In the age of adventure, when dirigibles coasted through the air and vast swaths of the Earth remained untouched and unseen by man, one pack of relentless explorers competed in the race of a lifetime: to be the first aviator to fly over the North Pole. What inspired their dangerous fascination? For some, it was the romantic theory about a “lost world,” a hidden continent in the Arctic Ocean. Others were seduced by new aviation technology, which they strove to push to its ultimate limit. The story of their quest is breathtaking and inspiring; the heroes are still a matter of debate.
In this episode I talk with Sheldon Bart, author of “Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole.” about Richard Byrd, a Navy officer and early aviation pioneer; and Roald Amundsen, Byrd’s and a hardened veteran of polar expeditions. Each man was determined to be the first aviator to fly over the North Pole, despite brutal weather conditions, financial disasters, world wars, and their own personal demons.
Byrd was a 1920s MacGuyver—he developed the first practical sextant for navigating out of sight of land. The chief cartographer of the National Geographic Society heard a talk Byrd gave on navigation problems in the polar regions and created for him a simple and ingenious sun compass. He and his co-pilot were also unbelievably daring. In 1925, when Byrd and Floyd Bennet were attempting to fly west from northwest Greenland, here was an in-flight emergency which Floyd Bennett climbed out of the biplane, stepping between the two wings, to repair in mid-air some 6,000 feet above the ice.
We discuss the days when explorers were heroes and the wild was untamed.