Aviation hero remembers his 1939 flight with Admiral Byrd
A national aviation hero flew over the Carson Valley Friday and, boy, was he impressed … with his grandson’s flying, that is.
Ted “Pete” Petras, 89, who flew over Antarctica with Admiral Richard E. Byrd in 1939, happened to be visiting his daughter Betty and her husband Rocky Plant in Reno last week. One of his vacation “must do” side trips was to the Minden-Tahoe Airport to fly with his grandson Robert Plant, who is completing his private pilot’s license instruction at Flying Start Aero with instructor John Brown.
“I was so proud of Robert,” Petras said after the flight. “He did a very good job as a pilot.”
Petras, a retired colonel in the United States Marine Corps, has more than 10,000 hours of air time to Robert’s tiny fraction of that number, but matching his grandfather’s notoriety in the world of aviation is not a goal of the 36-year-old Carson City design engineer.
“Flying is just something I always wanted to do,” Robert said. “It just seemed like the right time to do it.”
n Part of history. Petras, who said his flight Friday with Robert and John Brown was the first time he’d been in a small plane since 1959, has vivid memories of his 22 months at Little America III from 1939 to 1941 as Admiral Byrd’s primary pilot.
“The coldest it got was 79 below zero,” he said. “It was so cold that if you went outside and blew into the air, little ice crystals would form immediately from your breath.”
Petras said the cold temperatures in Antarctica didn’t allow germs to live, so people didn’t get sick in spite of close quarters for the men there.
The mission of Byrd’s third expedition under the U.S. Antarctic Service was to map Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, with an area of around 510,000 square miles. Petras was the first to discover a unique 12,600-foot mountain on the south Polar Cap and named it Mount Josephine after his wife.
While on the expedition, Petras broke several aviation records, including the earliest and latest seasonal flights, the closest flight to the South Pole and an altitude record of 21,000 feet without oxygen.
Because Antarctica is buried under an icecap of about 7 million cubic miles of ice – more fresh water that the rest of the world – navigating by air in 1939 involved some creative techniques.
“We would drop orange flags from the planes to mark our path,” Petras said.
On one fishing trip out from the Little America III base, Petras said he found himself surrounded by penguins.
“We saw about 1,000 penguins – they were everywhere and they weren’t afraid of us,” he said. “I sat in the middle of them and took pictures and they were looking right into the lens. We got to know the Adele Penguins, the Emperor Penguins – there were around 17 different species there. We sent 38 of them (stuffed) back to the Smithsonian. They’d never seen anything like them.”
“During a family reunion in 1996, I went to the Smithsonian and there are still some of the penguins there,” Robert said.
Byrd, who history has recorded as a combination of egotist, scientist, hero and recluse, was more the latter in Petras’ recollection.
“He was a solitary person, and he liked to be alone,” Petras said. “For our expedition, it was Dr. Paul Siple who was really the expert on the Antarctic.”
Petras said after the expedition ended in 1941 – canceled because of World War II – they returned to Boston. Byrd, who had been back in the U.S. for some time, came and boarded one of the planes to wave to the press for the photo opportunity that led to “Admiral Byrd Returns!” headlines.
n Big footsteps. Robert represents the third generation of family aviators and Marines, following grandfather Pete and father Rocky. Robert, a 1982 Wooster High School graduate, was a “ground pounder” when he was in the Marines, he said.
Dad Rocky, 67, is also a retired USMC colonel who has flown almost 4,000 accident-free hours in F9, A4, F8 and F4 aircraft, including 197 combat missions and 201 carrier landings. His nickname came from a military boxing stint that landed him as All Navy middleweight boxing champ in 1954.
Robert sat in the cockpit of his dad’s F4 Phantom jet more times than he could count and spent hours flying simulated flights on his computer. Flying a real plane was a logical next step.
Members of the family met John Brown, owner of the Minden-based Flying Start Aero, at the Reno Air Races and felt this could be the right instructor for the field his father and grandfather have more than mastered.
“I had taken a few lessons in Reno, but when I went up with John, I knew he was the person I wanted to learn from,” Robert said. “He’s an excellent instructor.”
“He’s a natural,” Brown said. “He took to it very fast. You can tell he has flying in his genes.”