Photograph by Corbis Corp
Photograph by Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd, National Geographic
Published June 14, 2013
If Connecticut gets its way, aviation history will get a rewrite.
This week its legislature passed a bill avowing that Connecticut resident Gustave Whitehead was the first in flight—two years before the Wright brothers took wing in 1903.
Orville and Wilbur aren't the first aviators to have their claims of primacy tussled with.
Admiral Richard Byrd and his co-pilot, Floyd Bennett, flew the Josephine Ford from Spitsbergen Island, Norway, to the North Pole and back on May 9, 1926—ostensibly the first to take a plane over the Earth's frozen tippy-top. The trip of more than 1,500 miles took 15 hours and 30 minutes.
Here, Byrd's team fuels up the monoplane in a photo from "The First Flight to the North Pole," published in the September 1926 issue of National Geographic. According to the caption, "The main gasoline supply for the trip was contained in the tanks built inside the single wing of the plane. The motors of Commander Byrd's plane were air-cooled, thus materially lessening the weight and relieving the explorer of any anxiety as to the freezing of water in the radiators."
The feat stood unquestioned for 70 years, until Byrd's diary from the flight was discovered in 1996. Expert analysis of the journal's calculations suggests Byrd may have flown short of the goal. If that's true, another American explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, as well as Italian Umberto Nobile and Norwegian Roald Amundsen—who crossed the North Pole just three days later—got there before he did.
A year after his North Pole voyage, Byrd was attempting a transatlantic flight. It was also something no aviator had ever done before.
A crowd of 2,000 gathered on May 21, 1927, to see his plane, the America, christened.
"As we mounted the speaker's platform I was told that Col. Charles A. Lindbergh had reached Paris," wrote Byrd in the September 1927 issue of National Geographic, in an article titled "Our Transatlantic Flight." "Thus I was the first man to make a speech about his remarkable achievement," he continued, after assuring the reader that it hadn't been a race.
Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris before a crowd of 10,000—33 hours, 30 minutes, and 30 seconds after taking off from New York. His U.S. victory tour included 92 American cities and nearly 1,300 miles of parades. Lindbergh touched down to admiring crowds in other countries as well, including Surrey, England (shown above).
It's not all bad news for Byrd, though. His 1929 flight over the South Pole—another first—remains undisputed.
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