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Eugene Rodgers on: The South Polar Flight
Eugene Rodgers Q: What was the most dangerous point in the flight to the South Pole and how did Balchen contribute to the success of the flight?

ER: The South Polar flight was almost routine if you can speak about any Antarctic flight in those days as routine. Up until the time they got to the mountains that lay halfway between Little America and the South Pole, and these mountains were quite high, they were higher than the plane could fly. The rickety planes of those days had very little altitude. So the plane had to get over the peaks. And Balchen had tried to calculate the weight of the plane to make sure that it could get over the peaks. Well, they got into a narrow mountain defile and approached the Polar Plateau. And the polar plateau is a vast plateau like the Tibetan plateau. And the mountains were on the border of the plateau. He had to get over the mountains then on top of the plateau. As he approached the plateau he realized the plane was too heavy. It just would not go as high as it had to go to get over the mountains. They were in a narrow defile, they couldn't turn around. The ice below them was glacial ice, too rough to land on. They had to go ahead, they had to get over the mountains but the plane couldn't go high enough. So Balchen yelled, dump out some food. They had big bags of emergency food, that weighed over 100 pounds, I believe. So they dumped that one bag, the plane went up but not quite enough. Balchen yells dump out another bag, they threw out another bag, it was still not enough. They were really in danger of crashing into a mountain peak that lay directly ahead of them.

Experienced pilot that he was, Berndt Balchen knew that there was a cold mass of air pouring over the polar plateau, and there was probably an updraft somewhere if he could find it. So he flew over to a mountain wall, to his right, I believe it was. And lo and behold there was an updraft there. He got just enough of an updraft to boost the plane high, high enough to get over the peak. They flew over the mountain and they were home safe. The flight from there to the South Pole was a piece of cake.

Q: It seemed like Balchen saved the day in that flight. But how was Byrd's role reported in the South Pole flight?

ER: Byrd had to be seen as the leader, not only of the expedition but of all the important parts of the expedition, particularly the South Pole flight which was the gemstone of the expedition. So he tried to tell the world that he was the navigator who showed Balchen how to get to the South Pole. He talked about having a trolley wire in the plane. He'd relay instructions to Balchen and Balchen would get the instructions, read them and turn around and smile at Byrd. Balchen must have thrown up when he read this account in Byrd's book. Because as best as I can determine, Balchen really did most of the navigating himself, by dead reckoning, keeping track of his speeds and the directions he was flying. Byrd, I don't think really had any role at all in the flight.

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