On second try, helo pilots complete pole-to-pole flight

 - July 5, 2007, 5:43 AM

Pilots Jennifer Murray, 66, and Colin Bodill, 56, completed their record-setting VFR pole-to-pole round-trip flight from Fort Worth on May 23 in a Bell 407. The pair took 171 days to complete the feat and posted an average speed of just over nine miles per hour. Even at that modest pace, the flight was one for the record books as no one has completed a pole-to-pole helicopter journey before.

A Twin Otter flew chase and pre-positioned supplies for most of the flight. A plan to circumnavigate the globe via the poles collapsed due to overflight permit problems with Russia. Murray and Bodill flew a circuit route between the poles over the Americas.

The May flight was the pair’s second attempt at the record. Their 2003 flight ended after 58 days when they crashed in a white-out in Antarctica and sustained
severe injuries. Murray wrote a book about that experience called Broken Journey.

The pilots officially began preparing for this flight last year by getting their helicopter instrument ratings, which insurers required for the trip even though the 407 is a VFR-only helicopter.

Last month Murray talked to AIN about the flight, which covered 32,206 nm, crossed 26 countries, required 101 fuel stops and was often halted by weather.

You officially announced this trip last November, but when did you actually decide you were going to try this again? What were the major issues you had to settle in your own mind before attempting this flight again?
Preparation started almost immediately after the [2003] crash. Colin’s first words when he came out of his surgery were, ‘We’ve got to find another helicopter!’ To our great joy, Bell Helicopter offered us one, and all maintenance and support en route. To end our global expeditions with a crash was unacceptable; we had to finish what we set out to do.

The logistics? Basically the first year I was a power of one, with Colin helping out when he could, but he lives miles away from London in Nottingham and has his microlight business to run. Year two, Emma Drew joined me–my spare bedroom was the office. Trying to raise the necessary funds for the expedition is the toughest part. Companies are more prepared to give ‘in kind.’ Logistics for Antarctica are huge, but happily we knew the format from the previous time, who to contact and what to do. Bell Helicopter volunteered a chase helicopter for Antarctica, which joined us in Ushauaia for the duration of the Antarctic leg. Emma and I organized all the Antarctic logistics. In the north, Bruce Laurin [test pilot with Bell Helicopter Canada] organized the logistics with Borek Air and Canadian Helicopters.

You mentioned in your diaries that you had to get an instrument rating to make this attempt. What was your insurers’ rationale for this?
There was little rationale for our instrument rating as the helicopter isn’t instrument rated and we had no autopilot. After circumnavigating the globe twice (east to west), taking part in the London to Sydney Air Race and coping with British weather, we have a great deal of ‘instrument time!’ A deeper understanding of Antarctic weather–principally, how fast the weather can change–is the only thing for us that has made a difference.

What were the problems in obtaining Russian and other overflight permits that made you decide on the route you eventually took?
Problems in Russia are huge. On both my previous world records it involved going through Eastern Russia and even though on those occasions we were flying on official routes, it still took an immense amount of paperwork and visits to Moscow and coordination with the British Embassy in Moscow.

This time we were on no known route. I visited Moscow twice, and we invited Arthur Chilingarov, deputy chairman of the State Duma, to be our patron. He was wonderfully helpful, but even with help from the top, the Russian CAA finally came back saying it would take at least another year, and maybe even then ‘no.’

So we opted for the Norwegian route via Svalbard. In the end the weather was the deciding factor. The season in the Arctic has been atrocious–more blizzards in one month than they normally get in one year. The Russian base, just 60 miles on ‘the other side of the North Pole,’ was socked in as we approached the Pole, and the foreseeable weather onwards to Norway was atrocious. We had to make the difficult decision as we approached the Pole. We reluctantly decided to abandon that route and go via the Eastern seaboard of Nunavut and Canada [our original route for 2003]. It was well that we did: the Russian base was abandoned a couple of days later as the ice was breaking up.

What is it about the 407 that made it your helicopter of choice for this trip?
The 407 is the aircraft we flew in 2003, and we couldn’t ask for anything better and more suitable for our flight. It is so easy to fly, is immensely powerful and requires virtually no maintenance. It more than lived up to our expectations. It was trouble-free for our entire journey. We had a remote generator and battery charger that Colin would charge up for around 20 minutes before flights in extreme cold, and the engine started without a hitch. Also, thanks to the bulkhead we are alive today. That is what saved us in the [2003] crash in Antarctica when the engine and transmission and remote generator slammed forwards, ending up against the bulkhead. The Bell 407 required no special maintenance and no fuel additives. The only additions were an auxiliary fuel tank that gave us an endurance of five-and-a-half hours, snow baffles and bear paws on the skids.

What was your most unusual meal and lodging?
They were in Antarctica. We slept in abandoned huts and tents and survived on expedition food–freeze-dried food in aluminum bags. We melted snow, boiled the water and poured it in. We also had some interesting meals of caribou, moose and elk in the Arctic.

Was there any point when you thought you wouldn’t make it?
There were several, but the worst was coming into Iqaluit on Baffin Island [just south of the Arctic Circle]. The tower had been reporting VFR conditions and ‘remaining good’ when we reached our point of no return. The clouds continued to build underneath us, and 40 miles out we were up at 7,500 feet between layers. The temperature was minus 10 degrees C, perfect icing conditions. We had nowhere to go and only one hour of fuel remaining. We were lining up for an ILS approach–not too much problem with that–we were more concerned about icing, and I truly thought our luck had run out. Then suddenly, directly below, we caught a momentary glimpse of the ground and dropped through. The last twenty miles
we flew at 100 agl.

Was that the worst weather?
The worst weather, endlessly, was in the polar regions, with a good smattering in between. We never encountered so much bad weather on previous journeys.

What is the most stunning or vivid picture that sticks in your mind?
We landed at our [2003] crash site in Antarctica and buried the key of that helicopter there. But the main thing on this trip is that we succeeded in all we set out to do.

You shared a cockpit with the same copilot for 171 days. Was there ever a time when the two of you disagreed about flight decisions? Did this trip give you any unique insights into crew resource management?
We had plenty of arguments but none that couldn’t be resolved, and somehow
we managed to stay friends. We agreed to share responsibilities equally. That helped for us, although I am not sure it would work for everyone. We took it day by day about who would be the captain while the other would handle the radio, navigation and take photos.

Future adventures?
None, other than publishing a coffee-table book in due course.