Byrd, Richard E. (Evelyn) (1888–1957), a United States naval officer, aviator, and polar explorer. He was the most famous American explorer of his generation, playing a major role in both Arctic and Antarctic exploration. His exploration of Antarctica did much to open that continent to scientific study. He also was a central figure in the development of naval aviation.
Byrd was born in Winchester, Virginia, a member of a prominent Virginia family. He attended Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912. Because of an ankle injury, Byrd was forced to retire in 1916. Recalled to active duty in World War I, he was in charge of a U.S. Navy patrol squadron operating from Canada. After the war Byrd helped organize the navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1922 he was promoted to lieutenant commander.
In 1925 Byrd accompanied the MacMillan Polar Expedition to Greenland as commander of the aviation unit. Soon after, he decided to attempt to be the first to fly over the North Pole. On May 9, 1926, Byrd and his copilot, Floyd Bennett, flew from Spitsbergen Island toward the pole, returning 14 hours later with the news that they had flown over the pole. Byrd became a national hero. He was promoted to the rank of commander (retired) and given the Medal of Honor and other awards. (Byrd's claim to have reached the North Pole has since been disputed by a number of persons.)
In 1927 Byrd made plans to be the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. While he was delayed with plane problems, however, Charles Lindbergh made his successful solo crossing in May. In June, Byrd and three companions, including chief pilot Bernt Balchen, flew across the Atlantic from Long Island to France in 39 hours and 56 minutes. Although bad weather forced the plane to crash-land in the water just off the French coast, the flight demonstrated that regular transatlantic flights were not only possible, but practical. The Navy awarded Byrd the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Byrd's first expedition to Antarctica left New York in August, 1928. In January, 1929, a base of exploration, called Little America, was established at the Bay of Whales. On November 29, Byrd, aboard a plane piloted by Balchen, flew over the South Pole; it was the first flight over the pole. His expedition mapped about 150,000 square miles (388,000 km 2)of Antarctica and discovered areas Byrd named Marie Byrd Land and Edsel Ford Ranges. In December Byrd was made a rear admiral (retired).
Byrd led his second expedition to Antarctica in 1933–35. From the shores of Ross Sea, 10,000 miles (16,000 km) from the United States, Byrd made radio broadcasts to the United States. He lived alone for five months in a hut on the Ross Ice Shelf near the South Pole, making daily weather observations. He almost lost his life through carbon monoxide poisoning. Byrd's men mapped 450,000 square miles (1,165,000 km 2)of territory and carried on research in more than 20 branches of science.
Byrd's third Antarctic adventure, in 1939. was sponsored by the United States government. On four flights aerial surveys were made of much new territory, including five mountain ranges, five islands, and a peninsula. Two bases were set up, and scientific research was continued.
During World War II Byrd was given a number of special assignments. He helped find an air route from the Panama Canal to Australia and studied methods for providing ground troops with air support.
In 1946 Byrd returned to Antarctica in charge of the U.S. Navy's Operation High-jump. More territory was discovered, and standard Navy ships and equipment were tested in temperatures that dropped below -70° F. (-57° C.). To prepare for the International Geophysical Year, 1957–58, a United States expedition under Byrd went to the Antarctic in 1955 to carry out Operation Deepfreeze. Because of ill health he returned in February, 1956.
Books by Byrd include Skyward (1928); Little America (1930); Discovery (1935); Exploring with Byrd (1937); and Alone (1938).