Flying to the North Pole in a Russian Biplane – Antonovs over the Arctic

Sometimes you plan adventures. And sometimes a dream of doing something just falls into place.

Who doesn’t want to get in a remarkable Russian biplane, take off with a small group of friends, and fly to the North Pole?

I wrote a book about it, Antonovs over the Arctic, but all the best photos and a quick precis of our story is here.

Right now a little dreaming of far away places could be a good thing, while we plot our next adventure. And there is nothing quite like the Arctic and the Antarctic for amazing light flowing across the earth.

Shortly after meeting Shane Lundgren in New York, we shared dinner together and he showed me a grainy, folded-up photo of this airplane, an Antonov AN-2. The image evoked Tin-Tin adventures, far-away places. Grand adventure at its best just flowed from that plane. I wanted to fly somewhere – anywhere in it. I’d never imagined an airplane could have so much personality. 
Shane had two Antonovs, flew them across Siberia and into Alaska and we then took off in one of them to try and go to the North Pole. I took photos and helped out the National Geographic film crew who shot a movie on our first attempt – and logged lots of flying hours. Being aboard was more exciting than expected, with a huge cranky engine, Russian instrumentation and immense cloth wings holding us all up. 
The vision to fly to the North Pole was inspired by an amazing Australian Aeronaut, George Wilkins, who first flew over the Arctic in 1928. He was the first to fly from Barrow, Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway. His plane seemed to work a bit better than ours and we made it little more than halfway to the pole on our first attempt. Our single engine with a 1000 horsepower nine-cylinder radial, in a 1947 designed biplane, made for some tense moments over the ice.  
Pure magic, headed for the North Pole, round 1, before we ran low on fuel and turned round. 
Pilot Shane Lundgren, who qualified as the worlds’ youngest 737 pilot and had a host of experience in all types of aircraft, found the Antonov a most interesting flying machine. The Russian instruments, heavy steering and sitting virtually atop the engine made for a very hands-on experience. Though if it got warm, we could just open the windows. 
The benefits of Alaska, a rather scenic shake-down flight past Denali, a mountain both Shane and I would both fly past and climb to the top of as well. Photo: Shane Lundgren 
Headed out over the Arctic Tundra in late April for Barrow, Alaska. Five hours of flying with virtually no roads, no people and only Caribou herds to keep us company. 
Over the ice as we circled for a landing into Barrow, Alaska. At times the Antonov flew so slow into the wind one felt compelled to pedal harder. 
A good ways north of the Arctic circle, sitting out the ice fog and awaiting clear weather in Barrow, Alaska.

 

We never managed to get more than an ‘experimental’ rating for the aircraft. Shane’s N number for the plane was his initials and his birth year. The cockpit, functional and mostly working. There were 7 distinct and quite muscular steps needed to just start the engine, a very active time for both pilot and co-pilot. 
Captain Shane Lundgren, left and Ferdinand von Baumbach, more affectionally known as Ferdy. Pilots with enough experience to fly over the ice for hours on end, and a sense of adventure large enough to do it in an Antonov. 

 

Pancake Ice – with the plane fully loaded, with fuel in wings and auxiliary tanks, we did a lot of low level flying before going up to a maximum cruising altitude of just over 10,000 feet – on a good day.  
A touch of Arctic magic. I realized I must have been getting better at flying when Shane turned over the controls to me and promptly fell asleep on one of our long legs of flying. We flew 18 hours just up to the pole and on our return to Spitsbergen, so plenty of time for all of us to enjoy sitting at the controls. 
About as close to a sunset as we had as the sun bounced along the horizon and then came up again. 
Landings in the Arctic, a whole lot of white, and perfect weather thankfully, as we headed across the Canadian Arctic, hopping from airport to airport. 
The Antonov is a very tough aircraft, but enjoyed a bit of extra care and some warmth North of the Arctic Circle with its engine blanket. The wings are cloth so a quick brush of the snow from them recommended before take-off. 
The team, Ron Sheardown (left to right), Robert Anderson, Donny Olsen, Shane Lundgren and Ferdinand von Baumbach. Not pictured and photo by Trevor Henderson
Flying north from Eureka, Canada for the Pole. We broke out of the fog on the island, flew under the clouds and then the skies opened up for another 10 hours of flying to our landing at the North Pole. 
Over the ice on the way to the Pole. 
Shane, Donny and Ferdinand touching down at the North Pole. With no braking allowed on the ice and realizing he was about to pile into a pressure ridge, Shane executed a skidding, sliding turn at the end of our ‘runway’ to keep from crashing. 
Shane touching down onto the ice at the Pole.  A year later Ron Sheardown’s plane, (on the right) would land again, but on thin ice, and fall through. The pilots escaped but the plane is sadly lying somewhere at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to this day.
We spent less than 20 minutes at the Pole, keeping the engines running in the minus 20f temperature. When the plane missed and backfired, and Shane made a mad dash to the cockpit to keep it running.
Looking straight down over the balloon tyres at the icepack. We cruised at about 100 knots – depending on head and tail winds. At one point flying across Alaska following the highway the winds were high and the cars overtook us on the road below. 
First class seating. Tucked in under our huge auxiliary fuel tank, giving us the range to fly close to 20 hours non-stop. 
We were often reminded we were in a very small plane and a very long ways from home. 
After nearly 18 hours of flying, coming in across the icepack to Spitsbergen Norway. As I’d write in my book, ‘it was like entering heaven through the back door.’
Pancake ice in the fjords of Spitsbergan, certainly one of the most magic places in the world. I’m sure there is a whale under the water, and a polar bear on an ice floe down there somewhere. 
Shane (left), me, and Ron Sheardown at the dirigible launch tower in Ny-Alesund where early explorers set off on their own polar journeys. Shane is in a reindeer coat similar to what Wilkins wore on the first flight across the arctic in 1928. 
Captain Shane Lundgren, full survival suit, for the flight from Spitsbergen across to Tromso, Norway. If we weren’t sweating already flying over the open ocean, our survival suits made sure we were. 
Heading out of Spitsbergen and across the island and the ice for the 7 hour flight to Tromso, Norway. More open water ahead than we even wanted to think about. 
The cover shot for my book, Antonovs over the Arctic