Precision, a key to polar adventures! Today, PolarQuest celebrates the first polar flight in history

Vintage Hamilton advertisement featuring R.E. Byrd.

The first of a series of celebrations during this special month in the history of polar exploration

On 9 May 1926, famed American explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd and his co-pilot Floyd Bennett took off from King’s Bay on board a tri-motor airplane, the Josephine Ford, in an attempt to be the first to fly to the North Pole – “only” some 700 miles away. Meanwhile, preparations around the blimp NORGE continued at King’s Bay, with Norwegian polar hero Roald Amundsen, his American sponsor Ellsworth and Italian Colonel Umberto Nobile, who had built and would command the airship. The race to conquer the North Pole had just started.

Byrd and Bennett’s arctic mission was extremely hazardous. They flew in an intensely loud cockpit, overloaded with fuel, through powerful Arctic winds that could easily throw a plane off course. The sub-zero temperatures played havoc with the engines, while the fog and the reflection of the sun on the snow gave the illusion that land and sky had merged, with no discernible horizon. These were the days before GPS and other advanced equipment; standard magnetic compasses functioned erratically in the Arctic and reading the sextant was made almost impossible by the extreme weather conditions. The two pilots had to use other tools that required continuous calculations. As the Fokker passed over the Arctic ice, Byrd and Bennett could see “mountains astern gleaming in the sun at least a hundred miles behind us. That was our last link with civilization,” Byrd wrote. “The unknown lay ahead. ”

Nevertheless, Byrd and Bennett returned about 16 hours later, claiming victory for their accomplishment. Among the first to welcome the Fokker as she landed was Roald Amundsen, who embraced Byrd. The two pilots were awarded Medals of Honor by the U.S. Congress and gold medals by the National Geographic Society.

However, 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. Recent research carried out by astronomy professor and archivist Gerald Newsom concluded that there is no way of knowing for certain whether the Josephine Ford reached the exact North Pole, but “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”.

Whether they reached the exact position of the North Pole or not, Byrd and Bennet’s pioneering trip is surely deserving of respect and admiration, as it was made at a time when airplane navigation was much more difficult and dangerous. Moreover, according 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.

The airship NORGE, setting off on its journey to the North Pole.

So how did they manage it? Accuracy was the key to success, for if they miscalculated their exact position, the men would not only miss the North Pole entirely, but would also be dangerously off-course on their return flight home.

The two explorers used very specific equipment to plot the journey, as a magnetic compass was not dependable and they had no gyroscopic compass. To keep his logbook as accurate as possible – and to make sure they stayed on course – Byrd lowered his drift indicator through a trapdoor every three minutes. In addition, Byrd relied upon a special sun compass invented by Albert H. Bumstead, chief cartographer of the National Geographic Society. The sun compass worked somewhat like an old-fashioned sundial, but in reverse. With the time of day being known, the shadow of the sun bisects the hand of a 24- hour clock and indicates north. Since exact time was essential, Byrd carried two chronometers, a gift from the very well-known American watch design and manufacturing company Hamilton, who was then the official watchmaker of many airlines and coast air services in the US.

From July to August 2018, an international team of arctic explorers and researchers will venture to the Arctic Ocean, departing from the same take off point as Admiral Byrd’s Josephine Ford. They will be on board Nanuq, a 60-foot sailboat designed to sail in the polar regions in a self-sufficient mode. The team will carry out pioneering research on cosmic rays, microplastics and UAV-based observation, and will map yet-uncharted details of the coasts and islands north of the Svalbard. At the same time, they will attempt to locate the wreckage of General Umberto Nobile’s ITALIA airship, which crashed north of the archipelago in May 1928 on its return trip from the first airborne research expedition at the North Pole.

Hamilton has been supporting this pioneering spirit since the time of Byrd and Bennet. While the explorers might have changed, the spirit of exploration and adventure hasn’t. Hamilton is proud to support Polarquest in their exploration of the North Pole.