By Ron Bower | September 1, 2004
At precisely 17:33:27, GMT, June 21, 2004, a bright orange MD-500E landed at its home airfield of Shoreham, West Sussex, on the south coast of England. It had just returned from a blazing circumnaviagtion of the globe, having departed eastbound from Shoreham only 17.6 days earlier. This epic flight shattered, by a quantum 35% faster speed, the decade-old official Around-the-World (eastbound) speed record set in 1994 in a Bell 206B JetRanger. This story is a personal one, since it was my 1994 record that was shattered.
The pilot at the controls of the MD-500E for this solo flight was Simon Oliphant-Hope, age 41, the affable owner and managing director of the Shoreham-based Eastern Atlantic Helicopters, Ltd., the sole distributor for new MD Helicopters and Enstrom helicopters in the United Kingdom. It also provides maintenance services, parts, and used helicopter sales in the United Kingdom and Europe. Simon flew for 195 flight hours, covering a distance of 20,259 nm. (37,520 km.) in 17 days, 14 hr., 2 min., and 27 sec.--averaging over 11 flight hours per day for 17.6 days. He logged more flight time in just 17 days than many helicopter pilots log in a year. Few pilots have ever flown 11 hr. in one day - much less a consecutive string of 17 such days.
Because of the additional daily preparation activities such as preflight and post-flight inspections, fueling, flight plans, dealing with customs and other administrative issues, the at-the-airfield "duty day" can easily be 15-18 hr. from arrival in the morning to departure at night. Asking Simon if the trip was "fun" is like asking marathon runners "if they enjoyed looking in the store front windows" as they ran by. Instead, such flights are unyielding treadmill endurance tests for both pilot and machine, demanding sustained focus and attention to detail.
Simon started flying in 1990 at Shoreham, has been in the helicopter business since 1992 and has accumulated more than 5,200 hours. He holds both U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA commercial, instrument and instructor ratings.
I first met Simon in February 2001 when I was invited by MD Helicopters in Mesa, Ariz. to give a presentation at their international sales meeting. At first glance, it seemed a bit strange for MD to want to have a guest speaker talking about two around-the-world record flights in competitive Bell helicopter products (JetRanger and 430). But, the around-the-world story transcends manufacturer's bias since it broadens the vision for everyone of the capabilities of the helicopter. As a result, this expanded vision is good for the whole helicopter industry, both for people working in the industry and for potential helicopter users and buyers. Such flights are working models about seeing opportunity in change, building teams, planning your work and working your plan, the importance of preparing for contingencies and being flexible in dealing with the unexpected.
Simon was in the audience and we had dinner together that evening--with him asking many questions. After dinner, I saw the gleam in his eye. A few weeks later he called and said he "was going to give it a go" in the late summer of 2001 and that MD Helicopters was going to provide a twin-engine MD-900 Explorer for the trip. During the first week of September 2001 Simon left England going eastbound. He was almost out of Russia on 9/11 when the airspace closed down, dashing his hopes of completing his record flight. I had fully expected him to beat my 1994 eastbound record in the faster MD-900. Since Simon could not enter the continental United States, he aborted the effort and crossed Canada and the North Atlantic to return to the United Kingdom during the Helitech 2001 in Duxford, England.
For his second attempt, Simon flew a U.S.-registered, 1982 model MD-500E, s/n 007E, N5144Q. Simon purchased this very unique, 2250-hr. total time aircraft in California in March 2004. His MD-500E is the only one certified for single-pilot IFR flight. Simon had it air-shipped to England for his team to began preparing it for the trip.
The aircraft has a three-axis Astronautics Autopilot, Garmin 530/430 GPS Nav/Com, Skymap IIIC GPS, Stormscope, Shadin Fuel computer integrated into the Garmin 530, and standby small-scale IFR instruments.
An auxiliary fuel tank increased fuel capacity from the standard 60 gal. to 150. With a typical consumption rate of about 29 gph, it gave him about 5.2 hr. to flame-out. The distance from Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay) in far northeastern Canada to Nuuk (Godthab) Greenland is 445 nm, and from eastern Greenland to Iceland is near 400 nm with no islands in between.
The old adage of "the only time you have too much fuel is when you crash and catch on fire" is very true. However, in order to stay within gross weight limits, you usually wind up trading out optional equipment for fuel capacity. As an example, neither Simon nor I had emergency pop-out floats on our aircraft for the five ocean crossings above the frigid waters of the Arctic that each of us has made.
Getting the aircraft equipped and ready for the flight took six maintenance technicians three months to complete under the competent management of Simon Gibson, Eastern Atlantic's chief engineer, who holds both U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA mechanic and inspector ratings. Gibson and MD maintenance support techs came to California at about the mid-point of the record flight to perform a 100-hr. inspection during the evening and night while Simon slept.
This record-breaking success speaks volumes about the reliability of properly cared for used helicopters and their well-proven engines.
The helicopter looked like a NASCAR speedster with much of its body covered with sponsor stickers and logos--although underneath, it maintained its FAA Standard Category airworthiness certification, rather than a Restricted or Experimental category status that can restrict flight permit approvals in many countries.
In a horse race, it is the winning horse that gets the roses. This "MD horse" certainly earned them with reliable performance for the entire trip. The MD-500 series thoroughbred has excellent bloodlines--going back to military use in Vietnam as an OH-6A light observation helicopter and still in use today as the famous AH-6J attack helicopter and MH-6J insertion and extraction transport known as the "Little Birds" by U.S. military special operations forces.
Setting official aviation records is a type of "sport" flying. As with any sport (i.e., basketball, soccer, or cricket) you must have specific rules that all must follow in order to have fairness--it would be unfair to have a lower basket, a shorter field, or a less sticky wicket for some. The authority and rulemaker in record flying is the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) based in Lausanne, Switzerland (www.fai.org). The FAI is the sole official source of international aviation records (The Guinness Book of Records is only a commercial, non-official publication of records of all kinds).
There is a wide range of aviation records for separate aircraft classes from hot air balloons to spacecraft--all administered by the FAI. Within each classification of aircraft records, there are many sub-classes based on weight ranges, type of engine or propulsion (piston, turbine, jet), and even gender, with separate records for female-only crews. There is no limit of the number of crewmembers, but crewmembers cannot be added or swapped during a flight. There is no classification for flying solo. That decision is usually based on the carrying capacity of the aircraft (which is never enough) and the usual trade-offs in weight management to allow for optimum fuel and equipment.
Before a record attempt can be made, the flight plan must be sanctioned by the FAI. The planned route is made up of a series of control points, usually at every heading change to optimize the record distance flown. The control points must be flown in sequence and FAI forms must be signed, stamped, or authenticated at each control point to prove that the pilot was there at a specific time. Simon had 60 such control points in his flight plan.
While there are many detailed rules regarding record flying, three general FAI rules apply to the Around-the-World (ATW) speed records:
(1) you must cross all the lines of longitude;
(2) you must fly at least the distance (19,850.83 nm) of the Tropic of Cancer (located at 23 deg. and 27 min. North latitude); and
(3) you can only count flight portions that are flown between the Arctic and Antarctic circles (located at 66 deg. 33 min. North and South latitudes) thus eliminating just flying around a Pole and saying you went around the world.
There are separate records for eastbound and westbound ATW flights. Most record flights are made eastbound, in order to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds. Since 1996, I have held the records for both eastbound and westbound--but Simon, now, will rightfully take over as the world speed record holder for eastbound helicopter flights.
To better appreciate Simon's feat, it helps to closely look at a globe or good world map. Looking down from the top of a globe, it is interesting to note that Russia covers 165 deg. of the 360 radiating degrees of longitude. Russia has 11 times zones--when it is noon in Moscow, it is 11 p.m. in eastern Siberia. Russia redefines territorial vastness. Much of Siberia in eastern Russia is very sparsely populated and has minimal infrastructure, rugged terrain, wild environs (ever hear of a Siberian tiger?) and extremely harsh winter weather where the perma-frost is over 10 feet deep.
Russia requires pre-approved entry visas and a specific flight permit describing route and planned stops. In addition, a Russian escort/translator is required to be on board to handle communications with the many non-ICAO towers that speak only Russian. There is very little private or corporate aviation in Russia, so integration into their airline and military air traffic control can require considerable patience.
Looking closely at a globe, you see that the Tropic of Cancer is south of the United States, passing through Mexico, the southern edges of Egypt and China, and India. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans' over-water expanses at the Tropic of Cancer are well beyond helicopter endurance without numerous in-flight refuelings (a separate FAI classification).
Thus, around-the-world helicopter flights are relegated to ocean crossings in the perilous Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere where the land masses are closer together. Combining ocean crossings and arctic weather compounds risks by mixing long distances, frigid water, icebergs, often unfriendly winds, low visibility, low ceilings, lack of alternate airports, and limited-response search and rescue capabilities. The temperatures are usually ripe for icing in the clouds, thus limiting IFR. Other than these minor problems it is a delightfully unique experience. The harsh reality is that if you were to go into the arctic water you would likely perish, regardless of survival equipment or training.
In order to accumulate the FAI required minimum distance, the flight plan route must be designed to "spin the odometer" by adding route legs. Though Simon's zig-zagging in the central USA might appear that he was lost and disoriented, he was just spinning up miles to make the minimum distance.
Around-the-world flying requires an official timekeeper on hand for both the start and finish of the flight. The clock runs continuously from takeoff until the aircraft has completed the flight. The calculation for speed is the total proven distance flown divided by the total clock hours between start and finish of the flight. So any and all en-route delays due to weather, ATC diversions, fueling, sleeping and rest periods, mechanical problems, administrative issues, or any "lolly-gagging" will all work against your record speed. Thus, the average speed for Simon's flight was 47.97 kt. (88.9 km/hr). While Simon averaged 11.1 flight hours per day, the corollary is that he was therefore on the ground the other 12.9 hours per day. While the cruise speed of a helicopter is an important factor, it is important only if the helicopter is flying. It is the ground delays that make or break the flight. If the helicopter is downed with major maintenance or administrative issues, the record speed drops significantly--maybe to just a "fast walk" pace.
At the completion of the flight, a record claim must be made to the FAI with all the required documentation. They then verify all the calculations and review all the documentation to determine if the flight followed the rules. If all is well, the FAI will ratify and announce the new record in due course. Simon's flight was well coordinated and administered by Jamie Chalkley, Eastern Atlantic's operations manager, and I expect a prompt ratification from the FAI.
The overall goal in record planning is to optimize the route, pre-arrange what you can to minimize any ground time and have your aircraft and crew in tip-top condition for the start of the arduous flight.
Ops manager Jamie Chalkley, who is also an accomplished pilot, was the conduit of critical information for Simon. Jamie consolidated weather and administrative information and provided it directly to Simon by Iridium sat-phone using voice and text messaging. During bad weather or water crossings, Jamie would speak with Simon every 10 min. to compare conditions to weather charts, and update the lat/long position reports for flight following and rescue information. Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc. in Houston, Texas provided in-depth weather advice and coordinated fuel purchases and ground assistance, especially in Russia through its UVglobal Network participant company, FERAS.
In order to be available as Simon was going through the 24 world time zones, Jamie "moved in" to the Eastern Atlantic facility for 17 days, sleeping on an air mattress and being fully available when Simon was flying. Jamie coordinated ground transportation and accommodations for Simon each evening.
Jamie's friendly voice and can-do attitude was very important to Simon. Also, just being able to interact usually improves decision-making. An example of enabling good judgment occurred as Simon was departing Anadyr, his eastern-most stop in Russia, and crossing the Bering Strait to Nome, Alaska, a distance of 431 nm. Due to an unfavorable winds forecast, the flight looked like it might be "tight" on fuel. Just in case, Jamie speedily arranged for a 55-gal. barrel of Jet-A and a hand-pump to be flown by a charter airplane to Gambell airport on the western end of the sparsely populated St. Lawrence Island, the nearest U.S. soil to Russia. He then alerted and coordinated with U.S. Customs that the refueling stop may be needed. This contingent fuel would be used if the winds didn't subside. With regular ETA and fuel remaining updates from Simon, a good decision was made--that the fuel should be used. Jamie notified Customs, Simon landed and hand pumped the fuel into the helicopter, and uneventfully proceeded to Nome, landing with a safe reserve.
A Shortage of Fools?
Most pilots are typically not into setting aviation records. I know I was not. But, while on a helicopter buying trip to Australia in the summer of 1993, an Australian named Dick Smith, whom I did not know, called me at my hotel and invited me to dinner. Dick is the one who got all of this started in the summer of 1982 when he decided to be the first person to fly a helicopter around the world. He was in a Bell 206B JetRanger and departed eastbound from the Bell plant in Ft. Worth, Texas on August 5, 1982. He made the first solo Atlantic crossing in a helicopter and ultimately completed the first solo ATW flight. I was surprised, a few days after meeting Dick, when I saw his JetRanger hanging in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It looked just like all the hundreds of JetRangers I had flown. Until I met Dick and saw his aircraft, I had never even considered flying around the world.
In 1982, when Dick announced his planned trip, a prominent Texas businessman, Ross Perot, Jr., was motivated to try to beat Dick Smith. He quickly assembled the resources and departed Dallas 26 days after Dick Smith had departed. Ross was in a Bell 206 L-1 LongRanger with co-pilot Jay Coburn, and overtook Smith in London and became the first to complete an ATW helicopter trip--in 29 days. Ross' LongRanger is now in the Smithsonian. No one attempted to beat Perot's 1982 record for 12 years. Since Russia was closed to western aircraft in 1982, both Perot and Smith had to take a more arduous southern Asia route, and arrange for rendezvous with large ships in the North Pacific on which to land at sea and refuel between Japan and Alaska. Dick, Ross, and Jay were the true pioneers. Remember, in 1982, there was no GPS, no Internet, no sat-phones, and minimal reliable satellite weather reporting. We have all benefited from their trailblazing.
In 1994, I decided that if I could get permission to fly across Russia, I might be able to beat Perot's 29 days record. Fortunately, I shaved five days off Ross' record, completing the trip in 24 days and 4 hr. My eastbound record lasted for 10 years, being bested by Simon's spectacular flight of 17 days.
From my experience, "Records are made to be broken" is a true statement. Dick Smith got me started, and then Ross Perot, Jr. befriended and encouraged me. They came to London in September 1996 for our westbound record flight finish in the Bell 430 after just 17 days and 4 hr. They then flew with John Williams and me as we opened the flight portion of the 1996 Farnborough Air Show on its third day--onboard were the only five people that had flown around-the-world in a helicopter. It was very natural for me to encourage Simon. I had good role models.
Prior to Simon's flight, there have only been five successful around-the-world helicopter speed record flights. Four have been eastbound and only one westbound. (There have been a few other flights, namely Dick Smith of Australia who has gone eastbound in a Bell JetRanger and westbound in a Sikorsky S-76 that didn't make it into FAI's record book.).
With so few attempts at around-the-world flights, one might conclude there is a definite "shortage of fools". But, make no mistake, such flights are rife with risks. It is a considerable undertaking with many unknowns, not the least of which are Arctic flying and ocean crossings. Good judgment and honed skills are essential. Also, the flights are expensive and time-consuming. Stress factors are high, and physical and mental endurance is tested. Aircraft fitness is critical--which is the result of committed maintenance team support.
I communicated with Jamie daily by e-mail or phone, sending encouraging messages. Simon had included an overnight stop at my home base in Austin, Texas as part of his flight plan. However, I was ferrying a helicopter to New Jersey, so my son Shannon hosted Simon--helping him with hotels, transportation and good Texas advice. Shannon also, reportedly, put one of my 1994 ATW stickers on the right side fuselage of Simon's MD-500E. Simon sent me a picture of a similar sticker he had found at an airport deep in Siberia. He added his there, too.
Shortly after landing at the completion of the flight, Simon called me and jokingly asked: "Am I speaking to the ex-around-the-world speed record holder?" My response was: "Anyone can do that easy eastbound trip. Now you need to try the more challenging westbound trip." We both had a good laugh, since that was the farthest thing from his mind--and his "bum", at the moment.
(Ron Bower is a dual rated Airline Transport Pilot with over 8,500 hr. and six CFI ratings. He was a UH-1B gunship pilot in Vietnam, and has been flying for 42 years. If you have any questions or comments, you may reach Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.)