Famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen and five others were nearly stranded on sea ice after making a failed try for the North Pole. They were lucky. Many of the airship Italia’s crew were lost forever on a voyage for the pole.
Though the North Pole will always hold a special place in the hearts of thrill-seekers, advances in aviation have brought it within reach of the dilletante adventurer. By 1971, Weldy Phipps—a World War II vet and Northern bush pilot legend who invented the balloon-style tundra tire—was offering tourists a chance to visit the pole with his company, Atlas Aviation.
In May 1972, the first such attempt set off from a strip at Lake Hazen on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island for T-3, a U.S. research camp on sea ice 200 kilometres to the northwest. The following day, the Twin Otter—carrying Phipps; pilot John Ceznik; guide and filmmaker Doug Wilkinson; reporter Barry Conn Hughes; Duncan and Mary Grosch, a couple in their fifties (the latter “still sporting a tan she got in Hawaii,” notes Hughes); Norman Turkish, a 37-year-old partner of Bear, Stearns and Co. in New York; and William Dedie, 69, a Northern groupie—took off from T-3 heading due North. As they neared their destination 2.5 hours later, they encountered dense fog. Phipps had told them earlier that, depending on weather and ice conditions, there were three options once they reached the pole: they’d circle from the sky, touch-and-takeoff from the ice or land and get out for pictures. They descended to 1,000 feet. Hughes, covering the trip on a junket for The Canadian Magazine, turned on his recorder:
Hughes: We’re in the thick of it now. I can’t see a darn thing. I can see through the cockpit door and the cockpit window is all fogged up too.
Dedie: Right now I can see the ice. There it is!
Hughes: You’re right! Hey, man—I knew it was down there somewhere!
Wilkinson: Contact for the first time! There’s the ice right over the North Pole!
Hughes: Wow! Well, we can see it! There’s a lot of open leads. I just hope John can find a clear spot somewhere. A helluva lot of open leads. And look at the big pressure ridges down there. Holy smoke! They must be 30 feet high, some of them!
Dedie: Fifty feet!
Hughes: He’s still looking around. I don’t think he’s found a spot yet. Whup! Here we go! Hang on to your hat! Can’t seem to find a clear spot… Oops! We touched it! We touched it, anyway! Way to go!
The crew touched down for a moment, lifted off and returned to T-3—and eventually, home—safely. Despite the obvious exhilaration experienced by those who took part in the trip, the idea would never quite take off. That might be because a ticket with Atlas Aviation cost $2,900 back then (which is more than $17,200 today). But considering the price paid by some early Arctic adventures, that’s really not much at all.