“I find it very difficult to believe that there could be hordes of any sort able to make it there, let alone actually clamor for the Antarctic’s lifeblood.”
Clad in an electrically-heated suit, armed with three GPS units and a satellite phone, munching muesli and pissing in a funnel as God looked on with great interest, Australian aviator Jon Johanson on December 8th, 2003, forced his buzzing speck of a hand-built aircraft up the Antarctic icecap to the South Pole, where strong headwinds urged him to change his ambitious itinerary. Instead of continuing for South America, he flew back to Williams Field at McMurdo Sound, where New Zealand and American authorities looked on with great interest as his plane set down in need of fuel. The denial of his request for two barrels of Mogas excited the Commonwealth press. In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, which Australia was one of the few countries of significance to pony up support for, the refusal of the National Science Foundation to help an Australian national in his hour of need looked particularly bad to the Australian public. The National Science Foundation’s rigid official policy of “no exceptions” regarding assistance to private Antarctic expeditioners read in the Australian press as an American policy of “support us, but we will not support you”. NSF permitted Johanson to sleep in a plywood shed and eat at the airfield galley, but to stave off the incriminating flood of media reports accusing the U.S. Antarctic Program of being a less-than-altruistic venture, NSF issued a press release with the headline: “U.S. and New Zealand Offer Australian Pilot Safe Passage Home from Antarctica”, implying that offering the pilot a $5,000+ ticket for a cargo-transport flight to New Zealand, and an estimated $75,000+ shipping fee for his stranded aircraft, while neglecting to sell him $2,000 of fuel, should be construed as an act of generosity. Despite trouble with the natives, Johanson finally made it out of Antarctica in his own plane.
The first I heard of you, I saw your plane fly over Pole as I was stuffing my face with fried food in the Galley of the New Station. What in god’s name were you up to?
Put simply, my goal was to fly over the South Pole. I had flown my plane around the world: East, West, then North over the North Pole. The South Pole was the final point for me to complete the four corners of the earth. With the flight that you first saw me, I had intended to overfly the Antarctic continent via the South Pole to South America, then I would have continued on to South Africa and back to Australia, making another round the world flight.
Have you been to Antarctica before?
No, I had never been to the Antarctic before. I had been to Northern Canada, where I did some preparatory flying with a retired pilot who had about 50 years of Arctic experience. I also flew VH-NOJ over the North Pole in 2000 on my third world flight, so I did have previous polar flying experience.
What first sparked your interest in Antarctica?
As I mentioned before, it was my final corner of the world. I guess I had looked South for a number of years and thought of what a great place it must be, but I knew the only way I would ever get to see it was if I took myself there.
As South Pole became visible, what impressions went through your head?
Initially it looked like a black smudge on the white desert. Getting closer, as you would expect, it was just like the pictures I had seen.
What did you eat? How did you pee? Crap?
Mostly dry food, muesli bars, dry nuts, some dried fruit and biscuits. I had some sweets and a little chocolate, as well as a good amount of water. Dealing with the water works was easy: I peed into a funnel. As for the other, I didn’t. I did have plastic bags to collect any waste should I end up on the ice though, as per Australian Antarctic Division/Antarctic Treaty environmental recommendations.
I heard you even had fuel cans in the backseat of your plane. Did you consider emergency landing areas in case of engine failure?
What you have heard is only partly correct. I have a ferry tank in the back seat area of the RV-4. This is a normal fuel tank, albeit a ferry tank – used for ferry flights only. As such I used it as a normal tank during the flight. I had details and coordinates of landing areas in the Antarctic, which were programmed into my GPSs ( I had three) for emergency use. I was also prepared to land anywhere if an emergency dictated it. My general philosophy is: if you are not prepared to land on/in what you fly over then you should not fly over it. I am the first to admit that landing in many places means certain death, but that still comes under what I have just said. If you do not know how to pray before you become a pilot, you tend to learn quickly.
Before you left home did you write a will or make any other concrete preparations for your demise?
I always plan for the worst and hope for the best. Before my first international flight I took out insurance to cover any possible costs should something happen to me. That has been updated as the years have passed. My will was, and is, updated as needed. I also organise my affairs to make it as painless as possible for whoever might have to clean up should something happen to me.
Why did you land in McMurdo?
There is no short answer to this, but here is the abbreviated one:
Stronger than forecast head winds had decreased fuel margins. Australian support team contacted British Antarctic Survey to seek permission to use Rothera as an alternate landing area if required. Support team was advised that no private aircraft were allowed to land at Rothera and VH-NOJ should return to McMurdo/Scott. With no safe alternate field option available on the Antarctic Peninsula, Australian support team contacted McMurdo Centre and was advised that VH-NOJ could land there if required. Dec. 8th. 0445 UTC South Pole reached. While the wind forecast was for strong tailwinds up the Antarctic Peninsula and into Argentina, the margins had become less than optimal to continue a flight in the Antarctic environment. With only enough fuel to make it to Ushuaia, and only then if the winds did not get less favorable than they already were, the decision was made on safety grounds to divert to McMurdo/Scott.
Who greeted you? What did they say?
My reception was very good. A number of people came onto the runway to meet me, including the head of the NSF at McMurdo. All of those who greeted me were very welcoming. I was asked if I was aware of the American policy in the Antarctic and advised that I could use the galley and toilets but I would have to use my own emergency sleeping arrangements. I was also given the phone number to contact the head of Scott base.
When did you ask them for fuel?
I didn’t ask the American authorities for fuel at any time as I knew their policy.
How was your reception by the Kiwis?
I met very few Kiwis but most of the ones I did meet were great.
What kind of fuel did you need?
In normal circumstances my primary choice would be Avgas, with Mogas (car fuel) as my alternate choice. I asked the Kiwis if I could purchase 400 litres (110 gal) of Mogas. My request was declined.
What was NSF’s offer to you?
I only received offers from the Kiwis, although it appeared they worked in tandem with the NSF. The Kiwis offered me a flight back to New Zealand at my own expense. They also offered to dismantle VH-NOJ, crate her and ship her back to New Zealand, also at my expense. A day or so after this offer I received a call from the head of the NSF asking if I would meet with the personnel who would be doing the dismantling. I said I would be happy to talk with them but I felt it was a bit premature at that stage.
Because of the overwhelming air support they receive from NSF, Scott Base is typically on NSF’s leash in matters of any political significance. What do you think of the argument that selling an expeditioner a hundred gallons of fuel would then bring hordes of deranged foreigners clamoring for our precious lifeblood? Can you suggest a way that Ross Island authorities might have handled the situation differently whilst still asserting their control of the territory?
I recognise the policy of no help in any way for private expeditions. In view of mine, and other recent private expeditions, it would be good if the treaty organisations would review their polices on this front. Considering that the Antarctic is surrounded by the world’s worst ocean and that it has the world’s harshest environment, I find it very difficult to belive that there could be hordes of any sort able to make it there, let alone actually clamor for the Antarctic’s lifeblood. There appears to be a conflict between trying to discourage private expeditions and refusing to share local knowledge. This potentially could have serious and maybe fatal consequences.
As for how things could have been handled better, it is always easy in hindsight, and I suspect that most players would play the game a little differently if they had the chance to do it all again.
I’m not so sure about that. My guess is that after the game was over, NSF spent a little time investigating the route of information that began in McMurdo and ended in the world press, and would like to clean that up a bit for future contests. Other than that, it’s unlikely that NSF has any regrets over the matter.
It is rather interesting that as soon as I arrived at McMurdo I acknowledged to the NSF that I was aware of the US policy and as such I would not be asking them for assistance. In fact, that is exactly what I did until just before I departed, when Scott Base told me to ask them (NSF/McMurdo) for the weather and if I could file my flight plan through them – both of these requests were declined in line with their policy. From this point of view the NSF’s interest in what was happening may have more to do with your assertions than my actions.
Where did you sleep in McMurdo?
I was prepared to sleep on the ice, but some of the ground personnel told me to sleep in the refueler’s shed as it would be empty overnight. The first three nights I slept there on a couch. The last three I slept on the floor in my own sleeping bag in the passenger terminal as it was pointed out that it was empty most of the time and I would be out of everyone’s way there.
No transgression in McMurdo will bring quicker retribution and deterioration of cooperation than interdepartmental pillaging of breakshack goodies. Did you eat the snacks in the Fuels hut?
When I was shown into the refulers hut I was told to “help yourself” while indicating the food, so the answer is yes. I finished off a half empty bag of corn crisps and had one banana on each of the first two mornings I was there.
You mentioned earlier that you brought with you plastic bags for waste, in accordance with environmental recommendations of the Antarctic Treaty. I can imagine that such a conscientious interpretation of that ragged document might lead one to have second thoughts about peeing in the snow. Did you pee in a water bottle in the Fuels hut?
I must admit I was a little surprised to read what was put up on your website on this front. I had noticed the offending bottle when I arrived at the refulers shed on the final night I spent there. The following morning when it was ‘discovered’, I was not overly surprised for the reason you mention.
If I may, can I ask you a question – Am I wrong in thinking that the actual policy on the ground is not as strict on that front as the Australian Antarctic Division had led me to believe? Put simply do you pee on the snow when the need arises?
Before my first deployment to Antarctica I dutifully read my USAP Employee Handbook and repacked all my toiletries to reduce the packaging I brought to the most pristine continent. I even had a nightmare in which I was in Antarctica and the wind ripped a small plastic bag from my hand. I chased it until I lost sight of it, and awoke with a feeling of dread, and a resolve that in no instance would I ever so thoughtlessly defile Antarctica in my waking life. If at that point I were to be plopped on the ice with a choice between pissing in the snow or some grimy water bottle, I would no doubt have chosen the latter. When I arrived in McMurdo, General Assistants were chipping urine from beneath Building 155, polyurethane weather balloons were dropping all over the continent, ancient heavy equipment was irrigating Ross Island with oil, and South Polar Skuas were gobbling ribs from the Food Waste bins. A few times I’ve heard NSF claims that 100% of human waste is removed from Antarctica. These claims are 100% untrue. At Pole the shit is pumped into a hole in the ice, and before McMurdo’s sewage treatment plant was completed last year the shit from the dorms was pumped into the sea. The removal of all human waste from Antarctica would be absurdly inefficient, but the extravagant claims serve to fulfill some equally absurd ideal whose noble reverberation is lost on those working a good distance from the toilet. I’m surprised there aren’t great bergs of urine calving from the coasts. Put simply, yes: we piss in the snow, at least in McMurdo, where winds and drifting snow provide quick coverage. At Pole, where it’s not as windy, pissing in the snow around station is a faux pas, for reasons aesthetic rather than environmental. In any case, it’s mostly just water. But I’m unclear on your answer: Are you saying that someone else peed in the water bottle? It’s a matter of intense local interest and, gauging by the lock on the Fuels shack, national security. McMurdo may need to escalate to Yellow Alert.
I mentioned that I had seen the offending bottle on the top shelf when I arrived at the refuelers shed on the last night I spent there. Whether it was urine or something else, who knows, and on one level, who cares — apparently a lot of people at McMurdo. From where I sit, as the outsider or foreigner, I can understand why I have been blamed. If it makes the refuelers feel better to blame me, then, for their happiness let them: it still doesn’t change the fact that the bottle with its offending contents was in the hut when I arrived there the night before. Did you know that the refuelers hut is now padlocked?
Yeah, that news spread like wildfire. Fuels padlocked it to keep you out after rumors exploded that you were gobbling their vittles and pissing everywhere.
Please pass on my apologies for gobbling their two bananas and the remnants of a bag of corn crisps.
Did you make it into McMurdo?
Yes, I did on a couple of occasions. It reminded me of a mining town.
Regarding expeditioners, we grunts tend to salvage whatever scraps of pride from our milieu of embarrassing officiousness by engaging in unauthorized hospitality. A sort of “When hospitality is outlawed, only outlaws will be hospitable” syndrome. I don’t want names or jobs, but did anyone bring you supplies? Send messages for you?
There are a host of stories I could tell on this front but as you say, no identifications. On more than one occasion I had bits of paper appear by various means — “Sorry, did you drop this?”; “I think this just fell off your table?”; “Around here we put rubbish in the bin, not on the floor!” Let me just say, I was kept well informed. Before people realised that I was allowed to eat in the galley, I had a steady stream of food surreptitiously appearing. One comment I heard very often: “I wish it would get dark around here.” Particularly in the evenings I had many visits by people wanting to find out the ‘real truth’ — “There are so many stories going around that we decided to find out for ourselves.” I wish I could tell you more without risk – maybe one day.
How did you finally get fuel?
On the afternoon of the fifth day I was informed that British aviation adventurer Polly Vacher had very generously decided to give me two of her eight drums of Avgas. Polly was stuck at Rothera after having weather trouble on her own trip around the world via the South Pole. She had managed to have fuel shipped to McMurdo/Scott the previous season. My initial reaction was that I could not use her fuel as it was for Polly’s flight from McMurdo to New Zealand. I was then informed that she was no longer able to continue on but was returning to South America. The following day 400 litres (110 gal), or two drums, of Avgas were supplied to me by personnel from Scott Base.
Your expedition drew a fair amount of press coverage, much of it focused on events in McMurdo. Is there anything you found particularly amusing about the coverage?
I guess the most amusing thing of all was a cartoon from the major Adelaide newspaper depicting a couple of fellows reading in lounge chairs, in front of a coffee table with their steaming coffee mugs on it, a McMurdo sign on the mantle shelf over the heater, a row of aviation fuel drums behind them. The frosted window had “Iraq, ANZUS, ‘NAM and Afghanistan” hand-written in the frost around the edge while in the center of the window was a well rugged-up, bearded fellow, tapping on the window trying to get their attention.
As far as the coverage in general went, it was very interesting to see how fast the misinformation was picked up and the reaction of the various outlets to discovering they had been fed misinformation. Most outlets were quick to correct the misinformation as soon as they realised. It has also been amusing to watch the recalcitrant sections of the media continue to shoot themselves in the foot, rather than admit they had been sending out misinformation.
What are some examples of misinformation in the press?
- Ran out of fuel.
- Had left NZ in secret & not filed a flight plan,
- Flight plan did not mention the south pole
- It was a poorly planned trip
- He had turned back to McMurdo before he had reached the South Pole
- He had no intention to fly to South America
- An RV-4 only holds four hours of fuel
How much did the whole expedition eventually cost?
To be honest, I don’t know. As I was working on the project I always made sure I had enough money to pay the bills as they came in, then I worried about the next ones. Put it this way, I have nothing to show for my life in a materialistic sense and I have no life savings, but I have had a great life, experience-wise. I have always been well cared for and to date I have never been hungry.
I made a conscious decision a long time ago that, if at all possible, I was not going to ask for people to help me with donations. I don’t think it is right for others to pay for me to follow my dreams.
What did you hope to gain from reaching the four corners of the earth? What drives a person to establish such a checklist?
It’s not so easy to answer this. Certainly nothing in a monetary sense, it has been all loss on that front. I guess ultimately it was a job well done, a job, once started, now completed. It was just something I had to do, it became a personal goal. When speaking with schoolchildren, in particular, it’s so easy to emphasize that life is about choices and all you have to do is get started and then don’t quit. It would have been easy to give up and have all the best excuses under the sun, excuses that would have been credible. But how do you look a young person in the face and answer them honestly — “Why didn’t you fly to the South Pole? Because it was all too hard, so I just quit.” Not me. Looking into a mirror is hard enough, but seeing someone like that looking back was not for me.
Were you taught of Mawson’s adventures in gradeschool?
Yes. Mawson and a number of others.
Who are your heroes or influences?
Heroes almost always let you down so I really don’t have any. I have learnt to respect a lot of people from all walks of life. Mostly these people are not the hero types you would read about, but the everyday people interested in doing a good job, treating people as equals, and respecting others in the way they would like to be. It is these people that I wish to emulate. The main influence in my life is Christianity – that is opposed to religion. I am not a particularly religious person. In fact, too often religion lets us down, but Christianity is a completely different story: it gives me a reason to live.
How are you Christian but not religious?
I see Christianity and religion as two totally different things. Christians are the people who act and live what they believe, they genuinely care for those around them. They are peaceful, quiet, and nonaggressive. Yes, they do promote Jesus Christ as the risen Saviour, who has paid the price for all of us and in doing this he has given us the gift of life. This gift is just that: a gift. Christians will happily tell us about this gift, but will never try and force it on anyone. Religious people, on the other hand, are the one-day-a-week religious Club Members. They believe only what suits them. They are aggressive: “You will believe what we do because we are right, we are the only chosen ones.”
A few years ago a Russian Orthodox priest came to Pole. His goal was to be the first to celebrate a mass at both the North and South Pole. I also met a schoolteacher a few seasons ago who said his main reason for wanting to go to Pole was for the sake of his students back in the States. Christianity, with its history of conquest, as well as its teachings of altruism, is one of the world’s largest religions. Did your faith play a role in establishing your goal to reach the four corners of the earth and to bring that experience back to schoolchildren?
Not particularly. Doing things like flying around the world certainly helps my personal Christian experience, and there is no doubt that I have been extremely well cared for in my travels, but Christianity is not my driving force. The challenge of good planning and success, being able to live out other people’s dreams and to share them, the pure excitement of being able to go and see places anywhere in the world in a vehicle I built myself, but at the top of the list would have to be my desire to show people – especially children – that if you want to, and you are prepared to work hard for it, you can do anything.
Tradition has it that anyone who steps foot in Antarctica becomes entitled, in varying degrees, to what a mechanic slumped behind a shotglass and an ashtray calls “bragging rights”. Besides to schoolchildren, any plans to exercise your bragging rights? A book?
External pressure is being applied. I guess it would be nice for the whole story to be told.
If someone were to recreate your expedition, what would you tell them to do differently?
I have put in a lot of thought into this, and I can’t think of anything on the flying front that I would do differently. On the political front I would recommend saying less.
Geek addendum: Jon Johanson’s hand-built aircraft, the RV-4 by Van’s Aircraft, is now designated an RV-4TE due to the major modifications made for his Antarctic flight. Modifications include: Engine changed to a specially hand built 180 hp. aero engine, turbo normalised with programmable ignition. New, custom-built, three-blade constant speed propeller fitted. Wings converted to full fuel carrying wings, full radio re-wiring, HF radio replaced with satellite phone, old canopy replaced with new temperature normalised canopy, cockpit cold-protected, wired for pilot’s electrically heated suit, new cold climate cabin heating fitted. Oxygen system fitted with enough O2 and reserves for the entire non-stop flight at 25,000 feet.