a personal memoir
Visiting the 4 poles
By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet
(L) Aboard the MS Frontier Spirit in Jan 1991, visitors to the magnetic South Pole point to their location (in the Antarctic Ocean at that time) on an inverted globe. (L-R) Australian National Geographic Founder Dick Smith, Alex Kvassay, Ship's Captain Heinz Aye, Geophysicist Mike McDowell and TWA Capt John Sells. (R) Alex Kvassay at the North Pole in 1988.
After more than 3 years of Alex Remembers articles—this is number 40—I am not going to write about selling Beechcrafts or Learjets. Instead I shall write about flying in a DC6, a Cessna 185 and some Twin Otters, as well as a cruise ship. I used all these means of transportation in reaching the Earth's 2 geographic and 2 magnetic poles.
To the 2 North Poles (1988)
We started out at Recluse Bay in northern Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands. Here we boarded our ski-equipped DHC6 Twin Otter, C-GXXB, operated by the Kenn Borek Company. It was a relatively short flight to the magnetic North Pole, located on the ice cap at 77°N and 103°W.
Since the Pole keeps on moving, at that time it was still 700 miles from the geographic North Pole. (I remember that when we crossed the Atlantic in Learjets we really had to watch that magnetic variation, which was up to 34°. Forgetting to calculate this into your flightplan would have surely landed us somewhere in the drink.)
We proceeded to our temporary camp—a Quonset hut—at Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island, still 500 miles from the geographic North Pole, where we spent three nights. During a short side trip of 70 miles, we visited Fort Conger—base camp for the ill-fated US Navy/Lt Creely expedition of 1887. This camp was also used by Admiral Robert Peary in the early 1900s.
We waited at Lake Hazen, while our Twin Otter flew ahead to land on the ice nearer to the Pole and deposit our fuel for the return flight. Our time was spent cutting a hole in the ice on the lake and watching the arctic char crowding into the hole. The most curious of them made for an excellent dinner.
Finally, the flight to the Pole started. We circled around where our fuel was supposed to be, but the locator beacon had apparently quit working and we couldn't find it.
There was still a solution. We landed on the ice at the camp of Kenn Borek competitor Bradley Air, who kept their fuel 200 miles south of the Pole at 86°45'N and 77°32'W.
The site was guarded by a young Eskimo, referred to as North Pole Tommy, who lived all summer on the ice in a tent. We sat in the aircraft for 5 hrs, warmed only by a Wichita-made Coleman lantern. In the meantime we reached Bradley Air by radio, and they agreed to fuel us so we could proceed.
When the GPS indicator showed 90°, we circled and landed on a flat piece of ice. We brought out the flag, took pictures, drank some champagne and headed back.
And that was the end of an adventure which you couldn't repeat today—at least not by air. All the ice around the North Pole has melted, and I doubt if there is any seaplane in existence today with the range to do this trip.
Going to the geographic South Pole (1990)
It was in 1990 that we started out from Punta Arenas, Chile. This once thriving seaport still has about 40 houses of prostitution, but few customers nowadays. This is its only claim to fame.
Our journey began in a 1952-vintage Douglas DC6B, N41840, flown by Antarctic Air. The aircraft, first delivered to PanAm in 1952, flew for years as a freighter for Lebanese-based TMA.
We flew to our base camp at Patriot Hills, still about 600 miles from the South Pole. We flew at about 8000 ft. (The aircraft could not be pressurized because of the fairly large holes in the fuselage.) There were a few passenger seats, many 55-gal fuel barrels and a completely open-air bucket. We landed on the ice near our camp. After quickly unloading the fuel and other supplies, and reloading empty barrels and accumulated waste, the aircraft had to take off—and all within 45 min, before the tires froze to the ice.
The camp was well equipped, with permanent-type tents, a mess tent (where hot soup was available 24 hrs a day) and an open-air toilet facing away from the camp.
After a few days of waiting for the weather to improve, we took off in the Twin Otter, followed by a Cessna 185.
We were about 2000 lbs overloaded, with 7 people, 2 full 55-gal fuel barrels, survival equipment, food, tents, etc. I asked the pilot what our glide ratio would be if we were to lose an engine at this weight. He answered, cheerfully, "We'd go straight down." Halfway to our destination we landed at a fuel dump (with nothing there but a few barrels of fuel) and refueled using hand pumps. We landed at the Pole at about 6:00 pm, according to our watches.
We were told to park on the far side of the runway. Then it was a long walk in the frozen snow at a pressure altitude of 11,000 ft. (The actual elevation is 9000 ft, but there is a constant low pressure area over the Pole.)
We were greeted by a single morose person at the great plastic dome that enclosed a few small buildings that looked like a small village. Our host quickly fixed some coffee for us, took our postcards to mail—they arrived 1 year later—and, after a brief tour of the facilities, helped facilitate our departure. Only later did we realize that, while we were on Chilean time, the base operated on New Zealand time, and our visit was timed for about 2:00 am. Of course, with sunshine 24 hrs a day, it's hard to anticipate when you might be an unwelcome guest.
The Twin Otter had to proceed to a Soviet base, so 3 of us—a New Zealander pilot, a TWA 747 captain named John Sells, and myself—went back to the camp in the Cessna 185. The pilot was new to the Antarctic. On our first takeoff run we didn't get airborne but ran off to the side, into the snow.
John Sells got out to direct us back to the runway, at which time our pilot taxied back to the takeoff point, stranding Sells, who had to walk the whole length of the runway to catch up with us. This was not an encouraging start.
Sells sat in the copilot's seat and I sat in the rear on what looked like full potato sacks. Finally we took off, and shortly we were VFR on top.
Of course, the only direction you can fly from the South Pole is north. But which north? There are 360 of them. The pilot operated with a "sun compass," whatever that is. I couldn't figure it out.
When it was time to let down at our fuel dump, we saw a beautiful mountain range ahead of us—one we'd never seen on the way south. The New Zealander insisted that we needed to go further. After a heated discussion, John and I, convinced that we'd overshot out destination, voted to turn back. It was a democratic operation and we did.
Landing at our fuel dump, we landed on a slight incline, about 300 ft from the fuel barrels. The wind was blowing extremely strongly, and the pilot announced, "You guys can roll the barrels up here." Democracy again prevailed and we pretty much forced him to take off and land next to the barrels. Taxiing in that wind was not an option. I have to give the guy credit—we made a hairy take off and a hairy landing, but right next to the barrels. Of course, it was out of the question to try to refuel under those conditions.
We spent the next 27 hrs in our sleeping bags. There was 1 other passenger, whose name was Jim. We asked him what his job was, and he answered, "Nothing, my mother was a DuPont." Our only entertainment was my little HF radio, on which we could listen to the BBC. I crawled out once, to relieve myself. The speed at which I accomplished this task should be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
When we got back to Patriot Hills, our big tent seemed like a palace. Next morning I almost fell out of my cot when the DC6 arrived to pick us up and made a low pass just a few feet above our tent. From there on, everything was routine.
Finally, to the magnetic South Pole (1991)
This was accomplished in a cruise ship, MS Frontier Spirit, just off the shores of Antarctica. At that time, the wandering magnetic South Pole was located at (or under) the sea at 64°35'S and 139°10'E.
We watched a compass on the deck pointing north. When we arrived at the magnetic South Pole the needle swung and started pointing straight down. And then came the inevitable champagne.
At last I'd achieved my goal of visiting all 4 poles.
Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.