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50th anniversary of South Pole flight


A poster produced for the commemorative flight due to be held over Antarctica on the 50th anniversary of Richard Byrd's South Pole flight.

Little America, marked on the map, was the name Byrd gave to the Antarctic exploration base he set up on the Ross Ice Shelf, just south of the Bay of Whales (to the east of Ross Island, where Scott Base and McMurdo Station were later established). Byrd built bases on the same site on subsequent expeditions. In 1955 it was discovered that large portions of Little America IV, established during Operation Highjump 1946-1947, had calved off and floated out to sea.

50th anniversary of Byrd's South Pole flight

29 November 1979 was meant to be a day of celebration in Antarctica. It was the 50th anniversary of American explorer and aviator Richard Byrd's historic flight over the South Pole, and a commemorative flight was to retrace his route. But when it became apparent on 28 November that Air New Zealand Flight TE901 was missing over Antarctica, US Navy aircraft and personnel due to take part in the commemorative flight were redeployed to search for it.


In 1980 the US Ambassador accepted a certificate of appreciation from the Deputy Commissioner of the New Zealand Police on behalf of the US Navy personnel who assisted in the recovery operation on Mt Erebus. On 4 June 2009, the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus), instituted in November 2006, was awarded to 13 US citizens. Further medals were presented in 2009, and efforts to track down other eligible US citizens continued.

On the day of the Erebus disaster Byrd's nephew, Senator Harry Flood Byrd, and other dignitaries were on their way to McMurdo Station in Antarctica for the commemorative flight. Their aircraft, a US Air Force Lockheed C-141A Starlifter, left Christchurch about 45 minutes after TE901 and communicated with its crew during the journey south. As it neared McMurdo the flight's commander, Major Bruce Grumble, tried to contact TE901 to determine its flight path but got no reply and assumed there was a communication problem. On arrival the crew learnt that the United States Navy's air traffic control centre at McMurdo (Mac Center) had also been unable to contact TE901. While Byrd and the other dignitaries were escorted to the National Science Foundation’s chalet, the Starlifter returned to Christchurch along the route taken by TE901 to its last reported position.

The US Navy Lockheed LC-130 Hercules, XD-01, which was due to make the commemorative flight the following day, another Hercules, XD-03, and two Navy UH-1N helicopters were deployed to search for TE901. The crew of XD-03 were the first to see wreckage on the side of Mt Erebus. They reported to Mac Center that there were no apparent survivors and waited for the helicopters to arrive. Bad weather conditions prevented the helicopters from landing in the hours immediately after the discovery. But the crew of one circling over the site were able to identify the koru on the aircraft's tail amid the wreckage. They too reported no sign of survivors.

At approximately 9.45 a.m. NZST the following morning, New Zealand mountaineers Keith Woodford, Hugh Logan and Daryl Thompson were lowered onto the crash site by helicopter. And at approximately 10.30 a.m. it was reported back to Mac Center that they had signalled that there were no survivors. Shortly afterwards they were retrieved and flown to Mac Center for debriefing. The helicopter's crew chief, Joseph Madrid, recalled that on their return to the base they found:

There were tables set up in the gym with food, coffee, water and all manner of foods. Of course this was for the crash survivors, which by then we knew would not be arriving, yet there were these tables, filled with all the hope of life.

The commemorative flight was eventually cancelled, but a ceremony commemorating the Byrd anniversary went ahead at McMurdo. On 29 November a ceremony (also marking the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959) was held at the Byrd memorial on Mt Victoria in Wellington. Several minutes' silence was observed for the victims of the disaster.

A commemorative flight was made on the 75th anniversary of Byrd’s flight in 2004 by members of the New York Air National Guard.

Further information


  • Noel Gillespie, Courage Sacrifice Devotion: the history of the US Navy Antarctic VXE-6 Squadron 1955-99, Infinity, Philadelphia, 2005
  • Ken Hickson, Flight 901 to Erebus, Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1980
  • Tony Phillips, Gateway to the ice: Christchurch International Airport - Antarctic air links from 1955, Christchurch International Airport Ltd, Christchurch, 2001



Image courtesy of Sumner Museum, Christchurch.

How to cite this page

50th anniversary of South Pole flight, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated