TAG TransPolar flight now one for the record books

EBACE Convention News » 2009
May 11, 2009, 5:07 AM

The TAG TransPolar08 team and friends celebrated the official approval of the crew’s record-breaking flight around the world last year at a pre-EBACE event here at Geneva International Airport on Sunday. Marcel Meyer, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) executive officer of records, presented diplomas designating the record to the five pilots who participated on the more than 52-hour journey. On March 23, FAI ratified the record flight, flown in TAG’s Bombardier Global Express (HB-JEX), exactly four months to the day when the long-range business jet landed back at its starting point, Farnborough Airport in England, on November 23, after passing over both the North and South Poles.

Aziz Ojjeh, TAG Group vice president, led the effort, which on the flight included pilots John Holter, TAG Aviation Europe; Diego Ulrich, TAG Aviation Europe; Mike Muller, type-rating examiner, Global Express; and Emil St. Hilaire, vice president, aircraft sales, ACASS. Ojjeh was in the left seat of the Global Express for the first and last legs, while the four other pilots each took a turn in the left seat on one leg of the trip. Also onboard the flight were flight operations manager Jeffrey Weber, president, TAG Aviation Services (U.S.); flight engineer Fabrice Milliet, TAG Aviation Europe; and FAI official observer Malek Adjadj, an attorney with Fontanet and Associates in Geneva. Reserve pilots Diego Rivera and Pascal Buthey trained for the flight in case one or two of the primary pilots could not go.

The flight required five refueling stops (see table) and a total elapsed time of 52 hours, 31 minutes and four seconds, which equates to an average speed of 822.8 kilometers per hour (444.2 knots). This beat by 95 minutes the previous record for a flight over both poles, flown in October 1977 by a Pan Am Boeing 747SP. The 747 averaged 423 knots over a route that went from San Francisco to London Heathrow to Cape Town to Auckland and back to San Francisco. “The record lasted longer than the airline,” commented Ojjeh on Sunday.

“Planning is the key to the success of record flights,” said Meyer at the event. “It’s like a Formula 1 race, where one has to organize the pit stops. For this flight, the refueling stops were perfect.”

In planning for its transpolar flight, the TAG team calculated that its refueling stops would need to average less than 45 minutes to beat Pan Am’s record. As it happened, the stopovers averaged 32 minutes.

Only at Marshall Islands International Airport on Majuro Atoll, TAG’s second refueling stop, was there a potential for excessive ground time. According to Ojjeh, the local refueling crew overslept and the Bombardier reps on site to support the flight had to wake them. The fastest technical stop–which lasted just 21 minutes–was achieved at Sal in the Cape Verde Islands, the fifth and last refueling stop. Colt International and ExxonMobil were the flight’s fuel sponsors.

The international flight planning and ground operations teams from TAG Aviation in the UK and Geneva coordinated the logistics of the flight, including positioning specialists at each stopover. To comply with FAI record rules, the flight passed over both geographical poles and crossed the equator north-to-south at least 120 degrees longitude from its south-to-north crossing. The planning for the flight took three months.

Ojjeh and his crew opted to fly westbound from Farnborough, preferring to take a chance on the strength of prevailing headwinds, which proved stronger than expected, to conduct more of the flight in daylight than if they had taken the eastbound option. The westerly course also allowed them to avoid congested airspace.

Under FAI rules, those making record attempts have to declare the waypoints through which they will fly; the distance flown is calculated as the Great Circle distance between these. In practice, the TAG Transpolar team flew farther between some of the waypoints in an attempt to avoid the worst of the headwinds.

Bombardier supported the record flight attempt by posting a field service representative at each of the designated technical stops. “But they had nothing to do,” said Ojjeh. “The performance of the Global Express was absolutely incredible. We kept our fingers crossed, but the only thing that went wrong was the Airshow [moving map display] in the cabin.” He said an icing warning illuminated once in non-icing conditions. Resetting the circuit breaker removed the false warning.

The TAG TransPolar flight was originally scheduled to take place this year to mark the 25th anniversary of Ojjeh’s having broken an eastbound around-the-world speed record in a Bombardier Challenger. In July 1984 he set an average speed record of 411 knots (49 hours and 27 minutes) in a Challenger 601. In September 2008, Ojjeh decided to bring the transpolar attempt forward to November, requiring the acceleration of the complex flight-planning job.

So what piloting challenges remain for Ojjeh, who generally logs around 200 flight hours per year, most of it in the Global Express? “My first thought is how much I would like to go back to some of the places I saw en route and take a vacation,” he commented. And without giving any details, he said he’s also considering other record attempts.

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