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.
The goal of the expedition was to share this event with grade schools and children of all ages. This trip was not only fun and exciting, this trip was also educational. Our plan was always to allow our local schools to participate in this event through email and still pictures delivered from the Internet. While doing our homework as to how much it would cost for what we would need, we discovered that a woman has yet to fly a balloon to the North Pole. A first in 1998! Guinness will accept this first with proper documentation. Our goal then became to give the message to kids that there are many firsts still out there for those who are willing to learn about our universe and participate in it.
Feel free to browse these pages and learn about the north pole. Please use the contact form to contact us on our journey. We will be happy to answer as many questions as we can about our adventure.
On Monday, April 20, 1998, Debbie Harding, Rick Schimpf and Joe Wolff flew their hot air balloon over the North Pole. After taking off within a couple of kilometer from the pole, we flew for 45 minutes landing a few kilometers on the other side of the pole. The flight went off with out a hitch. The weather cooperated with use; keeping winds fewer than 15 knots. Temperatures were a "warm" –10 Fahrenheit. Our inflation was picture perfect. The use of our inflator fan proved to be a success.
The flight itself was beautiful. We saw many leads (rivers) cutting through the snow and ice. We expected the leads to be our most dangerous situation. Upon landing we did not want to be pushed into the water. We were lucky that the winds continued to stay relatively calm throughout the trip. We had noticed that throughout our 3 days on our base camp near the pole that the weather can change in minutes. But with good winds our landing had only a few hops before we landed in between the two other balloons that flew with use. After much celebration our chase helicopters found use and we were able to fly back to our base camp. Our trip was successful.
Some Brief highlights of the trip
April 15 After leaving Moscow, we traveled to a military base an hour away. Once there we flew 5 hours by cargo plane to our base town of Khatanga. All of our flights were by military cargo planes. This made for some interesting seating arrangements. Many times we were forced to sit on luggage, produce, and gear strapped to the floor. Most times there were people almost lying on top of each other to get comfortable. Heat was also optional on most flights. We were forced to use our survival clothing gear to stay warm. First class this was not. After arrival in Khatanga, a small fishing town and ex bomber base in northern Siberia we were told that there was good weather on the pole and we were to fly out that day to our North Pole base camp.
The flight to the base camp had some minor mechanical problems. We were forced to land on a small military base situated on an island near the Arctic Circle. The whole island was surrounded by ice making it part of the Arctic Circle. We found that this was probably the coldest place we were to see on the whole trip. Temperatures were around –30 Fahrenheit with a slight wind. After an hour of waiting outside the plane for it to be fixed we were able to walk to a small village a mile away. Beside the cold that we had to tolerate on the walk to the village, we were told not to go outside due to Polar Bears in the area. Thankfully they told this after we were safe and warm inside. After some good hospitality from our new Russians friends, we were given a lift back to the cargo plane for the last leg of our journey to the Pole. Before arrival at the base camp we were told to quickly climb to the front of the plane on order to redistribute the weight upon landing. It should be said that our Russian military pilots were very skilled in flying under less then ideal situations. We landed on the only runway on the North Pole. It is made up of shear ice for 1400 feet.
After landing we gathered our gear and set up our tents. Our tents were actually double walled tents with room for around 12 people. The tents were heated by kerosene and propane heaters. While the heaters produced plenty of heat, they could not keep the tents a uniform temperature. The floor of the tent (where you slept and ate) was near freezing, while the top of the tent was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. You were either hot or cold. This became our living quarters for the next 3 days as we waited for the right conditions to fly.
There’s not a lot to do on the North Pole. We generally either ate or slept. The only thing to do outside was take a walk or use the restrooms. For those who don’t like the cold, this is not you vacation spot. The bathrooms consisted of 4 walls of ice and a hole. It was said that reading materials were not needed. You tended to be very quick going to the bathroom. We were actually very lucky, as the average temperature of our stay was only – 8 F. Winds were generally calm. Previous year’s temperatures hovered in the negative thirties with winds over 20 knots. Most people brought plenty of food with them. So food was plentiful and of course there was plenty of water to go around. In order to get water, blocks of ice were cut from the ground and thrown into a bucket that sat on the heaters, and within minutes you had hot water for cooking. The most interesting thing about the North Pole, is the 24 hours of Sun. The Russians call this the midnight Sun. It wasn’t long before you lost track of what day it was or even if was day or night. You slept and ate when you wanted to, so needing to know the time became useless.
Many logistical fixes were needed to accommodate the different groups who needed to be on the pole. We had a French ski team. Skydivers consisting of Malaysian, Portuguese, Russian, and French. A Russian and Malaysian car that was to be parachuted onto the Pole. Balloonist from America, Austria and Turkey. All this, along with numerous support personnel and journalists. At times it seemed like we were at the United Nations.
Finally on the third day we were told it was time to fly. We took our equipment onto the helicopters and flew to a few kilometers near the North Pole. Everything was pretty normal for inflation. Our pressure in our tanks was a low 50-PSI. We needed to use pressurized air to get enough pressure for the burners to work correctly. This was the first time we use pressurized air, but it worked fine. Our inflation fan wasn’t to keen on the cold, but after some coaxing, it worked fine. Our inflation was flawless and soon we were over the beautiful North Pole. It looked like a white moonscape. Ice ridges, snow and patches of water as far as the eye can see. The ground and sky were melting as one. Definitely one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
After our historic flight, we boarded the helicopters and traveled back to the Polar base camp. After a few hours of rest we boarded the plane for the ride back to Khatanga. After minutes of arrival in Khantanga it was time to hit the showers. There’s nothing like a hot shower after spending 4 days in the same clothes.
We were fortunate enough to fly in Khatanga. We set up the balloon in the local schoolyard. This is the first time that the town has seen a Hot Air Balloon. The flight lasted 1 hour. Landing was on the Khatanga river, which of course was frozen over. After a quick lunch we boarded the plane for Moscow
While we had many minor problems, most were expected due to the language barrier and the cold temperatures. But with the help of our fellow balloonist and Russians friends we were able to overcome many of the obstacles. For those who have been keeping track of our adventure via the Internet, we were unable to get the necessary connections except in Moscow and even that proved to be difficult. In the coming weeks we will provide some highlights and pictures. But for now, we are safe and sound in Moscow. We would like to thank all our sponsors. With out your support this trip would not be possible. We hope to share our pictures and stories with you soon.