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National Science Foundation
Byrd's Flight
Airlift is the Key
Science is the Result
Byrd's Flight Revisited
photograph of patch.  Click for larger image.

A patch issued to mark the commemorative flight.

Credit: National Science Foundation

Byrd's Flight Revisited

In November 2004, to commemorate the landmark 1929 flight of Richard Byrd, an LC-130 cargo plane flown by the New York Air National Guard traced Byrd’s route from the coast to the Pole and back.

Though much had changed—for example, the portion of the Ross Ice Shelf where Byrd once made his camp called Little America has long since broken off and drifted away—much of what the aircrew saw on the trip was exactly as Byrd saw it.

Only on arrival at the Pole does the passage of 75 years become immediately evident. Byrd saw what he called "a white desolation and solitude disturbed by the sound of our engines...the Pole lay in the center of a limitless plane. No mountains were visible." Today's visitors see, rising from that unrelieved flatness, a new scientific station that will continue to build on the advances in astronomy, astrophysics and atmospheric sciences that NSF scientists have made over the years.

On November 29, 2004 (local time), 75 years to the day after Byrd became first to fly over the South Pole, several ski-equipped New York Air National Guard LC-130s are scheduled to land at NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

While the destination for Byrd and the National Guard fliers was the same, the flights were markedly different.

Byrd's Ford tri-motor aircraft cruised at 78.8 knots (90 mph) with a maximum ceiling of 8,000 feet (2438 meters) and carried no cargo other than food and survival gear. The turboprop-equipped LC-130 climbs to more than 26,000 feet (7924 meters), cruises at 250 knots (287 mph), and delivers a payload of thousands of pounds per flight. Byrd used sun sightings to navigate. The LC-130 used computers, satellite receivers, radar and a gyroscope.

While Byrd was greeted by the unmarked vastness of the Polar Plateau, the Guard aircraft landed at the world’s southernmost airfield—or, more accurately, skiway—at Amundsen-Scott station. The flight was only one of more than 100 that land and take off at the Pole every year, bringing everything from computer technicians to fresh vegetables to the world’s most remote scientific station.

Their route was the same, but the crew of Skier 94 didn’t expect any of the hat tossing and hurrahs that greeted Richard Byrd and his flight crew 75 years ago after they returned in the Floyd Bennett from the first flight to the South Pole.

That’s the difference between being the first plane ever to reach the Pole and the fourth plane of the day.

The ground crew fueled Skier 94 without fanfare. A team of mechanics heated the propellers and engines, added fluid to the hydraulic systems and ran through a maintenance checklist on the LC-130 flown for the U.S. Antarctic Program by the New York Air National Guard.

The National Science Foundation manages the U.S. Anarctic Program, which supports and coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.

Byrd and his crew were on what they called “a flight of discovery, and wanted to see things and record them.”

Skier 94 was a cargo mission, supporting modern explorers who use sophisticated telescopes to look out to the very edges and, in a sense, back in time to the beginnings of our universe. But it was also a flight down memory lane, following the path Byrd took to the Pole when he opened the way for Antarctic aviation and research.

photograph of Major Mark Doll.  Click for larger image.
Major Mark Doll, a pilot with the New York Air National Guard, at the controls of an LC-130 cargo plane.

Credit: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation
In the cockpit, pilot Major Mark Doll and copilot Marc McKeon agreed to leave the autopilot off. They’d fly this one the old-fashioned way, trading the controls as Bernt Balchen and Harold June, Byrd’s pilot and copilot, had done. Navigator Vinnie Wilson did his part, plotting their course using coordinates Byrd jotted down during his original flight and navigating with a sextant, as Byrd had. But Wilson had the backup of navigational technology Byrd never dreamed of, as well as weather reports and maps.

“Byrd had no way of knowing what the winds are. I have that advantage,” Wilson said.

Byrd flew into uncharted territory, in a plane a tenth the weight of the modern cargo plane. The maps Wilson checked still bear Byrd’s mark in the names along the way: Mount Balchen for the pilot, June Nunatak for the copilot, and McKinley Nunatak for the aerial mapper Ashley McKinley. Byrd had been the navigator and the expedition planner.


Skier 94 rumbled as the engines started, settling into a gentle vibration like the belly of a purring cat. The pilots pointed the plane onto the runway, a smoothed white surface stretching out on the sea ice. The bluish Transantarctic mountains sped by to their right and in seconds Skier 94 was up, orange airfield buildings shrinking into toy boxes on the wide, white carpet.

Marc McKeon steered away from the southward path that planes usually take to the Pole and instead veered east, along the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Byrd had come through the dark waters below in a three-masted sailing ship in 1928, with three planes in the hold—a strange overlap of ancient and modern technologies. Flight was still new and uncertain, something to be proved, and Byrd believed exploring the Antarctic by plane would further not only science, but the future of aviation.

“The idea was to get up and fly,” Doll said. “An airplane back then was a new invention. It gave them the opportunity to get up off the ground.”

photograph of Major Mark Doll.  Click for larger image.
Major Mark Doll, a pilot with the New York Air National Guard, gazes from an LC-130 at the location of Little America during a flight commemorating the original flight of Admiral Richard Byrd over the South Pole.

Credit: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation

The ice shelf was shaped differently when Byrd saw it, before it lost large chunks to the sea. The massive Antarctic ice sheet constantly oozes toward the sea, and the ice shelves have a natural cycle of growing and breaking to stay in equilibrium. In 2000, a slice of the Ross Ice Shelf the size of the island of Hawaii cracked off, broke in half and lodged at the entrance to McMurdo Sound. Several more have joined it there, diverting the normal flow of water, wind and sea ice. This logjam of island-sized bergs hid under low clouds as Skier 94 flew along the edge of the ice shelf.

As they neared the area where Byrd’s men had built a cluster of wooden buildings called Little America, Skier 94 dropped down for a closer look. A bay curved back into the ice. Wind tossed white spray along the dark water. Skier 94 tipped a wing and circled. The flight crew craned forward to look.

“It’s 35 miles out, right in the middle of the water.”

“It’s gone.”

“Somewhere at the bottom of the South Pacific.”

Skier 94 turned south at 1:30 p.m., following the ghost of the Floyd Bennett, which had lifted off at 3:30 p.m., 75 years ago. The Floyd Bennett flew so low Balchen could follow the dogsled tracks left by a geological party heading for the base of the Transantarctics.

From a higher altitude of 17,500 feet, even the heavy tractors and trailers of a team investigating the possibility of supplying the South Pole by land were a mere blip on the radar screen.

photograph of Loadmaster Carmello Modesto.  Click for larger image.
Loadmaster Carmello Modesto directs as sleds for the IceCube project are loaded into the back of an LC-130 flying to the South Pole.

Credit: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation
If Byrd was able to glance over the cabin of this modern machine, he would be impressed with the amount of space inside. Even with three sled frames taking up the space of a family car, the loadmasters had room to pace in the hold. The sled frames were headed for the South Pole to pull heavy drilling equipment into place for the IceCube project, which is creating the world’s largest neutrino detector by implanting instruments deep into the ice.

The Floyd Bennett had no room for extra cargo, being tightly packed with a sledge, sleeping bags, cans of fuel, food and survival gear until there was scarcely room for the four men to move. Skier 94 was also a flying survival kit, with stoves, ice saws and

sledgehammers tucked away in the walls. A stack of large duffel bags held extra clothing and sleeping bags for each person on board. The gear gets used a couple times a year, on average, when flights are diverted because of weather.

“It’s easy to get complacent, because our planes are very reliable, very comfortable,” said Doll. “But you still have to face the harsh reality (that) we’re flying over the coldest, windiest continent.”

While Byrd had worn a cumbersome fur parka through his flight to keep warm and Balchen landed with frostbite on his nose, the crew of Skier 94 sat comfortably in flight uniforms without coats. Instead of shouting and passing notes, as Byrd had done, they conversed comfortably through the headsets over hot coffee and microwaved pizza.

Below, sastrugi strewn ice flashed by. Byrd compared his speed to Amundsen, who was pleased to make 40 kilometers (25 miles) per day, while the Floyd Bennett averaged 144 kilometers per hour (90 mph). Skier 94 beat them both, clocking 483 kilometers per hour (300 mph) most of the way.

The “Hump” appeared ahead, where the ice surface lifted from near sea level up the glaciers and the Transantarctic Mountains to the Antarctic Plateau at 2,800 meters (9,200 feet).

photograph of Liv Glacier.  Click for larger image.
The Liv Glacier, which Richard Byrd flew over during his flight to the South Pole 75 years ago. He was flying at a much lower level than depicted here.

Credit: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation
For Byrd, this was the riskiest part of the flight. Without maps or knowing the height of the glaciers, he had to choose which way to go. He chose the Liv Glacier and barely made it, having to toss all survival food through a trap door to lighten the plane and allow it to rise over the “Hump.” Byrd cleared the pass by just 150 meters (500 feet).

Already at 5,400 meters (18,000 feet), Doll looked down at the path Byrd had taken. The peaks that had been level with Byrd’s wingtips were low bumps and the bags of food exploding would have been specks.

Tossing anything was out of the question on this flight. A different philosophy engulfs the Antarctic now, one of environmental stewardship. Since 1959, a treaty has protected the continent. The pristine snow plateau is just as Byrd had seen it.

“A white desolation and solitude disturbed by the sound of our engines,” he’d written. “The Pole lay in the center of a limitless plane. No mountains were visible.”

For Byrd, that had been the end of the story: “One gets there, and that is about all there is for the telling. It is the effort to get there that counts.”

photograph of cockpit.  Click for larger image.
NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as viewed from the cockpit of an LC-130.

Credit: Kristan Hutchison, National Science Foundation
Not so anymore. A collection of black spots on the horizon grew swiftly into a collection of buildings and scientific instruments. Doll landed Skier 94 smoothly on the groomed snow runway in front of the new South Pole station, something Byrd didn’t consider. The first landing at the South Pole didn't occur until 1956, when Gus Shinn landed the Que Sera Sera there.

“I kind of wonder why Byrd didn’t just touch the skis down,” Doll said. “If I was there, I would have been tempted to do it.”

South Pole crews unloaded the sleds for IceCube and the fuel. The fuel will help run everything on the station, from labs monitoring the air and ozone for signs of climate change to the construction equipment building the new station.

Delivery made, Skier 94 again followed Byrd’s lead and, as he had written, “We put the Pole behind us and raced for home.”

No hat tossing awaited the modern crew, no triumphant ticker-tape parade, but a warm dinner at the end of a day’s work.

By Kristan Hutchison
Aviation Opens Antarctica A Special Report