On May 9, 1926, famed American explorer Richard Byrd took off from the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen along with his pilot, Floyd Bennett, in an attempt to be the first to fly to the North Pole. About 16 hours later, the pair returned to the island in their Fokker tri-motor airplane, the Josephine Ford, saying they had indeed accomplished the feat.
Byrd submitted his navigational records to the U.S. Navy and a committee of the National Geographic Society, one of his sponsors, who confirmed the accomplishment, according to the Ohio State University Libraries. Byrd was hailed as a hero, given the Medal of Honor, and went on to fly over the South Pole, as well as achieving many other polar exploration milestones.
But from 1926 onward, not everyone thought that Byrd and Bennett actually made it to the North Pole. The controversy largely rested on whether the plane could have covered the distance in just 15 hours and 44 minutes, as the team recorded, when the flight was expected to take about 18 hours, given the ground speed of the aircraft.
Numerous people have weighed in on the debate over the last 90 years, some accusing Byrd of perpetrating a fraud and others coming to his rescue, all using various lines of evidence, including Byrd's own recordings from the day.
Gerald Newsom, professor emeritus of astronomy at Ohio State, took up the issue when Raimund Goerler, a now-retired archivist at Ohio State, stumbled upon a book with handwritten notes from Byrd's North Pole trip (as well as other excursions) that the Byrd family had given the university at the naming of the university's Byrd Polar Research Center. Goerler turned to Newsom, who taught celestial navigation, for help in interpreting Byrd's navigation notes.
Newsom's research, published in the January 2013 issue of the journal Polar Record, suggests that Byrd fell short of his North Pole goal by as much as 80 miles (130 kilometers), though Newsom doesn't ascribe any nefarious goals to the misreckoning. It could merely be that Byrd was dealing with much less sophisticated equipment than airplanes have today and the task of calculating his position every few minutes for the entire flight.
"Given the strong opinions on both sides from people in the polar research community, we thought an astronomer who had no prior opinion about the flight would have the skills to do an assessment, and the neutrality to do it in an unbiased way," Newsom said in an Ohio State release. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]
Solar compasses and barographs
In the days before GPS, modern altimeters and other advanced equipment, pilots had to use less exact means of charting their course that required continuous calculations in a noisy, freezing cockpit.
On the Josephine Ford, Byrd used what was then state-of-the-art equipment for plotting the journey, including a solar compass and a barograph. The solar compass had "a clockwork mechanism that turned a glass cover to match the movement of the sun around the sky. By peering at a shadow in the sun compass, Byrd gauged whether the plane was heading north," the release stated.
The barograph recorded atmospheric pressure, which could help Byrd tell the altitude at which the plane had reached. Armed with the altitude of the plane, Byrd used another device and a stopwatch to time how long it took for features on the ice below to move in and out of view of an opening on the bottom of the plane. Together, these readings gave Byrd the speed of the plane, which helped him figure out how far the plane had traveled to gauge whether or not they had reached the pole.
Only Byrd didn't put the calculations he made to arrive at the ground speed in his notes — just the results of those calculations.
"I would have thought he'd have pages and pages of calculations," Newsom said in the statement. "Without that, there's no way of knowing for sure, but deep down there's a worry I have — that he did it all in his head."
Added to that is the fact that the barograph was very small, which meant that any errors in reading it got transferred to the results of his calculations, and that the properties of the atmosphere change with latitude, which meant that the calibration graph he was using to interpret the barograph was increasingly off as the plane moved northward.
Based on these problems, Newsom thinks that Byrd could well believe he had reached the pole, when he was in fact as much as 78 miles (126 km) short or 21 miles (34 km) past the pole.
Of course, "this type of analysis by itself will not resolve any controversy over whether Byrd reached the pole," Newsom wrote in his paper. "But it does indicate that he was considerably more likely to have ended up short of his goal than to have exceeded it."
Looking back in time
But Byrd had claimed that strong tailwinds help speed the plane along, allowing for the shorter-than-expected travel time.
To put this possibility to the test, Newsom used climate data from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dataset that used supercomputers to calculate atmospheric conditions around the globe for every six hours between the years of 1870 and 2010.
The winds the model calculated for Byrd's trip didn't match Byrd's descriptions though, suggesting instead that he likely encountered a headwind during the entire northward leg of the trip.
"Of course, the models are NOAA's best guesses for what the conditions were that day, not an actual measurement," Newsom said. "So Byrd could have had strong tailwinds just like he said. But the simulations suggest that if he did have strong tailwinds that day, he was very lucky." [Top 10 Ways Weather Changed History]
(If Byrd in fact did not fly over the North Pole, then likely the first person to do so was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who flew from Spitsbergen to Alaska and over the North Pole just a few days after Byrd. Amundsen was also the first person to reach the South Pole, which he did in 1912.)
Even with his research throwing Byrd's claim into doubt, Newsom still expresses respect for Byrd's pioneering trip, which was made at a time when airplane navigation was much more difficult and dangerous, especially over the barren Arctic in a plane overloaded with fuel, an intensely loud cockpit and worries of frostbite.
"That they returned at all is a major accomplishment, and the fact that they arrived back where they were supposed to — that shows that Byrd knew how to navigate with his solar compass correctly," Newsom said.
And there is one silver lining to Newsom's calculations: Since the plane was supposed to be high enough to see for 90 miles (145 km) to the horizon, Byrd likely at least saw the pole, even if he didn't fly directly over it.
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Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.