Sometimes the smallest decision can have the biggest consequences. Indeed, history is full of these pivotal events. In some cases, tiny, split-second decisions can lead to catastrophe. But at other times, they may well just end up saving your life. As historians with the benefit of hindsight, we can look to the past and see what might have changed had things have been even slightly different. And sometimes it’s possible to see when small, seemingly inconsequential choices or slices of luck end up being a matter of life and death.
So, whether it’s missing a train or having to re-schedule a work meeting, here are 11 times famous figures from history narrowly avoided disaster. Some made music we all love, or made huge advancements in the world of science and engineering. Others made fortunes for themselves but then went on to share their wealth. But in all cases, it’s worth taking a moment to think how different things might have been – not just for the individuals themselves but sometimes even for the whole world as we know it…
Admiral Richard E. Byrd
Richard E. Boyd has gone down in history as a true American hero. As well as being a pioneering aviator, he was also an explorer and, according to many accounts, the first man to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole by air. Oh, and he was also a Medal of Honor recipient, too. But he might have ended up being just another statistic. In 1921, he was due to fly on the ZR-2, a prototype aircraft being trialed by the Navy. Only by missing the ill-fated flight was Boyd able to go on and write his name in the history books.
But that’s not to say he would his life would have been unremarkable had he perished in 1921. Far from it. Even his birth was notable: Richard E. Byrd was born into a prestigious Virginia family and could count numerous political greats among his ancestors. But he really started making a name for himself during the First World War. Volunteering to become an aviator – a hugely risky role – he helped pioneer new ways of navigating planes over bodies of water. However, despite his evident bravery, his was to be a relatively quiet war, with most of it spent commanding naval air forces in Nova Scotia rather than on the Western Front.
Boyd came out of the Great War as a Lieutenant Commander and a respected aviator, which is why he was asked to join a trial flight of the ZR-2, a 695-foot-long airship. The giant dirigible had been built for the US Navy by the British. A trial flight was scheduled for August 24, 1921, out of the town of Howden, in the northeast of England. Boyd accepted his invitation and was all set to join the ZR-2 crew, but then he missed his train and arrived a day late at the airfield. His name was crossed off the crew list, though he was able to see the huge airship lift off into the sky. Writing in his 1928 memoir, he recalled how “she rose slowly and with dignity befitting so huge a craft, sailed away into a cloudless sky”.
Soon after taking off, however, disaster hit the ZR-2. The giant frame broke up mid-air and the airship crashed into the cold waters of the Humber estuary. Then its hydrogen tanks set alight and exploded, killing all but five of the men on board. Had he been one of the crew, it’s unlikely Boyd would have escaped with his life. As it was, pure luck meant that he would go on to fly another day. In 1926, he flew over the North Pole and became a national hero. Then in 1927, he flew non-stop across the Atlantic and the following year set off on the first of five expeditions to the Antarctic and the South Pole.
Having narrowly avoided a violent death in a burning airship, Boyd died in his sleep on March 11, 1957, at the age of 68. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and is regarded as a true American hero.