Richard Evelyn Byrd was born on October 25, 1888, in Winchester, Virginia, to Richard Evelyn Byrd (1860–1925), an attorney, and Eleanor Bolling Flood. Byrd’s family was long prominent in Virginia: his older brother was Harry Flood Byrd Sr., who served as governor (1926–1930), U.S. senator (1933–1965), and head of the Byrd Organization, a statewide political machine. Byrd attended the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1907. In that same year, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, but he left the university in 1908 to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Byrd received an ensign’s commission in 1912 and served on several battleships. On January 20, 1915, he married Marie Donaldson Ames and the couple later had one son and three daughters.
Byrd injured a foot while participating in gymnastics at the Naval Academy. The foot never healed properly and it forced his retirement from the Navy in March 1916. Byrd possessed skills that the Navy did not want to lose, however, as U.S. involvement in World War I loomed, and he soon returned to active duty, becoming a naval aviator in April 1918. He conducted antisubmarine patrols in Nova Scotia as the commander of two naval stations. A pioneer of overwater navigation, Byrd helped the U.S. Navy plan the first successful transatlantic flight when in 1919 he accompanied the NC-4 from Rockaway, Long Island, to Nova Scotia. From there the airplane flew on to Plymouth, England. Byrd also became a spokesperson for aviation’s importance to national security as the Navy’s liaison officer to Congress from 1919 until 1921. He was integral in bringing about the legislation that created the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.
Byrd persuaded the U.S. Navy and science organizations that he could return from flying over Greenland and the neighboring polar regions with valuable hydrographic, magnetic, and geographical information, including the possible discovery of new territory. He also planned to test aviation equipment in an extreme climate, which was new to the Navy. In 1925, he led the naval party that accompanied Arctic veteran Donald B. MacMillan and his expedition to Greenland. Byrd and his unit flew fifty hours, covering about 30,000 square miles. The team accomplished two significant flights over the interior of Ellesmere Island, but established only two short-distance cache sites, meaning that no landings at a planned longer-distance base on the coast of the Arctic Ocean could be made. His plan to make a dash for the North Pole on August 30 was overruled by the Navy. Byrd had made the first flights over the Greenland Ice Cap and Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands, however, and he was the first to land in Ellesmere Island waters. Using several air navigational aids of his own design, Byrd also pioneered the use of a sun compass as well as shortwave aerial radio transmission. Most important, his aviation proved to be a modern polar expedition asset: more territory could be covered in one day’s flight than in a month of sledding.
Byrd and pilot-mechanic Floyd Bennett, also part of the MacMillan expedition, attempted to become the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926. Financed by automobile heir Edsel Ford and oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr., the men left from Brooklyn, New York, on April 5, 1926, with a fifty-two-member Arctic aviation expedition. They planned to use a Fokker trimotor monoplane with retrofitted skis and Wright J-4B 200-hp engines for the attempt. The expedition arrived at Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, on April 29. Roald Amundsen had already arrived with the intention of flying to Northern Greenland and then on to the North Pole. To beat Amundsen, Byrd and Bennett left just after midnight on May 9 for a nonstop flight directly to the Pole. Alternating at the controls, the men reported that they reached the North Pole at 9:02 a.m. and returned to Kings Bay at about 4:30 p.m. They averaged about 85 miles per hour on the 1,360-mile round trip, at times reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. The expedition returned via Europe to New York City on June 23, where Byrd received a promotion to commander and the Medal of Honor.
The time of their arrival caused some to question whether Byrd had traveled the round trip to the Pole. Calculations by polar explorer Bernt Balchen showed that Byrd could not have made the trip in only fifteen and a half hours. Other critics, including noted Swedish scientist G. H. Liljequist, suggested that an oil leak in the plane had forced Byrd and Bennett to fly a lateral back-and-forth course just over the horizon until a reasonable amount of time had elapsed. The National Geographic Society investigated and confirmed Byrd’s navigational calculations. But in May 1996, the Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center revealed that his expedition notebook included erasures and calculations that tended to support the argument against his having reached the North Pole. The journal suggests that Byrd turned back toward Spitzbergen just short of the eighty-eighth degree of latitude, more than one hundred miles short of the Pole.
Byrd spent the remainder of his career promoting aviation and exploration. He aimed to make the first nonstop flight from the United States to Europe, but Charles Lindbergh succeeded before he did. Byrd, however, with Balchen, Bert Acosta, and George Noville, flew the first transatlantic airmail to France on June 29, 1927, demonstrating the feasibility of commercial transatlantic flight by multiengine aircraft.
Byrd also continued his polar explorations by leading an expedition to Antarctica in 1928. He, along with a crew of forty-two men, eighty-four sled dogs, two ships, and three airplanes, established a coastal base called Little America. As part of a four-man crew, he flew to the South Pole on November 28, 1929. The flight won him a Navy Cross and promotion to rear admiral. The expedition crew also discovered the northwestern portion of Antarctica, which Byrd named Marie Byrd Land in honor of his wife. He made a subsequent trip to Antarctica in 1934 with a one-year expedition, and later returned in 1940 as the commanding officer of the U.S. Antarctic Service, created to establish a permanent base on the continent for additional exploration. He mapped 700 miles of coastline before World War II (1939–1945) forced the end of the service in 1941. Byrd spent the war as commander of a special Navy mission that helped establish airfields in the Pacific and he witnessed the surrender of Japan aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. In 1946, he returned to Antarctica as commander of the Navy’s operation that used aerial photography to map more than 1.5 million square miles of the continent. Byrd died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1957, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.