Surviving, with a little help from technology

 - October 8, 2007, 7:11 AM

“Because it is there.”

If ever there was a case of a reporter taking a quote out of context, this is it. The famous line, a response by George Leigh Mallory to a newspaper reporter’s incessant questioning about why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, missed the point the speaker was trying to make. Mallory’s eloquent response before a throng of writers and editors in 1922 (for all intents lost forever to popular recollection) not only gave a valid reason for his desire to scale the world’s tallest mountain, but it also provided a succinct answer to one of life’s fundamental and enduring questions.

Mallory, who disappeared during an unsuccessful expedition to Everest two years later, actually replied that climbing Mount Everest was of no use–no practical use, anyway. He explained, “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it–because it is there, and that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward–then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money.
We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

Joy. It is the reason we yearn to climb mountains, travel across the vastness of space and attempt to fly farther and higher and faster than anyone before us. The pure joy of it–to live life as fully and as completely as we know how. And as long as there are craft capable of heavier-than-air flight and pilots eager to guide them from takeoff to touchdown, the intrepid among us will continue to test the untested, try the untried and, to put it plainly, attempt those feats that most ordinary people would think impossible or foolish or both.

Last December 19, British pilots Colin Bodill, 52, and Jennifer Murray, 63, were in the midst of one such adventure, feeling positive about the progress they were making in attempting to be the first helicopter pilots to fly around the world by way of the North and South Poles. Already more than a third of the way through their planned four-month journey, the pair had reached the South Pole in their specially equipped Bell 407 right on schedule two days before, on December 17, the 100th anniversary of manned, powered flight.

Fully rested and ready to go, they were preparing to embark on the next leg of the trip over the Antarctic Peninsula. Afterward there were to be dozens of short hops that would take them up the western coast of South America, into the heart of Mexico and the Western U.S., and eventually on to the North Pole, before they planned to make their circuitous way back to their original starting point, the West 30th Street Heliport in New York City.

Unfortunately, Bodill and Murray never got the chance to complete their world-record attempt. Shortly after taking off from Patriot Hills Base Camp, a remote encampment on the Ronne Ice Shelf in western Antarctica, the weather suddenly turned bad and the pair decided that their best option was to set down and wait out the storm.

During the landing attempt, in driving snow and whiteout conditions, the helicopter crashed, severely injuring both pilots and leaving them stranded more than 120 miles from the nearest outpost in a blinding snow storm.

The details of how the British helicopter pilots managed to survive and their eventual rescue are as dramatic as any adventurer’s tale. Yet unlike countless explorers before them, who tried to survive on the permafrost of Antarctica (or a rock outcrop near the summit of Mount Everest) by their wits alone, Bodill and Murray had a helping hand from modern technology.

Tucked among the specialized survival gear aboard their destroyed helicopter was an Iridium satellite communications system with a quick-position button capable of sending a signal to rescuers pinpointing the location of the crash site. Although the severity of the storm made the prospect of an immediate rescue doubtful, at least the search team knew where Bodill and Murray had gone down and could easily find them once the weather cleared.

Time to Land

Throughout their flight across Antarctica, a Twin Otter had been hired to drop fuel drums at various points along the way to allow for refueling. Bodill and Murray had been headed to one of these makeshift landing zones when the weather began to deteriorate.

Back at Patriot Hills Base Camp before departing, they had been told there was an acceptable window of time before a large storm system was expected to hit. If they missed this window they would probably be snowed in for three days. Satellite images confirmed what the forecasters were predicting, and Bodill and Murray agreed that they were comfortable with their decision to depart on schedule rather than wait for the storm to pass. Unfortunately, weather forecasting at the South Pole is an inexact science and the models were wrong.

At about 9 p.m. local time, Bodill and Murray lifted off into a clear, blue sky and headed out over a white swirling desert of snow and ice toward their next landing spot. But within an hour, the storm they thought they would steer clear of was quickly closing in around the helicopter. Because it was summer in Antarctica there was no problem with darkness, only the reduced visibility. Bodill and Murray decided that if conditions worsened, the plan would be to land and wait for the weather to pass.

Soon after and without warning, the horizon vanished and their perspective of the world became that of a halo of blowing snow all around the helicopter. “It was like flying inside a ping-pong ball,” recalled Bodill, who was at the controls at the time. “No matter where we looked, all we could see was white.”

Agreeing that it was time to land, Bodill began a slow, cautious descent, looking out for the surface below as Murray called out their height from the radar altimeter. Because the snow in Antarctica is colder and drier than just about anywhere else on earth, the altimeter reads through the snow to a certain depth until it hits something more solid. From their past experience flying in this part of the world, they knew the altimeter was consistently showing an error of between 90 and 100 feet. Descending at about 55 knots, Murray read the altimeter aloud as it wound down through 200 feet, and then through 180 feet and 160 feet to 140 feet.
Both pilots knew they had to be getting close, but neither realized just how close to the surface they really were. “The last thing I remember saying to Colin was, 140 feet,” Murray said. “Then we crashed.”

‘I Knew I Was in Trouble’

The bright-red helicopter dug into the snow and flipped upside down in a heap of twisted metal, wires and Plexiglas. The nose section had broken away, the cockpit was shattered and the tail had been sheered off. Bodill and Murray passed out in the impact and awoke sometime later, both of them in tremendous pain from the injuries they sustained in the crash.

“I remember coming around and my head was in the snow,” Bodill recalled. “I knew I was in trouble because, even though it was minus 55 degrees, I was sweating.”
Their injuries were life threatening. Bodill had a fractured vertebrae and severe internal bleeding and Murray, in addition to being in shock, had suffered broken ribs, a dislocated elbow and internal bruising. Despite the dire circumstances, Bodill said his chief concern was to activate their rescue beacon and build a shelter. Fighting the whipping wind and soft snow that would not hold his tent spikes, he managed to grab a six-foot flagpole from the wreckage–a gift from the Argentine government–and raised their survival tent. He also found a camp stove that he used to convert snow to hot water to raise Murray’s body temperature and keep her from going deeper into shock.

Realizing time was a factor that was working against them, Bodill found their Blue Sky Network D1000 Iridium transceiver and pressed the little blue button that would beam to rescuers a signal giving their exact coordinates. Blue Sky Network was a sponsor of Bodill and Murray’s Polar First expedition. The company had given them a D1000 unit so the Polar First team could track the pilots along their route–and come to the rescue should anything go wrong. The D1000 can be used to place satcom phone calls, for position reporting and to send and receive two-way messaging. The major benefit of the Iridium-based system with its network of 66 low-earth-orbit satellites is that it works anywhere on the planet, even at the poles.

For several hours Bodill and Murray waited for help to arrive, fading in and out of consciousness. Bodill recalled that for most of that time he lay with his lower body outside the tent, exposed to the wind and freezing temperatures. “Even if you had offered me $5 million, I couldn’t have brought my legs inside that tent,” he said.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Twin Otter that had started out the day flying ahead of them returned to rescue the pilots. Poor weather prevented the airplane from landing while Murray and Bodill waited for help in temperatures as low as -40 degrees C.

“I remember hearing the Twin Otter circling, and then there was just silence,” Murray said. “But I knew then that we were going to be saved.” When finally picked up, the pair was first taken to Patriot Hills. Later, they were flown to a hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile. Today, both pilots are still recovering from their injuries, but they are looking forward to getting back in the air–and trying their world-record attempt again.

Bodill and Murray also agreed the D1000 Iridium unit was a lifesaver. “It was the total accuracy of the coordinates that made the difference, especially for Colin,” said Murray. “Shortly before the Twin Otter arrived I heard him say, ‘I’m fading.’” Bodill agreed with that assessment, adding, “It is a fantastic product, but the people and technology that support it were also key. The whole system saved our lives.”

What’s Next?

If Murray, a 2,500-hour pilot, succeeds in a retry of her attempt to fly around the world in a helicopter pole-to-pole, it will be her third aviation record. In 1997 she won a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a helicopter. Her flight raised $100,000 for Save the Children, a nonprofit organization that helps orphans around the world. In 2000 she reached another milestone in aviation history, becoming the first woman to fly a helicopter solo around the world–all without autopilot. Bodill, who has 7,500 hours in his logbook, accompanied her on that flight in an ultralight, in the process setting a record of his own.

While the list of people she has to thank for surviving her Antarctic ordeal is long, Murray said she was especially grateful to her co-adventurer. “I know I would not have survived the cold if Colin hadn’t managed to put the tent up and get the stove going,” Murray said. “He was in great pain and his back was severely damaged. The doctors say he is lucky still to have the use of his legs because he had a fragment of bone inside his number-one vertebra cutting into his spinal cord.”

Murray said she and Bodill are both already planning another attempt at the record that nearly cost them their lives, and they might try again as soon as later this year.