Scott of the Antarctic: Hero or Failure? : Discovery News.Antarctica — A wood-framed hut perched on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf has remained a time capsule of sorts for the past century.
Its contents are testimony to the “Race to the South Pole” one hundred years ago this month between British naval officer Robert F. Scott (photographed here in 1900) and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. The race led to glory and death for Scott, victory (and near obscurity) for Amundsen.
But if Scott lost that incredible race, how did he become the hero and Amundsen a footnote to history?
“People are inspired by what he did even though he failed to get back from the South Pole,
Image via Wikipedia
Richard E. Byrd in 1982 as he leads a term of explorers to the coldest continent on Earth to map the region and claim large tracts on Antartica for the United States.
On May 9, 1926, Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker F-VII Tri-motor called the Josephine Ford. This flight went from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and back to its take-off airfield. Byrd claimed to have reached the Pole. This trip earned Byrd widespread acclaim, including being received the Medal of Honor and enabled him to secure funding for subsequent attempts to fly over the South Pole.
From 1926 until 1996, there were doubts, defenses, and heated controversy about whether or not Byrd actually reached the North Pole. In 1958 Norwegian-American aviator and explorer Bernt Balchen cast doubt on Byrd’s claim on the basis of his extensive personal knowledge of the airplane’s speed. In 1971 Balchen speculated that Byrd had simply circled aimlessly while out of sight of land.
The 1996 release of Byrd’s diary of the May 9, 1926 flight revealed erased (but still legible) sextant sights that sharply differ with Byrd’s later June 22 typewritten official report to the National Geographic Society. Byrd took a sextant reading of the Sun at 7:07:10 GCT. His erased diary record shows the apparent (observed) solar altitude to have been 19°25’30”, while his later official typescript reports the same 7:07:10 apparent solar altitude to have been 18°18’18”. On the basis of this and other data in the diary, Dennis Rawlins concluded that Byrd steered accurately, and flew about 80% of the distance to the Pole before turning back because of an engine oil leak, but later falsified his official report to support his claim of reaching the pole.
Accepting that the conflicting data in the typed report’s flight times indeed require both northward and southward groundspeeds greater than the flight’s 85 mph airspeed, a remaining Byrd defender posits a westerly-moving anti-cyclone that tailwind-boosted Byrd’s groundspeed on both outward and inward legs, allowing the distance claimed to be covered in the time claimed. (The theory is based on rejecting handwritten sextant data in favor of typewritten alleged dead-reckoning data.) This suggestion has been refuted by Dennis Rawlins who adds that the sextant data in the long unavailable original official typewritten report are all expressed to 1″, a precision not possible on Navy sextants of 1926 and not the precision of the sextant data in Byrd’s diary for 1925 or the 1926 flight, which was normal (half or quarter of a minute of arc). Some sources claim that Floyd Bennett and Byrd later revealed, in private conversations, that they did not reach the pole. One source claims that Floyd Bennett later told a fellow pilot that they did not reach the pole. It is also claimed that Byrd confessed his failure to reach the North Pole during a long walk with Dr. Isaiah Bowman in 1930.
Considering that Byrd and Bennett probably didn’t reach the North Pole, it is extremely likely that the first flight over the Pole was the flight of the airship Norge in May 1926 with its crew of Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, Oscar Wisting, and others. This flight went from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) to Alaska nonstop, so there is little doubt that they went over the North Pole. Amundsen and Wisting had both been members of the first expedition to the South Pole, December 1911.