Art and Damaris (Dee) Mortvedt were interviewed on April 3, 2015 by Leslie McCartney and Karen Brewster at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In this first part of a two part interview, Art talks about how he got interested in aviation and learned to be a pilot, and his solo flights to the South Pole and to the North Pole with his airplane, Polar Pumpkin. Dee talks about being the one at home to track his flight and provide logistics and radio support.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Pioneer Aviators
Date of Interview: Apr 3, 2015
Narrator(s): Art Mortvedt, Damaris "Dee" Mortvedt
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney, Karen Brewster
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
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Interest in Antarctica
The Polar Pumpkin (South Pole trip)
The Polar Pumpkin (America trip)
The Polar Pumpkin (North Pole trip)
Damaris at home tracking flight
North Pole attempts
Planning, planning, planning
Damaris tracking flight
Daily flight hours
Lack of landing places
Landing near the North Pole and the effect of ice drift
Losing a guy from camp during a big storm
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Today is April 3, 2015 and we are here with Art and Damaris Mortvedt and I am Leslie McCartney. And we are here with Karen Brewster, too. And I want to thank you very much for coming in today to talk to us. We have been really looking forward to this.
ART MORTVEDT: Our pleasure indeed.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: We’ll just start off -- We like to start off our interviews with just a little bit of personal background about yourselves so if you would like to just say where you are from or if you were born and raised in Alaska or how you came to be here that would be a nice introduction. Damaris?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: My name's Damaris Richmond Mortvedt. I grew up on a farm in Illinois. Came to Alaska in 1967 to teach school and taught in all villages -- Cordova, Nome, and outlying villages and Manley Hot Springs where we ended up staying longer and where we have a home now.
And then we have a lodge in the Brooks Range and so I retired from teaching in ’96, so I could do more work with the lodge and this is -- this is our home and we love it.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Art?
ART MORTVEDT: I grew up in central North Dakota on a small farm and adjacent to our farm there were old village sites of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara people. So even as a little kid I was out there pot hunting I guess is the word even though it was -- is illegal nowadays and so I was at a early age very keen on traditional people and maybe that is one reason why I still am.
Went to college in western North Dakota, got a degree in Mathematics and Chemistry and during the summers worked as a national park ranger, mostly in the Black Hills.
And then started working as a ranger in other parks around the US in Arkansas, New Mexico and various places. And then because I thought I might come to Alaska some day I went ahead and got an Alaskan teaching certificate which I had probably a couple years before I came to Alaska.
And then when I did back in 1974, driving my Volkswagen up from New Mexico in January I had that certificate in my pocket. And we both were offered teaching jobs in Shungnak. So we taught there a couple years. And I was going to take a year off training a dog team living back in the bush. And that one year has turned into a lot of years.
I never did go back to the classroom. And then started flying and guiding.
And then in the early 80’s got interested in going to Antarctica. We were in New Zealand one afternoon and went to the Antarctic program presentation at Christchurch and I thought hm -- I want to work there. So when I got back, I bought a ticket to the logistics contractor in New Zealand -- or in New Jersey, I should say. And then I phoned them and told them when I was arriving for the interview. Oh, yes, we can have an interview.
And it was clear that I was pretty serious about it. And then with the background in the Arctic already that I could apply that to the job in Antarctica. So anyway over the years I've been working down in Antarctica 20 some times on various projects. Flying a little plane and working on snowmobiles.
And most recently, the last three times down working in Queen Maud Land, which is south of South Africa and working arranging camps for extremophile scientists. And what we actually found were some most amazing cyanobacterial mats. And that particular lake that we explored is the only lake in the world that we know of yet that has that kind of cyanobacterial mat. So it's pretty exciting.
And then after working in Antarctica, I started working in the high Arctic out of Greenland. Did six seasons doing Arctic Ocean logistics based out of Northern Greenland involving acoustical research and submarines.
I don’t want to imply at all that I'm a scientist by any means, but with the cold weather experience in Alaska and other places then I could apply that to logistics for these projects. So I ended up being, whether I liked it or not, bipolar, I suppose.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Damaris, have you -- have you been gone down on these projects, too? Or have you always just stayed here or -- ?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Well, I did -- I would take years off from teaching so we could go other places and do other things. I say I took my retirement as I went along.
So I could do things I was interested in at the time. And so one season I went down to Palmer Station and worked at Palmer Station that season. So that was my only year down in Antarctica.
ART MORTVEDT: She worked on board a ship one year, too -- one summer, right? DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: The Corinthian II. You were on board the Corinthian II. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Oh, right. I was on board the Corinthian II. Yeah, so I have had some experience down there. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: What did you do at Palmer?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: I was -- I worked in the kitchen. I was a cook -- one of the two cooks in the kitchen. Yeah. And really liked it there because there were a lot of sea mammals there.
It's right on the ocean, so it's a much more interesting place to be than McMurdo or -- I mean this is in my opinion. South Pole because of the animal life that you could see there. Penguin rookeries and --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: When you said that you worked in logistics like in Greenland, Art, so take us through what -- I mean the logistics must be a horrendous amount to think about.
ART MORTVEDT: Back in those days on those projects --
KAREN BREWSTER: What years are we talking about?
ART MORTVEDT: From 1986 until 1993. And I did not go up in 1988, but the other seasons I did. And I was involved with a team. And I want to emphasize the team aspect because this group of individuals from all over the place worked very well in all sorts of logistics involving many different kinds of airplanes, the submarines as I mentioned and snowmobiles and tents and radios and it was a superb group of individuals that worked on these projects.
To my knowledge no one got seriously hurt in all those years of projects.
We had C-141’s that would fly out of North Carolina and deliver our fuel up in the Arctic Ocean by parachute. And then we had C-130’s. We had de Havilland Caribous. We had Twin Otters. We had the helicopters some times.
And it was complicated logistically, yes, but a great challenge. And the team responded to that challenge very well.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And what season -- was this winter, summer?
ART MORTVEDT: Spring. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Spring.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, it had to be spring because mid-winter too dark, too cold, and then later in real late spring or early summer too warm and too foggy in the Arctic Ocean Basin. And that was the same aspect to my endeavor to fly my small airplane up to the North Pole.
It had to be in that window in April. In fact, the Russians just two days ago installed their camp near the North Pole. They put the camp in this year 89 degrees, 43 minutes north, 17 miles from the North Pole. And they're on that ice flow now and they'll be there until April 25th.
And when it comes to that magical day on the calendar that they're supposed to leave, they leave quickly because it's getting too warm and the ice has a greater tendency to crack and break up, too, then. So April is the time.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Is the window. Right. So do you want to tell us about your flying -- your little plane is called the Pumpkin?
ART MORTVEDT: The Polar Pumpkin.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: The Polar Pumpkin. Tell us the history behind that.
ART MORTVEDT: The airplane went to Antarctica initially quite a number of years ago. Flown down there initially by Max Windin from New Zealand. He flew it all the way from Calgary to Antarctica. And the plane stayed in the Antarctic for a number of years flying passengers, expeditioners, freight during the Antarctic summer.
And then because there was no hangar down there, people would get their shovels out and they’d dig a pit and then slide the Polar Pumpkin into this pit and put mattresses on top of the wing surfaces and the tail surfaces and then cover that with snow.
And if that was not done, the wind would have just destroyed the airplane.
And then come the next Antarctic spring it was dug out, used for the next Antarctic summer.
And so I was hired to fly it down there for two Antarctic summers. And during one of those summers I flew a woman from France. LaRonce Delvalea to the South Pole to begin an expedition north.
Most expeditions finish at the South Pole, but she wanted to ski a thousand miles alone from the South Pole north to the coast and finish at a French base called Dumont d’Urville.
So I loaded LaRonce and her food and fuel for a month and her tent and stove and all that stuff in the Polar Pumpkin at Patriot Hills which was located at 80 degrees south latitude and then I flew nonstop from Patriot Hills to the South Pole and dropped her off.
Unfortunately, I had a newly overhauled propeller on the airplane and because of that propeller, newly overhauled, I did about two hours of test flying at Patriot Hills before I took off with LaRonce.
When I got to the South Pole, I noticed a piece of -- or an area of scratched paint on one propeller blade. And I was sure that I in my preflight had not noticed any scratched paint at Patriot Hills.
When I grabbed that propeller blade with the scratched paint, I could move the tip about three inches in any direction. It felt like the propeller blade was going to fall out on the snow. So there I sat at the South Pole.
I mean had that blade separated from the hub we would have crashed. The vibration would have been so intense for the airplane and it would have been ripped right off and down we would have come, but it didn’t and so the airplane sat at the South Pole for a month until we could get another propeller from Canada taken down.
We took the heaters back to the South Pole and put the new propeller on. And then actually a friend of mine wanted to ride with me then from the South Pole north back to Patriot Hills and I thought, no, if this thing's going to separate this time, I’m going to be alone. So I went alone from the South Pole back to Patriot Hills, but I didn’t quite make it back because I got into a storm at 85 degrees south latitude in the Thiel Mountains.
And all I could do was to land out there on skis and I put up my tent. So I was there with my tent and the plane in a six day storm. A real wild storm, I’ll tell you.
And I had five ropes with me and I tied the plane down with all five of those ropes and built a snow wall around my tent and anyway lots of peace and quiet that’s for sure.
KAREN BREWSTER: Except for the wind noise.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, the wind noise. And then clumsy old me, because I couldn’t melt snow for water outside I decided to melt snow inside and then I kicked the stove and the boiling water over on my leg.
That didn’t help at all so. And then my wool sock kind of got stuck in the wound and I think I got a little infection ultimately, but, you know, nothing really serious.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, thank goodness you were by yourself so all the colorful language that went with it.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, I pushed it to shucks and gee whiz and things like that. KAREN BREWSTER: I’m sure.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: So then after six days you were able to leave?
ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yeah, I flew back to base camp and -- So then the company that I worked for used the airplane for a few more seasons.
KAREN BREWSTER: What was the name of that company?
ART MORTVEDT: Adventure Network International. Uh-huh. And --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Art, can you just tell us what kind of plane the little Polar Pumpkin is?
ART MORTVEDT: It's a Cessna 185 built in 1980. It's had very good care. And in the Antarctic being a very dry climate and a long ways from saltwater the airframe is in very good condition.
And the company then decided to send the airplane back to Canada with the wings taken apart in the back of a Russian transport plane for a new engine.
So after the new engine was installed, David Dilley, who I think lives in Idaho now, and I then flew it from Toronto through the United States along the Gulf Coast of Mexico through Central America and then along the West Coast to South America. We popped over through the Andes from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique in Chile and then to Rio Grande in Argentina and then to Punta Arenas in Chile.
And then the airplane went back to Antarctica for another season or two at work when the company decided that they wanted to go to twin engine airplanes only and put the Polar Pumpkin up for sale.
And then that was my opportunity to take the same plane to the North Pole. And the idea occurred to me when I was putting the engine cover on the Polar Pumpkin at the South Pole, you know, years before that.
So then I said I’ll buy it and so I bought it and then because we had already flown it through the Americas I thought well I don’t need to fly it back through the Americas so I put the plane in a container in Chile and I shipped it to California.
Had the airplane re-inspected, the wings attached, re-registered from Canada to United States registry. And just for the fun of it I picked the registration tail number N90SN, which is the tail number on it now. North 90 degrees, South to North. .
That tail number didn’t happen to be taken so it was available, and that's the number on it now.
And so then over the years now I’ve been crisscrossing the United States with it, giving talks and going to air shows. And then because it took me three attempts to get it to the North Pole I also have been flying it crisscrossing across Canada.
And then on April 7th European time, about three o’clock in the morning I flew it over the North Pole and --
KAREN BREWSTER: What year?
ART MORTVEDT: 2013. And ideally I would like to have landed right exactly at 90 degrees north, because I had landed exactly at 90 degrees south, but I had been living in the pack ice enough from other projects to know that even though an ice flow might look smooth there could be ice pinnacles underneath that snow that you don’t see.
And if I would have landed out in the jumbled pack ice and would have bent a ski or broke a cable, broke a bungee cord, ripped off a tail ski or whatever, the airplane would have probably been lost -- everything would have been lost. And so with that in mind I continued over the pole.
I had made previous arrangements with the Russians by going to Russia on a trip talking to the right people, paying the right money, too.
And the Russians were expecting me, so about three o’clock in the morning their time I landed on that piece of ice where they had put up tents and I spent two days with the Russians and then flew back from what they call Ice Station Barneo, which then was about twenty miles from the North Pole.
Then flew back to Canada to Northern Ellesmere Island. And the morning after I got back to land off of the drifting pack ice of the Arctic Ocean, a weather system had moved in and I got stuck at Eureka Weather Station for two weeks.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh, wow.
ART MORTVEDT: So the timing worked out perfectly.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I’ve heard you speak before and it's very interesting cause it took you three attempts wasn’t it?
ART MORTVEDT: Yes. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: To reach the North Pole.
Do you want to talk about those attempts because they were quite detailed and it was the weather that was really the hindrance.
ART MORTVEDT: Exactly the weather --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And then also, too, Damaris your role at home. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Cause you actually plotted the -- Art’s travels, is that correct?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: I was following him.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right, so maybe you can talk a little bit about the attempts. And Damaris you can talk about what you had to do back home.
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Okay, yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: We had a satellite tracking system installed. It was one called Solaradata. And I chose that particular tracking system because of the particular unit -- sending unit.
It was very well contained and weather proof and so if something went seriously bad I could grab that tracking unit and exit the airplane with it. And feel like it wasn’t going to quit because of the saltwater of the Arctic Ocean, etc.
So Damaris could be at home tracking the satellite system on the computer at home and know where I was at. But anyway, yeah, 2011 I tried. In 2012, I tried.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And you had to go from Alaska over to Inuvik. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And what was your -- what was your route that you took?
ART MORTVEDT: In 2011, I went from Alaska to Inuvik and then from Inuvik to Cambridge Bay and, oh, no, that was in 2012. In 2011, I only went to Inuvik and then I decided to go more direct to Resolute Bay with a stop in Ulukhaktok, which used to be Holman Island.
And so I got stuck nine days in Ulukhaktok. And it was fabulous, because Ulukhaktok on the southwest corner of Victoria Island is one of the more traditional villages in all the Canadian Arctic. And the people there were so hospitable and so willing to tell me about their polar bear hunts and special ways of hooking seals and all kinds of interesting things.
So then from Ulukhaktok I went on a pretty long leg to Resolute Bay and even though the weather forecast was pretty good the first half of that flight was not very good.
The local Inuit had some huts scattered around the various lakes and so on north of Ulukhaktok and I said well, maybe if I had the coordinates I could just pop in there, but that really was not an option because the weather was so bad and the whiteout conditions were so bad I couldn’t tell what was a lake and what was just the tundra.
Everything was just white. And it was essentially instrument conditions like the first half of the flight. And the last half of the flight then the weather opened up and I got on into Resolute Bay okay.
And so in 2012 though, I went from Inuvik to Cambridge Bay where I had some fuel cached and I must say that the Laserich family are some of the most wonderful people in all the Canadian Arctic. They provided wonderful hospitality for me and they have a company called Adlair. And I stopped there with my Cessna 180 many years before when I flew the Cessna 180 from Michigan up through Quebec and Baffin Island across the north edge of Fox Basin and east.
And the patriarch of the family, Willie Laserich, saved my bacon with his local knowledge of where to land and where not to land, but that's another story.
So then from Resolute Bay in both previous attempts and 2013 I went direct to Eureka Weather Station about halfway up on Ellesmere Island. And that was my jumping off point to the North Pole, which was able to do in 2013 when the weather in the Polar Basin in 2011 and 2012 was just too bad and it's difficult to know just to get a good handle on Polar Basin weather because of the lack of reporting points.
And I was going on the basis of satellite pictures and the fact that I have a good friend Andy Helberg from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington who has been involved with the North Pole Environmental Observatory at the North Pole staying in the Russian Ice Station Barneo Camp. And then ultimately in 2013 when I could make it the weather was adequate and Andy was in camp he said, yes, I see your fuel on the ice in front of the tent and so you have fuel to get back so --
But even though I had a lot of fuel on board the Polar Pumpkin when I took off from Eureka Weather Station as a let’s say Plan C, I had previously shipped one barrel of fuel to the extreme north tip of Ellesmere Island.
There's a small other island called Ward Hunt Island and I put that barrel of fuel as my backup backup. If I came off the Arctic Ocean and did not have enough fuel to get to Eureka Weather Station in theory I could go to Ward Hunt Island and start digging to try to find my fuel to continue on down to Eureka, but I didn’t have to do that. In fact, my barrel of fuel is probably still there.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I was just going to say who takes the fuel there for you?
ART MORTVEDT: I had friends that helped arrange that.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And then, yes, do you have to go and collect it and clean it up afterwards?
ART MORTVEDT: They have a fuel cache of other fuel that they use routinely when they have scientific parties that go in there, and so they would be able to use that fuel.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And so talk a little bit about -- it must be going into different country a bit of a logistics, but what about permits and Canadian government? What's involved with that?
ART MORTVEDT: It was a weather issue. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay.
ART MORTVEDT: The flight was a weather issue. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Um, okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: Which means you're allowed to make an emergency landing?
ART MORTVEDT: Um, yeah, I guess so. I cleared customs in Inuvik. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I guess the question -- for these big expeditionary flights do you need to get permits? If you're not going to land in their country and you're just going to fly over you don’t need a permit?
ART MORTVEDT: That's normally true. You’re -- I’m getting myself kind of backed in the corner because I didn’t ask and sometimes things cannot be done because there's a beady-eyed bureaucrat whose job it is to be an obstructionist.
And so in the case of permits, I didn’t ask. And I’m happy I didn’t, because there probably would've been some bureaucrat down the line somewhere that would have said, ah, no, man, you can’t do that without this and this and this. But I spent years in preparation to do it safely and I felt confident that I was on the right track.
In fact in 2009, I would like to have tried, but my excellent mechanics that scrutinize the Polar Pumpkin very carefully found a crack in the main gearbox in the landing gear.
Had they not found that crack and I would've loaded up with the weight that I needed to take, I'm sure I would have had a catastrophic failure and would have wrecked the whole bloody shooting match and maybe got killed.
And so then a new gearbox was put in. I put all brand new landing gear on the thing.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And you said that was Cy Hetherington who did all that work? ART MORTVEDT: No, no. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Oh, I’m sorry.
ART MORTVEDT: No, my mechanics in Fairbanks. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: In Fairbanks, okay.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah. Cy is a walking genius relative to airplanes. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh.
ART MORTVEDT: But Cy's up in years. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
ART MORTVEDT: And was not associated with my -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay. ART MORTVEDT: Polar Pumpkin flight directly.
KAREN BREWSTER: Cy's out in Manley. Right? LESLE MCCARTNEY: Manley, yes, yes. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: But the other trip you took down to the Antarctic where you flew through Central and South America, I mean you're just -- you go through -- as you say you go to a country, you go through customs and then you -- ART MORTVEDT: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: -- fly on. ART MORTVEDT: No, no. KAREN BREWSTER: You don't need permits, do you?
ART MORTVEDT: That's a very interesting point because in that case, yes, we were spending a considerable amount of the day getting permits and filing flight plans and getting signatures and going to another building to get a stamp and another signature, and back and forth.
And the case of Peru, for example, one best stay exactly on a flight plan. Because Peru has had a history of shooting small airplanes out of the air that strayed off their flight plan. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.
ART MORTVEDT: So we were particularly fussy about that. Relative to Mexico, it's a little more -- was a little more casual for us.
For example, we got into the Yucatan. The weather was fabulous and the Mayan ruins were obvious and frequent, and so we were able to kind of check out the Mayan ruins and circle and low pass and whatever. And it was no big deal even though that exactly was not on our flight plan.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it didn’t occur to me that, yeah, you have to file flight plans. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So that's why you need to be getting permission and permits. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yeah, no that's --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it's not just driving a car where you just go on the highway and you go wherever you want.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, and that's very critical. And when I say I didn’t ask, I don’t want to act cavalier about what I did either.
The Canadians have always been so cooperative and so encouraging and so professional that I'm not so sure I would have got a negative answer from them anyway.
But relative to the American FAA or somebody, I didn’t feel the need to be, you know, asking for every detail. You know, will you please approve this or that or the other because I just needed to go. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
KAREN BREWSTER: But did you still file flight plans at each of your stops?
ART MORTVEDT: Absolutely. Yeah, that's -- you know, not only for the requirement because it is a requirement in Canada, but because of the safety factor. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: They know where you are. ART MORTVEDT: Yes LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: And the courteous factor. The Canadians have been -- were -- are so encouraging, cooperative that I wanted to treat them right because they taught me or treated me right.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I was really fascinated when I heard you talk before about all the planning and everything that you had on that airplane for safety. Do you want to -- ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I mean that must -- took you years didn’t it?
ART MORTVEDT: It did. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yeah. I had lists and I had lists of lists. And in the past I had, for example, blown a tail wheel and when I blew the tail wheel I happened to have a tail ski on.
Actually with the Polar Pumpkin we blew a tail wheel, too, in Toronto at the main airfield on takeoff when there was a jet landing right behind us. And so we took off with the blown tail wheel and we flew from Toronto to Port Huron, Michigan where we cleared customs.
And when we landed with a blown tail wheel, the rear end of the airplane it felt like it was going to vibrate off. And we kind of vibrated off of the main runway into the grass, but we, you know, had to keep going.
It was on a Sunday and so we went down to Ace Hardware. I think it was Ace Hardware. And lo and behold, the lawn mower tires had a shaft diameter of the same diameter that fit on the Cessna. So if we put two lawn mower tires together it just happened to fit in the fork of the tail wheel.
So we figured if this Sunday we could get one takeoff and one landing out of the lawn mower tires and get on to Macomb, Illinois we could actually get parts in Macomb, Illinois. So that's what we did.
We -- they were pretty well destroyed in the landing, but we didn’t really care then because we had access to proper parts.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But that must be a real balancing act. You want to take parts with you on these flights -- ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: But that's extra weight. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And so you had all -- lots of other equipment. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: You had like doubles of, triples of everything on the plane, I think. ART MORTVEDT: Well, no, I mean I couldn’t -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Not everything, but --
ART MORTVEDT: Not everything, but a number of things, yeah. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: Relative to the tail wheel what I was going to say is that I had a complete assembly. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
ART MORTVEDT: In case that would happen. Tail wheel, tail tire. Tail of the tire had tubes, etc.
And realizing that ice flows break up unexpectedly, in 1993 our float is (puff) splintered into pieces and we had tents floating this way and that way and got everybody on the same piece of ice. Nobody got hurt and so on.
Another time we had an airplane sitting on an ice flow and a crack occurred between the main gear and the tail wheel. Fortunately, it didn’t separate and the airplane didn’t go to the bottom. The crew was able to get it out of there in time.
But as a backup plan in case the flow that I was sitting on in the Arctic Ocean brokeup I took --
actually had built a special bracket that I could use to hook to the lift rings of the Polar Pumpkin and because the Russians have MI-8 helicopters up there during their spring program. In theory if the flow I was on broke up, the Russian helicopters could use the bracket that I had with me to lift the Polar Pumpkin and move it over to a bigger piece of ice and sit it down so I could actually take off and get out of there.
Didn’t have to do that, but at -- I had that with me and I had my orange box that I kept right behind the front seat. It was my backup backup box and I had an extra satellite telephone in there.
I had an ELT. I had extra flares. I had the basics for survival in that box so if I had to leave the plane quickly I could grab it and go.
Navigation wise I had three GPS’s. I had two main GPS’s in the cockpit and I had another pocket GPS I kept on me. And the fourth navigational instrument is pretty uncommon these days. It's called an astro-compass or a sun compass and that's mounted on the dash.
It's a sextant basically so if I had a shot at the sun, in theory I could get the position to then navigate back to land some place or other. And I mentioned that storm that moved into Ellesmere Island. If that would have moved in there sooner and I could not have gotten back to Ellesmere Island, my other destination -- my Plan B destination to get off the Arctic Ocean pack ice was Norway.
I was going to fly to Norway -- Svalbard -- Longyearbyen in Svalbard because I know they have Av gas there usually, and then from Svalbard, well I would have had to have a cup of coffee and figure out where I'd go from there. But I didn’t have to do that.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. And you also had some scientific equipment on the Polar Pumpkin. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: In the Arctic. Do you want to tell us about that?
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, instead of burning up quite a bit of gas to fly to the North Pole and back -- by the way from departure in Fairbanks to the North Pole and back to Fairbanks took me 47 days in 2013. And I never added up how many days in 2011 and '12.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how many gallons of fuel is that?
ART MORTVEDT: Oh, I would have to get out my pencil and figure that out. KAREN BREWSTER: I thought maybe you just knew that off the top of your head.
ART MORTVEDT: But, so, I wanted to do something scientifically, because I had been associated with some of the world’s great scientists in Antarctica. And so because one of our science projects worked out of the Von Braun’s Center for Science and Innovation in Huntsville, Alabama, a NASA associated group, I managed to get the blessings of a very professional scientist.
Dr. Joe Casas, who builds satellites by the way. And he sent me off with a hyperspectral imaging camera.
And so with a special mount attached inside the belly of the Polar Pumpkin or the baggage pod, we ran cables from this vertically mounted camera up through the belly of the aircraft up to a computer put up on a special table that I had built on the co-pilot side.
And so I could be flying along running the computer taking hyperspectral imagery with this camera. So that was one aspect.
And another scientific program I had on board was through the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Dr. Birgit Sattler is one of the world’s great cryosphere scientists studying extremophiles in -- in droplets of fog for example and in the ice in Antarctica.
And so I took special gelatin filters that I attached inside a homemade bracket attached to the wing strut to collect microbes in the air as I flew along.
The cold temperatures were an issue and so I cracked a few of those filters and so I had to build a special protection over those -- over the bracket so -- I mean, ultimately I'm hoping that I got some good samples for her back in Austria.
And the other instrument was an ethylometer that I got from the University of Alaska here in Fairbanks. Dr. Cathy Cahill was my associate on that. And the purpose of using the ethylometer was to collect black carbon particles in the atmosphere of the Arctic as I flew along.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Interesting. ART MORTVEDT: Those three things.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And any idea what the results were? Did you ever hear back?
ART MORTVEDT: No, I don’t. When I got back I took the ethylometer back to the UAF and the samples went to Austria and the camera went to -- back to NASA. And sometimes I wonder where the data goes, how much data, and the utility of the data, but that's science, I guess.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. This must have cost an enormous amount of money. How are you funded?
ART MORTVEDT: One of the individuals that I guided in Antarctica on two or three expeditions we were looking for meteorites on two of those expeditions.
Commander Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 astronaut, was on one of those. And this individual I'm talking about is very keen on polar science. And so that individual helped me a great deal, but that's not to lessen the input by many other people.
Concorde Battery, for example, provided one of the best battery in the world because -- I mean, I think. And should my battery have gone bad for the airplane I would have been dead in the water.
Actually, I had a second battery with me, but that -- just as a backup. And individuals and institutions and foundations and a multitude of individuals helped me in lots of different ways.
And to recognize that help and those people and institutions I have put those names on the bottom underside of the wing. And those names are permanently attached to the Polar Pumpkin today.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Damaris, can you tell us then about your -- you were at home. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: When all this is happening. Take me through your day when you're home looking at the GPS, for instance.
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Okay. Well, I was kind of involved with him the whole process through of the planning and all the preparations in lots of different ways. But when he was actually en route, we had a tracking system and so I had the computer on the desk and I could -- it would update every 10 minutes.
So I was watching the screen and it was telling me the latitude, longitude, the speed of the aircraft, the -- What else was it telling me? Just several different things it was telling me.
ART MORTVEDT: Altitude. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Altitude, right. And so I could see where he was all the time.
So, and then I was also talking to the Canadian weather system people, who were extremely helpful. Because they were forecasting and letting us know what was happening up the line.
And then Art would call me periodically and we could update that way. So on 10-minute intervals I would just watch the computer update where he was.
And so I was just tracking him and I was keeping a log of, you know, all of these things as well as every time he'd call I would log in that he called and where he was and what his -- just an update in case the tracking system --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Failed.
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Failed, right. So -- and it worked quite well, except one time when the technology of it I hadn’t thought about, but I was watching him. The speed he was going and the progression and the next time it updated it showed the speed at zero.
So I thought that either means he crashed or, you know, in 10 minutes I couldn’t imagine that he could have decided to make a landing. So it was pretty tense there for about ten minutes. And the next time it updated he was fine and then he did call and say, you know -- And I said are you okay? Where are you? And he said well I’m just flying along. And I said, well, the computer told me that you were going zero miles an hour so that was a little bit tense.
But it had just hit -- hit the wrong time just when the computer was probably updating and it didn’t -- didn’t register, so --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And did you use satellite phones? Cause you said you would call --
ART MORTVEDT: Yes. I had the satellite phone plumbed into the headset of the airplane so it was quite handy. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
ART MORTVEDT: Be flying along and then punch in Damaris’ number and talk directly with her. It worked out very well.
And for the first let’s say 50 miles, approximately, off the north coast of Ellesmere Island the Arctic Ocean pack ice which is drifting all the time will push up against the land and form these big blocks of ice. Let’s say 50 miles approximately of blocks of ice.
And so if anything would go wrong, the survivability of a landing would be zero. There'd be no way to crash land and survive.
And the issue that occurred about a third of the way into the flight was a sudden icing of the airplane. Very quickly the airplane iced up. I couldn’t see out the windshield. I looked up at the leading edge of the wings and I could see the full coat of ice on the wings.
And realizing how heavy the airplane was still, I thought could be a serious problem here. So I had a choice to make and I was talking to Damaris on the satellite phone. She said well turn around.
And this was my third attempt and I wasn’t inclined in the first place to turn around and then if I would have turned around -- turned around I would have flown right back into more icing conditions, I thought.
So I thought the best I can do is to try to climb out of the icing conditions. And the plane was heavy. And -- but at the legal limit, I presume.
And I managed to climb out of the icing conditions and in about fifty, sixty miles or so the ice dissipated off the windshield and I could again see where I was going, but it was concerning.
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Very scary.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was wondering with Damaris through all these expeditions you're at home and even if you're watching it on the computer, what are the emotions you go through? And what does that feel like to be at home when he's off doing these things?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Well, he's always done a lot of these kinds of things. In Antarctica, in the Arctic and it's kind of -- we both enjoy that kind of thing and so it's always been fine with me because I know this a part of his personality. This is a part of what he loves to do.
And it's never been something I would ever stand in the way of so -- But I really did enjoy following it.
And I think one thing to think about, too, is even going across Canada it's not just -- just because you have skis on the plane doesn’t mean you can land anywhere because the terrain is so rocky that he really did need to get from airport to airport. So whether it was over the ice or whether he was over the land, he still had to be able to get to the next point.
So it kind of meant that the whole trip you were kind of really watching exactly where he was because to be able to land anywhere was not a possibility, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: I mean, I know, yeah, he's very experienced and you trust him, but yeah things go wrong and I think it would be very nerve racking to be sitting at home wondering and perhaps worrying. I don’t know. You seem so calm.
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Well, there were times I wasn’t very calm. But I don’t know, faith is a big part of it. And yes, because he -- I know that he is -- he takes super precautions and that way he's not kind of a renegade maverick sort of a pilot -- cowboy pilot, you know.
He's very well prepared and he will make a decision on the side of caution, so that gives me more confidence in being able to say he knows what's going on. He'll turn around if he thinks he should. So that helps.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Have you ever gone on any of these expeditions, too, then Damaris?
DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Not specifically on any of these long distance ones because he has to take so much gear, so much fuel, there really isn’t -- a passenger isn’t a possibility.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Well, you said earlier that the -- where the co-pilot would sit was where the computer lived. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Right. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. And then under --
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Every inch counts. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Every inch --
ART MORTVEDT: Then under the computer table I had my generator. That's where that sat. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was wondering what the total weight of that plane was? ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, I didn’t weigh it. KAREN BREWSTER: You don’t know --
ART MORTVEDT: But I presume it was right at the legal limit. KAREN BREWSTER: Which is? Do you know? ART MORTVEDT: I'd check the manual on that.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I was just cause how many thousand of pounds of gear you might have had with you? A lot. ART MORTVEDT: Well, you had to -- the plane was full. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. ART MORTVEDT: And certainly at the legal limit. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, so --
ART MORTVEDT: And one -- just a comment relative to Damaris’ comments. For Damaris’ participation and encouragement, I will always be very grateful.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: I imagine it takes years of planning together. Every detail. DAMARIS MORTVEDT: Yeah. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Thought of and rethought. Like you said lists and lists and lists. Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: Yeah, another point that I want to bring up to include in this discussion, and thereby not imply at all that I have flown the complete route between the South Pole and the North Pole. I want everything to be correct.
There's a section of distance between Cape Horn and Antarctica called the Drake Passage. I did not fly that with the Polar Pumpkin.
And I thought about it just to include the whole route, but two friends of mine crashed a small aircraft into the Antarctic Ocean and from what they experienced and from having crossed that wild stretch of water at least a dozen times or more.
KAREN BREWSTER: In a boat? ART MORTVEDT: In a boat and by plane, too -- bigger plane. I'm not interested in that section, so -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
ART MORTVEDT: You know, I've landed at the South Pole, flew over the North Pole and landed pretty close to the North Pole like 20 miles or so, and so for me that's adequate.
I've fulfilled the -- my goals to do that. But technically, I don’t want anyone to get an impression that I have flown across the Drake Passage with the Polar Pumpkin, because I have not. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Uh-huh. ART MORTVEDT: Yeah.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: And then if I recall right, you also flew to Mongolia. Was -- wasn’t --
ART MORTVEDT: I went to Mongolia, but not with the Polar Pumpkin or any of my own aircraft. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay.
ART MORTVEDT: When I was flying in -- in Russia, I flew in various Russian aircraft. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Okay.
ART MORTVEDT: And in Mongolia the only aircraft I flew in Mongolia was the departure airliner out of Ulaanbaatar to Seoul. And so my objectives in Mongolia were a little bit different, because I had realized that there were so few private airplanes in Mongolia even compared to Russia. I mean you could probably count all the private airplanes in Mongolia on two hands.
So my goal in Mongolia was to visit on the land the Mongol herders and the Kazakh herders in Mongolia. And that's what I did. And then we drove a Russian jeep called a Wazzock from Olgii in western Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar in about two-thirds of the way east.
And had a wonderful time. My driver was Nurca and he was a super partner on that trip through this amazing country.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that was just for your own interest you wanted to go see Mongolia?
ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yep. And visit these particular steppe herders. And when I got to Mongolia crossing over the border from Russia, I happened to meet the right people at the right time to arrange for amazing opportunities to meet some fabulous folks.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I want to go back some of the flying. I have some kind of follow-up questions. You said it took you 47 days when you finally -- ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: On your third attempt. How many hours a day do you fly on these kinds of trips?
ART MORTVEDT: It varies a lot. Most of that time was waiting. Uh-huh. As I mentioned earlier I got stuck in Ulukhaktok that one time for nine days. And I got stuck in Eureka weather station.
Most of the time that I got stuck probably just waiting for the timing to be correct to go up into the Arctic Ocean and to the North Pole.
You know, the flight time per day varied a lot. I just -- I would have to get out a log and all that stuff.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, you know, is it three hours a day? Is it eight hours a day? I mean, obviously it varies, but --
ART MORTVEDT: It probably would not be eight hours a day. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. ART MORTVEDT: But it certainly could be three to five or six hours a day.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay, I'm just trying to get a sense of how this -- You know, you think of well you do these flights and I think you’re in the plane 24 hours a day. ART MORTVEDT: No, no. KAREN BREWSTER: You’re not? ART MORTVEDT: No, no. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: No. And the Canadian Archipelago has a multitude of islands. But most of them are pretty low islands and so by springtime with the accumulation of snow and drifting snow it's covered up -- well, not -- yeah, covered up where the snow surface over these low islands.
And so if you have a cloudy sky and flat light, you can’t differentiate between the island and the sea. And Damaris brought up a good point relative to being able to land. You’d think that on skis you could, you know, land out there somewhere, especially because there are no trees or --
But the snow is drifted and so hard that if you don’t have sun and shadows to be able to land kind of on the lee side of one of those islands where the snow is a little bit softer and flatter, you're going to rip the landing gear right off that airplane if you try to land at random.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, as you say there's rocks hidden under there or -- ART MORTVEDT: Yep, and that too. KAREN BREWSTER: -- if you’re on the ice there's blocks of ice. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, so you were always looking for towns with airstrips to land on your hops?
ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yeah, mostly and/or talking with local pilots like Rennie Laserich in Cambridge Bay, who knows that local region like the back of his hand.
And he’d say oh, yeah, well maybe on the lee side of so and so island you might be able to land there. And oh, yeah, there's an old oil exploration airstrip where -- yeah, nobody there and no fuel there, but maybe you could put her in there if you had to. And just try to utilize the local knowledge the best I could.
KAREN BREWSTER: So were there places where you landed and camped because you, you know, your hours were -- not for an emergency, but as part of the normal flight? ART MORTVEDT: No. KAREN BREWSTER: No, you always --
ART MORTVEDT: No, I mean I was prepared to do that, but didn’t. I went from airport to airport. And then Kugluktuk, which used to be Coppermine was kind of my alternate -- kind of to the south of the mouth of the Coppermine River.
And in one case going across from Inuvik I had plans to go into Kugluktuk, but the weather had changed radically for the worse and it was getting worse and worse and I could not go to Kugluktuk. So even though I hadn’t planned on it, didn’t really want to, I had to stretch my route and go all the way to Cambridge Bay.
And the weather wasn’t that great when I got to Cambridge Bay even, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you had mentioned the time of year that doing this trip and the weather and how there's that window. Would you talk a little bit more -- that you did this in April each time? ART MORTVEDT: April.
KAREN BREWSTER: And why April?
ART MORTVEDT: The -- the days are long enough to give maximum light. It's still cold enough so there's not as much fog around that you’d find into May. The ice is more or less intact. The weather is about as good as one can get for springtime weather in April.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So it is a short window. ART MORTVEDT: It is. KAREN BREWSTER: To do a trip like that? ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. It is.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you mentioned the icing situation which made me think about, you know, here in Fairbanks, you know, the big jets they have all this fancy de-icing equipment -- all those little airports you were at, what do you do about de-icing before you take off? Is there an option for that?
ART MORTVEDT: I have wing covers. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh. ART MORTVEDT: That keeps the frost off the wings. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
ART MORTVEDT: And as I mentioned the Laserich family were so hospitable. They had a hangar with vacant space at Cambridge Bay and they allowed me to put the airplane inside that hangar. It was not a heated hangar, but it was a hangar.
And wind is a huge factor for Cambridge Bay. And just to get the airplane into a space that wasn’t windy where I could kind of sort my gear and kind of re-group inside the hangar meant an awful lot. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
ART MORTVEDT: Plus the coffee pot was right through the door.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: That’s another consideration with weather is wind. I mean it could be a beautiful clear day. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: It could be picture perfect, but if the wind is terrible. ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: In a small plane that's heavily loaded.
ART MORTVEDT: Yep. When I took off from Eureka, I had a 20 knot headwind going to the North Pole and I tried various altitudes. It did not matter. Twenty knots right on the nose, which slowed me up a lot. Burned a lot more fuel. But fortunately Andy knew that my fuel was on the ice at Barneo to get back.
But if I was not able to find Barneo -- on the way up as I recall I flew the 86 degree longitude from Eureka north and along that longitude line there were two locations where there were refrozen leads where the sea had cracked and the flow was drifted apart and then that water had refrozen. And there were two locations where I recorded the latitude and longitude in case I could not find the Russian camp.
And I didn’t want to have to fly back there and camp, but it was a possibility. And so when I flew over the North Pole, I had some fog -- the most amazing, unusual sort of fog moving in from the west.
To the east the visibility was much better, but there was this kind of low level wavy sort of fog to the west. And so I went over the pole my GPS screen went black. And then as I flew away from the pole my GPS started working again, and I made a left turn towards the coordinates that I had for Ice Station Barneo.
But those coordinates I had gotten the day before and Barneo is always -- that flow was always drifting and I got in the vicinity of Ice Station Barneo and I didn’t see it. It's like, ah, now what?
This weather is not that great from aloft, but when I was talking on the VHF to the Russians at Barneo, they said, oh, yeah, the weather is great. But the visibility from the bottom up was not -- was fine, but from the top down it wasn’t so fine.
So I flew around there a little bit talking to the Russians -- real loud VHF signal and then I noticed something a little bit -- looking different off my left wing and I kind of veered off to the left and there were the Russians.
And I spiraled down, landed like a fly on honey.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah. How far is the drift then in one day? I mean that's amazing.
ART MORTVEDT: It depends a lot on the winds and the currents. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right. ART MORTVEDT: But the next morning after I got some sleep I walked into the cook tent and it was really heartening to begin with because as I walked in everybody gave me a round of applause. You finally made it.
And a long-time Russian friend Victor Boyarsky was in the camp and he's been great. And they had a GPS unit hanging in the cook tent so I went over there and watched and the numbers were just ticking away as this flow -- it was actually floating towards the pole then, but if you get a change in the wind or into a different current it can be floating away.
I haven’t checked today to see the location of Barneo, but as I mentioned they started at 89 43 north and my hunch is that they're farther away from the pole today than they were yesterday. But I'll check that later.
LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Yeah, something you just don’t think about, you know, is the rate. You know, you’re stationary on a flow. You don’t think it's moving, but, of course, it's moving.
ART MORTVEDT: But back in I think ’86, the first year I was in the Arctic Ocean, we had a memorable storm. And in three days we drifted 40 miles. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Wow.
ART MORTVEDT: Uh-huh. Yeah, very high winds, whiteout conditions, and pretty strong current. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.
ART MORTVEDT: And that year, I think there were five of us in camp. We had two tents put up and the storm hit and one of the individuals was from a southeastern US state. He had never been to a cold environment before I don’t think.
And during that storm we were going from tent to the other tent to the other tent and visiting and reading books and trading books and so on, and suddenly we discovered that we only had four people in camp. It was like -- LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Missing.
ART MORTVEDT: Where did so and so go? He had stepped out away from one of the tents to take a leak and made the mistake of walking in the direction where he thought the tent was, but he was essentially walking alone with no gear out into the pack ice.
And we didn’t realize it for probably an hour or so. And so initially we tried to collect all the dark objects like skis and ski poles and shovels and whatnot and stick them in and then follow out and then go another.
And then we noted that we had a box of rope. Twelve hundred and fifty feet of quarter inch neo rope by the tent. And so two of us set the rope out when the other two guys went off to the end of the rope and we were going to make a fan around camp. And just beyond the end of that rope there was a dark object laying in the snow. And there this guy was.
And so they drug him or helped him walk or whatever back to camp. And I've got this great big high loft Eddie Bauer sleeping bag. It's about this wide. And we stuffed him in there and then fed him warm liquids slowly and warmed up his core temperature and he survived.
But that was a nip and tuck thing. If a crack would have occurred, even when the rescue pair -- I mean they risked their lives to go out and fetch this guy. But all's well that ends well. And everybody was happy after awhile. LESLIE MCCARTNEY: Right.