Eighty years ago this month, a four-man crew became the first Antarctic explorers to fly over the Earth’s South Pole. The aircraft used to make the historic flight was a Ford Trimotor.
While substantial exploration of the Artic and Antarctic by land and sea had occurred far earlier, exploration of these regions by air was in its infancy during the decade of the 1920’s. Of particular focus was the goal to fly over both the North and South Poles.
The historic first flight to the South Pole originated from Little America, an exploration base camp situated on Antartica’s Ross Ice Shelf. Distance to the South Pole was about 800 miles as the crow flies.
A Ford Trimotor aircraft, the Floyd Bennett (S/N NX4542), was selected for the epic polar air journey. The crew consisted of pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June, navigator Richard E. Byrd, and radio operator Ashley McKinley.
The fabled Trimotor was well-suited for the rigors of polar flight. The all-metal aircraft measured 50-feet in length and had a wing span of 76-feet. Empty weight was roughly 6,500 pounds. Power was provided by a single 520-HP Wright Cylone and a pair of 200-HP Wright Whirlwind radial engines.
Following departure from Little America at 02:39 UTC, the Floyd Bennett headed for the South Pole. Navigation was via sun compass due to the proximity of the South Magnetic Pole.
Myriad glaciers, massifs, plateaus, and crevasses marked the stark, rugged landscape unfolding under the Floyd Bennett’s flight path. The most imposing of these geological features were the Queen Maud Mountains that towered more than 11,000 feet above sea level.
Pilot Balchen struggled to get his aircraft over the high mountain pass that runs between Mounts Fridtjof and Fisher. The crew jettisoned empty fuel cans and hundreds of pounds of precious food to lighten the load. The Floyd Bennett cleared the terrain by about 600 feet.
Just after 1200 UTC (local midnight) on Friday, 29 November 1929, the Floyd Bennett and its crew flew over the Earth’s South Pole. After briefly loitering around the Pole, the aircraft headed back to Little America at 1225 UTC.
According to plan, Balchen landed the airplane to take on 200 gallons of fuel that had been pre-positioned at the base of the Liv Glacier. The Floyd Bennett took-off again and landed back at Little America around 21:10 UTC. Total mission time was nearly 19 hours.
United States Navy Commander Richard E. Byrd now had flown over both poles. He would go on to successfully explore the Antarctic for many more years. For his part in the South Pole overflight, Byrd was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.
Today, the aircraft that made the first flight over the South Pole in November 1929 is displayed in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.