Australian Pilot Stranded after Attempted Crossing

Australian pilot Jon Johanson became stranded at McMurdo when head winds forced him to turn back on an attempt to cross Antarctica and fly to South Amercia.

His slowed progress resulted in the aircraft using more fuel than he had calculated to be necessary.

Johanson left Invercargill (New Zealand) 7 December 2003 on a nonstop flight to Argentina over the South Pole in a home-built single engme aircraft.

The plane, an RV-4 aircraft with a modified engine and an enlarged fuel capacity, left with enough fuel on aboard for a 36 hour flight.

At his point of safe return, approximately 40km short of McMurdo, Johanson radioed McMurdo Base to advise that he would not be continuing his journey across Antarctica as stated in his flight plan because of insufficient fuel. He informed them that he would be flying over McMurdo, on to the South Pole, then returning to McMurdo to make an emergency landing. When he finally landed he had insufficient fuel to return to New Zealand, and no search and rescue backup or contingency plans in place.

Johanson then approached New Zealand to purchase 400 litres of aviation fuel, but New Zealand, Australia and the US have clear policies restricting the sale of fuel to private individuals and require private expeditions to be completely self-sufficient. Johanson, who is a qualified nurse, midwife and carpenter, has admitted being aware of this policy.

New Zealand and US representatives offered Johanson transport back to Christchurch on one of the regularly scheduled flights between McMurdo and Christchurch, and to return his plane via ship at a later stage. However, Mr Johanson did not want to accept the flight back to Christchurch as he feared it would be expensive (c. $5000) and his plane might be damaged during shipping.

Johanson, accused both Antarctica New Zealand and USAP of "mean spiritedness" for refusing to sell him the fuel needed to fly back to Invercargill. But the Chief Executive Officer of Antarctica New Zealand, Mr Lou Sanson responded that neither base used fuel of the kind required for Johanson's plane and that the pilot's own secrecy and poor planning had led to his predicament. "We're not discouraging adventure in Antarctica, we're just discouraging poorly planned adventures," Sanson said. At the time of his communication with McMurdo, Johanson had 35 hours of fuel left for a journey via the South Pole that was estimated to take 36 hours, when the most direct route to Argentina would have required only 33 hours of fuel.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who was in New Zealand for regular talks, said that Johanson was not irresponsible by nature. "This is not some joy rider having a bit of a go; this is somebody with a lot of experience."

Johanson, who has flown round the world three times, maintains that he spent considerable time talking to a leading Australian forecaster, but admitted that he should have abandoned his flight earlier.

Johanson was rescued from his predicament by the offer of fuel from Polly Vacher, another private individual attempting a crossing of Antarctica in the opposite direction, who had been forced to turn back because of strong winds the day before (see box). Fuel that had been left for her at Scott Base by a tour ship was now available for sale.

"Jon Johanson should be grateful to Ms Vacher for enabling him to fly his plane back to Invercargill." said Sanson. "We do not have the type of fuel his plane requires (Avgas) at Scott Base and have been advised by other pilots that Mr Johanson would be running a significant risk if he used the fuel (Mogas) that we do stock. The fuel we work with is for generators and not of aviation quality.

"Polly's trip was well organised and properly planned. She and her staff spent 2 years preparing for her flight with significant advice from national Antarctic programmes. It is ironic that she is now assisting a stranded pilot who embarked upon an ill-prepared and secret flight over the South Pole" said Sanson.

"This is a positive solution to a difficult situation and hopefully highlights the harshness of operating in the Antarctic environment," said Mr Sanson. "Safety and planning must be the priority".

Antarctica New Zealand staff at Scott Base assisted with the refuelling for Mr Johanson's flight back on 16 December.

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