plane over the North Pole?  The answer is that we really can’t know this with 100% certainty.  The technology of the time does not allow us to say without a shadow of a doubt.  Thus, this continues to be an area of interest of polar historians, and continues to fascinate nearly 90 years later!

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.   If you would like to learn more, two current works on this topic are: Byrd’s Arctic flight in the context of model atmospheres, by G. H. Newsom (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8789329&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0032247412000058) and Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole, by Sheldon Bart (http://www.regnery.com/books/race-to-the-top-of-the-world-richard-byrd-and-the-first-flight-to-the-north-pole/).

Written by Laura Kissel, Polar Curator, and Lynn Lay, Goldthwait Polar Librarian