The Flight South

Twin Otter Tales: The Flight South

world-smlThe expedition aircraft left England for Antarctica on the 23rd November 1979. Two months of hard work at The Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough were necessary to convert the Twin Otter from a 20 seater commuter aircraft to a working machine with a long range ferry fuel system and several important radio and navigation “extras”.

The ferry fuel system was essential to give the extra range needed to cross the Atlantic and then fly south from Canada. The system increased flight duration from 5 to 19 hours and consisted of six 75 gallon tanks strapped inside the fuselage of the aircraft. Once the R.A.E. had finished their preparations the aircraft was repainted in the expedition colours of red, white and blue and the top surfaces were painted black to help melt any ice build-up by absorbing heat from the sun when down-under.

The first part of our journey was to Toronto and we flew via Iceland and Frobisher in Northern Canada. The trip took 26 hours 45 minutes and was uneventful but as we were to find during our long trip we were continually surprised by the generous and hospitable reception we received and of the interest shown in our venture by both T.V. and the Press. We left Canada on the 22nd December and flew direct to Miami – a flight of 8 hours 50 minutes. The next day we flew across the Caribbean to Trinidad stopping for fuel at South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands. South Caicos is a tiny island with just enough land for a runway and a small village. With plenty of fuel it is in an ideal position as a stopping-off point in that area. From South Caicos we flew on to Trinidad, another long flight of 6 hours 25 minutes.

On Monday, 24th December, we flew to Manãus in Brazil – a flight of 6 hours 15 minutes. Manãus is on the banks of the Amazon, the weather is humid and it is one of the few places in the world where one can eat Piranha and Chips! The most memorable thing about that day’s flight was flying over the jungle for hour after hour with no break in the green carpet – very impressive but a little bit worrying!

On Christmas Day we were en route to Asuncion in Paraguay, the longest leg of the whole ferry flight, a distance of 1,330 miles (2,140 kms), which took us just over 9 hours’ flying time. Our Christmas dinner was barbecued steak in an open-air restaurant washed down with a bottle of local brew. Following the festivities of Christmas we flew on to Mar Del Plata, a town on the East Coast of Argentina, and the next day on down the coast to Comodoro Rivadavia, which was to be our last stop on the mainland of South America before flying over the South Atlantic to the Falkland Islands.

A short 4 hour flight took us to Stanley in the Falkland Islands but the people there had not been informed of our arrival and the small airport was closed. We could raise no one on the radio and our arrival caused some concern as we flew over the town and airport to try and get some response on the radio. It took only a few minutes for a crowd to gather at the airport and we received the warmest welcome so far. Everyone was delighted to see us and a British registered aircraft and as we walked down the streets in Stanley we saw Union Jacks flying and stickers in their windows with “God Save the Queen” and “Keep the Falkland Islands British” – illustrating the dispute about whom should own the Islands, Britain or Argentina. This was our last stop before the Antarctic so we had to wait until the weather in the Antarctic was stable enough for the trip and while we waited we managed to fit in a New Year’s Eve party and, in fact, celebrated the New Year twice – once U.K. time and once Stanley time!

We were given a warm send off on New Year’s Day and started our flight to the British Antarctic Survey Base at Rothera on Adelaide Island on the Antarctic Peninsula. On the way we made an air drop of mail to another British base, Faraday, about 200 miles (320 kms) north of Rothera. This involved dropping a sack of mail out of the rear door of the Otter and trying to hit a cross marked in the snow on a small island. Giles flew very slowly, I opened the door and he told me to drop the sack – I managed to get within a few feet of the target. We reached Rothera after 8 hours flying and it was here that skis were used for the first time for landing. Nearly 6 weeks after leaving England we had arrived in the Antarctic.

Our reception was again a warm one, we had mail for them and we met many old friends from our survey days. The next day I started to convert the aircraft to her cargo role by removing the long range fuel system. I finished the conversion by the 5th and we moved on to Halley Bay. It was then that we learned that the M.V. Benjamin Bowring was already unloading on the edge of the ice cap nearly 2 weeks ahead of schedule. After several days of bad weather we heard that the weather at Sanae was clearing and we loaded the aircraft and set out to join up with the rest of the expedition. We landed at a site a few miles away from the old South African base at Borga Massif and then down to Sanae where Giles introduced the aircraft to the ship’s crew. We had brought gifts for the South Africans from the British base at Halley and the South Africans in turn made us very welcome.

From there we moved the aircraft down to the Transglobe base and for the first time since the expedition left Greenwich on the 2nd of September last year the whole expedition was together.

It had taken us 99 hours and 5 minutes actual flying time to reach Sanae from Gatwick – a distance of about 13,000 miles (20,930 kms). Of all our trips to the south this was the best that Giles and I had had with no hold ups or snags and all along the route people had been very friendly and hospitable to us. The fuel for the aircraft had been no problem and all the arrangements made by Mobil had worked very well. Incidentally, the price of fuel en-route varied drastically from 50 cents a gallon in the United States to $2.50 a gallon in Paraguay.

The job of unloading the Benjamin Bowring and moving her stores to Borga from Sanae proceeded non-stop – the ship’s crew and members of the expedition working on a shift basis. The flights from Sanae to Borga took an average of 1 hour 20 minutes giving us just over 2 hours to prepare the next load and during which we had to judge volume, weight and most important, order of priority of loading. Because of the weather it was no good trying to prepare 2 or 3 loads as the weather could change and bury the load with snow within a couple of hours. Work progressed well and by the 9th February we had finished our cargo runs nearly 2 weeks ahead of schedule. The Ice Party had driven to Borga on their Skidoos and Sledges so with our work finished we said goodbye to Simon Grimes and ‘Anto’ Birkbeck on the 10th and flew to Borga for the last time. We had a farewell dinner with Ginny and Ran Fiennes, Charlie Burton and Oliver Shepard before wishing them luck and flying to Halley Bay and then on to Rothera. Here I had to refit the ferry fuel system in preparation for the flight to Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

To our knowledge this was the first direct flight from the Antarctic to the Falkland Islands – we made the flight on the 14th January and the weather was beautiful. There was a little low cloud over the Antarctic Peninsula but the mountain tops were clear. The flight took 7 hours 35 minutes.

We left Stanley 2 days later having been given special clearance by the Argentinians to fly direct to Mar Del Plata which saved us a days’ flying. From then on our return trip to England took 3 days, following very much the same route as the outward journey, only this time stopping at St Lucia and missing out Trinidad. On this homeward flight we were still managing to talk to Rothera on the aircraft’s H.F. radio at least once a day – thousands of miles behind us.

On the final leg of the return voyage we stopped off at Goose Bay in Labrador for fuel and then on to Reykjavik in Iceland, and then direct to Luton returning to England three months after leaving the country.

The flight home took 90 hours of flying time. Giles then flew me from Luton Airport to Shoreham, 4 miles from my home, and that was the end of our first season with the expedition.