The "Polar Byrd I" flight

Polar Byrd I
The Convair 990 aircraft at the McMurdo annual ice runway.

Frederick G. Dustin, who was a fuels engineer on Byrd's second Antarctic expedition (1933-35), organized what would become the November-December 1968 "Polar Byrd I" flight--touted as the first commercial round-the world tourist flight landing on all continents and crossing over both the North and South Poles. He had originally planned it for 1959, but things didn't materialize until years later, when it became the fundraising project for the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Center in Boston. The advertised cost was $10,000 (I don't know how much if any of the hotels/land costs were included)...and the sales letter has been critiqued here by writer Michael Masterson as a classic successful example of direct marketing (the Masterson link is my source for the letter).

the Polar Byrd round-the-world tourThe trip was no whirlwind tour...rather it turned out to be a 25-day venture...with landings not only on all seven continents, but also in a few other exotic and not-so-exotic places such as Thule, Greenland, and Christchurch and Auckland, NZ (the route map at left is from this detailed philatelic history of the trip)...which is well recommended for the many postcard descriptions of the itinerary stops. Not only was this the first charter tourist flight to land at also was the first American charter tourist flight to land in the USSR.

The operator was charter airline Modern Air Transport, and the aircraft involved was a Convair 990 4-engined jet aircraft, which was nominally a competitor to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Its normal configuration was for 122-137 passengers, although the aircraft for this trip had between 60-75 passengers and crew, some of whom only traveled on part of the total route. The chief pilot was Hal Neff, a former pilot of Air Force One.

This was NOT the first charter civilian aircraft to land at McMurdo...that was the Navy charter Pan Am flight on 12 October 1957, which carried woman flight attendants. But the 1968 flight was the first with paying passengers, and it was also the first to carry women over both poles.

When the passengers landed at McMurdo, they were treated to a ceremony at the Richard E. Byrd memorial (which was then located next to the Chapel of the Snows), followed by tours of McMurdo Station (including Scott's Discovery Hut) and Scott Base. They also were given a lecture in the USARP chalet by NSF representative Ken Moulton.

The group then reboarded their aircraft for the long flight across the continent. They drank a toast as they flew over Pole...and then continued on to Patagonia, landing in Rio Gallegos, Argentina, after a flight of 11 hours 59 minutes. Documentation of the McMurdo visit and flight across the continent is from this December 1968 Antarctic article by Tracey Simpson, who was aboard the flight from New Zealand to South America. (Antarctic is the journal of the New Zealand Antarctic Society.) Also, here's a page about the flight which outlines its itinerary.

Bits of further history...there was a second round-the-world flight over both poles in December 1970 using the same aircraft. This trip was organized for the Travelers' Century Club by Hemphill World Cruises in Los Angeles...but I'm guessing that the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Center may also have been involved. This venture was dubbed Polar Bird II. There isn't much information about this flight as compared to the earlier one...perhaps at least in part because the Navy denied them landing rights at McMurdo. The denial was due in part to the crash of VX-6's C-121 "Pegasus" in October (that story)...and understandably TPTB did not want to deal with 70+ potential civilian crash casualties. The trip organizers appealed unsuccessfully all the way up to President Nixon. The only information I was able to unearth about the 1970 flight was this page of stock photos. And as for the Richard E. Byrd Polar Center in Boston...that organization seems to have disappeared (at least from the interwebs history) not long after the second flight. The most recent information I was able to find was this September 1970 article from AINA. I checked with my contact at what is now the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University...which was founded as the Institute of Polar Studies in 1960 and was not affiliated with the Byrd family until 1987. She had not found any real documentation about the Boston organization--which obviously had no relationship with the OSU research center.

These were not the last commercial airline flights with civilian passengers to pass over the South Pole...there was at least one more in late October 1977.

The photo at the top of the page (as well as some of the other historical information on this page) was provided to me by Brian Baum. He contacted me in May 2017 seeking information about a book he is writing about transpolar flights. I did find a better/larger copy of the photo in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.