Six hours into their flight, the four explorers aboard the Floyd Bennett, a specially equipped Ford Tri-Motor airplane, stared at the mountain range ahead, blocking their way. Veteran pilot Bernt Balchen eased the plane upwards and entered the pass, which proved much narrower than anticipated. At the end of the pass there stood a ridge that had to be cleared. The overloaded plane was at 9,400 feet and wouldn’t climb any higher. Balchen shouted, â€œWe’ve got to lighten the ship.â€ His navigator, Richard E. Byrd, pondered if he should throw out food or extra gasoline? Byrd decided to dump a four-day supply of food. The plane lifted slightly, but downdrafts pushed it back down. More sacks were thrown overboard. That did it, and the Floyd Bennett cleared the pass by five hundred feet.
Before Byrd stood a vast glacial plateau. Four hours later, the future U.S. Navy rear admiral took a navigational fix. â€œNinety, south,â€ he yelled. Everyone was delighted, they were the first to fly directly over the South Pole. Balchen circled the pole and the crew dropped several American flags; one in memory of Floyd Bennett, who had piloted Byrd over the North Pole three years earlier. The Floyd Bennett headed back, landing at an advance base where gasoline had been stored earlier. The flight had taken almost eighteen hours and covered 1,600 miles.
Built in March 1928, the 4-AT Tri-Motor Byrd flew to the South Pole had been refitted for the expedition. A heavy-duty engine had been installed on the nose and the plane was modified so that skis could be attached for landings on ice. Extra fuel tanks were also added. Besides the Tri-Motor, Byrd took three other planes on the expedition. The planes were dismantled and placed aboard ships for the expedition to the Ross Shelf, south of New Zealand. As weeks passed, Byrd placed supply depots on the direct route to the South Pole. Then on that day in late November 1929, when an advance meteorological unit radioed the message: “Visibility Clear,” the Floyd Bennett was pulled out of its hangar and readied to make history.
Several years later, on a second expedition to the South Pole, Byrd chipped the stranded Floyd Bennett out of the ice, cleaned the engines and started it. He loaded it on the stern of his boat, returning it to the United States. Today, it is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, read Michigan History and Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com. If you’d like to see how these cool planes were made and also see them in flight, follow this link to Ford Tri-motor videos on YouTube (even a video of stunt pilot in one!).
Fernando Gomes Semedo is a secondary school teacher in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario who is involved with the FordEurope.net forums and writes the motorsports column for “The Universal Car” newsletter that is published by the International Ford History Project.