First Woman Pilot to fly a Hot Air Balloon Over the North Pole

Debbie Harding has become the first women to fly a Hot Air Balloon over the North Pole. On Monday, April 20, 1998, Debbie Harding, Rick Schimpf and Joe Wolff flew their hot air balloon over the North Pole. Read our Article About The Arctic.

The event (April 12-25th 1998) was an International hot air balloon expedition to the North Pole. Participants included balloon teams from Australia, Greece, Austria, Germany, France and Italy. It was organized by an Austrian balloonist, however the host was the Russian Para/Rescue Center and the Association of Space Explorers. All transportation while in Russia as well as ice camp was provided by this group and the cooperation of the Russian Air Force.

The group consisted of a pilot plus two crew members.  The Pilot, Debbie Harding, is a commercial balloon operator that runs a small recreational flight business in Chester County since 1989. The crew were all volunteers and were all pretty much regular folk.

Itinerary for the two weeks of participation is as follows:

We leave Monday April 13 via JFK and Aeroflot. We arrive in Moscow, (April 14, 8:30 AM) for two days retrieving balloon equipment from customs. Maybe some touring, too!

Then we would be off to Siberia, (April 16th) a town named Khatanga, where we would go through survival training for 2 to 3 days. Supposedly here wildlife and Eskimo life prevail. Maybe we'll take a sleigh ride or visit an Eskimo village.

From there we would go to Ice Camp (April 19 through the 22 or 23) which would be located near the pole. We could be here for up to one week depending on the weather window. Housing is in the form of double sided tents heated by generators. The heating system creates a mini weather lesson where it is 30 degrees on the floor to 5' up and from there to the ceiling it's 85 degrees which creates thunder storms, or lots of condensation in the middle!

During this time a French ski team will overnight with us. Scuba diving for the first time will be occurring more than likely in any weather, skydiving will occur one day.

For the balloonists the best scenario would be several flights on several days the worst would be one flight on the best day. Flight lengths would vary according to the weather window from a half-hour to five hours or more as fuel consumption would not be an issue. Balloons will be retrieved by helicopter.

Dangers are in equipment and human failure due to the cold, retrieval and hard landings due to white out conditions and no reference points, landing in water (the pole is made up of moving ice, it is not a land mass) not to mention high wind inflation's on ice! We think we've done our homework and have the solutions to most dangers.

From the pole we will return to Moscow (April 24) and an awards dinner ceremony.

Rick Schimpf, chief of the Paoli-based Air Ventures Balloon Rides Inc. crew, inspects a hot-air balloon before a Chesco flight. Six hot-air balloonists will face special dangers when they fly in the cold weather over Siberia. By Adrienne Lu


WEST VINCENT-This crew may be preparing to fly over the North Pole in a hot-air balloon, but when they gather, it is not as a technical team, but as a family. They've been meeting about once every 10 days, since Christmas, six middle-aged adults hailing from West Vincent, West Goshen, Exton, and Springfield, Delaware County. Two are full-time professionals at the sport of hot-air ballooning; the others are simply hobbyists, with day jobs ranging from computer troubleshooter to police officer to auto-body repair-shop owner. Paul Pepino waits to release the balloon as passengers are helped into the gondola. The crew is preparing for a flight over the North Pole from April 14-25.

The North Pole Hot Air Balloon Expedition Crew

Joe Wolff, Debbie Schreiber Harding, Rick Schimpf

Hot Air ballooning is a second job for Rick Schimpf, from West Vincent, which he enjoys very much. He has been involved with ballooning for approximately five years. He has flown with Air Ventures in East Africa, Australia, France and Canada. He likes climbing, (conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro) biking, meeting new people and going new places. He has two sons, Zack, 12 and Dyllan, 8. He loves flying balloons and the good clean fun that goes along with it. Rick has learned the more mechanical parts of ballooning and therefore he will serve as crew chief during this event.

Joe Wolff from West Chester has been a part of Air Ventures crew for 7 years. Joe has traveled with Air Ventures to East Africa, Canada, Jamica and France. When not ballooning, Joe works as a Business Software Consultant. Joe likes ballooning for its outdoor activity and the adventure it provides. Joe's main job on this trip is to provide the computer communication between Russia and the Web site.

Pilot Debbie Schreiber Harding originally from Devon, resides currently in West Vincent, has been flying balloons commercially for over ten years in beautiful Chester County. She has climbed Mt. Kili, in Africa, trekked the Mt. gorilla in Zaire and now wishes to fly over the top of the world in her balloon. She has organized ballooning trips to East Africa, Jamaica, France and Australia and Canada.

Tuesday April 14th

Well, the drive to the airport, the flight on Aeroflot was a piece of cake only one problem, as we are taking off old eagle eye Rick spots his bag on the on a baggage handler's cart. Opps! We arrived in Moscow right on schedule, filed a claim for the missing bag. We were grateful that we had brought our survival jackets as carry on luggage! The temperature is Zero degrees Celsius with a foot of snow on the ground. This is unusual for Moscow this time of the year. I wonder if this is any indication of how the North Pole weather will be. "Joe's still on unsteady ground after the long flight from New York"

Arrived at the Russia Hotel, a hotel that can accommodate a mere 6,000 people. It's right across from Red Square. Every view from each window of the hotel surpasses the next. "We arrived to find this view from our hotel window. This is the famous Kremlin in Red Square." After our arrival the rest of the day was spent in search of the missingbag. In our travels we met the Austrian organizer, Ivan, his photographer Fritz, and the Russian organizer Sergei. We even went to a Russian cosmonaut village. Success, the bag was found. "Austrian Balloonist Fritz in front of the Kremlin Bell. And you thought the Liberty Bell had problems." Tomorrow it is the search for the missing balloon. We will try to leave for Khatanga by evening, Moscow time. We're here! On to the pole! " Does our sponsor Buckley's Chimney Service want to clean these Chimneys?"

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