Admiral Richard Byrd followed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s advice and added some decent radio equipment to the mix as well, courtesy of an unlikely source. . .
In August 1928, Byrd and 42 other men set sail on the City of New York from Hoboken NJ bound for Antarctica. They would be gone for two years.
The most well-heeled Antarctic expedition to that date had on board not one, but three aircraft – one of which would be the first to fly over the South Pole. Byrd’s second mission was to establish a base camp that would be known as Little America on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Funding for the expedition’s wireless equipment was nothing less than extravagant and came largely from the New York Times in return for exclusive rights to all news coming out of the adventure.
The Times recognized the value of radio as a news-gathering conduit and in 1926 had obtained the amateur callsign U2UO along with all the “proper equipment” of the day. Two years later, at the ARRL’s insistence, the FCC gave the Times the commercial callsign WHD.
The US Navy, along with governments of other countries including Argentina and New Zealand, made up an elaborate relay system that provided reliable communications from Antarctica back to New York. As Byrd put it, “our radio equipment received more attention than any other department, for our program called for the most elaborate system of communications ever proposed on a continent in which radio communications are notoriously bad.”
One of Byrd’s five radio operators was Howard Mason, a licensed ham since 1917, when he was known on the airwaves as 7BK. In the 1920’s, Mason was part of the staff at the ARRL and knew Hiram Percy Maxim.
Prior to departure, Mason helped build the Times’ main transmitter on Staten Island. During the expedition, communications would
be so reliable that the Times referred to the radio equipment as their “9000 mile wire”.
Outdoor QRPers will appreciate the fact that Mason also built three “trail radio sets” so that various excursions from Little America base camp could stay in contact once operations got underway on the southern continent. These were powered with hand-cranked generators and can be seen in operation in the accompanying video.
On 28 November 1929, Byrd and a crew of three others flew from Little America to the South Pole and back in a bit over 18 hours. One of the crewmembers on this flight was radioman Harold June who telegraphed news of their arrival at the Pole back to Mason at WFA/Little America.
During their 14 month stay in Antarctica, radio messages were exchanged daily with official staff (and Times correspondents) back in New York and Washington from their world class transmitter, receiver and towers known collectively as WFA. After the days’ formal messages were taken care of the radio operators were free to talk to the hams who would call them, however one of the Times’ stipulations was that nothing newsworthy would be discussed with these amateurs!
To conserve fuel (which ran the generator that powered the main radio), Byrd formed a committee to establish rules for personal radio time, the result being that each crewmember was allowed to send one personal message every two weeks.
Messages were received as they occurred from the crew’s Stateside family members via official channels, hams and, most interestingly, in their own voices via AM powerhouses of the day, such as KDKA and WGY.
As a sidenote, one of the crewmembers of this expedition was 19-year old Eagle Scout Paul Siple, who would soon coin the term (and the concept of) “wind chill factor”. No doubt he had plenty opportunity to experience it!
All returned safe and sound back to the States on 18 June 1930.
Along with radio equipment, airplanes and dogs, both still and motion picture cameras were carried. Here’s a one hour video documentary from the footage produced.
- 30:20 – Hand-cranked generator and Morse keying
- 35:10 – Airplane to base camp comms
- 39:30 – Plane informing base camp of polar destination reached
- 53:00 – Radio, plane after a 12-day blizzard (Aircraft’s wind speed indicator read 140 kph while plane was stationary!)
- 59:30 – Misc