Yesterday as I prepared for my first ever North Pole crossing things were going pretty smoothly. Almost too smoothly. I’m used to last minute surprises especially before taking off. But then I remembered I’ve had over 18 months to prepare for this leg. I thought maybe the Universe was finally going to throw me a bone. The taxi showed up on time the morning of departure, the airport manager let him on the ramp—which never happens, the new coordinates for my flight worked in the Flight Management System, I had no leaking fuel from the plane after fueling the night before, the tires held air, the emergency oxygen was near full, the nitrogen charge was still within limits…it was almost hard to believe. The Citizen of the World was in all her glory, fierce and it was a fantastic thing to see.
The good fortune continued as the airport allowed me to take off early without charging me, the tower operator showed up early and got me into the air traffic control system on the ground, and the engines fired right up as they always do. All avionics systems came online immediately, and I thought “Isn’t life wonderful!” I started down the runway like a bat out of hell with enough fuel to get me back to Alaska in the United States after being away for eight very long months. I still had six weeks to go to be back in San Diego but I was getting closer.
As I climbed above the solid cloud layer that extended all the way to Alaska things were going well. I had a great climb rate even with the extra fuel. I flew over Svalbard, Norway, which had been rejecting my departure requests for over a month. I thought skipping one stop reduced my risk and it was time to get going while the North Pole was a nice warm -43 Celsius compared to the -60C I experience near the South Pole.
About two hours out of Kiruna, Sweden, I was beyond VHF radio comms range and my luck started to change. My HF radio was not picking up anything and I was at a wrong-way altitude. My satellite phone calls to Bodo Oceanic control over the most remote part of the planet didn’t work either. I got through to Oceanic control on my satellite phone I just couldn’t hear a word they were saying, and I assumed they couldn’t hear me either. Considering I had eight hours of open ocean flying to do this was going to be a major problem.
One-hundred-fifty miles from the True North Pole things really started to happen. My two flight management systems/GPS units started to fall offline since they didn’t have a satellite signal. This was odd since this didn’t happen until about 75 miles from the South Pole. I figured there would be more coverage over the North Pole since it was a more traveled route. My autopilot would still hold in heading mode, so I made the adjustment and continued on my way using my iPad. “No problem,” I thought as this felt like old times over the South Pole!
About 25 miles from the True North Pole things got really scary. One of my Attitude Heading & Reference Systems went offline. I remember thinking, “this is why I have two ADAHRS systems.” I flipped the switch and nothing. With the loss of the units I also lost the autopilot. The airplane jerked to one side and I began to attempt to take it offline at 30,000 feet. The yoke cutoff switch chirped but didn’t stop the turn. I was fighting the autopilot at this point and pushed the off button on the autopilot unit itself, but it still didn’t work. At this point, I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and had a thought that this was how those 737 Max planes went down. I reached over to the left and pulled the autopilot circuit breaker with the yellow cap I had marked so it was easy to find in a jam. That was my last hope short of shutting the power completely off over the North Pole which sounded, in a word, “terrifying.” This emergency was making no sense to me. But just as I pulled the breaker the resistance faded away and I felt a slight sigh of relief.
To put things into perspective, I’m five hours of flight time from land, 30,000 feet up over a cloud layer at a wrong-way altitude doing almost 400 mph over the North Pole with no comms. I was using only my iPad to navigate, hand flying in RVSM airspace (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) that requires an autopilot to maintain precise flight level with no autopilot and by myself. My first non-Zen words were unprintable in a family publication. So much for an easy flight across the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole and the North Pole of Inaccessibility!
What I did have was a visual horizon for the time being, two working Honeywell TPE 331-10T engines, two kick-ass MT 5 bladed scimitar nickel tipped composite props, and about three hours of extra fuel which could potentially just extend my misery as I flew in circles around the North Pole while my followers wondered why my track on the InReach explorer was so erratic. I had a directional gyro and knew it would hold my course for a time but as I turned from the North Pole, to the Magnetic North Pole, and finally to the North Pole of Inaccessibility, I got confused and knew it couldn’t hold a course forever.
As if to tease or taunt me, the flight management systems would periodically come online but then fall offline a short time later. This felt like cosmic torture as I had conflicting heading information from multiple points on my panel. My magnetic compass said one thing, my two flight management systems/GPS units had a different heading, my L3 backup system said something else, my directional gyro offered another heading, and my radar display showed yet another heading. “Which do I believe?” I thought. “Will I run out of fuel or fly in circles over the North Pole?”
As I was trying to hold the altitude constant in an airspace that was separated by 500 feet from opposing traffic I start shutting down and restarting the failed systems. The ADAHRS tried to realign in motion but couldn’t do its two-minute alignment. Eventually I realized the flight management systems appeared to have the aircraft flying backwards along the track for a time, then one would right and then go backwards. I was totally confused and trying to make sense out of the conflicting information.
Now I was seriously scared. I was very much alone, and the laws of physics didn’t seem to apply. There were no reference points in the cloud layer below me as far as the eye could see and a bunch of red Xs across my screen. I couldn’t help but wonder what a mess I had gotten myself into. I thought they would be talking about this for a long time. The naysayers were going to have a field day.
I took a minute to take a few deep “Zen” breaths in the midst of the shit storm that was unfolding around me. I took a personal inventory and realized I was still in the air, was straight and level, and wasn’t out of options yet. This was fast becoming a test of my faith.
As I moved between the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole, and the North Pole of Inaccessibility I was mostly hand-flying and occasionally overpowering the autopilot when it didn’t want to turn.
As I continued to hand fly, I realized my autopilot could maintain altitude and it seemed to fly on a heading once I set it but needed to be restarted to program a new heading. Next I realized that my Apple iPad seemed to be as accurate as it had been over the South Pole as well. How odd that a $1,000 iPad was working when $100,000 of avionics seemed totally confused. Flying like this was of course totally illegal but I had no choice. I was doing what my instructors had told me to do, which was “just fly the plane.” I was lucky to have a visual horizon above the clouds for as far as the eye could see.
I expected the failed systems to come back online in about 30 minutes but to my surprise everything stayed offline until I reached the coast of Alaska some five hours later. I literally watched as one system failed and then would come back online with the information making no sense. It was extremely stressful, and I was searching for the lesson in all of this. When the systems came back online at the coast of Alaska, they acted like the bad school kid who misbehaves when the teacher is out of the room and then reverts to becoming the perfect angel when the teacher returns. I realized that the issue was the lack of a satellite signal and not that the systems weren’t working.
Eventually as I got close to the coast of Alaska, I realized that the weather was not the broken clouds that were forecast at Prudhoe Bay/Dead Horse. Instead, I had 300-foot ceilings. Being as that I had been flying for so long and had 3.5 hours of fuel left, I decided to extend my flight for another hour-and-a-half to land in Fairbanks where I was hoping to meet my film crew the following day. As a side note, on my first call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the director told me he could arrest me, impound my airplane and severely fine me if I landed in Prudhoe Bay where they didn’t have an agent. When I told him my first priority was my life and that weather over vast distances was unpredictable as was aircraft equipment, he told me if I had planned better I wouldn’t be having such a problem. I hung up feeling a bit defeated. About two hours later I got a call back from the director and he said I could land in Prudhoe Bay for an overnight stay but would have to call Customs when I landed, and be in Fairbanks the next day.
It is hard to put into words how I felt when I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska. We had a mechanic and restaurant owner at the airport come over and snap a few pictures. Myself and the film crew that had just arrived by car were offered a delicious pizza lunch by the Wendy, the owner. As we ate, I stared at the plane with a blank expression on my face, exhausted, and in total disbelief of what had just transpired. I felt shock, pride, and relief all at the same time, and just wanted to sleep for a day. My focus was so narrow it was impossible to comprehend what I had just pulled off and the impact it would have on our mission—and I hoped—on the world. Calls and messages would come in for the next 48 hours congratulating me and my team. Most of them had no idea what I had been through, but I was so touched by those that reached out in the most-kind way.
One example that summed up the Citizen of the World’s challenges during the Polar Circumnavigation was from Eddie Gould, one of my handlers from General Aviation Support Egypt.
“Adventures like yours do inspire and create so much more than what you have personally achieved. Having this adventure during one of the world’s most horrific periods must rank high above many of the worthy exploits undertaken by [other] pilots.
I guess we, on the ground, have felt invested in your quest in a way that others would not. Your successes in the air are also ours. I have a massive smile, and I know Ahmed does too, when we get something approved, or a plan works out or even when you say ‘this hotel is fantastic,’ the work we do in the background can be enjoyable, satisfying and at times…frustrating…like when you lose comms or someone doesn’t answer a phone in an office 7,000 miles away. But your adventures create the memories for us too…and this adventure is yours and our crowning glory…you took on everything the planet could throw at you, faced dangers in every corner of the globe and even had to change everything you knew about to become a Spanish recluse and then a Viking hermit!
I hope you make the book at least half as exciting as the reality was…and by the way…the aircraft was amazing and beautiful :-).”
I’m so happy to share this adventure with all of you and my hope is that it will in some way inspire you to go into the world and be a positive force in the world. To shine as brightly as you can and to allow your dreams to become your reality.