Going to Extremes

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

If all this gazing at airplanes gives you the urge to travel, airplanes at EAA AirVenture can show you the way to the ends of the earth: A restored DC-3 carries well-heeled tourists to the South Pole, while French aviator Hubert de Chevigny plans to fly his "aerial SUV" to the North Pole the hard way: navigating only by the sun. AVweb News Editor Mary Grady explores both up and down.

DC-3 skisStaring into all that blue sky during a week at Oshkosh can give people ideas. The airplanes exude an aura of romance, the breezes blow from far horizons, the glamorous flying boats and biplanes raise visions of exotic lands and high adventure. And for those who suffer from that itch to set out and explore this big round world, somewhere there's an aircraft ready to fly to the ends of the earth. And this being AirVenture '99, those aircraft are right here on Wittman Field.

Attracting attention near the West Ramp is a beautifully restored DC-3 on skis, ready to fly to the South Pole with any intrepid tourist who can pay the freight. The big twin has been completely stripped down and refitted by Basler Turbo Conversions, based here at OSH. Contracted by Adventure Network, which has been operating Antarctic tours for about 15 years, the spanking-new turbo conversion is equipped with long-range tanks, all-new avionics, and a wide-open cabin with lots of room for cargo along with up to 22 pax. The nose was stretched out about 40 inches to compensate for the heavy new engines, and it's a long, steep walk up to the cockpit from the rear cargo door.

Doug Wenzel, of Basler Turbo Conversions, says the company has restored 35 old DC-3s over the last 12 years. They now live all over the world — flying in the air forces of Bolivia, Mali, Guatemala and elsewhere; surveying geophysical features in Johannesburg; hauling smoke jumpers for the U.S. Forest Service; and seeding clouds in Thailand. Not one seems in danger of dying of boredom.

Another viewThe latest Basler baby will fly to Antarctica in October and stay there through April, says Bernie Elms, an Englishman who coordinates the trips. Tourists come from all over the world and fly across the Southern Ocean in a stretched C-130. The new DC-3, operating from blue-ice runways, will cart them around to the garden spots of the ice pack: the pole itself; Mount Vinson, the highest Antarctic mountain peak — a mecca to climbers determined to bag the Seven Summits — and other isolated spots where tourists can soak up the natural beauty, watch the wildlife, rock-climb, skydive, ski and snowboard.

Antarctica is a hotel-free continent, but tour operators find ways to offer luxury to their guests. Travelers may stay in tents, but they get real meals, library and video tents, medical support, and guided trips onto the ice to learn survival techniques, rock-climbing, and other outdoor skills. The millennium is a big draw, Elms said: He expects about 100 people will travel to the South Pole for December 31, nearly twice the number usually found there at any one time. Some clients plan to ski across the continent, which takes about two months; others will be dropped off closer in and ski to the pole for New Year's Eve; others plan to skydive in. Elms said his own preference is to "fly straight there and have tea and crumpets."

If Antarctica the pampered way doesn't appeal to you, maybe the North Pole the hard way will capture your imagination. French aviator Hubert de Chevigny arrived at AirVenture Thursday, where his unique "flying Winnebago," the Private Explorer, is resting on the Experimental flight line. De Chevigny, who flew to the Pole in 1987 in an Avid Flyer ultralight, is planning to reach the pole again next spring in the Explorer — and to land there, navigating only by the sun.

De Chevigny said the motivation for the flight is to research the accuracy of the navigation used by early aerial polar explorers, in the 1920s. "We want to navigate exactly as Byrd and Amundsen did," he said. To do that, he will have to make several landings on the ice and take a sextant sight on the sun, then wait four hours and do it again. And hope that the weather cooperates and the ice doesn't shift in the meantime. "If you can land on safe ice, you can wait. It can be four hours or four days. But you are on the sea there," de Chevigny said. The movements of the ice, like the whims of the Arctic weather, can be unpredictable.

De Chevigny's base team at Resolute Bay will track the entire flight by satellite, but the flight crew won't have access to that data. After the flight the two tracks will be compared — what the satellites showed, and where the flight crew thought they were. "Then we can understand how difficult or easy it is to navigate with astronomical methods," de Chevigny said. "We hope to bring new insight to old questions about the North Pole conquest." Since the early explorers never landed at the pole, de Chevigny said, questions about the accuracy of their fixes have never been settled. He hopes historians can use the data from his flight in their research.

Since he's been to the Arctic before, de Chevigny has no illusions about what he will face there. He plans to be at Resolute Bay next April, and wait for a weather window that will let him start out on the 7- to 10-day flight. He may not get one, and will wait to try again the following year. If he's very lucky, he said, he'll get good weather with a moon to help in navigation, and make the flight to the pole and back with no delays. But he'll be prepared to wait out the weather on the ice if he has to, and even to abandon the airplane and travel on skis if it comes to that.

The airplane itself is a wonder. It's not pretty, but it sure looks ready to go anywhere. The cabin is tall enough to stand up in, broad enough to stretch both arms wide. The kit was designed by Dean Wilson, who also designed the Avid Flyer. In the rear is a platform for a full-size bed — that's right, you can sleep in this airplane. The floor is mahogany, and the cockpit has dual stick controls. The wood-and-fabric wings are 47 feet long, and they're wide enough for two airshow-watchers to sit side-by-side in the shade. It cruises at 112 mph and takes off in just over 800 feet.

Take your pick, north or south, east or west, near or far — if you can imagine it, you can find an airplane to take you there. So dream on, and here at AirVenture, you might find those dreams can come true.