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Alaskan Pilot Succeeds at Flying Single-engine Cessna to Both North, South Poles

Art Mortvedt

Updated: Alaskan pilot Art Mortvedt has returned to Fairbanks after a solo flight to the North Pole in the same single-engine aircraft that he flew to the South Pole in 1999. It was his third attempt to accomplish the mission, which Mortvedt says demonstrates how light aircraft can support scientific research. 

Update 2 Sunday, May 5: Mordvedt wrote in an e-mail that "With much gratitude, the Polar Pumpkin and I pulled in to Fairbanks from Old Crow, Yukon, this afternoon, all safe and sound."

Mortvedt was waiting for a break in the weather to fly his bright-orange colored Cessna out of Old Crow, Yukon Territory, for the last leg of the trip home.

Update 1 –  Saturday, May 4: Mortvedt is now in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, after spending at least two days socked-in by weather in Inuvit, Northwest Territory.

We first caught up with Art Mortvedt on Tuesday afternoon, somewhere in the skies over Nunavut, in far northern Canada. In a sometimes-spotty satellite-phone connection, Mortvedt reported that he’s headed west in his sturdy Cessna 185, as weather allows, on his way home after reaching the North Pole 3½ weeks ago…

“I’m just cruising along here at around 4,000 feet in between the village of Kugluktuk and Great Bear Lake,” he said, “And I’ll be headed in the Northwest Territories, and then into the Yukon and then back to Alaska.”

Mortvedt says he was glad to see the fringes of boreal forest appear not long after he left the village of Kugluktuk. He says the scroungy black spruce had never looked so beautiful, after weeks of seeing nothing but an endless expanse of snow and ice stretching from horizon to horizon, pretty much ever since he left Fairbanks on March 20th.

“It’s exciting to see trees again!” he exclaimed.

Mortvedt is no stranger to flying in remote regions. He’s a longtime Alaskan Bush Pilot who’s logged some 5,000 hours of flight around the Bush, and elsewhere, and who along with his wife Demaris divides his time between homes in Manley Hot Springs and a hunting lodge near Kobuk, in northwestern Alaska. He’s spend the better part of six seasons providing logistical support for scientific studies of the North Polar ice pack, and he’s flown in more than 20 expeditions to Antarctica.

Credit Art Mortvedt
At the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island, in far northern Canada, Mortvedt tied-down his Cessna on both sides with several ropes attached to four fuel drums to secure the aircraft against the High Arctic's ferocious winds.

Mortvedt first flew the modified Cessna 185 during one of those expeditions, and he liked the way it handled. He says after flying a French scientist to a research station at the South Pole he got an idea…

“When I arrived at the South Pole, I thought, ‘Well, it’d be truly fun to fly this same plane to the North Pole someday,’” he said.

That was back in November 1999. He bought the 185, modified it further still for cold-weather flying, painted it bright orange and dubbed it “the Polar Pumpkin.” Mortvedt set out in 2011 and 2012 to fly the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole, but was turned back both times by bad weather

He’s run into a fair share of rough weather on this trip, too. But he took his time, waited out the storms, and on April 6th, he realized his long-held dream.

“I’ve just completed my mission to taking this airplane to both poles of the world,” he said.

Mortvedt said the ice around the pole itself was buckled and unstable and unsuitable to risk a landing. So, he flew around the pole and set down nearby at Russian Ice Station Barneo, where he spent a few days, waiting for a break in the weather to begin the journey home.

Now that he’s on his way, his wife, Damaris, says she can breathe a bit easier. She says she’s been following his journey at home at Manley Hot Springs with an online satellite-aided tracker system, and that they’ve talked as often as conditions allow, via sat-phone. But, Damaris says it was tough when they couldn’t connect, and she knew he was probably socked-in, somewhere out there.

“It is a little stressful in those areas where there is so little communication and such hostile weather, for sure,” she said.

Credit Art Mortvedt
Mortvedt packs the Polar Pumpkin, parked outside the Everts Air Fuel hangar at Fairbanks International Airport, prior to departing March 20 to fly to the North Pole.

Mortvedt, obviously, is something of an adventurer – he’s a member of the Explorers Club of New York, and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London.

But his mission was more than just a flight of fancy. Mortvedt says he set out to demonstrate the practicality of using a single-engine aircraft for polar research – and in the process, to conduct research himself, making observations on the impact of climate change on the polar ice cap, and collecting air samples for a UAF Geophysical Institute experiment on the extent of black-carbon particles in the Arctic generated by human-caused fires.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.