Pole to Pole!

Around the world over both poles (part 2).


There are certainly worse places to be stuck than Punta Arenas. It’s quite a pleasant city with friendly folks, good food, and lots to see. After the requisite 72 hours and a lot of work on the part of the ground crew, the permit to fly to Tahiti is in hand. The weather is now somewhat less than desirable, but forecast to get worse and stay bad for an extended period. The key is to get north into warmer air and out of the very strong headwinds that exist in the south.

Visiting the monument honoring Ferdinand Magellan in the main square of Punta Arenas.

Another full-weight takeoff—the last I hope to ever make—is required for the 4828 nautical mile, 28-hour northwest bound leg to Tahiti. Headwinds are fierce in the several hours after takeoff—50 to 60 knots right on the nose. This not only slows progress but, over the mountainous terrain northwest of Punta Arenas, creates turbulence. At this weight the autopilot cannot be used. In this turbulence it is not even a consideration. Things just couldn’t get worse…unless…yep…ice. Once again, the only choice is a descent into warmer temperatures. This requires circumnavigating the mountainous islands off the western South American coast. I am able to stay over open water with the help of the Garmin 496 with its excellent terrain depiction. Once I reach 500 miles northwest of Punta Arenas, the weather and winds gradually improve. The rest of the night is mostly flown in smooth, above-freezing air. Shortly after sunrise the next morning, the flight is entering the intertropical convergence zone with the expected thunderstorms. Tahiti ATC contacts the ground crew about a SIGMET along my route. The ground crew negotiates a re-route around the worst of the weather and relays that to me via satellite text.

The route flown: 31,118 nautical miles, 24 days, 174.9 hours—lots and lots of ocean with some ice here and there.

January is the rainy season in Tahiti. Landing there this afternoon requires flying the ILS approach, not exactly what I want to do after a 251/2-hour leg, but you do what you have to do. Three barrels of fuel are pumped into 6ZQ, plenty to make New Zealand with large reserves. After a few hours of sleep at the Tahiti Airport Motel, it is time to continue. Although early in the morning and not nearly at full fuel, the hot temperature in Tahiti still makes for a rather unenthusiastic takeoff. No serious weather is encountered from Tahiti to Auckland, where I am able to quickly clear customs and continue to Hamilton. Total time in Auckland from touchdown to liftoff is 30 minutes. I arrive in Hamilton with plenty of daylight left, about 14 hours after departing Tahiti.

These islands, which are part of the Kingdom of Tonga, were the only land the author saw between New Zealand and Hawaii.

New Zealand to Honolulu

Hamilton Aero Maintenance is a great place to go for general aviation work in New Zealand. Tim O’Neill and Dave Stewart are enormously helpful and competent. We do an oil and filter change, clean spark plugs, replace a broken shear pin in the autopilot pitch servo, repair a broken amperage sensor in the #1 electrical system, and give the airplane a thorough going over. New Zealand is #1 on the places that I want to return to when not on a world record quest. Thanks Tim and Dave for your hospitality and good work.

I depart Hamilton for the 23-minute flight to Auckland, where I clear customs outbound and fuel for the 3825 nautical mile, 21-1/2-hour leg to Honolulu. This is another lethargic takeoff in the warm summer temperatures. A rather severe cluster of thunderstorms is forming over Tonga. The ground crew has an excellent handle on this from satellite and lightning data, and suggest a westward deviation. This works out well and other than an hour or two of moderate turbulence, I am able to proceed without serious problem. That night I cross the equator northbound at 166 degrees 57 minutes west, giving me almost 123 degrees of separation from my southbound crossing. The minimum separation required for the record is 120 degrees. Dawn is just breaking when I begin my descent into Honolulu.

Adding CamGuard in New Zealand.

The plan has been to continue from Honolulu directly to Fairbanks, Alaska. I know that this will be a challenging leg weather-wise. While the arctic weather that is expected in Fairbanks will probably be too cold and dry for airframe icing and the weather near Hawaii too warm, the transition from tropical to arctic will likely prove interesting. Making matters worse, a huge low has parked itself in the Gulf of Alaska, pumping large quantities of warm, wet air into Alaska. Fairbanks is reporting the warmest winter in its history. This will produce almost certain serious icing, something that I very much prefer to avoid.

Weather off the coast of Alaska.

Waiting for Better Weather

After waiting several days for better weather in the north Pacific and Alaska, I decide to fly to the U.S. West Coast and wait out the weather there. Working my way up the coast will provide more options if I need to land. An early evening departure from Honolulu at a relatively light weight into good weather with a bit of a tailwind and no icing makes the leg to San Louis Obispo the easiest of the long legs (2145 nautical miles and 111/2 hours). I land at KSBP just before dawn and catch an hour of sleep in the pilot’s lounge, while I wait for the maintenance shop to open for another oil change.

Two nights in the pleasant town of San Louis Obispo leave me well rested for the flight to Alaska. A pre-dawn departure helps assure a daylight landing in Fairbanks. As expected, ice is the big concern on this leg. The takeoff is made with just 155 gallons on board, well under half capacity. My plan is to climb high early and find temperatures below -4 F (-20 C). The plan works, and even though I am in clouds from northern California through coastal Alaska, I encounter no ice. Plenty of pilot reports of ice are received at the lower altitudes though.

Polar Pumpkin pilot Art Mortvedt (left) and the author in Fairbanks.

When the route leaves the coast and proceeds inland to the Yukon Territory, the clouds dissipate and leave me with more spectacular views of some very impressive mountains in the Yukon and eastern Alaska. I land at sunset, around 3:30 p.m. in Fairbanks, where I am met by Art Mortvedt. Art is a long-time Alaskan bush pilot and has flown his orange Cessna 185, the Polar Pumpkin, to both poles. Art has been very generous in sharing his knowledge of polar flying and weather with me in phone calls that I have made to him. Now he has driven four hours to Fairbanks so he can take me to his favorite Fairbanks restaurant. Thanks Art!

The next morning I’m back at the best FBO in the north, Alaska Aerofuel, ready to go. The weather is good everywhere except right over Fairbanks airport. A layer with tops only to 3000 feet is producing light snow and many reports of icing from everything from a Navajo to a DC-9. Since this will be yet another heavy takeoff with slow climb rates, I cannot take the chance of even a little ice. I need to climb to 10,000 feet within 130 miles of Fairbanks in order to clear the Brooks Range. This will not likely be possible with any ice on the wings. So, after waiting several hours for the weather to improve, I return to the hotel, planning to try again the following morning.

Crossing the equator northbound.

Over the North Pole

The next morning is clear and cold, exactly the weather I have been counting on for Fairbanks. After fueling to 300 gallons, 61 gallons short of full tanks, I depart Fairbanks on the last leg—non-stop to Kinston, North Carolina via the North Pole. The Brooks Range is a beautiful sight in the early morning light. Once past the Brooks Range, I am able to spot the Alaska pipeline and follow it to Deadhorse. Now, little more than two hours after my sunrise takeoff, I watch the sunset as I pass off the north coast of Alaska into the Arctic Ocean.

Hourly log of the North Pole leg of the trip.

There’s still enough light for a while for me to see the broken pack ice riddled with leads. I reflect on the possibility of making a landing out here, not very likely to be successful. Perhaps it’s best not to put too much thought into that. Eight hours after takeoff, I pass over the North Pole. Now, I just need to finish this flight, only another 3290 nautical miles to Kinston, North Carolina.

While waiting out the weather, the author visited Dillingham Airport on Oahu.

With the oil sump temperature still alarmingly low, I’m wondering if I’ll ever see increasing temperatures. I’m wondering if I’ll ever see daylight. I’m wondering if this record attempt is worth it. After crossing Baffin Island in hour 14, I finally see a little upward movement of the OAT. The temperature has gone from -36 F (-38 C) to -27 F (-33 C). The oil sump temp starts creeping up a little to 80 F (27 C). If this trend continues, I just might make it. The hour 15 readings show yet another degree of oil temp increase and hour 16 a positively tropical 84 F (29 C). Hour 17 finds me over Hudson Bay with just a hint of an orange glow on the southeastern horizon and 87 F (31 C) in the sump. My mood brightens considerably as dawn breaks. I might actually make it through this long, cold night.

Sunrise (and sunset) over the Brooks Range, Alaska.

Almost Home

The ground crew is now starting to brief me on possible weather problems farther south. My destination, Kinston, is reporting a 100-foot ceiling and 1/2-mile visibility with temperature slightly above freezing. A large snowstorm is blanketing the northern U.S. from Ohio to New York state. All of Pennsylvania is reporting low visibility in snow. I could duck into Buffalo or Syracuse, but I’d probably be stuck there. Flying west around the backside would add a lot of distance, and I’d have to stop for fuel. It seems to be moving a little too fast to beat the storm around the east side, and I could get pushed to the Atlantic if I tried that.

There are a few things going in my favor though. I’m working Toronto Center on VHF, infinitely easier than HF. Around North Bay I’m in radar contact. I’m starting to receive XM weather on the Garmin 496 and am able to build a good picture of the weather situation. Best of all, I’m light. I can climb. I ask Toronto Center for FL180 and they approve.

Crossing the U.S. border at Buffalo, New York, I can clearly see the weather. It looks like FL180 will keep me on top. I ask Cleveland Center for tops and icing reports. Tops are around 180 and no ice reported at that altitude or above. I know that I can now climb to the low 20s if I need to but FL180 seems to be working well with only very thin, poorly defined tops. I’m mostly in the clear and air temperature is still cold enough to preclude icing. I decide to continue on course. In a few hours I’m over central Virginia and am clearly past the worst of the weather. Kinston weather is now VFR and rapidly improving. The situation is looking quite good. At FL180 I’m only burning 8.5 gallons per hour. My wing and bladder tanks are empty. All of my remaining fuel is in fuselage tanks with well-calibrated sight gauges so I can actually see the fuel. I am quite confident in my quantity readings. I’ve got 23 gallons left and I’m about an hour out…should land with 17 or so, about 2 hours worth. This is actually going to work! 25.6 hours after takeoff from Fairbanks, I touch down at Kinston.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of landing back at Kinston. The years of work and planning have finally paid off. Taxiing in, I see several Lancairs parked on the ramp. I am overwhelmed to see lots of friends who flew in. Thanks. That meant a lot to me.


Several months after this last landing the FAI (Fdration Aronautique Internationale), keeper of aviation records since 1905, ratified our flight as a new World Record for Speed Around the World over Both of the Earth’s Poles. Here are a few of the statistics:


  1. Bill Harrelson landed in California last night upon completion of the last leg of his record-breaking westerly circumnavigation of the globe. I am in awe! The years of tedious preparation and planning made the outcome almost assured. Congratulations, Bill.


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