Around the World and Over Both Poles - Part 2
Sky Polaris—a historic flight in an RV-8.
Flying is peaceful, the engine droning, wind whistling, your mind roaming to different thoughts as it gives birth to a new perspective. You reach out for your thermos to sip some hot coffee—but it’s not hot anymore. You start feeling cold, alone, and want to talk to someone, but you can’t. You fear that your engine might give out, but thinking about topping the world gives you strength. For a pilot like Michel Gordillo, it was a privilege to encounter those thrilling moments.
Preparing for Antarctica
Flying long distances carries the threat of engine failure, bad weather, health problems, safety, and the stress of not getting clearances. This time, though, at least one thing was different: The Spanish Polar Committee, El Comité Polar Español (CPE), had granted clearance under scientific grounds, and in order to brighten up Michel’s day, the Spanish government started to recognize his efforts. He received his passport from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, and Sky Polaris was now considered a governmental project. This meant that Michel now had support from the countries under the Antarctic Polar Program. They would provide airfields for landing and rescue services if needed.
With this leg of the flight now leaning toward the positive, the Sky Polaris team had plenty of incentive to work harder to make the project go smoothly. Michel went into engineering mode to improve the canopy seal and increase aircraft heating. He intended to be warm and calm for this flight, not cold and shivering, taking a lesson learned during the Arctic flight.
Sponsorships were ready, the flight was approved, logistics inside Antarctica were prepared, and the team was planning for Michel to depart across the central Sahara Desert in October. New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Russia, Chile, and Argentina offered their support for the flight across Antarctica. For the other landing strips, no fuel or support was going to be provided, just an emergency landing. Perhaps support has different meanings across the globe. Emergencies are not predictable because they can happen any time in the form of engine failure or almost anything else. The French Polar Authority was generous enough to let Michel use the Dumont d’Urville Station’s airfield in such a case.
Because Antarctica is not wheel friendly, Michel installed skis for a safe landing on the ice desert. They were donated by Patrick Gilligan, vice president of operations for the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. Skis create drag and are heavier than just wheels, but safety is more important.
Although flying around the world is fun and an accomplishment, this experience has a price. It is expensive and tiring. You have to prepare for each country and deal with their rules and regulations while keeping your spirit of adventure always on. Some countries will give you good experiences, while others may give you nightmares in the form of visa fees and expensive, low-standard food and lodging.
People too challenge your mission, and many try to prevent success. The key here is adaptation. Since someone like Michel likes to experience new cultures, he found most of the people he met during his journey kind and helpful—well, except those in charge of landing and overflight permits. It seems that official procedures and a free spirit do not go well together.
With an improved heating system, new Spidertracks position tracking system, and an improved Aethalometer, the RV-8 was ready to go. The Spidertracks system enables aircraft tracking and person-to-person communication through either desktop or mobile devices. It provides simple, reliable communication anywhere in the world, so Michel wouldn’t feel alone during this leg of the flight.
It was now time for some relaxation, finding faith, and fighting nightmares. In other words, it was time for Michel to prepare himself mentally for the journey he was about to take. As the South Pole is very far from Spain, the plan was to depart on October 1 and fly over the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indian Ocean, Australia, and finally to the Antarctic. No other single-pilot aircraft weighing less than 3307 pounds (1500 kilograms) had done that before, but it was time for Michel to prove the impossible.
The Flight Begins
The two-month-long journey started as Michel rocked his wings goodbye to waving friends over Madrid, Spain. With the highly customized RV-8 and Sky Polaris team on his side, Michel was confident. An exciting but dangerous fact about this journey was the ever-changing route. There were deviations because of weather, fuel availability, and lack of permission to cross several countries. Fuel costs and clearances were problems in Africa and were threats to the journey that everyone hoped could be solved. During the North Pole flight, Michel was denied entry into the USA because of one customs officer. He and the team hoped to be treated better by officials during this leg of the trip.
After only 3 hours of flight, the RV-8 landed in Menorca, with the Spidertracks system working well and the SOS system successfully tested. In case of an emergency, the SOS signal would notify through email and SMS (text messaging) the key members of the Sky Polaris project in Spain and Seattle, who were well prepared to manage this type of situation.
Everything was going smoothly— so well in fact that Michel was able to continue to his next destination, the beautiful country of Malta. Michel maintained 1000 feet for 20 nautical miles until he was cleared to climb and reach colder air. There was a small problem with communications. Transmission and receiving was noisy, but Michel figured the belly tank was blocking the radio signals.
Michel avoided Algeria and crossed Sardinia, where the beautiful cliffs and bays were inspiring. He landed the RV-8 at Malta, and a Spidertracks landing report was sent; Michel learned later that the landing report was only sent via email, so the text was not received. This was alarming news.
Malta was a refreshing experience, but soon it was time to fly to Egypt. The friendly tailwinds didn’t help the climb because there was a lot of turbulence. Wind conditions can make life difficult, but not as difficult as controllers. Michel was instructed by a Maltese controller to fly to Patix and climb to 8500 feet before reaching Arlos point. That meant another 100-nautical-mile detour with an overwater crossing while flying with an oil temperature caution light on. An hour and a half of additional flying time in a small aircraft, with absolutely no way to change the flight controller’s decision, will make almost anyone angry.
After the intentionally prolonged journey, Michel landed at a military/civilian airport amid a supportive staff. He was fatigued after this much flying, but when Antarctica is the final destination, this was nothing. The next leg would be a 7.5hour flight (plus ATC delays), but at least Antarctica seemed nearer.
Although customs and immigration are pretty much the same everywhere, sometimes you can be detained for carrying a GoPro camera, so it’s important to know these things in advance and be honest about it with the airport staff. “You are cleared” was perhaps the most exciting sentence Michel had heard all day, and he took off for Alexandria, followed by a trip to Sudan.
The desert looks enchanting from above, almost like Mars. It’s something you can truly enjoy inside your own plane with an autopilot. While an updraft doesn’t affect the autopilot, a downdraft, on the other hand, can be dangerous because the autopilot will try to maintain an altitude, and that causes the speed to go lower. There is danger of the plane stalling or going into a spin. The RV-8 landed in Sudan, but the landing was a little bouncy due to wind. This short stop added an $1100 expense for 53 gallons (200 liters) of fuel.
It’s important to learn the rules of each country, especially if the rules are based on Shariah law. Michel found out the hard way as angry men in army uniforms arrested him for taking what he thought were harmless photos. Unfortunately, that appears to be against the law in Sudan. Fortunately, he was not abused; they let him go with a warning and were nice enough to not confiscate his camera.
Michel was anxious to get out of Sudan and rightly so after paying unreasonable amounts for fuel and other expenses, being arrested for snapping a photo, and being taken as a hostage to pay fees that he clearly did not owe. But continuing the journey was more important than taking an ethical stand. It cost Michel more than $2400 just to get out of Sudan. After all those problems, he was finally free and back in the sky, heading toward Malindi on the Indian Ocean coast in Kenya.
This long and stressful flight ended when Michel arrived at Malindi’s near-pitch-black Runway 17. Landings are not allowed after sunset, but the controller cleared him for a special VFR approach, which helped reduce some of the stress produced by unreliable airport closing information and low airspeed caused by the belly tank. After a short one-day stay, Michel left Malindi and was off to Seychelles. The engine did not overheat and the smooth ride was like a sign of good things to come. Nevertheless, there is always a catch—in this case an exorbitant landing fee.
“That will be $960,” said a civil aviation officer at Seychelles Airport, “but you have to pay via our handling agent.” Imagine going by car and not knowing that each stop would cost this much! The $960 charge was only for the airport’s landing fee. Fuel, food, and lodging were separate. Payments had to be made in cash, and Michel was not expecting this expense, as his stay there was short.
On October 14, Michel was island hopping. His next destination after Seychelles was the Republic of Maldives, a small island country located in the Indian Ocean. This was a dangerous 1250-mile flight over deep ocean. At about 09:21 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the Sky Polaris team received a Tier 1 SOS from the aircraft. All key members of the project were notified through the Spidertracks system, and they jumped into action to start rescue procedures. The SOS would escalate to Tier 2 if it was not cancelled by Michel as a false alarm.
Calls from team members to Michel’s satellite phone were not reaching him, causing panic, as Michel’s status was unknown. Thankfully, Paula Bustamante, his partner and Sky Polaris member in Madrid, was finally able to reach him, and he told her it was a false alarm caused by a quick turn. Others believed Michel just wanted to make sure the Sky Polaris staff in Seattle were awake.
Maldives, the Cocos Islands, and Australia
When Michel left Madrid for the first leg of this flight, he had one goal in mind: to cross the South Pole and come back safely to Madrid. As an experienced pilot, he understood the dangers of flying nonstop, covering long distances over deserts and oceans. Imagine the kind of courage needed to pull off this feat. Engineering and piloting skills aside, the courage to risk his life was needed as well. Michel was not just risking his life for personal achievement, but also for environmental science.
Upon reaching Maldives, Michel and his friends, Paco Martinez and Mayte Escudé, spent time doing aircraft maintenance under the very nice support of the Asian Academy of Aeronautics. After a few days and a good rest, he departed the Maldivian Islands and was en route to the Cocos Islands, which is a 1678-mile journey over the ocean. The SOS system was a good insurance policy, but for this trip, there were no rescue services for thousands of miles.
This long journey meant that Michel had to climb to 7000–8000 feet to increase range by reducing drag and fuel burn. The aircraft was flying smoothly until the speed dropped. Michel realized there was no reason for the speed to decrease unless there was a possibility that a UFO was pulling him back with a tractor beam.
After the speed drop, the ammeter started flashing a warning. There was no voltage drop or alternator failure, and Michel was still in his seat, not being beamed up to the alien ship, so UFOs were discounted. A simple “breaker in, breaker out” routine cleared all instruments, and the flight continued normally.
This was a windy, turbulent 12-hour flight, the eighth-longest flight of the project. Upon reaching the Cocos Islands, Michel had only one thing in mind—a bed and sleep.
After a brief, enjoyable stay, Michel departed the Cocos Islands, headed to Port Hedland, Australia, which is yet another island, only a bit larger than the others. Michel flew above 10,000 feet for safety reasons. Predictions of thunderclouds along the route meant he might encounter some turbulence at lower altitudes. On the other hand, high altitudes can cause headaches, especially when flying above 10,000 feet. Some countries make it mandatory to carry oxygen when reaching those altitudes. Michel did not have oxygen, but he was comfortable up to about 10,500 feet. This was an easy flight because he was happy knowing that after this, he would make history.
The RV-8 took off from Port Hedland toward Ayers Rock, a 912-mile journey. Ayers Rock is a beautiful place named after the famous monolithic rock rising 1100 feet out of the Central Australian desert.
The South Pole was now getting closer and closer. As Michel departed Ayers Rock to Mildura, the grape region of Australia, each milestone was greeted with excitement, along with prayers.
Flying was enjoyable in Australia. Pictures can be taken, no one abused prices, and most of the northern airports used a CTAF frequency, which Michel preferred over controlled airports. Nevertheless, Australia is still heavy on the wallet, and a night’s stay in a hotel cost $460. But it is a beautiful place, and he loved it.
Saying goodbye to Mildura was hard, especially since Michel hadn’t seen a single kangaroo. He departed for the Island of Tasmania, which was a grueling 700-mile flight, and landed at the Southern Tasmanian city of Hobart. This was a busy time because Michel had to install skis, another Spidertracks system, and an emergency locator beacon. He also fixed his com radio. There was no time for rest, and everything had to be perfect before he departed for the next leg of his journey.
Making the Jump to Antarctica
This leg was the most dangerous ocean crossing of the entire project. The distance from Tasmania to the Antarctic continent is 2485 miles, crossing one of the most remote oceans on the planet. Search-and-rescue missions would take 3–5 days to reach the area, and only a few ships travel in this region, with almost zero air traffic. The Australian Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) was generous enough to monitor this flight and provide information that could be used in case of an emergency.
During his Arctic flight, Michel had proven that he and his RV-8 were dependable, and flight safety was always at the top of everyone’s list. He also had all the necessary survival gear and equipment to help him cope with an emergency. The RV-8 was equipped with an EPIRB, ELT, Satellite Phone, VHF and HF radios, and the Spidertracks system had an SOS feature. Michel, on the other hand, wore a dry suit and had an inflatable raft. The Sky Polaris team tracked the aircraft the entire distance and monitored its progress diligently.
Departing Tasmania, Michel’s destination was Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station in Antarctica. Through the Spidertracks system, he was able to report distance and speeds to the Sky Polaris staff. The ski installation made the aircraft heavier with much more drag, so the speed was about 100–110 knots at an altitude of 2000 feet. Winds were predicted to be calm at the time of Michel’s arrival, with a rather warm temperature for the Antarctic of 14° F (-10° C).
The overall flight took 17 hours to complete. How many of us can sit in one place for 17 hours at a time? The Mario Zucchelli Station is located on the shores of eastern Antarctica and is one of the most dangerous places in the world to fly. Michel flew for 2200 miles battling strong headwinds, but took advantage of the tailwinds when they occurred. All the while, he was thinking about the landing on ice and snow. Landing on skis can be tricky, even for an experienced taildragger pilot like Michel. He had landed thousands of times on wheels, but never on skis.
On November 1, 2016, Michel touched down in Antarctica. The landing was difficult as predicted; there were deep ruts and grooves on the runway caused by heavier aircraft. Landing the small RV-8 on the snow-covered, icy runaway was exciting to say the least. But Michel followed the flatter areas and avoided the grooves. He had successfully arrived in his tiny, homebuilt aircraft on the icy Antarctic continent—alone.