Manuel, a good friend of mine, runs a company with friends, which specializes on flight adventures of various kinds. He already took clients to Iran to take seats on very huge and rare planes, they organize extreme testing flights for customers and the crown jewel in that range is a polar flight, which he has organized for the past nine years now.
His company created quite a brand with that outstanding polar experience and the media gladly hopped along. I totally wanted to take part in it this year, but we missed each other for some weeks. Just two days before the flight we chatted each other up for a beer. I couldn’t join for the next day and I asked, if we could sip that delicious drink the day after. “No can do”, he said: “Then,” he continued “…I am already on my way to the pole!“ Damn I said, I wanted to be part of that gang. And so he replied: "Join us, I reserved a seat for you“. So here we go. Two days after I was on my way to the pole.
Departure and Arrival were at the Düsseldorf Airport. The organizers, Air Events, made a deal with airline Air Berlin and DüDo is their hub. The business is very straight forward. You book the plane and the crew and then you promote the seats to an adventurous and plane loving target group. Sounds easy, and it is. And I am quite sure it’s all due to the enthusiasm of the organizers for making this thing possible.
Arriving at the Airport delivered the first surprise. On the departure board was actually written “North Pole”. What a quirky and never to be seen sight. Yet another surprise was the ticket. As we were to be flying from Düsseldorf to the North Pole and back, they wrote on the ticket “XXX/ fictitious point”. And it truly is, as it’s rather an idea, a fantasy, an illusion and consequently rather a travel to yourself, then to anything else.
The route was the best of the Arctic Circle. Going there via Svalbard and Iceland, the return flight was over Greenland. The team behind the flight was very experienced. There was an astronaut on board, who educated the passengers during the flight about earth, space, and this very flight. We also called scientists at the tiny polar station on the bear islands via radio and talked with them about their everyday life.
Flying over Svalbard was the first visual highlight. When I had been on the island half a year earlier I couldn’t see jack from above, because polar night had already started and sucked all light from the north. Svalbard in May looked like three scoops of yoghurt ice cream in the midst of an ocean. Beautiful.
The prices for the flight vary from their respective seats. The ones at the window or close to them are pricier. But even for the middle seats everything is affordable. There are a few flexible spots at the window, which can be occupied for a few minutes, before another passenger takes over. I know by experience, because, I quickly occupied a free window-seat until I was told about the rules. Almost at all times experts in the cockpit explain what you see underneath. Time literally flies on a North Pole flight.
Oh by the way — the cockpit. Nobody besides the experts and pilots were allowed to go in. Which is firstly due to safety issues. But imagine being on a plane with numerous plane spotters. It’s like a bunch of zombies in a crowded schoolyard. A lot of excitement and desire to get into the cockpit for sure. But as I knew Manuel I asked him to take my LC-A 120 into the cockpit. I explained him a few shots I wanted to have and the basics of the camera and he did a great job. I was pretty excited, when he came back, because you want to have some variety in your shots.
The meals were rich and plentiful and people moved around a lot. I wonder if the pilot had to steer against large moving crowds on one side of the plane, so the ship wouldn’t fall out of balance. For one, who loves to fly and photography this flight was a remarkable opportunity to take pictures on a plane. Everybody is in a good mood and relaxed. I utilized the opportunity and made a few portraiture shots about a 70 years plus couple, with whom I got friendly with. They even invited me to their home in South Africa. I would love to bring the print of her head resting on his shoulder to their home one day. For me, this is love.
As everybody took photographs it was not a problem shooting even the scenes within the plane. Most of the passengers came from the German speaking countries Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Which I think as to do with a big amount of people fascinated by planes and flights, and consequently with the organizing company, which is based in Berlin and Hamburg.
Of course every flight is harmful to the climate. But there is a spirit of preservation of the incredibly untouched nature on this flight. For the scientists on board it also holds quite some information. This time around there were also little pieces on board of the scattered plane, with which one Roald Amundsen tried to reach the pole and failed. This time around the scarce pieces of the plane would fulfil its original mission.
One of the astounding moments of our flight was discovering a real expedition on the ground. In the middle of nothingness a chain of ant-size creatures walked towards the pole. We flew really low, so we could see each other. The adventurers on the ground probably hadn’t been in contact with civilization for days or weeks and all of a sudden this awkward low flying iron bird appeared: Magic. We later did some research and found out, that it was a group around a New Zealand politician, who collected money for charity with his bold move to the pole.
What is the pole essentially? Effectively there are four different ones. The geographical, the magnetical, the geomagnetic pole and the pole of inaccessibility. The later marks the location, that is most challenging to reach, furthest from the coast line. The Geomagnetic pole is the theoretical most northern point of the Earth’s magnetic field, which is changing over time.
The thing is, the planet Earth is not round, it’s rather shaped like a potato (actually something I learned on the flight), so that’s why it’s sometimes hard to define the various North Poles. The magnetic North Pole is the point, where all magnetic lines of the northern hemisphere meet. This point is also changing position, going apprpximately 40 kilometers every year northwest. The geographical North Pole is the most consistent point, the most northern point of the earth axis and the point of its rotation. At the remarkable position of 90°0’N. It’s only shifting a few meters over time.
Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is not on a piece of land. Depending on the time of the year it’s on frozen ice or water. Therefore you can’t put a flag on the North Pole, as it would move or float away. Hitting the North Pole exactly is a measuring game and leaves much to the imagination. It was dramatic for us, though, as we cut through a piece of cloud in a stormy, icy territory. And the crew on board gave it an extra bang. Everybody got a glass of champagne and when we were approaching the pole. Manuel counted down from ten to define the world’s northernmost point. It needs this kind of definition to make the pole tangible.
When we reached the pole, we did something incredible. As we know, planes never stop, when in the air. So to make this moment at the pole count we circled around it, making it the shortest world travel ever. Within 10 seconds we passed all the time zones and lines of longitude. So I did it. I travelled the world on one single trip. In the shortest time possible.
Hitting the pole is an experience, that doesn’t really transfers to photography, I knew that before. Eventually a picture of plain ice through a window, will not be very expressive, and for a picture it doesn’t matter, if you shoot it a hundred meters before or after the actual point. So I was super glad, that there were some cracks in the ice now and then, to enhance the picture about the pole with some storytelling.
On our flight up north something incredible happened to the map on our tv screen, where you can see the distances travelled and the position on the planet. The North Pole breaks every conception of measurement. Once we reached a certain remote area the plane on the display was stuck to a line on the top border of the screen. A great visualisation of travelling to the edge of the world.
On our way back we flew over Greenland, which was visually maybe the strongest part of the journey. Snowy round mountains followed an eclectic mix of harsh peaky mountains. Once again, flying so low and having great weather really was great for us. Greenland is definitely the place I would love to visit rather sooner then later.
At the end of our journey, 12 hours after the start, we all received a certificate to commemorate our expedition. Especially for all the plane spotters, data about the vehicle, the destinations (I forgot to mention the lofoten and the shetland islands) and fuel (75t kerosin) used seem to be vital to those folks. I got one for Herr Willie.
So there you go. I was super happy for this opportunity to see the North Pole and to embark on a vessel with fellow couch adventurers. Some photos I made, passed the quality check but essentially it is the experience, that will stay with me.