The plane has a GPS but Max feels it’s not too accurate and needs adjusting. Anyhow he is confident he knows the fastest and most direct route. We fly around the Goodwood Mountains and pass three small peaks, jutting out of the snow like sails and naturally called The Three Sails. It’s so thrilling that my heart is pumping; I am on the way to fulfilling the dream of my childhood! A triumphant song from the musical Sweet Charity comes into my mind, sung in the film by Shirley Maclaine, ‘If they could see me now!’ Max turns to give me a quizzical look and I wonder if perhaps I have started singing it out loud. I beam back and he gives me the thumbs up.
It’s 1400 hours GMT and Max turns on the BBC World News. India has asked two US diplomats to leave Delhi, accused of spying; Pakistan has arrested one of Benazir’s Bhutto’s ministers; a bomb has exploded in Damascus resulting in heavy casualties; social benefits have been taken away from drug users in the US. We fly on and the weather is just perfect so we can see in all directions for kilometre after kilometre. Max checks the radio all the time to find out the weather conditions and warns us that it could still change for the worse. If that occurred we would be forced to abort the flight and turn back. I refuse to countenance that possibility, the longer we fly on the more likely it is that we will make it and go all the way.
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There are huge rock and stone formations and it’s all too clear why Max needed to wait for very clear conditions and would have been worried to chance it otherwise. Without a co-pilot the total onus and responsibility is on him as both Ian and myself have no experience of flying small aircraft, although both of us have flown in Cessnas and Twin Otters before. We are flying pretty close to the ground, sometimes I think too close. However, Max has done this flight so many times that he knows exactly where and how to fly. All he needs are low winds, good visibility and he will fly us there safely. I begin finally to relax. I feel very confident in his hands and am begin enjoying myself immensely. I tap Ian on the shoulder to see if he is as happy and he gives me a big grin in response to mine. We fly over Mt. Goodwin. It’s an incredible sight.
On the hour Max turns the news on again, 1500 hours GMT. The bomb in Syria has killed 15 and injured 30; Tanzania has arrested refugees from Rwanda and sent them to Zaire; Serbia’s local elections have been cancelled; there’s an EEC meeting in Vienna; a Russian oil tanker has broken up off coast of Japan; the father-in-law of Benazir Bhutto has been arrested in Karachi. It’s surprising how, in so many ways, the news never seems to change, it could almost relate to any year of several decades as crisis after crisis continually recurs. If everyone had an opportunity to visit the polar regions, once in a lifetime, perhaps it would help to get more of a balance on things and everything would be more tolerable. It’s another dream but one I’m prepared to hang on to.
Max tells us we are shortly coming in to land at White Fields and to be prepared. He asks me to look out of the right window at the ski attachment and to let him know whether I can see anything. I don’t know what I’m meant to be looking for but it seems alright to me. Max then asks if the ski is wobbling but again I can’t see anything amiss. I don’t enquire why he is asking but continue to stare at the ski, wondering if perhaps it’s suddenly going to drop off. I guess there must be some problem with the left ski attachment but think it prudent not to ask any questions. We are flying very low, practically skimming the ice and then with quite a bump, followed by a series of smaller ones, we touch down. The skis seem to have held and Max skilfully brings the aircraft to a standstill. It’s 1.20 p.m., almost three hours since we left Patriot Hills and we’ve been flying straight south for 480 km.
We unbuckle and dismount quickly. It’s so cold, the coldest I’ve ever known, and although we have everything on the bitter winds cut right through. I doubt we could survive very long here. Yet again I marvel at the strength of mind and body that polar explorers need to have in order to endure conditions of this extreme cold intensity. Max impresses on us how important it is to do everything very fast as the bitter cold can cause all sorts of problems, particularly affecting the engine. In fact the first thing we have to do is to drag from the hold a huge tarpaulin to cover the engine, to help prevent it freezing up.
Now we have to deal with the ski problem he had noticed. The left one has developed a wobble and he was worried it might have run askew when we landed. If that had happened the likelihood would have been that we couldn’t take-off again and would have had to wait for a rescue flight to come for us. It doesn’t sound too promising and I take a good look around at the White Fields refuelling base. I am not certain what I had been expecting, certainly not soft drink or Coca-Cola machines but at least some kind of hut or shelter. There is absolutely nothing. Just a vast expanse of absolute whiteness. Really just huge, white fields of snow and ice, with about thirty large drums, presumably filled with fuel.
Max has no time to indulge my reverie. He needs me to help him correct the wobble. His plan doesn’t seem very scientific. He intends to reverse the ski and hope that this will sort out or at least lessen the wobble. He shows me the fitting. It’s actually quite extraordinary but the attachment is only held on with a small, twisted, wire pin. Max will lift the ski off the ground to relieve the weight whilst I untwist the pin. We will then reverse the ski and I am to put the pin back through the tiny hole and fasten it again. The wire is so small that I have to take off my mittens and gloves to undo it, turn it and then organise the refastening. I am terrified I might drop it in the snow where it would vanish without trace. My hands are absolutely freezing but somehow I manage it and Max declares himself satisfied.
Now the three of us walk across the airstrip to the fuel drums, select a full one and push and pull it close to the Cessna. It’s enormously heavy. The drums have been dropped previously, probably from a Hercules, for refuelling by the small aircraft that can’t make a long flight without taking on board extra fuel. The cap of the drum is completely frozen solid and Max uses a hammer and chisel to break the top open. He takes a refuelling tube, attaches it to the drum and then clambers on top of the Cessna to insert the other end into the opening leading to the fuel tanks. Max has to stay there to make certain the tube doesn’t jump out. Ian and I jointly or in turn pump the fuel through the tube. It’s exhausting and laborious work and takes about half an hour. There are two main tanks that take 108 kg (240 lbs) each and two small auxiliary tanks of only 5.5 kg each for emergencies.
After Max closes the second tank, he climbs down and stores the refuelling tube in the hold. We then have to drag the mostly empty drum, although it feels just as heavy, away from the aircraft so we can safely take-off again. Hopefully. We remove the tarpaulin from the engine, hastily fold it into the hold and climb aboard. This time Ian sits at the back and I am in the co-pilot seat. We buckle up and Max turns the engine over. It fires immediately, huge sighs of relief escape from Ian and myself and within seconds we are again airborne and on our way. The South Pole awaits us!
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