British pilot establishes new helicopter record

 - March 22, 2007, 8:30 AM

As the only approved IFR-capable MD 500E in the world, N5144Q is no ordinary MD 500E helicopter. To stand a chance of bettering Ron Bower’s solo 1994 round-the-world-in-a-helicopter record, Simon Oliphant-Hope needed to have it back in the UK. The managing director of Eastern Atlantic Helicopters located N5144Q in California and brought it back to his home airfield, at Shoreham on England’s south coast. A team of five engineers and an avionics technician, led by Simon Gibson, worked on it for five weeks, preparing it for the start of a global odyssey at the beginning of June.

They fitted the aircraft with a three-axis autopilot, two batteries, dual heated pitot tubes, satellite phone (wired into the intercom) with e-mail capability and standby IFR instruments. For navigation, Oliphant-Hope would depend on a Garmin GNS 430/530 navcom offering IFR GPS, VOR, localizer and glideslope with color moving map. The Garmin was linked to the autopilot and augmented with a beefed-up memory card for world coverage. For topographical detail of the route Oliphant-Hope used a Skyforce Skymap 3C, switching from a European to a U.S. card and back again as the journey progressed.

As all this extra kit went in, the team reduced the helicopter’s weight by removing the soundproofing, steps, carpet and upholstery. Finally, they replaced the rear seats with a 600-pound-capacity auxiliary fuel tank. The tank, combined with the 400-pound main tank, offered a full five hours of sea-level endurance.

Oliphant-Hope flew with either a land or maritime survival pack close at hand. For
the over-water legs he donned an immersion suit and an on-demand two-minute breathing device, as well as silicon goggles and a life jacket with splash hood. He carried no fewer than three personal rescue beacons, and the helicopter was fitted with a fourth.

This would be Oliphant-Hope’s second attempt to set a new best time. He made his first attempt in 2001, flying an MD 900. That effort failed when general aviation in the U.S. found itself grounded in the aftermath of 9/11.

Oliphant-Hope’s route had to be approved in advance by the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) in Paris. To qualify as a record, it had to be longer than the route around the Tropic of Cancer (36,787 km or 19,850.83 nm) and flown at a latitude below 66 degrees 33 minutes (the Arctic Circle in the Northern Hemisphere). It would be measured point-to-point using the Great Circle projection and computed by WGS84 latitude and longitude. Significantly, Oliphant-Hope could not deviate from the route he filed; he would have to land at or overfly each of his 59 waypoints.

With operations manager Jamie Chalkley manning an airfield ops room, suitably furnished with an air mattress and sleeping bag, they were ready for a pre-dawn takeoff on June 4. The first day’s route took Oliphant-Hope from the south coast of England through Holland, Germany, Sweden and Estonia, arriving in the evening at St. Petersburg, Russia.

Before leaving Sweden, he picked up the mandatory Russian escort. His escort, Igor Tsoi, stayed with him for the five-day trip across Russia, to Anadyr on the Bering Strait. Oliphant-Hope finally dropped Tsoi at Nome, Alaska. “Russia was very bureaucratic and expensive,” he said. “Just arranging handling and buying the permits to fly through it cost us $62,000. Even with Igor aboard, we could not persuade anyone to stay open to wait for us, or to open in time for an early start.”

The North American Leg

Crossing the Bering Strait was always going to be a difficult leg and, as Oliphant-Hope approached, Chalkley could see from the weather forecast that the wind was shifting to the east. The team calculated a maximum headwind component of seven knots at 5,000 feet, which they considered unacceptable.

“We had two options. I could either divert back into Russia; which would mean a change to the approved Russian flight permit and probably a further 24- to 36-hour delay while the revisions were made (in Moscow, seven time zones away to the west). Alternatively, I could divert to the small North Pacific island of St. Lawrence, home to only a scattering of people and devoid of fuel. We opted for the latter and Jamie arranged for a 53-gallon drum of jet fuel and a hand-pump to be flown from Nome in a Casa 212 to an unused airfield known, appropriately enough, as Gamble. The fuel arrived 30 minutes before I did, but I was then able to carry on toward Alaska with ample reserves.”

The flights through Alaska and Canada were “difficult,” with a large Pacific storm making weather conditions unpredictable. By the time Oliphant-Hope arrived in the continental U.S., the storm and the Russian delays put him more than a day behind schedule. However, the vastly more flexible infrastructure in the U.S.–airfields that were happy to stay open late or open early–helped him to recover much of that time.

The current record holder, Bower, met Oliphant-Hope at the airport in Newport News, Va. Bower had driven nine hours to take Oliphant-Hope on a 10-minute trip from the airport to the hotel. He also carried a particularly thoughtful gift for the Englishman–a new seat cushion.

By the time Oliphant-Hope had arrived in northeastern Canada, he had more than recovered the shortfall and was now better than a day ahead of schedule. However, the Atlantic lay ahead of him. “By far the riskiest leg of the entire trip was from Iqauluit in Canada, across the Davies Strait to Godthab in Greenland–450 nm long; the last 340 nm across water. There are no diversions–once you pass PNR (point of no return) you are committed,” he said. Thankfully, the weather stayed fair and Oliphant-Hope, in regular contact with Chalkley via satellite phone, made it in four hours. The rest of the flight was comparatively plain sailing.

Oliphant-Hope completed his epic flight in 17 days, 14 hours, 2 minutes and 27 seconds (the FAI was due to ratify the record at press time). He finished a full
day and a leg ahead of his original schedule and bettered Bower’s record by seven days. The total cost of the voyage was around $311,000 (£200,000). His assessment? He said he was lucky with the weather and the MD 500E never missed a beat. Although records are always there to be broken, Chalkley reckons a new bidder would have to take “extraordinary” risks. “The slightest logistical hold-up, the smallest of technical problems or unforeseen weather delays–and the door would close.”

A fuller account of Simon Oliphant-Hope’s record-breaking flight, and many more photographs, can be found at