Last surviving crew member recalls first B-29 flight over North Pole
SHELTON, Conn. — Since the 1920s, schoolchildren have been taught that Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd was the first man to fly over the North Pole in an airplane.
Today, aviation historians are in almost universal agreement that Byrd's flight of the Josephine Ford on May 9, 1926, fell far short of the North Pole, and Byrd spent the rest of his life claiming he made it.
On a quiet street in Shelton's Huntington section lives Ernest C. Stewart, 88, the last survivor of a super-secret flight in a B-29 Superfortress that flew over the North Pole on Oct. 16, 1946.
The craft was an F-13, a variant of the B-29 that was modified for aerial photography. Stewart was part of the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron, and acted on this flight as an observer. One of the squadron's assignments was to figure out how to fly and navigate in polar regions. "It was just a routine flight, and I was wondering most of the time what would happen if we had to make an emergency landing," Stewart said. "It was about eight to 10 hours each way."
He said the B-29 used for the polar flight was known as the "Dreamboat Model." It was little more than a flying fuel tank and was able to stay aloft for more than 30 hours. One, in fact, flew nonstop from Honolulu to Cairo in 39 hours; it took off with 13,400 gallons of fuel.
"I stayed awake the whole time," he said. "When we passed over the pole, the officers made the announcement," he said. "I looked down. No Santa Claus."
The crew was using a new grid navigation system that was developed by the Air Force for flying in the polar regions.
"This flight, more than any other, proved the workability of the grid system," he said. "For the first time, we could fly throughout the Arctic and know where we were at all times."
At the time, all 14 on board assumed that they were just the second airplane to fly over the pole. Outside of military circles, there was almost no recognition of the flight.
"Everything the unit did was classified as top secret," said Ken White, who wrote about the exploits of the 46th and 72nd Recon Squadrons in his book, "World in Peril." White's father, Maj. Maynard E. White, was the commander of the B-29 that made the polar flight.
Also aboard was Paul A. Siple, who as a Boy Scout, accompanied Byrd on two expeditions to Antarctica, in 1928-30 and 1933-35. He also wrote the book "90 Degrees South," a favorite of boys growing up in the 1960s. He is best known for his scientific work on survival in polar regions and helped develop what is known today as the wind chill factor.
Stewart's B-29 flight was technically the second verified aircraft to fly over the pole, but the first airplane to do so. On May 11-14, 1926, the airship Norge, in what is also known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight, floated from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, to Teller, Alaska, crossing the pole en route. Aboard was Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, on Dec. 14, 1911.
The flight to the North Pole was not Stewart's only aviation adventure. He survived three heavy bomber crashes, the first during World War II as a nose gunner in a B-24 that was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire while over what was then Japanese-controlled Formosa, now Taiwan.
"We started to make a turn toward the sea, and an anti-aircraft shell exploded maybe 100 feet in front of us," he said. "All I could see was one big orange flame."
Two of the plane's four engines were dead, and the pilot was desperately trying to nurse the crippled craft back to Clark Field in the Philippines. Instead, he had to ditch near Laoag, about 300 miles north of Clark Field. All were rescued and survived.
"A few hours later, we were herded aboard a C-47 and flown unceremoniously back to Clark Field, where we arrived in time for supper," he said.
The second crash occurred during the night of Feb. 20, 1947. Stewart was in a B-29, the Kee-Bird, while on a 20-hour flight from Ladd Air Force Base, outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. The craft lost its ability to steer and had to make a forced landing on the extreme northeastern coast of Greenland. It took three days before the crew of 11 was located and rescued. All survived relatively unscathed.
"When we landed, we had no idea where we were," he said. "We could have been in Siberia, for that matter."
Following standard procedures, all spy gear and all sensitive documents were destroyed by officers.
The third crash, he said, changed his life. It was May 1947, and Stewart was in a B-29 that has just taken off from Ladd. Something went wrong, and the bomber, heavily loaded with fuel, smashed into a nearby hillside. Three crew members were dead, and Stewart was left with a broken neck and badly burned hands.
"In fact, that was the very same plane that we used for the North Pole flight," Stewart said. "No name, just the tail number: 848."
In a full body cast, he was flown to a hospital in Augusta, Ga., to recuperate for six months. "I had to wear the cast for four months, with holes cut for my face and ears, and there was no air conditioning," he said.
"The old saying that a dark cloud has a silver lining proved true," he said. "I met a beautiful blond nurse, Lt. Elaine Anderson, and we were married on Sept. 8, 1947."
His wife, originally from Bridgeport, died in 2003.
After leaving the Air Force, Stewart taught English for 13 years at Milford's Jonathan Law High School. He's lived in Huntington since 1969.
"My students really weren't very interested in stories about my Air Force days," he said, including the one over the North Pole.