- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

RESOLUTE BAY, Canada — In an age of increasing connectivity, three men risked their lives last week to fly to the North Pole in a small, single-engine plane using dead reckoning and celestial navigation only, rather than the array of devices used by pilots in virtually all other planes to guide them over land and sea.
Hubert de Chevigny, who designed the plane and led the expedition, is a French pioneer of ultra-light aircraft. He flew one to the Pole in 1987 using an experimental Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver that weighed 13 pounds. Current models sell for as little as $100 and can be smaller than a cellular phone. All triangulate electronic beacons aboard 22 geostationary U.S. military satellites to determine the receivers exact position.
"For me," Mr. Chevigny said Friday after the flight, "it was an exercise that involved applied trigonometry, physical endurance, polar science and aeronautics. Ive been obsessed with this trip for five years, and Im very happy we succeeded."
The feat came two weeks before the 75th anniversary of Richard Byrds claimed first arrival at the Pole on May 9, 1926. The claim has been disputed ever since, and Mr. Chevignys flight is likely to rekindle the debate.

Antique instruments used
To navigate, both Byrd and Mr. Chevigny used instruments that are decades old and that most people dont even know exist, such as:
A sun compass, a sort of reverse sundial with a clockwork mechanism that makes it turn with the sun. The pilot steers by keeping the shadow of the sun through the visor.
A driftmeter, a downward-looking scope that allows the navigator to calculate speed and drift caused by lateral winds.
A bubble compass, which provides an artificial horizon and, after a series of calculations, a line of position.
An accurate watch, provided by the main sponsor, Sector.
The crew left from Resolute Bay last Monday evening, reached the Pole on Tuesday and returned here Thursday evening.
Mr. Chevignys plane, Private Explorer, which he built with Idaho-based designer Dean Wilson, is the first live-in, single-engine plane ever built.

A slow and roomy plane
Boxy and cruising at a leisurely 85 knots, the plane has standing room for 12 feet behind the four seats in front and a double bed in the back.
But the fundamental difference between Mr. Chevignys plane and Richard Byrds Fokker tri-motor Josephine Ford during their polar flights is that Explorer contained two Argos GPS receivers. One broadcast the planes positions at irregular intervals, the other recorded a much greater number of positions but did not transmit them.
The crew had no access to either set of data. The information from the second box cannot be downloaded until it is returned to the manufacturer in France. Thus, it was the first time an independently steered trip was completely verified.
After a weeklong trip from Montreal, Explorer arrived at Resolute Bay.
An Inuit village of 250, it is the northernmost point served by scheduled flights. Located 600 miles above the Arctic Circle, it is 2,100 miles north of Washington, but still 700 miles south of the Arctic Ocean coast. For decades, Resolute Bay has been the jumping-off point for hundreds of polar expeditions — by skis, plane, helicopter, motorcycle, snowmobile or dog sled.

Expert navigator chosen
Mr. Chevigny had recruited as navigator Gerard dAboville, 54, whose sextant-guided, solo crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in rowboats made him a hero in his native France, where he served a term in the European Parliament.
Bernard Laferrire, the French Canadian pilot, studied law and prospered in real estate in the Montreal area before dedicating himself to aviation. He has built two planes and is building four more Explorers, which he believes will do for aero-tourism what the Volkswagen camper did for road touring.
The plane, overloaded with gasoline, emergency supplies and equipment, took off Monday afternoon from Resolute to Eureka, a tiny weather station 175 miles from the coast, to refuel. The trio set out around midnight, local time, for the flight to the pole.
"It was very intense," Mr. dAboville said Friday. "I was constantly watching the driftmeter. I would give corrections to Hubert, who was in the co-pilots seat and would twitch the sun compass. I was surprised by how much the side winds affected our course. If it hadnt been for these constant corrections this way and that, we would have missed the pole completely."
In the end, they relied more on the driftmeter than on the sextants.

Close, by dead reckoning
According to the Argos beacon, the closest they came to the Pole was 20 statute miles, though the mute flight recorder may show a closer approach.
"For a geographer, thats not the pole," said Mr. dAboville. "For most people, its close enough. For a flier, thats an error of 1-1/2 degrees over 600 miles in seven hours — pretty fabulous indeed."
"I had expected," added Mr. Chevigny, "that when we thought we were within 75 miles of the pole, wed have to land and take a lot of sextant readings of the sun to determine our precise position. Then we would try to fly to the pole. But our dead reckoning was going so well that I thought, 'Lets keep on going."
"We knew we were a bit to the right of our intended path, the 90th meridian," he said. So when they got to what they thought was the Pole, they turned left three times to make sure they had flown over it and then spent more than an hour looking for a landing spot.
They had to choose between secure but bumpy old ice and smooth ice that might not support the weight of the plane. Mr. Chevigny had landed on the ice pack four times during his 1987 expedition and Mr. Laferrire had never come down on the polar ice pack.

Landing on ice pack
After much debate, they chose the smooth ice. "It was a dream landing, flat as a table," Mr. Laferrire said. Nevertheless, Mr. Chevigny had imposed an immediate evacuation plan: As soon as the plane came to a stop, the men jumped out with a sled, skis and emergency food supplies.
But nothing happened: the ice, about 10 inches thick, held.
"It was gorgeous," said Mr. dAboville. "We had high ridges on either side; it looked like the moon. And it was absolutely silent, there was no wind. We rested a bit and I took a bunch of sextant readings." They were 31 nautical miles from the Pole, on the Russian side.
They took off again, headed for the Pole, circled it once (the Argos gave no reading for that part) and flew 125 miles to a French-Russian drifting base created every April since 1994 for adventure travelers to parachute or balloon over the pole, ski to it or even dive under it.
There, they refueled and took off for the 1,200-mile flight back to Eureka after unsealing on-camera a GPS they had taken with them.

Another landing offshore
On their return flight from the Pole, they landed on some rough sea ice — they said there was no smooth ice available — about 70 miles from the Canadian coast because of a thick bank of clouds. There, they spent 12 hours trying to level the ice to take off again.
"That really wiped me out," said Mr. Laferrire. "We were already pretty exhausted, we had slept six hours in three days. We had started out at night because we needed the sun in front of us. And flying with a sun compass, and keeping the plane level for the driftmeter, demands the kind of precision and concentration that you use to make an instrument landing.
"You do one degree of error and youre off the runway. Only a landing lasts two minutes, and I had to fly like that for seven hours."
"When we tried to take off," Mr. Laferrire continued, "We were doing 20 mph at the end of our runway. There was something very wrong."
The something was a magneto that failed, robbing the plane of much of the power it needed to tear itself off the rough ice. So Mr. Chevigny called in a Twin Otter plane from Resolute Bay to pick up the crew.
On Saturday, Mr. Chevigny was arranging for the part to be flown from Montreal and hoping he could return to his plane in a few days.
"Had this happened further out on the Arctic Ocean," he said, "we could have been airlifted out, but we probably would never have been able to find the plane again because of the drift of the ice."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide