Around the World and Over Both Poles - Part 1
Sky Polaris—a historic flight in an RV-8
Have you ever wanted to fly around the world? Just imagine the organizational nightmare of it: You would need to book dozens of flights and land in many foreign countries, each with its own language, laws, rules, customs, and regulations. Add to that the dreaded idea of extended traveling with strangers to stranger lands. And after all is said and done, it still could not be said that you actually “flew all around the world,” because in all likelihood you did not fly over the North Pole, not to mention flying over the South Pole. For most people, this would be a logistical, physical, and financial impossibility. Now, imagine making just such a flight in a plane that you’ve built in your garage. Sound impossible?
For one kit aircraft builder, it was not. For pilot and RV-8 builder Michel Gordillo of Madrid, Spain, this around the-world flight was both a dream and a nightmare as he overcame many obstacles in order to fly around the world the hard way—over the North and South Poles. This accomplishment makes Gordillo among the very few who have taken this journey and the only person who has done so in such a small aircraft. The 61-year-old pilot departed from Madrid for the first of his long flights in his RV-8, which carried him around the world and over 47,000 miles.
Although Michel had envisioned this flight for a long time, the idea became a reality when the personal project of building the RV-8 bonded with his study of black carbon particulates in the atmosphere. This became a collective dream with scientific, aeronautical, and personal objectives. And that dream became known as Sky Polaris (The North Star).
With the help of his daughters and a few friends, Michel built the RV-8 over a period of several years. It is powered by a 180-hp XP IO-360 turning a two-blade, 74-inch Hartzell constant-speed prop. The engine is equipped with a LASAR electronic ignition system for increased fuel efficiency.
The two-seat aircraft turned into a one-seater with the addition of an extra fuel tank in the back seat, and Michel also had to move the landing light to the wingtip because the craft now has a wet leading edge for even more fuel. Total capacity is 192 gallons (730 liters), which gives the RV-8 an endurance of 24 hours at cruise speed.
That still was not enough for the flight to Antarctica, as Michel estimated that he had to land two to three times for refueling in order to keep safety margins for wind and weather conditions. A Garmin 430 (integrated with a TruTrak autopilot) and Garmin 496 with 2 iPads were used for navigation, with a Vision Micro VM-1000C on the panel for an engine display. An Icom 706 transceiver for HF communications and a pen-size camera were linked to a central recorder inside the cockpit. Finally, the key device for the environmental side of the flight, the Aethalometer, was installed on top of the rear fuel tank. The Aethalometer was designed by Magee Scientific Corporation and measures light absorption through suspended aerosol particles, identifying the quantity of black carbon in the atmosphere. Air reaches the device through a pitot tube placed on the left wing.
The Flight to the North Pole
Having the skills to build and fly a plane is apparently not enough—especially, when you plan on flying over Antarctica. There are mandatory political procedures that must be fulfilled in order to get clearance, which takes a huge amount of time and effort. Because Sky Polaris was a project with scientific goals, it needed clearance not only from the Spanish Polar Committee, but also support and authorization from many other countries and committees. A scientific flight has to overcome two concerns to be accepted: first, the impact on the environment, and second, it must be approved by the Spanish government as a bona fide scientific project. If the scientific aspect of the flight was not approved, another option was a request that the flight be approved for tourism. This means only the environmental aspect has to be approved.
Delays by Antarctic officials caused issues, but gave Michel and the Sky Polaris team more time to work on the safety of the flight itself. Heavy turbulence and icing can be a deadly threat, and either can put a stop to a well-planned project, so the routing had to be perfect. As Michel solved the many procedural problems, he faced another very real threat— the frustration from having to deal with bureaucracy. Many times he thought his plan would be killed by politicians who did not understand adventure. But to Michel, finding funding and solving clearance issues were at the top of his list, as he had confidence in his aircraft, flight plan, support team, and his own ability to endure long flights.
At the very last moment, before the flight officially began, clearances were not arriving. In addition, the iridium tracking system was not working—it was calculating lower speeds. The antenna for the iridium system was placed on top of the Aethalometer, which works with laser, and that was supposedly creating an obstacle for the iridium system to work properly. But the departure time had arrived, and any more delays would cause more problems with overflight clearances and weather.
On February 20, 2016, Michel departed from Jerez, Spain, at 6:45 a.m. local time for the first leg of the momentous flight. The flight from Jerez to Dakar, Senegal, lasted almost 11.5 hours, covering over 1700 ice-laden (at the beginning) and turbulent miles. Michel’s goal of sampling atmospheric carbon particles in remote areas—and to break the FAI C1C record for long flights in a small aircraft—was finally underway.
Spain to Senegal
Prior to takeoff, bad weather was forecast over Africa during the next few days. It was better to takeoff from Jerez and fly during the night and land at daytime. The plan was to depart IFR and, while over the Strait of Gibraltar, cancel IFR and go VFR in order to fly low under the ice-bearing clouds.
The takeoff was good except for the aircraft rolling to the left indicating some kind of imbalance; however, the aircraft flew perfectly after 15 minutes of flight in very turbulent conditions. Compared to bureaucracy, politics, and clearance issues, Michel felt more comfortable with turbulence; the heavy showers and strong headwinds almost seemed comforting. Bad flying conditions are something a good pilot can overcome, but pompous officials who love having the power to say no are an entirely different force to deal with.
The groundspeed of 110 knots was too slow, so Michel shifted to IFR and climbed to 8000 feet once the bad weather diminished. He was getting 155 knots true airspeed at 59% power, and fuel flow was 6.9 gallons (26 liters) per hour, but the headwinds were still there.
Michel switched to the rear fuel tank, increased power for a bit more speed, and fuel consumption rose to 7.9 gallons (30 liters) per hour. There wasn’t much time to take photos or to enjoy the view. One controller asked Michel if he wanted to land. He replied, “No sir. My plane is small, but it’s a long-range airplane. I will not need to refuel anywhere, I hope!”
By now, Michel had switched to the external wing tanks, and things were looking good—hundreds of miles of desert scenery and a lot of places for an emergency landing. For the time being, coffee and pastries kept him comfortable.
The same controller told Michel that he could not fly over Mauritania without a permit. But in fact, Mauritania was the first country that gave him overflight clearance! Fortunately, the permit was somewhere in Michel’s luggage and the issue was solved. Then, the recurring bureaucracy began—again. Morocco wanted a clearance number; Michel was fighting to stay awake and remain cool, but he managed to resolve the issue over the radio and by satellite phone.
Michel crossed the Senegal border, and in order to make things easier for ATC, he was required to shoot an ILS approach, flying a long path. But finally, the control tower was cooperative and cleared him for a visual approach, flying left downwind for Runway 36. It was not a roomy approach because he was prohibited to fly over the city, but it was easy because the runway was long enough to turn base before reaching its end. Michel landed at Dakar at 16:45 Zulu (5:46 p.m. Sky Polaris time), tired and excited, knowing that a good night’s rest was in order. Total flight time was 11 hours, 16 minutes and average fuel flow was 7.2 gallons (27.2 liters per hour). Not bad for a journey that had just begun.
Senegal to Brazil
The next leg of the flight was exceedingly dangerous—crossing the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, which is a graveyard to hundreds of aircraft and ships. The possibility of mechanical or electronic failure was one of the biggest risks, not to mention health issues and violent weather. Many seasoned pilots avoid flights where they have to fly for 13 hours straight, crossing 1800 miles of ocean with no place to land, but many places to sink. This particular RV-8 was designed for this kind of endurance, but it would be a very demanding flight for Michel. While airline passengers at 34,000 feet above him got to lean back, relax, sip glasses of wine, and spend the transatlantic flight sleeping, none of that happened to Michel. He had to constantly correct heading, altitude, and attitude. Meanwhile, he had to manage fuel and communications, as well as keep himself hydrated and fed, while also taking care of other bodily functions.
No doubt about it, flying a single-engine, single-pilot aircraft for 1800 miles is hard work! No matter how well built and proven the machine is, there’s still a human pilot behind it who must stay calm and logical, and must know everything about the machine and be ready to anticipate anything that could go wrong. Apart from lasting a grueling 13 hours, the flight itself was perfect and uneventful—with the exception of a major bureaucratic snafu that caused a 3-hour delay before takeoff.
Michel landed successfully at São Gonçalo Airport near Natal, Brazil, but the brutal flight had drained his energy reserves, and he needed rest. Much to his surprise, the customs and immigration procedure was fast, so he could retreat to a beautiful hotel at the beach between Natal and a natural park. Sleep is a rare commodity during these kinds of feats.
While the aircraft had to be cleared for the next flight, Michel made plans to meet two scientists, Judith Hoelzemann and Lena Montilla from the Atmospheric Science Department at Natal University that evening. Michel learned how Sahara Desert sand is carried by the winds into the Amazon River basin, where it feeds the plants of the forest, providing them with minerals. In addition, he also found out that the Natal shrimp specialty known as Camarons are a delightful treat.
After a short power nap, a TV news team was waiting for Michel. At 06:00 he arrived at the airport, giving them an interview and a 10-minute flight demonstration, performing a slow roll as tribute to the TV crew.
At about 1:30 p.m. Sky Polaris time, Michel departed Natal for the city of Belém, Brazil. This was a flight of about 1000 miles. Michel flew over the dense jungles and forests of Brazil known as the Gateway to the Amazon. There he was greeted by a huge thunderstorm. The controller asked the airliners in the airspace around Natal about their endurance left. “Twenty-five minutes,” answered the first one. “Thirty minutes,” said the second one. With a big grin, Michel answered the controller, “Five hours, sir!”
Michel landed at Belém ahead of schedule at 7:04 p.m. Sky Polaris time, giving him more time to explore the river city.
After a much-needed stay at Belém, Michel was finally rested and ready to take on the flight to Santarém, Brazil, which was just a short hop in the RV-8, but would take more than 20 hours in a Land Rover. But the exhausting flight to Santarém was just the tip of the iceberg. Following the Amazon River was not easy for survival.
Next stop was Manaus, Brazil, solo flying again over 381 miles of raw jungle. Flying over the jungle is perhaps the most dangerous of all flights because in case of an emergency landing, your best bet—or perhaps prayer—is to crash land in a clearing, not in the trees or in any of the many crocodile-infested rivers.
A clearing, however, is a rarity in a rain forest jungle. Of course, Michel had essential survival gear, but it was not something you would see in Star Trek— just pretty basic stuff, but effective. Still, flying over the jungle is preferable, unless you want to take a 33-hour drive.
A hammock, a few cold drinks, and some amazing barbeque awaited Michel, and that was good motivation. He spotted the red runaway between patches of the dense forest, and a quick landing was easy. Michel was greeted with questions, beverages, and a lot of big smiles. The hospitality of Brazil had a relaxing effect on him.
Brazil to Mexico
Michel flew from Manaus to Boa Vista, Brazil. He then had to fly to the north for the next leg of the flight, planned at 60 degrees W longitude. He would be crossing the equator, which would be a reference for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) to the mandatory 120 degrees for the flight to be considered for a record.
That was not the main issue though. In order to reach his destination, Medellín, Colombia, he would have to cross some pretty tall mountains, and that was his main concern. First, he would be flying at 13,000–15,000 feet without oxygen. Second, the RV-8 is a small plane with a small engine, so there wasn’t much mountain-crossing power here. As the saying goes, “May the wind be at your back,” but that was exactly what Michel was hoping would not come to pass, as he wanted no wind at all. Downdrafts can be a serious issue, especially when you are close to the mountain slopes.
The flight from Boa Vista into Medellín is close to 1100 nautical miles. To get there, Michel had to cross Venezuela, which was not providing an overflight clearance number, just a verbal clearance. As much as Michel feared downdrafts, he feared antiaircraft guns even more! In fact, many planes have been shot down, which is why getting the clearance was absolutely necessary. Flying at high altitude meant that the RV-8 would be slower and exposed to those AAC guns even more.
Michel had to think everything over before the next leg of the historic flight while waiting in a crowded Boa Vista airport. After paying the airport taxes, refueling the RV-8, and fulfilling long airport procedures, Michel was ready to meet the challenge ahead: Medellín.
Michel planned to use IFR (I follow roads) when crossing the mountains; it’s always a safe idea to follow the roads when crossing mountains. Expected departure time was changed from 10:30 to 13:00 Zulu, but Michel was happy that he could now fly, instead of spending hours getting permission to fly.
It would not be an easy flight. The possibility of engine problems posed a serious threat, and Michel also had to consider nausea and headaches due to the high altitude and lack of supplemental oxygen. While on this flight, Michel did manage to accomplish one of his bucket list items: wetting his wings flying through Angel Falls. This was a dream come true for him. Then later, he had to cross the Andes mountain range, threading the RV-8 around severe thunderstorms waiting for him in his route.
Since the flight to Medellín was a small triumph, now it was time to go to Guatemala. This route took Michel over Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. After landing, it was time for the 50-hour maintenance aircraft check where the oil and oil filter were changed, plugs were cleaned, and an oil leak at the forward crankshaft seal was fixed. The aircraft was now airworthy once again.
Next on the list was the Mexican port of entry at Tapachula, from which Michel would fly to Huatulco and then into Toluca. He was concerned about the days ahead though, because flying at high altitudes over the tall mountains meant extreme cold, and Michel was not ice proof.
After a short 200-mile hop from Guatemala City to Tapachula, Michel flew another 200 miles to Huatulco, where a local news team was waiting to interview him. He couldn’t know that a few unforeseen problems were lurking there as well.
Mexico to the Bahamas
Europeans do not need a visa to visit the United States unless they fly in a private plane. Michel had plans to attend the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-in and Expo at Lakeland, Florida, but his plans were foiled when he found out that he needed a visa to bring his aircraft into the USA. After many phone calls between Michel, the Sky Polaris team, and U.S. Customs, he relocated from Mexico City to Reynosa, Mexico, just a few miles from the U.S./Mexican border, in hopes of legally solving the issue in time so he could attend the event.
Michel took every possible action as directed to him by the authorities, but sadly, his efforts were in vain. One U.S. Border Patrol official had ignored simple alternative solutions and stubbornly would not allow the RV-8 to enter into the U.S. This triggered a ripple effect that caused delays for the flight and other serious problems.
An explorer is ready to take on deviations—even big ones—but not being allowed into the U.S. was a devastating problem for the flight. Because of this, the flight had to be re-routed to the Bahama Islands. The friends, officials, newspaper reporters, magazine writers, and dozens of others who hoped to meet and interview Michel at Sun ’n Fun would not be able to see him. Michel was also supposed to receive more survival equipment (flare gun, parachute, etc.) for the North Pole legs while in Lakeland, but it was not to be.
After departing Reynosa, Michel skirted the U.S. border along the Gulf of Mexico and flew directly over Lakeland, Florida, where he was able to broadcast to the ground crew waiting 10,000 feet below him. They heard him, but he could not hear them. So close.
The Bahamas to Canada
After one quick day in the Bahamas, Michel departed Freeport, Grand Bahamas Island, and flew non-stop, covering 1100 miles in 9.5 hours. He landed in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where the temperature was 2° F (-17° C) as he was descending for the approach. It was quite a change from the tropical weather just that morning. The light clothing Michel was wearing didn’t help either, but a cup of coffee given to him by airport staff warmed him a little. Michel had built this aircraft to be able to cross continents and oceans, and because of his abilities, the journey went on.
Michel’s travels made the earth look small—at least for him. He departed Windsor, landing next at Red Lake, Ontario. The plan was now to fly to Churchill, Manitoba, near Hudson Bay. This would serve as a staging point for the semi-grand finale of the first part of the flight—flying over the North Pole. Most people can’t even imagine the vast distances covered by Michel, but he makes it look easy because of his piloting skills and the capabilities of the RV-8.
After a stop at Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada, the weather became the most important factor. As all pilots know, icing on any surface of the airplane is hazardous, and even more so because Michel’s RV-8 was already loaded to the maximum weight with fuel, pilot, and survival gear. Michel had to be careful to not allow icing on the wings, tail, and propeller; flights from here on required the utmost attention to detail as even a single mistake could cost Michel his life.
The next stop was Resolute, Nunavut, about 850 miles from Michel’s current position. “It will cost you $1,500” is not the ideal welcome you want to hear when you have traveled thousands of miles through multiple dangers and unending bureaucracy. But this was the cost of a night’s stay for the RV-8 in an unheated hangar in Resolute, a remote town high up on the Hudson Bay. Perhaps that is a typical fee for a millionaire’s Gulfstream, but for the average person, that fee would be the end of the trip.
North Pole and Beyond
From Resolute, Michel planned to refuel, fly across the North Pole, and into Norway. Michel’s safety was in jeopardy because this flight was dangerous, with weather, mechanical, and human factors that could affect the aircraft and the pilot. The ground crew and watchers around the world were very anxious, but Michel was confident—he was looking forward to this challenge, as it was one of the main goals of the flight.
The Arctic is all ice, frozen tundra, and small frozen lakes that are both never ending as well as unforgiving. Michel needed to cross them before reaching the North Pole and flying under the North Star. The goal was well within Michel’s grasp, and only a handful of pilots have achieved what Michel was about to do.
Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is in the middle of a frozen ocean. There are no landmarks with billboards saying “Welcome to the North Pole.” It’s all ice—no polar bears like in the cartoons, no Santa Claus, no humans, no time zone—only ice. An emergency landing here is dangerous to say the least, and rescue would take many days to arrive, if Michel could be found at all.
Finally, at about 22:50 Zulu (01:50 Madrid time), Michel crossed the North Pole. It was an achievement that was accomplished by Michel’s immense determination toward engineering, endurance, and a passion for flying like no other. He had built an aircraft in his garage and flown thousands of miles, overcoming physical, emotional, financial, political, and administrative barriers. Yet he achieved something that was deeply embedded in his heart, and that deserves more than a bit of celebration. However, time is always ticking, and Michel’s only celebration was to make a few victory laps around the North Pole. He made one for each of his major sponsors. By doing this, he was able to fly around the world many times in just a few minutes!
Unfortunately, all GPS navigation was lost when overflying the North Pole. The systems were not programmed for 90 degrees latitude. Just before going off, Michel was reading 3000 knots GPS groundspeed. Then he used the sun to provide his heading into Svalbard, Norway, his destination.
From 90 degrees north, Michel headed south (any direction is south). It was all downhill. After stopping in Norway, then Germany, he headed back to Madrid where he would rest for a few days, then start the next leg of the flight. It was time to head south—and across the South Pole.