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Wed, Dec 31, 2003

ANN's 2003 Stories of the Year #8: What's All The Ruckus Down At The South Pole?

The Johanson Saga Starts

Perhaps it's the last "undiscovered country." Perhaps it's more in vogue with adventurers now than ever. Perhaps it's just because it's there. For some reason, a lot of people decided to go south this winter -- all the way to the South Pole. Without exception, they all ran into trouble.

Journeys to the South Pole aren't new. But in helicopters and single-engine piston aircraft they are.

It began in early December, when Australian pilot Jon Johanson flew his RV-4 over the South Pole on a flight from New Zealand to Argentina. But he didn't have the fuel to make it all the way. Instead of landing in South America, Johanson landed at the joint US-New Zealand base in Antarctica, touching off an international incident between those countries and his native land. Seems the folks at McMurdo-Scott didn't want to give Johanson the fuel he needed to either finish his flight or return to New Zealand. On December 10th, we wrote:

Johanson may lose his airplane if cooler minds don't prevail at McMurdo Station, where he remains at this hour without enough fuel to fly home.

McMurdo Station is located on the southern end of Ross Island, an island of volcanic origin approximately 45 miles wide and 45 miles long. Large Emperor and Adelie penguin rookeries and Skua rookeries are located on the island--it is NOT the garden sport of the universe.

Johanson's unexpected landing has left him stranded with no fuel to fly home... and McMurdo's policy is to NOT help out... ostensibly to avoid "encouraging tourist flights" to the base. If the airplane is left to the elements out there, he'll lose it, that's for near-certain. It is a BRUTAL environment--even at this time of year.

Vacher To The Rescue

Australian lawmakers pleaded with their American and New Zealand counterparts to give up the fuel Johanson needed to get home. But the folks at McMurdo refused. Finally it was up to another adventurer who just days earlier aborted her plans for a South Pole crossing to come to the rescue. Briton Polly Vacher had stocked fuel at the base for her own flight. But after giving up because of bad weather and (ironically) not enough fuel, Vacher donated her avgas to Johanson.

'Polar First' Doesn't Last

A week after the Johanson issue was resolved, another polar expedition was halted by misfortune -- this time, the crash of a Bell 407 in Antarctica:

Two British record setters with an extensive pedigree of aviation accomplishments have survived a hairy Antarctic crash in their Bell 407.

The heli-duo made it to the South Pole, this week, as part of their Polar First record flight on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers First Powered Flight. They had reportedly just departed on the next leg of their challenge when the Bell 407 went down in what was reported as "bad weather."

The Polar First Challenge 2003 lifted off from New York on October 22nd, 2003. Its aim was to break the Pole to Pole record and raise awareness and funds for the conservation organization WWF. Last Saturday, Jennifer mixed record business with pleasure when she met her businessman husband Simon Murray, who is bidding to become the oldest man to walk 850 miles overland to the South Pole unsupported. He is accompanied on his trip by Arctic explorer Pen Hadow.

After being rescued from the remote Antarctic crash site, Murray and Bodill are now in the hospital in the Chilean city of Punta Arenas following a 17-hour rescue mission to retrieve them.

The Allure Remains

But the human spirit is indefatiguable. Last Monday, Gaithersburg (MD) pilot Gus McLeod took off on the first leg of his flight to circumnavigate the globe by crossing both poles. He says he's aware of the "ugly things" that have gone down at the South Pole. He also faces money problems stemming from a $60,000 fee a stand-by rescue team from Chile wants him to pay to put them on standby.

But McLeod, in his Velocity Firefly, is intent on making the trip. He's having his small, experimental aircraft refitted with bigger fuel tanks before heading from Florida for Antarctica. ANN will follow his progress...

FMI: Good News And Bad News For Jon Johanson's New Polar Flight Record; Johanson Speaks; "Polar First" Record Flight Halted By Crash; Gus McLeod Plans Polar Flight

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