Dr. Gerald Newsom, Ohio State University – Did Byrd Reach the Pole?

Jul 12, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Gerald Newsom of Ohio State University reexamines Admiral Byrd’s data to determine if he really reached the North Pole. 

Gerald Newsom is Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at Ohio State University. He recently used data and atmospheric models from the 20th Century Reanalysis Project to reassess Byrd’s 1926 mission to the North Pole.

About Dr. Newsom

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Dr. Gerald Newsom – Did Byrd Reach the Pole?

On May 9th, 1926, Navy Commander Richard Byrd with pilot Floyd Bennett took off from Spitsbergen to attempt the first flight to the North Pole.  When they returned 16 hours later, Byrd was an instant hero.  But the flight took less time than expected, raising questions of whether he actually reached the Pole.  Byrd claimed a strong tailwind came up on the return leg, but how likely was that?  Recently, a government agency computed 56 different grids of plausible winds and atmospheric pressures over the entire earth at 6-hour intervals.  The 56 models show a wide range of possible winds during Byrd’s flight, but none showed a strong tailwind beginning when Byrd started the southbound leg.  If the winds were as Byrd reported, it was quite unusual.

    The computer models also let us check how far Byrd likely traveled.  Looking through a hole in the bottom of the plane, Byrd timed how fast features on the ice appeared to go by to find out how fast the plane was going.  To do this, he had to know how high he was; the higher the plane, the slower things appeared to go by.  Altitude was found by the atmospheric pressure, and Byrd had to assume the pressure at sea level and the rate the pressure dropped off with altitude didn’t change throughout the flight.  I used the average of the 56 computer models to see how changes in the atmosphere on the flight north likely affected his derived altitude, and hence speed.  This suggested that Byrd overestimated his speed a little and probably turned around while still short of the North Pole.  But he should have been close enough that he could have seen the Pole out the window.  Maybe that should count and Byrd and Bennett deserve credit for the being the first to fly to the North Pole.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.