Around the World and Over Both Poles - Part 3
Sky Polaris—a historic flight in an RV-8.
Michel spent 10 days at Mario Zucchelli Station in Antarctica. The team of scientists and station staff were very supportive and helped him remove the skis from the RV-8, plan the rest of the flight, and offered friendship, a bed, and good food.
Even from 10,000 miles away, Michel still found time to update the Sky Polaris team, sending photos of the station through WhatsApp showing the RV-8 parked on six and a half feet of solid ice with another 13,000 feet of ocean below. The RV-8 was performing optimally, but there were serious concerns about the drop-in speed and the unpredictable Antarctic weather. Speed was down by 11 knots because of the skis, but without them, there was a chance of the aircraft flipping over during an emergency landing on the ice and snow.
Michel was closely monitoring the weather. He was planning to leave the station on November 9. Katabatic winds were around, and in the Antarctic, this can mean trouble. Winds on the surface were also unpredictable. While at the station, Michel received a message that the RV-8 was experiencing winds over 80 knots. When the winds started, Michel and several staff members rushed to the RV-8, which was tied down on the ice, totally exposed to the full effect of the wind. It was literally in danger of being blown away. The staff generously drove a large snowcat in front of the plane to shield it from the wind.
The RV-8 has no anti-icing system, but Michel was planning to fly it in the iciest part of the world. It has a 193-gallon (730-liter) fuel capacity, enough for 24 hours of endurance, but would that be enough for the remaining segments of this dangerous two-month journey? Michel also had to consider temperatures reaching -31° F (-35° C), weather conditions that change every hour, and scarce fuel availability. And as any pilot knows, preparations, plans, and predictions are often quite different from what really happens.
Crossing the South Pole
When Michel departed Mario Zuchelli Station, his position was 74 degrees south. Longitude didn’t matter; he only had to go south and he would reach the South Pole. The aircraft was heavy with fuel, and it was difficult to gain airspeed and altitude. On climbout, strong winds produced huge rotors that could have caused the tiny RV-8 to crash. Fortunately, Michel was quick enough to turn toward the open sea to avoid the dangerous downdrafts. Whirlwinds at the surface also posed a threat. Michel was feeling apprehensive, and concerns arose for a brief moment. He tried several times to contact nearby McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center, but he did not receive a reply.
Michel knew he’d be flying for more than 19 hours with only a few hours of reserve fuel left, so he had to concentrate. Even a small mistake could cost him his life, so there was no room for error. The closer he got to the pole, the more the headwinds increased, limiting his ground speed to as low as 80 knots. It was crucial for him to maintain at least 120 knots in order to reach Marambio Base, the permanent Argentine Antarctic station, where fuel was waiting. With its cleared runway, lights, navigational aids, etc., Marambio is used to supply other bases in Antarctica and has the capability to handle large aircraft such as C-130s.
The South Pole is high, about 9300 feet. It is at the Antarctic Plateau, which averages 9843 feet in elevation, with a diameter of 621 miles. It is extremely cold and always windy. Extreme low temperatures, high elevation, and low pressures are very difficult to deal with in a small aircraft like the RV-8.
The temperature was -24° F (-31° C), but the heater was working well. As expected, winds were blowing fast, and clouds of ice crystals were always present, reducing horizontal visibility 1000 feet up from the ground. Finally, with fingers crossed and much anticipation, the team received a message from Michel that he had reached the South Pole! This was a historic moment achieved by a determined pilot. However, the trip wasn’t over yet—he still had to travel 1800 miles to reach Marambio.
As the fuel situation became more serious, Michel tried to contact several Antarctic stations by radio and phone. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, they refused to answer. Next, he notified the Sky Polaris team. They called contacts at Union Glacier, Sky Blu, and Rothera, three Antarctic stations along the way. After much negotiation, they agreed to provide humanitarian support, but no fuel. This was a complete turnaround from previous promises of fuel and support should Michel need it. In fact, the Antarctic commissions of several countries all signed an agreement of support. Nevertheless, when the time came, that support was not delivered.
Michel knew if he landed at one of the camps, the project would come to a stop. No fuel meant the aircraft would stay there indefinitely. This situation put him in a position where he was willing to take a risk. But as they say, “Fortune favors the brave,” so he continued on, hoping for predicted tailwinds. In some areas, the tailwinds appeared sporadically, giving Michel the 120-knot average speed that would help him reach Marambio.
Out of the blue, Michel received a call from Rothera Station asking about his status. He told them that he had decided not to land there. He asked about the weather conditions at Marambio, but they would not give him that information.
As Michel approached Marambio, he was over a huge cloud layer, which could cause icing should he need to descend through it. His fuel level was very low. Finally, Marambio was in VHF contact. The controller was kind and provided Michel with a radial and distance toward open sky.
Marambio Base is at a top of a hill. Winds were blowing at more than 25 knots, and downdrafts were present during final approach. This is not a good thing to have during landing after flying for an exhausting 21 hours. The landing was bouncy, but Michel arrived safely with just over 2 hours of reserve fuel left. Through pure determination, skill, and a bit of luck, his flight across Antarctica was successful! Of course, the outcome could have been far worse.
Antarctica to Argentina
From Marambio Base, Michel’s next destination was Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina. Rio Grande, Argentina, was the alternate. The weather forecast for the crossing was poor, as usual, with icing, winds, blowing snow, and low ceilings. He enlisted the help of the Marambio staff to remove the belly tank and refuel the RV-8.
A globetrotter like Michel makes many friends along the way, and while there were times of celebration, there were also times of sad goodbyes. Michel was reminded of that during his takeoff from Marambio. As he cranked the starter and heard the sputter of the engine, he realized that he was leaving behind friends and a historic achievement. He departed at 14:00 UTC and flew the “short” leg from Marambio, Antarctica, to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Without the belly tank, the RV-8 accelerated faster, and Michel could see waving hands disappear as he climbed out of Marambio. It was a moment of a lifetime. He had conquered the continent of Antarctica and accomplished what few others have done. He had realized his dream, even while enduring untold nightmares.
The moment of triumph was soon over, however, when Michel saw a thick layer of cloud underneath. That meant trouble. Clouds are to the sky what sharks are to the sea, and they are always looking for prey. Michel remained calm, found an opening, and slid between the circling sharks. The flight to Ushuaia was hard since snow and showers had him deviating most of the time, and he was flying with little forward visibility. After flying 4 hours and traveling about 750 miles, Michel was relieved to see the city of Ushuaia and the runway at the airport. Knowing that he had just successfully crossed Antarctica and the Southern Ocean gave him much joy and filled him with gratitude. At last, he could rest and relax for several days.
After landing at Ushuaia, Michel was joined by his partner, Paula Saiz de Bustamante. Michel also met with Antarctic representatives and made a statement that all scientific projects should be given support. After all, it is for the good of the planet. His treatment by the stations that refused him support was life threatening, not just to him, but to others who might cross the Antarctic following in his tracks.
Although the temptation of even more rest was alluring, there was always the flight schedule calling Michel to fly, fly, fly. The next leg was northbound from Ushuaia to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. The distance is another 684 miles, and Michel would be flying to the warmer regions of Argentina after leaving the very cold tip of South America.
Michel was ready to depart, but bad weather at Ushuaia prevented him from leaving on schedule. This allowed for another day of rest! The threat of icing is a dangerous factor for any small aircraft because even small amounts of ice can kill lift and create drag. In the case of an RV-8, icing can form on the canopy as well, making a safe landing impossible and a very bad landing mandatory.
On November 20 at 13:21 UTC, Michel departed Ushuaia and was on his way to Comodoro Rivadavia. Good weather and clear skies were a refreshing change, given that Michel had been battling icy winds, snow, and clouds on the last few legs. This provided some relaxation, and it was a good time to take some photos.
The landing at Comodoro Rivadavia was not an ideal one. The left landing gear felt like it was glued to the runway after slowing to a stop, and Michel was unable to taxi. He had to stop his engine in the middle of the runway to check things out. At first he thought the tire was flat, but a quick visual check showed it was still round. Ultimately, Michel found that he had accidently moved the parking brake lever into the parked position. He was lucky that the aircraft did not cartwheel across the runway.
After a welcome and relaxing stay at Comodoro Rivadavia, Michel was ready to fly to his next destination, Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. As he moved toward the equator, the tropical views made him feel calmer. Even though Madrid, Spain, was still half the world away, he felt as if he was almost home.
Back to Brazil
On November 26, Michel left Buenos Aires and headed toward Iguazu Falls Airport in Brazil. Iguazu is a major tourist attraction with lush tropical scenery. It was a short hop across the border, and for once there were no problems with entry. Michel had clear skies, as well as a clearance to land. The process was very simple and a huge relief from the problems of the past few weeks.
Next, Michel landed at Campo dos Amarais airport, near São Paulo, Brazil, where he spent three days and visited Carlos Edo, an airshow pilot who performs his routine in a T-6.
From São Paulo, Michel flew north toward Brasília, the capital of Brazil. The original plan was to fly to Rio de Janeiro, but bad weather forced him to fly directly to Brasília. At that point Michel knew he would be arriving in Madrid a little earlier than planned.
The landing at a small airstrip east of Brasília was difficult. The runway is located inside a valley, and the approach is made very low to avoid the ILS path at Brasília International. Michel decided to fly the final approach at 80 knots instead of 75. To allow for a possible go-around, the flaps were at half position. Since the runway has a 10-degree upslope, the runway itself would stop the aircraft without using the brakes. The landing was fine, and it was time to relax and have some fun.
While in Brasília, Michel stayed with fellow “earth rounder” Gerard Moss, who was a good friend. In 2001, on Michel’s second round-the-world flight, the two accidentally met by chance in Seattle, Washington.
Leaving Brasília, the next stop was Natal, which is the departure point for flying eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa.
Friendly, puffy clouds can become thunderstorms quickly, and Michel saw dozens of towering cumulonimbus, which he slalomed his way through during his flights in Brazil. The troposphere becomes higher closer to the equator. Rain is usually not a problem, but hail and turbulence can be brutal. Even at high altitudes, hail can destroy a small plane. It is nature’s artillery. Michel successfully avoided thunderclouds, hail, and rain, and was able to view the beautiful scenery of farms, homes, rivers, and small cities as they slid under his wings.
When Michel reached the Brazilian coastal city of Natal, it was for the second time. Natal was his first landing point in South America on his journey to the North Pole. Since the FAI requires pilots to return to their starting point for a world record to be achieved, Michel had to go around the world 1.5 times—he needed to get back to Madrid before the champagne bottles could pop!
Nevertheless, at this point in the journey, Michel had reached his personal goal of flying around the world and over both poles. It’s the kind of aviation accomplishment that calls for a celebration, and Natal is the perfect place. Michel took a few days off before departing to the island country of Cabo Verde, Africa.
Crossing the Atlantic—Again
An oceanic crossing is never simple, and there are a million things that can go wrong. In spite of all his experience, Michel knew the 1647-mile flight was dangerous, and he wanted to cover the distance in daylight. On the morning of December 7, he received clearance to depart South America.
The RV-8 cockpit is a small space. There is constant pressure, both physically and mentally, from lack of sleep and not being able to eat and drink properly while reading maps, monitoring instruments, and flying the plane. Of course, using the bathroom is a whole issue unto itself! The stamina, drive, and self-motivation needed to pull off something like this is truly incredible. It’s also the reason why only a few people in the world have ever done it.
During the flight over the Atlantic, cumulonimbus clouds were once again a constant menace. As Michel headed east, he fought heavy headwinds and thunderstorms almost the entire distance. For 10.5 hours, it was never-ending pounding, bouncing, rolling and pitching. Michel touched down at the Praia airport, located on the east side of Cabo Verde Island, at 19:45 UTC, and the exhausting flight was finally over.
After a little rest and a lot of maintenance for the RV, Michel departed for Lanzarote, Canary Islands, located off the coast of Morocco, Africa. He referred to the 995-mile flight as a “short hop,” and once again, he was flying in the skies above the Atlantic Ocean.
Peter Schneider, a project team member in Germany, noticed that the Spidertracks system had stopped displaying Michel’s progress. As can be imagined, there are several reasons other than a downed aircraft that can hinder a tracking system’s performance, and a call to Michel’s satellite phone confirmed that he was OK. This malfunction caused concern for team members around the world.
Mechanical problems also appeared while landing at Lanzarote Airport. During preflight at Cabo Verde, Michel checked the brakes and brake fluid level. All tested OK, but during that flight, there was a hydraulic leak. When Michel applied the brakes at Lanzarote, they failed on one wheel. Fortunately, he was able to turn off the runway safely and onto a taxiway. Some serious skill and experience was needed, not to mention a little bit of luck. But finally, Michel was on Spanish land with only a few legs to go to until he was home.
The record breaking, round-the-world trip was about to come to an end. At 10:00 UTC, Michel said adiós to his new friends at Lanzarote and flew the long leg over the coast of North Africa to La Axarquía, a small airfield in Spain, located east of Málaga International Airport. This time, the landing was without incident and with brakes. At about 14:50 UTC, friends and well-wishers greeted Michel, now a world record-breaking explorer and scientist.
Málaga is a beautiful place. The white sand beaches and sunny weather were perfect for Michel to relax. Who wouldn’t, after travelling around the world and over the two poles? But at this point, it was time for Michel to go home.
On Thursday, December 15, 2016, he flew to his home base of Madrid. The arrival was around 12:30 p.m. local time, and the airport was teeming with government officials, friends, and teammates, all waiting to see Michel raise his arms in victory.
He had accomplished his dream of setting an FAI record in the C-1c category for speed around the world over both poles. Along the way, he made friends, defied death, and solved all the problems that fate could throw at him—political, financial, mechanical—even unhelpful people! Michel Gordillo can truly be called a hero to the aviation world.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
There were lots of numbers during the project. Here are some highlights:
47,473 - Miles flown. (Note that the Earth is “only” 24,855 miles in circumference.)
19,998 - Miles flown over open ocean.
2972 - Miles flown in one flight (across Antarctica)
15,748 - Highest altitude flown (in feet)
305 - Tach hours sitting alone in the cockpit of the RV-8.
1 - Number of aviators who have flown around the world over both poles in a C1-c category aircraft.
∞ - Infinite value to the aviation and scientific world.