ABOVE THE ICECAPS
Adventure was what Lt. Commander Richard E. Byrd of the American Navy sought. Young and spirited, he loved to pit his strength against angry seas and howling winds. When he had had his fill of these, he turned to the polar region.
The year was 1925. Spring was in the air. Byrd was busy at his office. Spread before him were a few wireless messages. He was studying them when a very senior naval officer knocked at the swinging door and walked in. Byrd stood up, saluted him and politely held his hand toward a vacant chair.
"Have you heard of Donald B. Macmillan’s scheduled expedition to the Poles? The main task of the expedition is to locate unknown islands in the icy region, around the North Pole", the senior explained, while taking the seat.
"It would be fun to be part of that expedition. I envy the members of the team", Byrd sighed.
"You must then envy yourself", the senior laughed.
"In what way, Sir?" Byrd’s voice quivered with excitement.
"Accept my congratulations, Rich. The Naval High Command has nominated you to head the aviation activities of the expedition. I shall relieve you of your present duties, this weekend. You’ll get in touch with Donald, prepare the plan for aerial survey of the remote region," the senior stood up, shook hands with Byrd and strode off.
The expedition sailed off from Wiscasset, Maine, US,
heading north, on 20 June 1925. It was Byrd’s first visit to the polar region. Wherever he turned he saw snow. The entire area wore a cloak of pure white. The air was clean and refreshingly cold.
Byrd fell in love with the terrain. He flew into the icy wilderness, conducted surveys and returned with excellent inputs.
During the trip, he heard of Roald Amundsen, a pioneer of expeditions to the icy continents. In 1911, Amundsen had reached the South Pole, after trekking the vast expanse of snow. In 1925, he undertook a flight to the North Pole. With him went Lincoln Ellsworth. The two flew up to 160 km off North Pole in an aircraft. They were heading toward the target. Then came trouble. The winds became vicious. Mist and sleet caused low visibility. The engine of the aircraft coughed, shuddered and then conked off. So Amundsen and Ellsworth were forced to give up the mission.
Their failure roused Byrd’s interest. He decided he would try.
On return home, after the end of the Expedition, Byrd contacted Easel Ford, son of Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. He shared with them his grand plan. He had the skill and the confidence. All that he needed were funds. If Ford and Rockefeller backed his program, he would earn laurels for his country.
Was it not a hair-brained idea? Why should they pour money into a seemingly impossible task? They raised a million questions. He had an answer for each one of them. His enthusiasm won them to the cause. Byrd received the nod. Ford and Rockefeller promised to finance his expedition.
Then began the search for a suitable aircraft. Byrd inspected a number of models, available in the market. Finally, he set his eyes on a Fokker transport aircraft. He made necessary changes in the structure. Chief among them was
the fixing of skis to serve as landing gear. Byrd named the aircraft Josephine Ford, in honour of Ford’s daughter. He engaged the services of Floyd Bennett, a veteran pilot. The two reached Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, on 29 April 1926.
Amundsen was also there. He was planning a flight over North Pole by a dirigible, called Norge. (A dirigible is a balloon powered by a motor (Fig. 8.1.) It was specially equipped for the polar flight. The members of the team were Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile. Nobile was an expert balloonist.
Which team would fly over North Pole first? It was anybody’s guess.
It was 9 May 1926. Byrd turned the drum containing the lubricant over a raging fire, so as to thin it. Bennett was busy chipping and pounding the snow so as to provide a level ground for take off. At last they were ready. They got into the cockpit. Bennett pulled the throttle. Byrd asked, in a hushed tone, "Remember, on three previous attempts, the aircraft had skid into snow banks. The skis got splintered. Now the aircraft has crude skis, made out of boat’s oars. Will they hold?" "You bet", Bennett concentrated on the task of getting the aircraft airborne.
The aircraft rolled over the patch of level snow. It ran, swaying from side to side. Bennett fought the drag. Then he felt the upward swing of the plane, reached out for Byrd and clutched Byrd’s palm. "We didn’t skid. We’re now flying," Bennett could not contain his joy.
The Josephine Ford headed north. All went well till the aircraft was about 160 km short of the target. Bennett was at the controls and Byrd at the log. Then they heard a hissing sound. Bennett examined the engine and spotted an oil leak in the engine.
"That can prove dangerous", said Bennett.
"I know. But we have come close enough to our goal. We can’t go back, now. This is our only chance to create the record and to steal the honours", Byrd argued.
"Let us do or die", Bennett said, in a grim tone, making yet another check of the leaking engine.
Byrd sat, stern and silent, checking the position of the aircraft from time to time, with the help of the compass. Then he shouted, "We’ve done it, we’re flying over North Pole. Circle the spot once and then we’ll start our return trip".
"Congratulations", Bennett let a smile light up his face.
The aircraft limped back to Kings Bay, after a flight of 15 hours 30 minutes, covering a distance of about 2,470 km. They were the first men to overfly the North Pole.
Among those who greeted Byrd and Bennett were Amundsen and his two colleagues. Amundsen warmly hugged Byrd, held him close and mumbled, "You have beaten us. But my men and I are full of admiration for you".
Byrd plunged into more exciting travels.
On 29 June 1927, he set out, along with three companions, on a flight across the Atlantic. The Fokker monoplane, named The America, took off from New York. Byrd planned to fly to Paris, emulating the feat of Charles Lindbergh. But dense fog hung over Paris. The aircraft could not land. The pilot set the aircraft toward the Channel coast. The fuel gauge hovered around the empty mark. Left with no choice, the pilot decided to land. It came down in the surf near the village of Ver-sue-Mer.
Within months of this triumph, Byrd began to feel restless again. He wanted yet another challenge. He thought of flying over the South Pole. If he succeeded, he would become the first man to have flown over both the Poles. He organised an expedition to the Antarctica. It was broad- based. Some members of the party would survey the land. Byrd would undertake a flight over South Pole.
The base camp was established at the Bay of Whales on top of the Ross Ice Shelf. Byrd named the camp Little America.
He chose a Ford Tri-motor aircraft with an all-metal body. It had been tested and found to be hardy and tough. Byrd named it Floyd Bennett, after the pilot who had flown the Josephine Ford in 1926. (Bennett had since died.) However it got a nickname Tin Goose.
The aircraft set out on the historic flight on 29 November 1929. Bernt Balchen piloted the flight. Harold June came in as the radioman, to maintain the communication line. Ashley McKinley handled the aerial camera. Byrd kept logs and monitored the aircraft’s position.
The aircraft climbed sluggishly, because of the heavy load of fuel on board. The engine made loud notes. So the men could not talk to each other. They tied a long wire. Messages were written on paper, tied to the wire that was pulled forward or backward when messages were to be exchanged.
The aircraft approached the Queen Maud range of mountains. The peaks stood out. Some of them were about 4,200 m high. The pilot tried to gain altitude to clear the peaks. But the aircraft did not respond to the command. Balchen turned to the team members, made them understand the need for quick action. Byrd raised his head from behind the log book. He stared, with shock, at the peaks of the mountains, which stood in the way. He rolled a barrel of fuel out. McKinley helped in dumping yet another barrel. In all 500 gallons of fuel dropped out of the aircraft. It
was then the turn of food cartons to go overboard.
Smiles lit up their faces when the aircraft rose and cleared the peaks. Around noon, Byrd made some calculations, checked the readings of the compass, wrote, "We’re over South Pole", and sent the message, over the wire, to others.
Balchen circled the area, once, got hold of an American flag, bound it to a stone, picked up from the grave of Floyd Bennett, and sent the flag floating down to the South Pole.
Harold June wired to base camp about the success of the mission. Soon the whole world heard about this great feat.
The US Navy promoted Byrd to the rank of Rear Admiral. The US Congress honoured him. Asked to comment about his success, Byrd shot back, "One gets there and that is all there is for telling. It is the effort to get there that counts".
An effort, equally thrilling, was carried off successfully by a British team on 4 April 1933. The team flew over Mount Everest (8,648 m). Two Westland planes took off from Lalbagh Airfield in Eastern India. The planes had open cockpits. The men protected themselves with goggles and helmets and leather jackets, gloves and boots, carried parachutes and heated oxygen cylinders. Pipes ran from the cylinders to the masks so that the men on board could breathe normally. A dust haze hung over the airport. The two aircraft lifted off at 8.15 a. m. Soon they rose to a height of 5,790 m. The settings here were cool and clear. The aircraft headed toward Mount Everest, about 80 km away. The men got a grand view of the snow-clad peaks, glistening in the sun.
Trouble struck as the planes zoomed higher. Clydesdale, the pilot of the lead plane, struggled for breath. The pipe carrying oxygen got tangled. His vision became blurred. Severe cramps gripped his feet. Clydesdale clutched, frantically, at the emergency oxygen tube. Col Blacker, the leader of the Expedition, stepped in to help. He held the tube while the pilot inhaled deeply. Clydesdale now felt better. Colour returned to his cheeks. Blacker resumed his photo mission.
Bonnet was the cameraman on board the second plane. While adjusting the camera, he accidentally stepped on the oxygen pipe. It cracked. Bonnet tied a kerchief round the crack and continued to click shots of Everest, which now lay very close. But he fainted. McIntyre, the pilot, quickly grabbed the camera, took a few shots, while getting closer to Mount Everest.
The planes flew through the snow plume blowing over Mount Everest at about 10 a. m. Five minutes later, the planes cleared Mount Everest. McIntyre brought the aircraft down to lower heights, immediately, to help Bennett regain his breath.
These flights were historic. For they were flights over the world’s most perilous regions. They were flights over ice caps.