This six litre bottle of champagne, know as a Methuselah, was cracked open on 29 November 1928, to celebrate the safe return of Richard Byrd’s airplane the ‘Floyd Bennett’ after the first Antarctic flight over the South Geographic Pole. The bottle is inscribed with the signatures of the expedition members along with the message, “Xmas Jubilee – Byrd Antarctic Expedition 1928, 3pm. Sighted Ross Ice Barrier at 6 p.m.”
Richard Byrd (1888-1957), a ground-breaking American aviator and polar explorer was already a national hero by the time he determined to lead an expedition south. Byrd claimed to have made the first flight over the North Pole on 9 May 1926, and in 1927, he had narrowly missed out to Charles Lindbergh on making the first non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Having learnt to fly during the First World War, Byrd was a skilled and innovative airman, pioneering new techniques for flying over open ocean and developing the use of navigational tools such as drift indicators and bubble sextants. After conquering the northern hemisphere Byrd was ambitious to explore the Antarctic, and to claim the title of first man to have flown across both Poles.
Byrd’s fame, meant that attracting funding was not an issue for the explorer, and he soon found sponsorship from the media magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockerfeller, as well as Edsel Ford, the president of the Ford Motor Company, who provided the Ford Triometer that was to spearhead the team’s attempt to reach the Pole. Having purchased the New York a Norwegian sealing ship, the expedition headed south, choosing to base their operations on the Ross Ice Shelf, inland from the Bay of Whales. The leader had chosen to bring three planes south with him: his primary craft a Ford Triometer named the Floyd Bennett; a Fairchild FC-2W2 named Star and Stripes; and a Fokker Universal monoplane called the Virginia. By the end of 1928, he had established his ‘Little America’ base and set about investigating the area using dog-drawn sledges, snowmobiles and planes, undertaking photographic and geological surveys of the largely unknown area out to the east of the base.
By March, blizzard conditions effectively grounded the aircraft – with the Fokker destroyed by harsh winds, and the other two planes buried in ice pits to protect them for the summer. After wintering on the ice, all were keen to make plans and to resume flights by the end of October. In preparation for his trip, Byrd headed out in the Floyd Bennett to lay fuel and supplies at the bottom of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, needing to reduce the amount of fuel that the plane would have to carry for the return flight from the Pole. On the 28 November 1928, the team were finally ready to make their attempt. Byrd acting as navigator led the team of four, which included the pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot Harold June and photographer Ashley McKinley. With clear weather the Ford Triometer set off, flying towards the Queen Maud Mountains aiming to cross the polar plateau. The heavily-laden plane struggled to reach the altitude needed to soar over the polar plateau, at times coming dangerously close to the Liv Glacier, forcing the team to jettison their empty fuel tanks and their emergency supplies. Shortly after midnight, the Floyd Bennett circled the South Geographic Pole, having covered the distance in just under ten hours. By ten o’clock on the 29 November, the team were back at base, having successfully refueled along the way; another polar record achieved.
Currently on display at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand