Record Effort: A Grand Performance

By Ron Bower | October 1, 2008
Send Feedback

Many world records have been set this year. Here’s the story of one helicopter record and the team that achieved it.

In August, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were drawing millions from around the world to sit comfortably and relaxed in their easy chairs, night after night, to watch competitive sporting events and games on TV. Somehow, just watching sporting events allow the observers to vicariously participate. For most, it was just entertainment, but if you were ever a gymnast, swimmer, volleyball player or runner, you more readily identify with the comparative magnitude of effort and skill shown by the Olympians.

The Olympic contestants, by sharp contrast to the viewers, were keenly focused on giving their very best efforts and performances in pursuit of winning gold medals and setting new world records. None of the Olympians, neither individuals nor teams, just casually decided to go to Beijing. Instead, the Games represented a culmination of years or even decades of sustained and committed plans and preparation. For but a very few, despite those noble efforts these dreams, hopes and desires were not fulfilled.


During this same summer Olympic period, with considerably less fanfare, another dedicated team had planned, prepared and trained carefully. They, too, endeavored to break a different long-standing world record -an aviation record-the absolute fastest speed record to circumnavigate the world in a helicopter. Most casual observers, as in the Olympics, underestimate the commitment and effort required by this team to win.

This aspiring team was more than successful, for on Aug. 18, 2008 after flying 20,888 nm and logging 142.2 flight hr-a sleek, black AgustaWestland AW109S Grand piloted by Americans Scott Kasprowicz and his copilot Steve Sheik touched down at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport (KLGA), whence it had departed only 11 days, 7 hr and 5 min before.

Thus, on a trip with the moniker of "GrandAdventure’08", they established a absolute world speed record, masterfully smashing the old one by 5 days 23 hr and 9 min (or a whopping 34.5 percent). Their average ground speed was 147 kt for the 142.2 flight hr.

For a little perspective-setting, here is an example: as a pilot, think back-what are the most flight hours that you have ever flown in a single day? You probably still remember it clearly. Was it 5 hr or 7 or maybe even 10? How did you feel afterwards? Kasprowicz and Sheik flew 142.2 flight hr in 11.3 days, averaging 12.6 flight hr per day. If you take out the full day they frustratingly lost being grounded in Siberia, the daily average jumps to 13.8 flight hr per flight day for 10.3 days. This gives new meaning to the common helicopter pilot end-of-day saying as one walks away from the helicopter all hunched over, murmuring: "Geez, I’m bushed."

In addition to just flying, there were about 80 refueling stops required-averaging about seven ground stops per day. So their "duty day" from arrival at the airport in the morning until they locked the aircraft in the evening averaged 18+ hr/day. The first couple of days of such a journey are adrenaline-powered, but then, hitting the marathoner’s "wall" sets in early and then it just stays.

Since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, there has been and will continue to be a never-ending quest to go faster, farther, higher in aircraft, often taking the pilots, crews and aircraft to the "gummy edge" of their respective performance and endurance envelopes.

Kasprowicz was the moving force behind the GrandAdventure’08 project. He has been flying for more than 30 years, first in airplanes then as a helicopter pilot and owner. He purchased a Bell Helicopter 407 that he flew for more than seven years.

Kasprowicz had a successful business background, founding, operating and growing a communications service company, Texel Corp. He sold the company in 1999. Most recently, he served as a deputy secretary of transportation under Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, overseeing the state’s aircraft fleet.

In 2005, at Heli-Expo, Kasprowicz was introduced to the newly announced twin-engine Grand, a slightly longer and more powerful derivative of the sleek A109 family. He placed an order for a new one with AgustaWestland based on performance specs that combined a fast cruising speed with long range, keeping a run for the around-the-world speed record in mind. In 2006, Kasprowicz began assembling the GrandAdventure’08 team.

Kasprowicz hired Sheik as the director of flight operations. Sheik is an ATP-rated pilot with helicopter instructor and instrument instructor ratings. Previously, Sheik was an instructor pilot with the Maryland State Police. Sheik assisted Kasprowicz in the configuration and design specifications of the on-order Grand. Sheik was also responsible for much of the flight planning.

In July 2007, Kasprowicz and Sheik went to AgustaWestland facilities in Cascina Costa, Italy to complete Grand training and take delivery of the new aircraft. It was registered in the U.S. with a unique number-N1US. Rather than ship the helicopter to the U.S., which is the norm, Kasprowicz and Sheik decided to fly it back via the North Atlantic route (where the land masses are closest together) via England, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. This was just a practice run in preparation for the ocean crossing in the GrandAdventure’08 speed record attempt a year later. Kasprowicz’s N1US was the first customer AgustaWestland Grand to arrive in the U.S.

The team began in-depth research and route-optimization planning and continued to fine-tune aircraft avionics and optional equipment configuration.

In a horse race, many of the accolades go to the horse. Likewise, in this race, the trusty AW109S performed superbly. Two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207C turbine engines producing 735 shp each power the Grand. The max gross takeoff weight of the Grand is 7,000 lb. The typical max cruise speed is 155 kt. N1US had the five fuel-cell option, holding 213 gal.

In February, as a precursor to the around-the-world record flight, Kasprowicz and Sheik warmed up by breaking the previous New York-to-Los Angeles (KLAX) transcontinental speed record by 4 hr. They flew N1US for 15 hr, 9 min, covering 2,140 nm and making six intermediate fuel stops.

Kasprowicz and Sheik became only the fourth holders of the absolute around-the-world speed record, first set in 1982 by aviation trailblazers H. Ross Perot, Jr. and copilot Jay Coburn in a Bell 206L-1 LongRanger, taking 29 days, 3 hr. The Perot/Coburn crew held the record for 12 years, until 1994.

Perot was stimulated to compete with an announced trip by the colorful Australian adventurer Dick Smith, who was planning to be the first helicopter circumnavigator with a solo trip in a Bell 206B JetRanger in mid-1982. Smith departed from Fort Worth, Texas before Perot and Coburn left Dallas, but they overtook Smith in London. Because Russia was "closed" in 1982, both Smith’s and Perot’s flights had to go the longer and more difficult Mideast/southern Asia route, and both had to pre-position large ships in the north Pacific between Japan and the Alaskan Aleutian Islands for refueling. These flights were before navigation using the Global Positioning System was possible.

Unlike the casual Olympics viewer, I fully appreciate superb flight achievement by Kasprowicz and Sheik. I am quite familiar with the record that they broke since it was mine, for I was both the second and third holder of the absolute circumnavigation record, holding the absolute record for 14 years.

I first beat the Perot/Coburn record in 1994 by five days, flying solo in a JetRanger going eastbound in 24 days, 4 hr. Mine was the first Western helicopter flight to transverse the breadth of Russia that included all 11 of its time zones.

Then in 1996, with my copilot and friend, John Williams, we beat my own 1994 record by a full week, flying a newly certified (Ser. No. 002) Bell 430 flying westbound in 17 days, 6 hr. No one had ever (or since) circumnavigated westbound, so no record had to be broken. Just finishing would establish the record.

In the past 26 years, we have seen that the previous absolute records were respectively beaten by seemingly quantum amounts: five days, seven days and now six days. With the new record now being just 11.3 days, that quantum improvement phenomenon is ending, unless some significant technological breakthrough to significantly increase speed is found. I expect the new Kasprowicz/Sheik record to last at least a decade and even much longer.

It is possible that a bold, lucky team might make the trip without losing a day in Siberia. That area might be considered the place where "red tape" was refined to an art. There wasn’t any other slack in the Kasprowicz/Sheik record, so time to recover from any lurking en route "bobbles" is unlikely in some future attempt. But, like the Olympics, records are made to be broken.

Even though I had not interacted with or met the crewmembers or their ground team prior to the effort’s launch on Aug. 7, I heard of it by e-mail and sent an encouraging note to them via their command center forum. That note started some online interaction, and I was privileged to get an invite to visit with the GrandAdventure’08 team during their record run and fly a route leg with the crew. I spent a day in their control center, which was directed by Harlan Hamlin. Hamlin is a multi-engine airplane pilot with 5,000 hr. He has work experience with a variety of satellite and communications companies.

Hamlin had a dedicated staff of full-time and volunteer workers. The command center had to be staffed to accommodate the flight crew based on the time zone in which it was operating. A number of Atlanta-based Delta Air Line pilots served as volunteers to help provide continuous coverage.

Donna Hickman was responsible for logistics and administration. Hickman has a bank management background, which came in handy. She was constantly calling ahead to the next landing location to expedite refueling and advance-payment coordination with credit-card companies. You can imagine the credit-card company’s fraud security flags being raised with rapid multi-state or multi-country transactions for fuel.

Another important support staffer was Natalia Nizker, who was the coordinator of Russian operations. Nizker was born in a small village in Russia and graduated from a Russian university in linguistics and foreign languages. She then came to the U.S. and graduated from the State University of New York in childhood education, and now teaches elementary school in Peachtree City, Ga. Nizker was essential for direct communication by telephone within Russia to coordinate administrative details and verify and arrange for fuel at the many Russian airports. Her interpretation skills helped to resolve administrative issues that could have delayed the flight. Before and after the Russian segment, she coordinated activities in English.

The command center was the focal point of communications and tracking. Hamlin is the president of TracPlusUSA, the U.S. subsidiary of the innovative New Zealand-based TracPlus, a worldwide satellite-tracking service integrator. The company has developed and provided a service to integrate many unique tracking-hardware systems into a common interchange format. This allows land, air or sea asset tracking between various agencies or communities. Regardless of the satellite system or the hardware used, multiple users can be integrated without having to change their own tracking hardware, according to the company. TracPlus allowed the command center to know exactly where Kasprowicz and Sheik were for the entire trip, as well as automatic notification of landing and take off. It also allowed for real-time, two-way communications between the aircraft and the command center. The track was accurately updated and posted using detailed Google maps at the command center and the Internet on the Web site.

Around-the-world speed-record flying under the rules of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is often misunderstood in the way it is typically described. When people ask about an around-the-world speed record, the question is usually answered in time rather than speed-that is in days and hours, as I have done in this article. Time is not speed.

The FAI determines records by dividing the total verified, approved distance by the total elapsed time from initial takeoff to final landing. So if you have a faster aircraft, it is a benefit, but not necessarily the determining factor. Ground time (fueling, flight plans, maintenance, customs and other administrative issues, ground transportation and sleeping) is often equal to or greater than flight time.

For example, with the GrandAventure’08 flight, flying time was 142.2 hr and total elapsed time was 271 hr (11 days and 7 hr). Put another way, their ground time was 48 percent of the record flight.

Since about 50 percent of the record time was spent on the ground rather than in the air, it behooved the team to make equal efforts to optimize and minimize their ground time. This was the main mission of the command center. That center’s remote assistance and coordination was essential to the success of the record flight.

Kasprowicz and Sheik flew into Peachtree City airport to visit and thank the command center crew. There, I boarded and flew a fast leg with the them from Peachtree City (KFFC) to Hickory, N.C. (KHKY) on their final full record flight day on Aug. 17.

Kasprowicz and Sheik’s checklist callouts and responses and their cockpit management and crew coordination were excellent. After a sterile cockpit departure procedure, we headed northeast cruising at 155 kt and flying VFR for a short direct flight of 213 nm in about 1.4 hr. Once we cleared the Atlanta area, we enjoyed a lively dialogue. Though we had never met, Kasprowicz, Sheik, and I enjoyed an instant rapport.

On that flight, I made a comment to Kasprowicz and Sheik that my 24-day trip doing 100 kt in a JetRanger was easier than the 17-day trip doing 140 kt in the Bell 430, implying that it also would be easier than their 11 days in the 155-kt Grand. The reason going slower was easier, I explained, is that the cockpit is the most familiar and predictable place for the pilot to be. Though the flying was often more than challenging, the cockpit was a known and comfortable environment with less tension. All of the difficulties, frustrations, and unexpected issues seem to arise on the ground. Being in a faster helicopter only "rushes" you to the next ground problem and allows you to stack more landings in a flight day, further exacerbating the pressures. Kasprowicz turned to me and said, "Oh, that is exactly it!"

On our landing at Hickory, the command center logistics coordinator had the fuel truck standing by for a very quick turn. I wished them Godspeed for the remaining few legs to the finish line.

Most pilots don’t realize that record flying is a sport, with many exacting rules, regulations and procedures that must be followed to make the "game" fair.

Routing must be pre-approved (sanctioned), and official timers must certify departure and arrival. Documented proof of being where and when you said you were is required. You must even have a sporting license issued by the national aviation record governing authority, representing the FAI, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Upon completion of the flight, the FAI performs a detailed audit reviewing the claims for a record. FAI participating countries have national aviation organizations or flying clubs that are members of FAI. In the U.S. that member is the National Aeronautic Assn in Washington.

While there are many detailed rules regarding record flying, three general FAI rules apply to the around-the-world speed records:

  1. You must cross all the lines of longitude;
  2. You must fly at least the circumference (19,850.83 nm) of the Tropic of Cancer (located at N. Lat. 23 deg 27 min), and
  3. You can only count flight portions that are flown between the Arctic and Antarctic circles (located at 66 deg 33 min N. and S. Lat, respectively), thus eliminating just flying around a pole and saying you went around the world.

At the FAI, there are many different records for different classes of aircraft (balloons, airships, airplanes, gliders, rotorcraft, etc.) with sub-classes like in boxing-based on weight groups, as well as propulsion (turbine or piston), and even gender of pilots. Also, there is a sub-class for aerial refueling.

It does not matter if you are solo or have a large crew on board, though there are rules preventing crewmembers from being added or getting off and coming back on during a flight.

There are separate records for eastbound and westbound around-the-world flights. Most record flights are made eastbound, in order to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds.

Yet, for each major class of aircraft (i.e., Rotorcraft = Class E), only the fastest record in the class, regardless of all the sub-classes, is described as the "absolute" speed record. That absolute speed record now rightfully belongs to the GrandAdventure’08 crew.

There are many factors and variables that determine success or failure in record flights. Some are controllable and some are not.

The roots of the two words that make up "adventure" are "ad" = "to", and "venture" = "go, move or risk," as used in "venture capital". Therefore, a good working definition of an "adventure" is "to risk". It is true that any movement involves risks. If you want to greatly minimize risks, you need to just sit quietly in a substantial chair (but not a rocking chair). Once you arise from the chair to move, the risks increase. Going almost 21,000 nm in 11+ days in a helicopter inherently stacks up significant risks.

So rather than just sitting, an "adventure" of this magnitude requires considerable thought, plans, and resources. The GrandAdventure’08 team did a superb job in anticipating and addressing potential issues. Plan execution was an excellent team effort.

In such an endeavor, the ideal concept of "risk management" hits head on with some difficult, if not impossible, potentially lethal scenarios. One, for example, would be ditching in the frigid (38F) Arctic waters with no pop-out floats (no, the helicopter will not float), where consciousness is measured in seconds if you can get out of the helicopter. Another would be an emergency landing with crippling aircraft damage and serious crew injury in remote areas of Siberia, where rescue could be delayed and sophisticated medical services are lacking. Yet another would be something as mundane as a disabling, excruciating toothache or a "run-away" stomach virus. (During my adventure, I only carried three Depends, took my own food and water, and at least some clean syringes and bandages).

World events and political situations can unexpectedly come into play, as occurred on September 11, 2001, stranding British aviator Simon Oliphant-Hope as he was preparing to exit Siberia on his first record attempt in an MD Helicopters MD900. Or, if international tensions rise (as they sometimes do), arbitrarily airspace could suddenly be closed, grounding all private flights through some countries.

Certainly, detailed planning can help prevent or reduce the effects some of the above issues. But remember, with both machines and people we have to recognize the reality that they wear out and sometimes breakdown.

I honor the entire GrandAdventure’08 team for a job well done. This flight is a hallmark of planning, execution and teamwork. Enjoy your well-earned world record for many years to come.

Links For More Background Information:

Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI):

National Aeronautic Assn (NAA):

Rotor & Wing article entitled: "Made to Be Broken" September 2004 by Ron Bower:

R&W article entitled: "Around The World In 24 Days, 4:36:24" October 1994 by Kathleen Kocks:

Eastern Atlantic Helicopter-Simon Oliphant-Hope 2004 Eastbound Record-MD500:

WestlandAgusta A109-S Grand information:

GrandAventure ‘08 Web site (maps, photos, podcasts, blog/forums):

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox