Through Airmen's Eyes: Retired Airman recalls first flight over North Pole
(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)
by Retired Col. Maynard E. White
46th Reconnaissance Squadron commander
10/16/2012 - FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFRNS) -- (Editor's note: This "Through Airmen's Eyes" story is a first-person account of what some aeronautical experts claim is the first airplane flight over the geographical North Pole. The flight took place in 1946, just as the Cold War was beginning. "The only thing that stood between the Soviets and their dream of world domination was a basically undefended United States," wrote Ken White, the son of retired Col. Maynard White, in an article about the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron. It is with this mindset that this mission took place.)
The morning after my talk with Gen. Curtis LeMay on Oct. 16, 1946, a 46th Reconnaissance Squadron F-13 with tail number 521848 made an extended long-range flight to the geographic North Pole.
We had heard that Richard Byrd had flown over the North Pole in 1926, so we assumed that this was the second time in history that an American airplane was flying over the pole. Our flight was not a mission with a specific purpose, but one of pioneering for the purpose of exploration and research. Dr. Paul A. Siple, military geographer and scientific adviser to the Research and Development Department of the Army General Staff, and Robert N. Davis, operations analyst from Strategic Air Command, accompanied me as special observers on the flight.
Capt. Lloyd G. Butler's crew had been selected for this particular mission. As was routine with all missions of the 46th RS, all personnel on the crew were photographed prior to flight and radio silence was observed immediately following retraction of the landing gear. This flight was particularly interesting for the crewmembers; not only because it was the unit's first flight to the North Pole, but also because our two visitors were considered to be brilliant in their respective fields. Paul Siple sat in the nose of the aircraft encircled by a panorama of Arctic landscape, while Bob Davis monitored Lt. "Whit" Williams' grid navigation procedures. I sat on my usual folding chair over the nose wheel well, monitoring radio communications and crew coordination.
As we flew over the Brooks Range between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Point Barrow, we were presented with an awesome view of unconquered wilderness. The low October sun lent an amazing beauty to the surroundings, with the knife-edged pastel purple shadows of the mountains streaking across the soft blue landscape. I mused that such beauty tranquilizes the spirit and brings about a frame of mind that anticipates rather than fears what lies ahead.
We were still aware of the danger, however. While crossing the coast of the polar sea, we saw a lagoon 12 miles southeast of the Inuit settlement of Barrow where the humorist Will Rogers and his pilot, Wiley Post, had met their fate a number of years earlier. I remember that this point in the flight stirred our emotions and made us wonder why that tragedy had to happen here, of all places.
I again found that the leg over the polar ice cap seemed to be a different experience on each flight, offering scenery that was dramatically different from what a pilot was used to seeing. If fear of the Arctic's immensity wasn't one's predominant emotion, it was easy to become mesmerized. Some days a crew was surrounded by various types of clouds extending to the distant horizon, making them feel as though they were on a stage encircled by scenery that was constantly being changed in slow motion by invisible stagehands. Then the floor of the "stage" would develop fissures, and then cracks, which quickly grew until they reached as far as the eye could see. It was as if a river had cut through a stark, barren landscape. In a short distance, this river (called a lead) narrowed and its sides merged, creating walls of ice perhaps 50 feet wide and 30 feet high where the plates of ice crushed together. Where the ice crushed downward, a large depression would be left, which would fill with water.
After all our work on earlier flights, I felt as if this particular flight went very smoothly. The hours passed quickly for those not observing the scenery. Williams was constantly working on his grid navigation. Siple, too, was working with figures and using his astrocompass. We were on the meridian to the pole only a fraction of the time, but we were constantly correcting to course. We had finally attained precision navigation using the Grid System of Navigation. The course corrections became much more rapid as we approached the pole. I went back to the navigator's station to see how they were doing.
Williams pulled on my sleeve to direct my attention to the radarscope and announced, "We are over the pole, now!" over the interphone as Lt. Dwayne Atwill took our photograph at that precise moment. We flew a little beyond the pole and the pilot banked around to the left while Siple, Davis and I had a group picture taken with Williams as we flew over the pole a second time. Then the pilot banked right, and we saw beneath the plane a depression where a lead had terminated exactly at the pole. That was as close to a "visual confirmation" as we would get.
It never crossed my mind that we might have made history that day until sometime later when I viewed this flight in perspective. This flight, perhaps more than any other, proved the workability of the Grid System of Navigation. It was only now that we could fly throughout the Arctic and know where we were at all times. We could teach these procedures to other SAC units, enabling the command to no longer be limited to the mid-latitudes, but to become the global deterrent force capable of keeping the peace throughout the Cold War. The techniques we refined were also applied to the development of "black boxes" by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which would enable world aviation to routinely fly the transpolar routes. We didn't know it at the time, but we made the whole world navigable.
We couldn't have made this flight with any precision at all without using the Grid System of Navigation, which made all our efforts in the Arctic and beyond possible. It was the very preciseness of this system that made it possible to know we were over the pole when we were. We were the first flight in history to do that. Previous polar flights navigated with the less accurate Bumstead Compass or sextants alone and did not benefit from a form of navigation as accurate as the Grid System of Navigation. This flight was eventually recognized in a 1992 television program about America's greatest achievements as one of the 10 greatest accomplishments of the United States within the last 50 years.
The accomplishment of developing the Grid System of Navigation also prompted Gen. Carl Spaatz, the first Air Force chief of staff, to state that the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron was "one of the great units of aviation history, and I rate their work as the greatest single air achievement since the war." Spaatz nominated me as the Air Force's candidate for the Collier Trophy for the greatest contribution to aviation during 1947.
It is now also a matter of record that Ken Jezek, former director of the Byrd Polar Research Center, has acknowledged the fact that due to the "navigational uncertainty of the early ages," referring to Byrd's flight, this 46th RS flight, with the precision of the Grid System of Navigation and results verifiable by radar photography, unavailable on earlier attempts, "would have been the first with the technical and aircraft capability to really know they made it."