Over the other Pole !!    - by Steven Vlegels

The Patch design at right was used by members of the Flying Circus balloon team for their South Pole Expedition 1999-2000

SPFCBalpatch.jpg (34607 bytes)

So there we were, one late Sunday evening in an almost deserted Madrid Barajas Airport, ready to board the plane for a 15-hour flight to Santiago, capital of Chile. 'We' meant the Flying Circus balloon team with Anulfo González, Faustino Mortera, Diego Criado del Rey and Steven Vlegels. From Santiago it would go to Punta Arenas, very near to Cape Horn, which was the meeting point for all the participants of the Millennium Expedition. If all went well, our final destination would be the South Pole, some 4000 kilometres further.

The idea for this adventure had been ripening since April of 1999 (see Aerostat February 2000) when Anulfo and Diego had participated in the North Pole 99 expedition. Upon their return, the positive response from press and sponsor invited us to start dreaming. What would be next ? Would it be possible to fly a balloon at the Geographic South Pole ?

Some research learned that world-champion Bill Arras had made 2 flights from Patriot Hills, a blue-ice region at 1080 kilometres from the Pole where large planes can safely land on wheels and where Adventure Network International (ANI), a commercial expedition operator, had established a base camp for a limited number of tourists. However, during the second flight Bill's balloon had been destroyed by the fierce winds Antarctica is famous for. Obviously Patriot Hills was not a good place for ballooning.

On the other hand the meteorological reports from the Amundsen-Scott Base indicated that at the Pole, winds were normally calm because the cold air descends near the centre of the Antarctic continent and starts flowing towards the coast. Only when this river of air is deviated and canalised, wind speeds can increase drastically in a matter of seconds and 320 km/h has been measured near the coast.

So we knew that we had a chance although nobody had done it before. The problem was getting there. Until we learned of the plans of Bob Christ to lead a group of skydivers to the South Pole supported by the Russian Polar Airforce under the command of the veteran Russian polar explorers Vladimir Chukov and Evgeni Bakalov, who had also been leading the North Pole trip: The Millennium Expedition was born! We would fly to the base of Patriot Hills via Punta Arenas in a huge Ilyushin-76 cargo plane, together with all the equipment. To reach the Geographic South Pole over land we would use 'snowbugs': specially-designed 6x6 vehicles, with large wheels and a low tire pressure that would permit them to clear obstacles without sinking into soft snow.

Things went well up to Punta Arenas, although Santiago's 32º C was not a good preparation for the temperatures that would await us in Antarctica ! Fortunately Punta Arenas is a much cooler place and we had plenty of time to acclimatise. Weather conditions in Patriot Hills were marginal during various days and as the plane has to land on the ice runway under visual conditions we were forced to celebrate Christmas on Patagonian ground. Finally, on the 31st of December we left Punta Arenas and celebrated the New Year in the cargo compartment of the IL-76 at 25,000 feet above the Antarctic Peninsula.

In the base camp the Russians had installed a Christmas-tree (that had travelled with them in the plane from Minsk), and the dinner tables had been dug out of the snow. As the weather was splendid - blue sky, no wind- there was no time to loose: in a couple of hours the plane was unloaded and 35 skydivers climbed aboard for a jump over Patriot Hills which was a great success and a very spectacular view indeed.

Meanwhile 8 snowbugs with its respective trailers had been assembled and were being loaded for the 3-day trip to the South Pole. As the convoy left the base camp, it quickly became clear that it would become a longer trip. Despite achieving an average speed of 25 - 30 kilometres per hour en route, the snowbugs were frequently plagued by a problem with the drive units on each wheel. Repairing them delayed the trip enormously and after three days we had advanced 550 kilometres instead of the planned 1080 and made camp near the Thiel Mountains. It became clear that our provisions and fuel reserves would not guarantee a safe return anymore and a hard but necessary decision was made: only 4 vehicles would continue with half of the participants, and the other part of the group would wait for them to return. Fortunately we were able to convince the Russians to include our hot-air balloon in the continuing group, although half of our team was forced to stay and wait. Ivan Trifonov decided to leave his cloudhopper in the camp and join forces with our team.

After an emotional farewell the four vehicles continued and quickly disappeared into the white wilderness. Communication between the two groups was once a day at best, relaying the radio messages via the base camp at Patriot Hills, but after 3 days, dodging deteriorating weather conditions, poor visibility and temperatures as low as -45ºC we learned that the front group had reached the Geographic South Pole where they were received by the scientists of the Amundsen-Scott Base. These formed a group of enthusiastic volunteers who came in very handy, as the fan had been left behind because of weight limitations, and the balloon had to be inflated in the old way, flapping the mouth (an ideal way of keeping warm!) and with two Cremation Charlies inside the balloon.

Inflation went without problems and soon Anulfo Gonzalez, Faustino Mortera and Ivan Trifonov took off in 'LG Flatron', a Cameron Concept-60. Weather conditions were perfect, a crisp blue sky and almost no wind. Soon the crew had a perfect view of the Amundsen-Scott Base, where a lot of construction is currently under way in order to amplify the existing infrastructure. All balloon systems behaved perfectly well. The tanks had been pressurised with nitrogen three days before, on leaving the intermediate camp, and the Sirocco burner gave a very workable pressure.

Mission accomplished, the first balloon flight on the South Pole had been made. Unfortunately there was no time to enjoy this particular place of our earth: the return journey was waiting and our resources were limited. In order to save weight and fuel on the trip, it was decided to leave the balloon basket behind in the Amundsen-Scott Base, where they now have an original piece of furniture in their cafeteria !

Due to the logistics and difficulties involved, Antarctica is not going to convert itself into the next annual meet in our calendars, but knowing that a balloon can safely take off and land at the Pole it certainly invites to start dreaming again. What about an intercontinental flight to Antarctica for example?  Or a crossing of these frozen lands from coast to coast? There are still things to do with a balloon ...

 Steven Vlegels.

Photos taken by the Flying circus Team can be viewed at their web site at;  http://www.flyingcircus.es

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