If you were planning the ideal trip around the world in your airplane, you would want Jeppesen to help you with flight planning and government paperwork, Shell to provide 100LL and W100 wherever you went, local dignitaries to greet and host you, local media to help you promote general aviation, and to top it all off your trip would raise a lot of money for your favorite charity. That's the trip Polly Vacher took earlier this year. Starting with less than a thousand hours in her logbook, she flew every leg of her 29,000-mile trip as she had planned it, and raised over $200,000 for Flying Scholarships for the Disabled. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Polly about her Wings Around the World Solo Challenge.
Polly Vacher was born January 13, 1944, in Paignton, England, and spent her childhood in the rolling hills and sunny beaches of Devonshire. She trained as a physiotherapist, then as a music teacher, married, and raised three sons. Her attraction to flying began in 1989 when she skydived to raise money for a charity, and she subsequently logged 245 jumps. In the early '90s her husband's job took them to Australia for two years, and both of them decided to learn to fly. With about 80 hours each in their logbooks, they rented a Piper Dakota and flew another 84 hours around Australia. Back in England, they bought a Dakota and continued flying. Polly got her instrument rating while her husband Peter — who calls himself a "fair-weather flyer" — got interested in the maintenance of the airplane.
In 1997 Polly flew the Dakota across the North Atlantic while Peter took the airlines, and they toured the U.S. and Canada in their airplane. Having logged a couple of cross-continent trips and two North Atlantic crossings, a flight around the world seemed like the next logical step, so Polly decided to plan a trip around the world to raise money to give flying lessons to disabled persons. She knew that learning to fly can give a disabled person a healthy dose of self-esteem and often the ability to look past the disability. The trip took two years to plan, even with the help of the British Womens' Pilots Association and an enviable list of sponsors — including Shell, Jeppesen, and Hartzell. When she landed in Jordan, she was greeted by Queen Noor — daughter of former FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby. When she completed the trip in Birmingham, she was escorted by two Harriers. At every stop she was greeted by local dignitaries and media. All told, the Wings Around the World Solo Challenge encompassed 29,000 miles, including a 2,068-mile/16-hour leg from Hawaii to California, and raised over $200,000 for Flying Scholarships for the Disabled. She's already planning her next challenge.
Who was Sir Douglas Bader?
He was a pilot in the Royal Air Force before the Second World War. He had a flying accident and lost both his legs, and when the war came they were desperate for pilots. So he went back with his two artificial legs and said, "I can fly," and they said, "No you can't," and he said, "Yes, I can," and, in effect, he persuaded them 'cause they were desperate for pilots. He flew Hurricanes and Spitfires all through WWII, and he shot down enough enemy aircraft to become an ace. After the war he worked very hard to encourage disabled people to overcome their disabilities. He was the chief executive of Shell Aviation, and that's why Shell was one of my sponsors. He was very involved with the biggest military airshow in the world — the Royal International Air Tattoo — and actually helped run it. I think he was chairman of it.
When he died in 1983 the volunteers who helped run the Tattoo wanted to do something in his memory. They knew he wasn't the kind of guy who'd like a statue, so they set up this scholarship scheme really to perpetuate his indomitable spirit. King Hussein of Jordan knew Sir Douglas Bader and also became a patron of this flying scholarship scheme and provided a lot of the scholarships until the year he died. When he died the funding stopped, although Queen Noor is still a patron. I'd become involved with the scheme before the King died, but when he died my husband and I decided we would raise a lot of money to invest and endow an annual scholarship so it could run on just the interest.
Is there a disability in your family that prompted this interest?
I was originally trained as a physiotherapist but didn't particularly like it and I worked in physiotherapy only for two years. Then I trained as a music teacher — I was always a musician first and foremost — and spent the rest of my life teaching music. Music is in our blood. My father was a brilliant organist, pianist, flautist and horn player — my brother was first bassoon with the Halle Orchestra. I have always sung — soprano — and have taught piano for over 20 years. I now don't have time to teach, but I play two-piano duets with a friend regularly and every so often we work up a concert, which is fun. Both Peter and I love going to the Opera and Concerts. I've now become involved with the Flying For Disabled and I tend to feel very comfortable with disabled people. I try to look past the disability and see them as people.
When did you decide to fly around the world?
|Diving for dollars.|
Having done this long trip 'round Australia— my husband's job took us over there for nearly two years — we then came back to live in England and, lo and behold, we saw advertised another type of Dakota two serial numbers away from the one we'd hired and taken around Australia. We hadn't intended to buy an airplane, but I'm afraid that was just too much for us, so we did. I was absolutely hooked by flying, while my husband was more interested in the mechanics and how it works. He calls himself a fair-weather flyer, whereas I went on and got my instrument rating.
We'd already planned to hire an airplane and fly around the States and Canada, and when I was doing my instrument training over here in Bristol, my instructor said "Why are you hiring an airplane? You've got a perfectly good one yourself." That was a germ of an idea which grew and grew, and in 1997 I flew the aircraft to America across the North Atlantic. My husband flew over on a 747, and we took out the extra tanking and flew around the States and Canada. Then I put back the tank and I flew back across the North Atlantic. So having done that, which was a big challenge, the next big challenge was to fly around the world.
What was the reaction of your family and friends?
All my family are in aviation in one way or another. My oldest son is a 747 pilot for Virgin Atlantic and my middle son works for Pratt and Whitney in Hartford, Connecticut. He also has his private license and is just about to do his helicopter private license, as well. My youngest son is the cameraman for the British Womens' Skydiving Team. So we're all into aviation.
Did you teach your sons to fly?
No, in fact the son who flies 747s actually started his career as a helicopter pilot in the North Sea flying the oil rigs, because that was how he could get sponsorship for his training. It's very, very expensive to learn to fly, especially in this country, and, most young people can't afford it so they look around for ways and means. He flew six years over the North Sea, and in that time he paid for his own fixed wing license. Then, of course, the airlines have great respect for North Sea pilots 'cause they can fly in such terrible conditions so they all find it quite easy to get jobs afterwards.
Once you decided to make the trip, how did you go about lining up sponsors and getting media coverage to generate the scholarship money?
I got together a group of British women pilots who belong to the British Womens' Pilots Association — the equivalent of the 99s — and we formed a fundraising committee with the idea of raising money for the scholarship scheme. We ran one or two smaller fundraising events and one very big one at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, and we raised £65,000 in one evening. It was a flying display, a ball, and a champagne reception, and we had my aircraft in the corner of the tent that we had the big dinner in. Queen Noor was there, and she signed the wing, and, there were a lot of corporate people who took tables — British Airways, Shell, all that aviation people — and we launched the around-the-world flight at this event. Because it was for the Flying for Disabled and because people could see that we could organize an event very well, that gave us a bit of free press, so almost from there on they all came and asked me to be sponsors. Shell provided all the fuel and where there wasn't fuel they made sure that fuel was shipped in, and the European branch of Jeppesen did all my maps and charts and all the flight clearances and handling.
The first thing I learned about sponsorship was it's not going out and asking people to give you something. You're offering them something back — you have to or they're not interested. The only thing I could offer a big company like Jeppesen or Shell was publicity. When I went to cross the Atlantic not telling anybody apart from my friends — I didn't speak to a journalist — and I had to suddenly become a public person, which in itself created quite a lot of problems. I was actually quite nervous, even to speak into a voicemail answering machine, so I went off and did a media course and learned how to cope with television and radio. You've got to face the things you can't do very well and find a way of doing them.
A trip like this is such a total project. It's not just getting in your airplane and going. I've had so many emails since I got back, from people who say, "We'd like to do this. Can you give me some advice?" It's a complete project and it's a lot of hard work. It took me two years and I worked very hard and got together a team that supported me enormously, and I worked very hard as well, and we were doing it for charity. Everybody's working for nothing — right down to the photographer who was looking after and collating the photographs I was emailing back. They all were sponsors in a way. We just whipped up their enthusiasm for it.
It's a very impressive list of sponsors, but Piper and Textron are not there, even though you flew their airplane and their engine. Did they turn you down?
No, because I didn't really go and ask anybody. It came to me, more or less. A lot of these people didn't give me money but they gave me things in kind. Hartzell, for instance, gave me a propeller. I met Chuck Suma, the chief executive of Piper only last week, and I said to him, "Why don't you make more Piper Dakotas?" and he said, "We're designing a replacement for it." So I think having met Chuck, Piper might support me for another venture.
About how many women are in the British Womens' Pilots Association?
Oh, about 350 or 400, which is quite good 'cause private flying is very difficult in this country. It's very, very expensive and there's so much in the way of traffic and airways and restricted airspace. You've got to be pretty determined to do a lot of flying over here, as indeed I am.
Apparently. Many of us plan this kind of trip in our daydreams, so give us some hints. How did you plan the route? Were there places you knew not to go and other places that you knew not to miss? How did you carve this big trip up into little pieces?
The most difficult thing was how to cross the Pacific, so I spoke to ferry pilots and people who had flown it, and people who fly it regularly. I'm a great believer in taking advice because if you take a lot of advice you can absorb it like a sponge and then you use the bits that are suitable and appropriate for what you're doing. So I started my route with planning the Pacific, and the island hops that I had to do. Those legs were the ones that frightened me most when I was actually doing it, because they're such vast areas of water, and you really don't want anything to happen when you've only got one engine. The Pacific was the most psychologically difficult challenge of the whole flight, so I started by plotting that. Then when I got the routes that worked within my range I started finding out if I could get fuel and if I could land there. Fiji had had some political problems and I hoped that wouldn't blow up just when I was going. I knew I wanted to go to Australia because I've got a lot of friends in Australia, and I've flown lots in Australia. So I was working backwards.
I had flown the Atlantic, so I knew the North Atlantic route, and we'd flown around the States and Canada. Then I could join Australia to Europe in because I'd flown in Europe — not a lot but quite a bit — and I wanted to get to Jordan because of King Hussein and Queen Noor's involvement with the charity. So it was important to go to Jordan, then I find I can't fly direct to Jordan because you can't fly from Israel to Jordan or over Israel to Jordan because of the political situation. So you then either go down through Egypt or up across Syria, and I opted for Syria because I think it was possibly less of a problem to fly over Syria than to fly over Egypt.
My first sponsor is Jeppesen and they said, "We hear what you're doing, we like the sound of it, come and talk to us," and they gave me all my maps and charts and organized the overflight clearances. So from then onwards I planned with their help.
So when you left England you pretty much knew your route and had all your paperwork and overflight permits taken care of for the whole trip?
|Crossing and dotting.|
Did you change plans en route?
Not at all.
You flew every mile the way you planned it?
Absolutely, it all worked out absolutely as planned. It pays to put the work in beforehand — and it's fun to try to get everything perfect. You never can 'cause we're all human beings, but, actually, you can get quite a high standard of perfection if you really try and try again.
Did you read memoirs of people that had flown around the world?
I was not really trying to emulate them 'cause it was quite a different thing. I wasn't trying to beat any record, although actually it was the smallest aircraft flown solo by a woman on that route — 'round Australia and the Pacific — but I have to add it was the smallest, not the first, 'cause Sheila Scott did it and various other women have done 'round the world, but not by that route.
But I'm not really interested in that, and I'm not interested in speed. Obviously, it was a personal challenge. I wanted to do it — it would be crazy to do it if I didn't want to — but I had such a mission with Flying For Disabled. Everywhere I went I was met and had receptions and dinners and I gave talks. I was taken to disabled schools and places for disabled people, and I saw what was going on around the world, and that was really exciting. Some countries don't have private flying at all, but flying is introduced to disabled people.
Typically a person's life has fallen apart after becoming severely disabled from an accident in the prime of their life, or perhaps they have underachieved due to disability from birth. A flying scholarship presents an intellectual and physical challenge they never remotely believed they could overcome. By doing so they gain confidence and self-esteem. This can lead to getting a job, maybe for the first time. The courage and determination of the scholars is both humbling and inspirational. There was such a lot of interest and support all the way around the world, and about six countries are trying to get a similar scheme going as a result.
Tell us about the reception with Queen Noor in Jordan.
I had a fantastic time in Jordan. I spent five days there because I thought it's best to spend longer there. Their tourist board looked after me and took me to all sorts of wonderful sights in Jordan, then I had a fantastic reception where I met Prince Hamzah and Prince Faisal and the British ambassador and the ambassador from Greece. One of the highlights in Jordan — and this is like the other end of the scale — was we were just standing out by one of the crusader castles and we suddenly spotted a real Bedouin tent. I was just commenting on it to my guide and this wizened old lady came out from the tent and beckoned us inside. They put down mats on the floor, and we sat cross-legged on the floor and drank tea with this lady, who didn't speak a work of English. But we conversed with smiles and gestures, and she had nothing, really, except a tent and this mat to put on the floor — no television, nothing like that — and it was the other extreme. That was one of the highlights — to be invited into someone's Bedouin tent. Jordan's a very special place because it's got a lot of history and a lot of biblical history.
Speaking of surviving in the desert, tell us how you prepared for surviving the various climates you were crossing?
I had to find what I could here in England, and I did a course in the Lake district, which isn't exactly simulating desert or jungle. It's cold and wet up there, it has a great reputation for rain and didn't let me down at all. We had five days up there with two ex-Marine commanders who gave us one hell of a time. There were three of us on the course — two guides and myself — and we took a huge backpack with all our gear in it and one poncho thing, and we'd walk through bogs and marshes for miles. We did night exercises and we had to make our ponchos into tents and get into them.
They made us eat things off the land so we made a worm and bullrush stew. Right now I can laugh at it but there were many times that I felt like sitting down and bursting into tears and just saying "I can't do this," then I'd think I've only got to do it for five days, and if I really do get stuck in the desert or jungle I would be up against it much more than this. We had tramped all day, half the night, on just a little sleep, we were soaking wet and freezing and awful, so it was just hell on earth, really. They told us about being kidnapped and how to cope, and the psychology of it all. So I did finish it, and it taught me a lot, and when I'd done it I was really was pleased.
Earlier you said that psychologically the long legs were the hardest. What goes through your mind when you're over water for so long?
When I left Coffs Harbor I thought there was a lot sitting in front of me — and if you look at a globe or a map you'll see how much water it is. My husband gave me a bit of advice which I thought was quite good. He said, "Take off overweight from Australia" — cause I didn't really need to take off overweight there — but he said, "If something happens, then they'll be a lot of people who can look after you." So the night before I left Coffs Harbor I remember just thinking, "My God, I'm never going to get out of here alive," and at each end of the runway at Coffs Harbor there's a little hill, and I thought "I'm just not going to get over that." I was really giving myself such a bad time.
How much over gross were you?
Well, on the worst leg I was about 20% overweight, but she just took off like a dream, climbing at 500 feet a minute — no problem. So that gave me a lot of confidence as well, taking off from Australia overweight and finding she would actually do it. Hawaii to California is the biggest leg to fly without anything in between — it's 2,068 nautical miles — and I thought when I got to Hawaii I would have a few days to recover, but I rang up Jeppesen's weather people and they said, "You've got to go tomorrow because the winds are in your favor, and it won't be after tomorrow. You might not get it for another 10 days or so," so I had a very short night's sleep and fueled the aircraft as full as I could and set off in the middle of the day in the heat of the day. I was really worried I wasn't going to take off, and she took off in under half the runway and was climbing at 500 feet a minute — absolutely no problem at all.
That leg took 16 hours, and nine of those hours were in darkness. I got icing at 9,000 feet halfway through the night when I went into a cold front, so I had to descend to 7,000 where the winds weren't so good, but we get a lot of icing experience over here, so we're used to coping with it. At least when you're over the sea you can go lower and lower without touching anything.
Then just before the dawn came I saw a really strange phenomenon. There was a most beautiful half-moon shining out across the water and it was just stunning. And way back from it and slightly to the side of it was an identical moon — there were two moons. I couldn't believe it, and I kept thinking I was going loopy. I looked in the cockpit and I couldn't see two of anything else — am I going completely mad? There were just these two moons. I think it must have been some sort of reflection, but it was just amazing, and for an hour I looked at these two beautiful moons shining out over the water, and then the sun rose and, luckily, there was only one sun.
|Ditching and dunking.|
How well did you calculate? How much gas did you have when you landed in Santa Barbara?
I had over three hours left when I landed. I was really pleased. Actually by the time the engine stopped I knew I had plenty of fuel — I'd done a lot of calculations all the way through point of no return. In fact after a third of the route I'd actually figured if I'm a third of the way, I ought to have covered a third of the time for the amount of fuel I've got, and ought to have covered a third of the distance, and I was 30 miles short. Then I thought, "Oh well, 30 miles isn't very much. If I kept picking up speed, I should be all right," and then right at the point of no return I knew I was okay.
But even at that point you have to decide, "Do I go on or do I come back? Which is best?" If you go on, you've got to know that you've got a good enough wind to get you there. It was still a long time — 16 hours — but it didn't seem that long at the time, when you're buoyed up. What I hadn't realized was that Jeppesen in England had rung San Francisco every hour and got my exact position — because you have to give a position report every hour — and they emailed all my friends and family where I was every hour all through the night.
Where was the most fun place to fly?
Oh, definitely America. Definitely. Your controllers are so very professional but they're not like policemen, like Australian controllers are. I love Australia, but air traffic controllers are dreadful 'cause they don't have a lot of traffic and they act like sort of policemen, and they tell you off at the first opportunity. Whereas in America the controllers are really out to help you and they're sort of interested in what you're doing. When you go all around the world, everybody has different formats and different ways of saying the same thing, and if you don't say it just right the American controllers don't jump down your throat and say "You should say this." They're just out to help you.
Was language ever an issue with ATC anywhere?
In the Arab countries it was more difficult, and when I couldn't understand what they said, I said, "Please spell it." It was more important to go to the right place than to pretend you understand when you don't.
Where was the worst place to fly?
Apart from the worry of the water in the Pacific — and that sort of ghastly moment when the engine stops — I guess the most scary place is still the North Atlantic because the weather's unpredictable, especially flying to Greenland. I chose to go to Narsarsuaq, which is on the southwest corner. You fly 50 miles up a fjord, and at the top it forks and you have to go left, otherwise you go up a dead end and the mountains are very high. It's an NDB approach and the cloud was really bad as I approached Greenland and I was getting icing, so I was getting lower and lower but at least when there's water you can go down to 50 feet if you have to. As you approach Greenland there are three fjords, and it's very, very difficult to believe you're going up the right one because the correct fjord actually has a mountain halfway up it and the fjord sort of bends around the mountain. It's very difficult to believe that's the right one and you have to really believe the NDB to get the right fjord. All the time your mind is saying "No, this one looks like the right one" and if you've got the wrong fjord you are in big trouble. The scenery is awesome — it's desolate and frightening, but it's absolutely beautiful when you get the sun on it.
I was a little scared going into Indonesia because of the political problems they've had there, but I actually had a fantastic time in Indonesia. Between England and Jordan I had dreadful weather, and I was picking up ice all the time, and I was trying to fly over quite high mountains and fly on top of the clouds so I didn't pick up ice. Saudi Arabia doesn't allow women to drive and here was I getting a visa and landing like an ordinary man. I decided before I even left that my flight was non-political, that I wasn't in the position to criticize anybody's culture, but it's quite difficult and different to fly to a country where women aren't even allowed to drive or show any part of their body. I think they thought until I actually arrived that I wouldn't get a visa, and suddenly there I was. I would hate that culture myself, but I certainly wouldn't criticize them 'cause they really gave me a great time. I was given a house in the University of Dhahran, my own little house, with a bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and no key for the front door. Nobody steals over there 'cause they'd have their hand chopped off, you see. That's their way and one woman flying in can't possibly alter the way it is. When you're in somebody else's house you try to behave in conjunction with how they run it. I went out with men all the time — I come from a family of men so I don't really mind that — and I think after the first few hours they forgot I was a woman and we just all chatted and had a great time.
India was probably one of the most difficult places 'cause there's all that bureaucracy. I had to get a boarding pass to get into my own airplane. Then they had no fuel in Calcutta, so I got fuel shipped in on a lorry from about 350 miles away. Then I thought, "Well, I'll go the day before I have to leave and refuel, so I won't have anything holding me up." It took me eight hours to get permission to get onto the apron to refuel my own aircraft. I spent the whole day there. I told them "I'm not leaving this airport 'til I've refueled my aircraft," so I let them know quite clearly in as polite a way as I could. I'd been told to wear four stripes on each of my shoulders, and I said, "You know, I'm afraid I'm not leaving until I can refuel my aircraft" and I was quite firm about it. It took them eight hours, but I finally got permission.
How did this year's Royal International Air Tattoo acknowledge your accomplishment?
|Aviatrix and AV8.|
The highlight of the whole weekend was just over an hour's flight in a Harrier Jump Jet. I flew as P2 and had control for most of the flight. We did loops and rolls, and it was all just mind boggling. I felt extremely privileged, and did not sleep a wink last night as I was reliving the flight over and over again. It was certainly the most exciting flying experience I have EVER had!! The pilot who took me up was Al Pinner. He was the pilot who escorted me for my departure for my round the world flight and for my arrival back. I don't know which one of us enjoyed it more!
The flight culminated with a flight along the crowd line at RIAT. As I was wearing my orange flight suit and the white leather gloves they gave me the crowd were able to see my wave easily. The experience of being fitted and wearing a 'G' suit plus all the ejection equipment was also mind boggling. We did so low-level — 50 foot practice bombing raids — and then roared up to 20,000 feet in a matter of seconds. It was just a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience. It will take sometime to get my feet back onto the ground! It seemed very slow flying G-FRGN home today — but she is still great. The interesting thing about the Harrier is the "head-up" display, which enables you to watch the instruments and look out of the window at the same time, therefore you never need to do more than glance occasionally into the cockpit.
Having logged that, what's your next challenge?
Well, there will be another challenge, but I really can't say it now 'cause I'm still researching it and I don't want to say I'm going to do this until I know I can do it.
But you've got something specific in your mind?
I certainly do. It'll take probably another two years or so to get going on it, but this last bit took me two years to plan. I don't want to say "I'm going to do this" and then not be able to.
Well, you know where we are. Tell us when you're ready.
You'll hear about it as the time approaches. God willing and I keep my health and I feel 16.