Coming Full Circle: Pole to Pole in Less than 48 Hours

To commemorate the completion of 50 years of Apollo 11, when men first landed on the moon, former NASA astronaut and a team of international aviators simultaneously broke multiple international flying records for circumnavigating the Earth over its North and South Poles

Issue: 8 / 2019By Ayushee ChaudharyPhoto(s): By Onemoreorbit.com
The One More Orbit team with Gulfstream G650ER in background, after successful completion of their round-the-world flight

On July 11, 2019, Action Aviation (a private jet and helicopter sales, support, and charter company based in the United Kingdom) Chairman Hamish Harding and former International Space Station Commander Col. Terry Virts broke the Round-the-World record for an aircraft flying over the North and South poles in a Qatar Executive Gulfstream, G650ER ultra-long-range business jet. The record was successfully accomplished in the 50th year of celebrating man’s first walk on the Moon. The attempt which was a tribute to the past, present, and future of space exploration, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity just like the Apollo 11 mission did half a century ago.

The record attempt was launched from Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility (the former Shuttle Landing Facility) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is the exact same location from where Apollo 11 launched the historic manned moon mission in 1969. Not only that the time at which the mission started on July 9 was 9:32 EDT which was also the time of Apollo 11’s launch 50 years ago. The flight returned on July 11 at 8:12 am to the same Space Center after a full circle.

The record date also marks the 500th anniversary of man first circling the planet. And now, having completed the fastest ever circumnavigation of the Earth via its geographical polar ends has marked history in its own sense.

Having covered a total of 21,691 nautical miles (40,172 km), the flight completed the circumnavigation in 46 hours, 40 minutes and 22 seconds at an average speed of 465 knots (or 535 mph or 861 kmph). Collectively called as “One More Orbit”, the mission has set a new record under both the FéderĂ¡tion Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), and Guinness World Record in the Polar Circumnavigation of the Earth Speed Record for any aircraft category.

PAST RECORDS

The previous FAI speed record was formed over a decade ago in 2008 by Captain Aziz Ojjeh in a Bombardier Global XRS. The polar circumnavigation was completed by Ojjeh in 52 hours and 32 minutes, at an average speed of 444 knots (or 511 mph or 822 kmph) and existed for 11 years. One More Orbit beat this record by a margin of 5 hours and 52 minutes.

While the Guinness Record which was the fastest aerial circumnavigation of the Earth via both geographical poles was previously held by Captain Walter Mullikin who made it in a Pan Am Boeing 747SP in 1977, who had started and ended it in San Francisco. Set for 54 hours and 7 minutes at an average speed of 423 knots (or 486 mph or 783 kmph), this record stood for 42 years. Both the FAI and Guinness World Record organisation calculate the record differently, hence erasing any possibilities of disputes.

THE CREW

The crew had estimated the mission to be done in about 48 hours but managed to finish even before their own estimation, hence displaying precision and skill of the crew and all those who were involved. The crew consisted of the following members:

  • Captain Hamish Harding - United Kingdom, Action Aviation Chairman, Mission Director and one of the 4 G650ER pilots
  • Colonel Terry Virts - United States, Former International Space Station commander, Space Shuttle astronaut, Soyuz astronaut and US Air Force test pilot
  • Captain Jacob Ove Bech - Denmark, Pilot
  • Captain Jeremy Ascough - South Africa, Pilot
  • Captain Yevgen Vasylenko - Ukraine, Pilot
  • Magdalena Starowicz - Poland, Flight Attendant
  • Colonel Genaddy Padalka - Russia, Cosmonaut (International Space Station commander, Mir, and Soyuz cosmonaut, a record holder for the most days in space by any human - 879 days)
  • Captain Ian Cameron - United Kingdom, Director of the Mission Control Centre.

Padalka joined the mission crew in Kazakhstan and got off in Mauritius.

Reportedly at the post-landing event, Mikkelson and Starowicz the FAI adjudicator also identified as the first women in history to complete the polar circumnavigation of the earth.

THE MISSION ROUTE

The high speed pumping “pit stops” were strategically decided in Nur-sultan (Kazakhstan), Mauritius and Punta Arenas (Chile).

The mission required to start and finish at the same point on the earth, cross directly over the north and south poles, pass over the equator twice at between 120 and 180 degrees of longitude apart (i.e. we have to go up and down opposite sides of the earth).

“Our route around the earth from the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida involves four sectors, and three refuel locations in Kazakhstan, Mauritius, and Chile. Another critical part of the record is optimising the refuel times to operate like ‘Formula 1 Pit Stops’. Our teams have already flown to each location in advance to plan and oversee the whole refuel process to reduce time on the ground to the absolute minimum possible. We will attempt to refuel stops of less than 45 minutes each touchdown to takeoff, which requires “no delay” arrivals and departures ahead of any other aircraft using the airport at the time,” Captain Hamish Harding, Chairman of Action Aviation and Mission Director had said in his statement before the mission began.

Harding’s statement also highlighted that the average speed over the course is calculated based on the Great Circle distance of our route which is 21,691 nautical miles (40,172 km). “However, real flight planned routes are never quite as direct as Great Circles and ours is currently 22,328 nautical miles (41,351 km). So, an important part of any speed record attempt is negotiating even more direct routings with Air Traffic Control as we proceed,” he said.

THE AIRCRAFT OF THE MISSION

Capable of reaching Mach 0.925 and sustaining a comfortable Mach 0.90, the aircraft of the mission, Gulfstream G650ER is claimed to be the fastest ultra-long-range business jet in the world currently. It is powered by two Rolls-Royce BR725 A1-12 Turbofans that generate 16,900 lbs of thrust with the extendedrange variant being capable of flying 7,500 nautical miles (13,900 km) at up to 51,000 feet altitude.

The Qatar Executive G650ER aircraft which can fly non-stop from the Middle East to North America, or from destinations in Asia to Africa, has demonstrated new standards for business aviation with this successful mission. Airlines and business corporations should certainly see this as an opportunity to cover such long distances at the fastest speed if someone can manage to sit inside the aircraft for this long duration.

REDUCING THE CARBON FOOTPRINT

One More Orbit has been exemplary in ways more than one. It has also successfully portrayed how airlines and corporations who own, lease or charter business jets can reduce carbon footprints without compromising on the provided services and products. The mission was sponsored by Carbon Underground to encourage emerging ways in which humans can combat carbon-driven climate change. The organisation promotes several carbon-reduction programmes. While this mission did not particularly entail any specific technology for reduction, the team reportedly calculated the amount of fuel their flight would burn and the carbon that would be created, and the amount of Earth’s topsoil that would be required to counter that carbon impact. A contribution was them made by the mission team to the organisation to treat that amount of topsoil.

The crew had also established radio contacts and conducted video calls during the journey. The crew was in touch with the people on the ground with a live stream powered by inflight connectivity provider Satcom Direct, documenting the 25,000-mile (40,000 km) journey. A documentary about the mission is planned to be shared with the audience worldwide soon.