The New Maine Times Book Review: Race to the top of the world

Posted Tuesday, April 1, 2014 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: Race to the top of the world


By Sheldon Bart.

Regnery History, 2013.

560 pages, $29.95.

ISBN 978-1-62157-082-0.


Reviewed by William D. Bushnell


Polar exploration in the first three decades of the 20th century captured international public attention as Americans and Europeans raced to be the first to actually reach the North Pole and the South Pole.  This new age of discovery and the frantic search for lost continents and new lands cost lives, money, and national pride, but there was still one race to be won - the race to be the first to fly to the North Pole in 1926.

RACE TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD is Sheldon Bart's dramatic story of Admiral Richard E. Byrd USN (1888-1957) and his competition with Norway's most famous polar explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), and other Europeans for that honor.  This is Bart's first book, but he is an experienced polar explorer himself, having led expeditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic.  He is also a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society.

Here he combines his own polar experiences with meticulous research and exciting narrative to produce a vivid history of Arctic explorers and their expeditions of discovery, early aviation, the development of aerial navagation devices and aircraft design, and the heady visions of national pride, commerce, and strategic positioning.  

Robert E. Peary discovered the North Pole in 1909, and Roald Amundsen beat Englishman Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911, but by 1926 no one had flown an aircraft to the North Pole (or the South Pole, for that matter).  The 1920s was a decade of aviation firsts, so it seemed natural that naval aviator Byrd would come up with a plan to be the first to fly an aircraft to the North Pole and back.

Bart tells of Byrd's careful and detailed planning, and the training, financing, equipping, and charismatic leadership of adventurous military and civilian volunteers in a dangerous mission beset by storms, ice, miscalculations, mishaps, personality conflicts, and bad luck in the harshest, most inhospitable, and unpredicatable polar climate.  

Byrd planned to use a tri-motor Fokker aircraft (nicknamed "Josephine Ford") for his attempt at a North Pole flight, but Amundsen intended to use a large lighter-than-air dirigible.  These two men were the front-runners in this competition, but British, Italian, and French teams were also in the race, at least for a little while.  Bart relates how all these mensought fame, fortune, and international recognition, as well as the intractable desire for achievement.  Clearly, Byrd, Amundsen, and the others were driven men.

As Bart reveals, Byrd had the best plan, the most funding, and the best equipment for this daring effort, as well as the steadfast personal desire to do it right.  Bart says, "Nobody did dangerous things more sensibly than Robert Byrd."  And although Byrd and his men did have their share of accidents and mistakes, they learned and improved every aspect of the plan.  

Even the Norwegians admired Byrd and his people for their ability to overcome any obstacle:  "These Americans are not to be discouraged by any new difficulty...This is the pioneer spirt of America that I have heard so much about; it is the quality that will open up the whole Arctic to air commerce some day."

 Bart builds the suspense of competition between Byrd and Amundsen right up to Byrd's final, and ultimately successful attempt to fly to the North Pole on May 8-9, 1926.  As expected, however, Byrd's accomplishment was disputed by jealous rivals, and controversy raged for several years.  

This is an amazing tale of courage, determination, resourcefulness, technology, and imagination, as brave men risked their lives to claim a first, and learn much about themselves, too.  For more interesting reading about the North Pole, see Bruce Henderson's gripping history, TRUE NORTH:  PEARY, COOK, AND THE RACE TO THE POLE (W.W. Norton, 2006).

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