(Correne Coetzer) His best adventure is life and his dream destination home, says Art Mortvedt to ExplorersWeb after flying his little orange Cessna to the top of the world.
Known to polar adventurers as the Polar Pumpkin, Art landed the 1980 single engine Cessna A185F at the Geographic South Pole (90°S) on November 22,1999, and thought, "how neat it might be to also fly the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole." In 2011 he tried the first time, and again in 2012 but was thwarted by bad weather in the high Arctic. In 2013, April 7, at 2AM (Barneo/Norwegian time) Art's dream came true when he flew over 90°N and landed at the nearby temporary Ice Camp, Barneo.
Art gives ExplorersWeb some background of the Cessna and tells about the years in between the two Poles, the planning, how the plane was modified, his biggest concerns during the North Pole flight, he gives advice about polar flying and tells about advice from polar pilots and adventurers.
ExplorersWeb: How did it happen that you became the owner of the Polar Pumpkin?
Art: The Polar Pumpkin is a 1980 Cessna A185F – solid bright orange – that was used for a number of years by Adventure Network International. The airplane was based at Patriot Hills, Antarctica and provided transportation for climbers to Mount Vinson, visits to the South Pole, trips to see the emperor penguin colony at Dawson Lambton Glacier, expedition resupplies, and various logistic tasks. Dan Weinstein from Jamestown, New York, gave the Polar Pumpkin its nickname – and was one of the first to fly it. To commemorate all pilots that have flown the airplane in the Antarctic, I have listed their names on the side of the engine cowling. Giles Kershaw and Max Wenden were other pilots to have flown it – particularly Max, who flew it for the most seasons out of Patriot Hills.
I was tasked for two seasons to fly the airplane for Adventure Network. In November 1999, the Polar Pumpkin and I flew Laurence de la Ferrière to the South Pole to begin a ski expedition north to the vicinity of the French research base, DuMont Durville. I thought then how neat it might be to also fly the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole. But I did not own the airplane. Ultimately Adventure Network – then transformed into Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) – decided that the utility of a single engine airplane was a lower priority to the Twin Otter and Basler DC-3.
When Mike Sharp informed me that the airplane was up for sale, I decided to buy it – particularly when I had already flown it, participated in its annual mechanical inspection, and knew that it was basically in good shape. I also knew that the engine was relatively low time; since, after the installation of a new engine in Oshawa, Ontario, David Dilley and I had flown the Polar Pumpkin from Canada down through the United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America to the southern tip of Chile at Punta Arenas.
When I bought the airplane, it was then stored in the Punta Arenas Aero Club hangar. Flying the Pumpkin through the Americas was a great experience; but once was adequate – so I decided to ship the airplane from Punta Arenas to California on a container ship. Once it was in California, the process of reassembly, recertification, re-registration, and selection of a new “tail number” began. The one I chose was “N90SN” – symbolizing, for me at least, North 90 South to North. S
ince the Polar Pumpkin was once again certified as “airworthy”, I have flown it across the United State, Canada, and made 3 tries to fly it to the North Pole. Only this year, on April 7, did I succeed in flying the Polar Pumpkin to the Geographic North Pole – with a subsequent 2 day stop at the Russian Ice Station Barneo then located about 20 miles from the Pole.
ExplorersWeb: How long have you been planning this flight, and what did the planning involve?
Art: I suppose that the planning began – at least in the back of my mind, since I didn’t own the airplane – when I arrived at the South Pole with the Polar Pumpkin. But the pace of planning did pick up when I “wrote the check”, so to speak, and the airplane arrived in Long Beach, California. A somewhat strange thing happened in the shipping process. Since I was told that the “plane in container” would arrive on a particular ship at a particular time, I flew from Alaska to California to meet the shipment. Only when I arrived was I informed that the Polar Pumpkin had been transferred to a different ship; and wouldn’t arrive for a couple more weeks. Fortunately I had a good friend with a warehouse basically across the street from the arrival pier; and he looked after the airplane until I could get back to California.
Planning began in earnest from 2009 when the airplane was once again “flyable”. A bit of a “glitch” was discovered, however. Since I realized that there were some fairly long flight “legs” through Northern Canada, and on up to the North Pole – and that the airplane would have to be heavily loaded – I had my mechanics carefully check the integrity of the landing gear and attach points. Unfortunately, a cracked gearbox was discovered – requiring major disassembly and maintenance for much of the 2010 summer. I guess I should have said “fortunately” this problem was discovered. Because had it not, there would likely be no more Polar Pumpkin.
One of the key planning issues was fuel. After purchase, some of my fuel had to be transferred from one ship to an icebreaker to get the fuel to the cached location where I needed it. Furthermore, as an emergency cache, I had some of that fuel flown to a location a bit closer to the Pole. Realizing that the Russian drifting Ice Station Barneo provides a variety of services to skiers, dog mushers, scientists, tourists, and others – I flew to St. Petersburg and Moscow to meet with Victor Boyarsky and associates involved with Barneo. It was agreed that the Antonov 74 would transport my fuel – that I had previously shipped from Tromsoe, Norway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard – to Barneo, for my return flight back to Canada. With many thanks to the very dependable and professional Barneo staff, that’s exactly what happened.
Since I wanted to maximize the benefits of my flight, I flew a scientific instrument for NASA, a set of microbial filters for the University of Innsbruck, and a black carbon detecting aethylometer for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Coordination of these instruments also required considerable planning and testing.
In heading out across the drifting pack ice of the Arctic Ocean in a small airplane, alone, prudence would dictate detailed planning. Even when flying small airplanes in Alaska, I try not to depend on search and rescue. Sometimes weather can prohibit a rescue for a considerable period of time – and, I believe, that may more so be the case in the Arctic Ocean. So, to the best of my ability, I tried to foresee any potential problems and prepare accordingly – with regard to navigation, camping, food, cooking, aircraft pre-heating, mechanical problems, communication, signaling, etc. etc. Theoretically, with the gear I had on board, I should have been self sufficient for at least one month.
ExplorersWeb: What was the biggest worry during this flight?
Art: Whenever one is flying a “mechanical contraption” such as the Polar Pumpkin, a sudden and catastrophic failure, such as a dead engine, is indeed a worry. I am very fortunate back in Alaska to have a couple of the most conscientious, capable, and professional mechanics – that are particularly knowledgeable about the Cessna 185. Together we tried to envision any mechanical problems that might arise, and prepare accordingly.
My biggest worry, though, is likely “icing”. With the Arctic Ocean pack ice continually moving, cracking, refreezing – and forming “leads” of open water – there are clouds of very moist air that, at the optimum temperature, can produce a very rapid buildup of ice on an airborne craft such as the Polar Pumpkin. Besides the additional weight of the ice on an already heavy airplane, the ice buildup changes the shape of the airfoil enough that the airplane just won’t fly anymore, stalls, and crashes.
Not to mention that ice on the windshield may not allow forward visibility. It’s a very dangerous situation. Actually the Polar Pumpkin did ice up briefly on the way to the Pole; but I could see clear air above, and easily climbed out of the icing condition. Still, it took considerable time for the windshield and leading edge ice to dissipate off the airplane. Unfortunately the Polar Pumpkin has no deicing mechanism such as a heated propeller and/or rubber deicing boots.
ExplorersWeb: How did the flight to the North Pole differ to the flight to the South Pole?
Art: The High Arctic and the Antarctic are similar in many ways, but very different in others. It’s generally cold in both places. Winds are a concern – especially for a little airplane – in both places, especially the potentially severe and dramatic katabatic winds of the Antarctic. Basically it’s much easier to fly to the South Pole – particularly if the airplane is already in Antarctica. Flying a small airplane across the Drake Passage is completely another story. But in Antarctica – especially along the corridor from Patriot Hills/Union Glacier and/or Hercules Inlet/Berkner Island – there is enough activity (skiers, bikers, fuel trains, aircraft, etc.) that assistance normally would not be far removed.
The route to the North Pole from Eureka and/or Ward Hunt Island/Cape Columbia is a completely different kettle of fish. If there are no ski expeditions from Canada to the North Pole, such as this year, there is no logistical/search and rescue support “standing by”, no resupply Twin Otters that just might be able to “swing by” and render assistance, and the route ends up being quite “rural” and remote. The distance from Eureka Weather Station to the Geographic North Pole is 600 nautical miles – translating to 690.5 statute miles, or “regular road miles”.
Weather in both polar regions is very changeable and difficult to predict. Canadian flight briefers are fabulous – knowledgeable, professional, and friendly. In addition, Marc de Keyser at weather4expeditions, also helped me a great deal. Unfortunately there are just so few reporting points that forecasting is really tough. As I mentioned before, depending on where there are open leads in the ice, weather en route to the North Pole can just “come out of nowhere”.
The continually drifting pack ice of the Arctic Ocean makes landing, refueling, and getting back to land more problematical for a North Pole flight than a South Pole flight. At the South Pole, if necessary, one could tie a plane down right next to Amundsen Scott Base, go in for a nice hot meal, see the doctor if required, and be well looked after. Barneo staff, similarly, will look after a pilot – and his airplane – up to a point. That point is the departure date when all personnel and gear leaves the ice and heads back to Svalbard.
To be stuck on a drifting ice floe with a small airplane – by bad weather or a mechanical problem – when the Barneo camp is no longer, could give one quite the feeling of “predicament”. Having in the past been on an Arctic Ocean ice floe that basically “splintered under our feet”, I have a great deal of respect for “possibilities” in that environment. I understand that this year on April 22 – when Barneo was closing – a crack had opened up approximately 300 meters from camp.
When flying the Polar Pumpkin from the South Pole back to Patriot Hills, I hit a “wall of weather” – not allowing me to fly above, through, or below it – so I landed at the Thiel Mountains, hunkered down in my little tent during a 6 day blizzard, and was “snug as a bug in a rug” – not worried that the ice under me would splinter into pieces.
ExplorersWeb: How high did you fly over the North Pole?
Art: I don’t remember the exact altitude – but it probably was between 1,500 feet and 4,000 feet. Since I had a direct, more or less, headwind all the way from Eureka, I was experimenting with various altitudes to gain the best speed. The head wind of about 20 knots was consistent whatever altitude I tried – high or low, even down to 1500 feet.
ExplorersWeb: Did you see the Russian cars and dog sled team?
Art: I saw neither the Russian cars nor dog sled team. My arrival at the Pole was approximately 2 AM in the morning, Barneo time, on April 7. It was my understanding that the cars and dog team were at the Pole on April 6 – perhaps in the afternoon? It’s possible that the cars and dogs had left the Pole by the time I got there. Unfortunately, I was not previously aware that the cars or dogs were scheduled to be at the Pole. Had I known, I would have made a point to look for them.
Anyway, the visibility for me was not particularly good in the Pole vicinity. The sun angle was quite low; and I could see better east than west. But to the west there appeared to be wide spread “wavy” thin ground fog developing. It was enough of a concern that my wife, Damaris – who I was speaking with on the satellite phone – contacted Vadim Prudnikov at Barneo several times to confirm that no fog had formed there, and that I would be able to find the camp and land there.
As it turned out, I had to get quite close to Barneo before I actually saw the camp through the thin fog – or perhaps better described as “haze”. An interesting phenomenon – looking from the ice up, visibility was far better than from the cockpit looking down. I did a descending circuit off the end of the runway – to lose some altitude – and landed fine. As a backup, en route to the Pole, I had noticed a couple refrozen leads – and noted the coordinates – where I thought I could land and camp in case Barneo was socked in.
ExplorersWeb: What modifications were made to the Polar Pumpkin?
Art: Over the years of the Polar Pumpkin’s life at Patriot Hills, Adventure Network made a number of positive modifications to the aircraft for polar flying. Long range tip tanks were added. Although HF radio is not used so commonly anymore, the aircraft was so equipped. I often get questions about the bulbous belly pod on the airplane, and whether that’s an additional fuel tank. Although some belly pods have storage for both fuel and cargo, the “Pumpkin’s Pod” is only for cargo – albeit rated for 300 pounds of cargo. One normally would not want containers of Coleman fuel or canisters of bear spray inside the airplane cabin, so the cargo pod is a good place to transport these items.
Much to the credit of Max Wenden, the engine oil cooler has a special bracket attached – connected to a control cable in the cockpit – that allows the pilot to better regulate the oil temperature of the engine. One may consider skis an adaptation; and while the plane was in Antarctica, it stayed on straight board skis. For my purposes, however – landing on windblown gravel runways in the Canadian High Arctic – combination wheel skis are needed.
GPS technology has advanced nowadays to the status of great reliability – to the point that many aircraft are routinely doing GPS approaches in IFR weather. As with anything mechanical, however, these can fail. As a backup, on the dash of the Polar Pumpkin, there is mounted an “astrocompass” or “sun compass”. This unit is basically an aviation adapted sextant – quite common during World War II – that theoretically would allow one to navigate in the absence of GPS. As in the perfection of any skill, practice using the astrocompass is very important.
I suppose the color of the Polar Pumpkin – solid bright orange – could be considered a modification. Such a bright contrasting color to the white of the Arctic or Antarctic environment makes good sense.
ExplorersWeb: If someone says they want to fly to the North Pole, what advice would you give?
Art: Speak to those individuals that really know what they’re doing in the Arctic Ocean sea ice environment. There is a multitude of experienced individuals out there; and most people are quite keen to help. Dixie Dansercoer recently published the book “Polar Exploration – A practical handbook for North and South Pole expeditions” – full of practical applicable information for any mode of expedition to the North Pole. Alain Hubert, Borge Ousland, Eric Phillips, and Victor Boyarsky are names that symbolize vast experience in the North Polar environment. In my case, over the years, I was very fortunate to have worked with – or rode as a passenger with - a number of highly skilled, knowledgeable, and helpful North Polar pilots from Ken Borek Air.
Mechanical preparation of one’s aircraft is of utmost importance. Try to find an engineer/mechanic that particularly specializes in your model of aircraft, is familiar with cold weather operations, and has the time to consider every meticulous detail.
Life is a risk. But it’s important to realize the potentially unforgiving nature of the Arctic Ocean sea ice environment. I noted earlier that refrozen leads can sometimes provide safe landing locations – even for airplanes with wheels and no skis. But there are areas – particularly along the shear zone off Northern Canada, and other land masses – where the ice is so broken, and open water/thin ice so frequent, that a survivable emergency landing would be nearly impossible.
Several years ago, when I flew my Cessna 180 through Quebec, Baffin Island, and the Canadian Archipelago back to Alaska, I inquired about landing options in case I had an engine failure over Hudson Strait. An experienced local Arctic pilot told me, “if your engine quits over Hudson Strait, point your aircraft straight down – and take your tool box with you” – to the bottom.
ExplorersWeb: Future plans?
Art: We’re all regularly reminded – by the media and others – of the increasing importance of our polar environments, particularly relative to Global Warming/Climate change, resource extraction, geopolitics, shipping lanes, etc. One of my expedition goals with the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole was to show how a relatively inexpensive small aircraft platform could be used for polar science. Indeed, I hope to have collected a good bit of useful scientific data with my expedition. But the truth is that single engine airplanes – so very weather dependent – are not a reliable platform for extensive scheduled scientific programs in the High Arctic. Such a comment may instigate further discussions with regard to drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for polar research.
I do hope to continue using the Polar Pumpkin – now well adapted for polar flying – on other polar science programs.
ExplorersWeb: Anything else?
Art: I feel so very fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to meet – and get to know, over the years – so many amazing people within the “polar community”. Stepping into the dining tent at Barneo was like “old home week”. I reckon every person has a special story to tell, but polar expeditioners, scientists, air crew, or whomever in the polar world seem to have that extra spark of curiosity, adaptability, and appreciation in these most awesome and pristine environments of the Arctic and Antarctic.
To all those wonderful people that have helped me, I wish to offer a grand measure of truly heartfelt thanks.
Place of residence: N67 degrees/W155 degrees – at Selby Lake, in Alaska’s west central Brooks Range.
Work: Bush piloting of small airplanes – usually on floats or skis – in support of our Brooks Range Peace of Selby Wilderness Lodge; logistical support of projects in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Family: Wife Damaris – Black Labrador Retriever, Bernt (named after Bernt Balchen, the first person to have flown over both Poles)
Hobbies: I don’t think I have any anymore. If I can fill my day with activities that are so enjoyable, and so fulfilling, maybe I don’t need any hobbies.
Favorite Music: Old fashioned fiddle – sometimes provided by the Alaska Athabascan Fiddlers.
Favorite Food: Fresh moose or bear ribs, barbecued over a nice hot campfire.
Latest Read Book: Canadian Flight Supplement
Best Adventure Yet: Life
Dream Destination: Home
5 Top Accomplishments of Your Life:
1. Marrying Damaris, one of the world’s greatest women.
2. Driving my red Volkswagen bug from New Mexico to Alaska in January of 1974, camping along the way.
3. One afternoon, while visiting Christchurch, New Zealand, deciding to work in Antarctica.
4. As a young school teacher, picking the most remote Inupiat village I could find – Shungnak, Alaska – and learning (far more than I could teach) from the Eskimo elders.
5. Realizing just how short a lifetime really is . . . and enjoying each moment.
Alaskan Bush pilot Art Mortvedt has 5000 hours flight experience, 20+ expeditions to Antarctica and 6 seasons of science logistics in the Arctic. He has studied the traditional life-style of the Inupiat Eskimos and other traditional cultures in South Africa, Australia, the Cook Islands, Greenland and the Falkland Islands.
Art Mortvedt and the Polar Pumpkin made it to the North Pole
Diabetic pilot, Douglas Cairns, flies to the North Pole
Polar Flight 90 website
#Air #Polar #topstory #interview
Visit our new website