Trip Start Dec 23, 2012
38Trip End Mar 30, 2013
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Where I stayed
Fox Hollow home
My goal for this flight was to fly to and land in Antarctica and in doing so, complete solo flight in my single engine Lancair Columbia 300 aircraft (N788W) to all seven continents. In my round-the-world (RTW) flight last year and visited five continents; my route didn't include South America and Antarctica. The RTW flight has special challenges with several long over-water crossings. The flight to Antarctica does not have these challenges but does require landing on a continent where there essentially are no airports, just two gravel airstrips at research stations that are close enough to the southern tip of South America to reasonably be in range for small planes.
My route will begin at the Creswell, Oregon airport (77S) near Eugene where I have a country home, rather than from Bremerton, Washington (KPWT), the nearest airport to my primary residence on Bainbridge Island (6 miles due west of downtown Seattle across the Puget Sound)
From El Calafate the next stop will be Punta Arenas in Chile (SCCI), the jumping off point for the flight to Antarctica. The two gravel airstrips within range are the Chilean base on King George Island (SCRM) and the Argentine base on Marambio (SAWB). Of the two, SCRM is closer to South America, about 500 nm of open water across the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and SCRM. SCRM also has webcams showing the runway, routine weather forecasts and METARs, and a small village that accommodates researchers who stay over during the summer months. The 4200 foot gravel airstrip is also used by some commercial operators who flight tourists to King George Island to stay for a day or two, as well as some that will board small cruise ships but want to avoid the two day crossing of Drake Passage which can often be rough water
There is another jumping off point for Antarctica at Ushuaia, Argentina (SAWH). It’s only 530 nm from SCRM, but it’s in Argentina so there is some unclear issue with getting a clearance to depart Argentina for a flight to a Chilean base. I may understand this better once I arrive in the area. Obviously, making the flight from SAWH to SCRM is the shortest possible combination and the most desirable for that reason.
On my RTW flight I had a 78 gallon ferry tank that gave my plane a range in excess of 2000 nm miles. While it was great to have this range to minimize the number of stops I’d need and give me flexibility in the event of bad weather, it had several limitations. Foremost, installing a ferry tank connected to the fuel system requires a Special Flight Permit (SFP) from the FAA (unless there is an STC for extra tanks for your plane). The SFP or ferry permit is intended for the singular purpose of getting a plane from point A to point B as expeditiously as possible, not for cruising around the world with extended range. For my RTW flight, I basically needed two ferry permits – one that allowed me to fly from Merced, CA to Honolulu the long way around, and the second which allowed me to fly from Honolulu back to Merced (the short way around), thus completing the around-the-world flight. It was not really the intended purpose of the permits, but technically acceptable to the FAA. Given these restrictions, the 5 pages of operating limitations that go along with it, and the requirement to get prior permission for the SFP from foreign countries you cross, I decided to make life easier on this flight and do it without the ferry tank. The spacing of airports with avgas along the route makes this possible. However, the flight leg from SCCI to SCRM is 670 nm. There is no avgas at SCRM, so the round trip is right at the maximum range of my Columbia 300 with no reserve. With a landing at SCRM, I had the opportunity to refill the wing tanks so I decided to take the extra fuel as cargo (not plumbed into the aircraft fuel system). I researched the regulations on carrying avgas as cargo to determine the capacity limitation (about 58 gallons) and then had custom aluminum tank constructed which would be strapped down in place of the back seats. I would bring a manual rotary pump to transfer the fuel from the cargo tank to the wing tanks once on the ground at SCRM so I’d have full wing tanks for the return flight to SCCI. I did a trial run with this setup while still at home and it all worked successfully.
In addition to the custom fuel tank and pump, the additional equipment I’ll carry is pretty much the same things I took on my RTW flight – a covered life raft (Winslow), a new Mustang immersion suit(OC8000 model), the Iridium satphone, and the HF radio. I spent some time during the summer improving the HF radio installation from the awkward location and operation I had for RTW flight. I disconnected the control head from the ICOM IC-706MKIIG and mounted in the radio stack, with the main body of the radio and antenna tuner mounted in the baggage area. I also installed an interface box made by PS Engineering so I could connected the HF into my audio panel as COM3, thus allowing me to use my headset with the HF instead of using the hand mic and speaker. I can also more easily monitor the VHF comms with this setup. During my RTW flight, I transitioned from paper charts to e-charts on the iPad. I’m now fully committed to the e-charts, and even bought a second iPad I could carry back and forth to the hotel for flight planning while the primary one stays in the plane. The second one also provides a backup. I bought the Jeppesen e-charts subscpritions for the Caribbean(US$307) and South America (US$665). I replaced the GoPro Hero camera I used to recorded flight videos last year with a newer model (the Hero 2) which has an audio input jack (a big improvement). I’ve plugged this audio input into the aircraft audio system so now the videos I make can have my narration as well as include radio transmission between me and air traffic control (ATC).
The landing and overflight permit process for foreign countries will be largely be the same as for my RTW flight. I will enlist the help of an agent (Skyplan) to obtain these permits since it is relatively inexpensive and saves a lot of hassle compared to doing it myself. On my RTW flight I was never delayed because permits weren’t ready on time (except once when there was confusion about my departure date).
The very difficult permit challenge is on the last leg from Punta Arenas to SCRM on King George Island. I will explain it in some detail since this is a primary stumbling block for GA pilots wanting to make this trip. Antarctica is not a country; it is an international Treaty area (everything south of 60 degrees south latitude). As such, the process to get a permit requires diplomatic channels, actually a two track process. As a US citizen starting an "expedition" from the US, my first stop was the US State Department where I communicated with Susannah Cooper, Senior Advisor for Antarctica (cooperSE@state.gov) . She asked me to complete form DS-4131 which is an advanced notification for a US expedition to Antarctica. Based on the information on the form, they classified my expedition as a US expedition which initiates the next two steps. Susannah then put me in touch with Julie Roemele at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (email@example.com) and Nadene Kennedy at the National Science Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Julie sent me directions on how to complete an Initial Environmental Evaluation (IEE) document which was required for them to approve my expedition. There is no form for the IEE, but several elements have to be addressed as required by Treaty obligations. Previously IEE's submitted by other expeditions (small yachts) are publicly available from the EPA to use as a guide. You can also hire people that make their living writing such documents. I decided to do it on my own using an IEE for a yacht as a format guide. The IEE I produced which was ultimately approved (after a few iterations) was 15 pages long. Like the others, it is now publically available from the EPA to use as a guide on how to write one.
The NSF requires a Waste Permit application (it basically explain what you will do will all waste generated on the expedition in Antarctica territory). Again, there is no form but Nadene Kennedy gave me guidance on what needed to be included – in fact, much of it was the same as information in the IEE.
However, approval of the IEE and Waste Permit Application were both contingent on getting approval from Chile to land at SCRM. So parallel to the process with the US government, I also approached the DGAC in Chile to request permission to fly to SCRM. Applying for permission to make this flight centered on a section of Chile’s AIP, specifically,
A second document provides addition information:
The first document in Volume I of the AIP, written in both Spanish and English, basically list several pieces of information you need to submit to apply for permission to make the flight. This constitutes your application to the DGAC which you can send to them as indicated in the document. The second document is more for information. The DGAC will seek approval of the application both from Chile’s Antarctica research group and, more importantly, from the Chilean Air Force who actually control the airstrip at SCRM.
However, a problem arose because the Chile would not give permission until I had approval from the US, and the US would not give approval until I had permission from Chile. It’s a classic Catch-22 where I can’t permission until I have permission. I resolved it by asking the EPA to give me conditional approval of the IEE, the one condition being approval from Chile. I even modified the IEE to state explicitly that if I did not receive permission from Chile, I would cancel the expedition. Since I needed to refuel at SCRM, landing was certainly essential for the expedition to happen. EPA granted this conditional approval, and Chile quickly followed by issuing a clearance number for the flight to SCRM at the end of January, 2013. So after several months pursuing these two parallel tracks, I finally had my permit.
All the people I dealt with on this process were helpful and friendly. They had their rules to follow and necessary treaty obligations, but they were supportive in getting my “expedition of one” approved. Susannah Cooper at State was especially helpful, since she was the contact with her counterparts in Chile’s Foreign Ministry who ultimately signed off on my flight. Susannah made sure all the pieces were put together so my expedition could happen.
Ready to Go
As a last step, I brought the plane in for an annual inspection at Avian Aeronautics at KPWT. I fixed and replaced some things I probably would have left alone if it weren’t for the trip I had planned, like installing a new a battery, replacing an old vacuum pump, and doing the brakes.
With equipment and the critical Antarctica permit in place, I was ready to begin my trip.