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News Community Franklin retiree embarks on the adventure of a lifetime to Arctic Circle

Tom Stovall and Debasish Banerjee (DB) left from the Macon County Airport on a 14-day journey to the Arctic Circle in a Cessna 182.Have you ever had a fleeting thought like, “I’d really love to do that?” Maybe swim the English Channel, climb Mt. Everest, or fly a single engine airplane around the world, but like most people, you haven’t followed through with the idea? Your adventurous spirit may still have those fleeting thoughts, but much too quickly, life passes us by. Have you waited too long? Is it too late to realize those dreams? Absolutely not! It’s never too late.

One day about two years ago, I was sitting at a picnic table outside the Fixed Based Operator’s (FBO) office with a good friend of mine, Debasish Banerjee, whom everyone calls DB. DB is a professor of Computer Information Systems at Western Carolina University, and in his free time loves to fly his Cessna 182 single engine airplane.

Being a kindred spirit, I, too, have always loved airplanes and flying. After retiring from a sales career in South Florida and moving to a bucolic existence in the North Carolina mountains, the initial excitement of no longer having to work a nineto- five sales job quickly turned to boredom. To help ease the monotony, I resumed the flying lessons that I had abandoned back in the late ’70s. I also took a part-time job at the small airport in Franklin, N.C., where I could be around airplanes and others like me who love the thrill of flying. That’s how DB and I first met and quickly became close friends.

On numerous Saturday mornings, DB and I made short flights to exotic places such as London, Kentucky; Winder, Georgia; and Rutherfordton, North Carolina, while secretly yearning for a real adventure.

One day, after one of our faux exotic flights, DB said, “You know, I flew from here to Key West a couple of years ago. It’s the southernmost point of the United States. You know what? Now I think I’d like to fly to the northernmost point in the U.S.”

Intrigued, I asked, “Where’s that?”

With the heart of a true adventurer, DB smiled and answered, “Barrow, Alaska.”

Puzzled, I asked, “Where on earth is that?”

DB cocked his head and grinned, “Up in the Arctic Circle.”

With thoughts of icebergs, snow and bone-chilling weather flashing before my eyes, I shivered and said, “Why in the world would you want to fly up there?”

“No reason,” he answered with a smile, “other than to say I did it.”

Our decision made, the next step was to discuss the trip with our wives. Okay, to be honest, neither of us was holding out much hope for our plans at this point. I thought my wife would give me a lot of grief about going on this trip, but surprisingly, all she said was, “Honey, I know you love to fly, and if this is really something you’d like to do … then go for it.” DB’s wife, with some reservations, finally agreed. With our first obstacles gladly behind us, we began the tactical planning for our great adventure.

Five months later, with a lot of flight preparations and excitement on both our parts, and I admit, a little trepidation on mine, we were ready to get strapped into DB’s Cessna 182 and head to the Arctic Circle on our journey.

On our way

We had a self-imposed 8 a.m. departure from Franklin, to Evansville, Ind. Our wives were there with bells and whistles to see us off, however, July in the mountains is historic for early morning fog. Disappointed, and anxious to get the plane off the ground, we left the runway at 11:30 a.m.

Our flight to Evansville was uneventful, until we entered the landing pattern. Our radio had become intermittent, so we had to break out our hand held transceiver to talk with the tower. Once at the FBO, DB had a local repair station check it out, and after an hour or so delay the technician had it back in working order. Adventure, here we come!

Our next scheduled stop was Springfield, Ill. DB called flight service and was informed that there was a line of thunderstorms just to the north of us. So much for Springfield. We altered our route west to Olathe, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City.

In the route to Olathe, we took a short break to stretch our legs at Rolla National, a sleepy little airport near Rolla, Missouri.

Upon arriving at New Century Air Center in Olathe, we found it to be absolutely immaculate and beautiful facility, with extremely friendly and nice employees. If you like corporate jets, this is definitely the place to wander around in. We bedded down the airplane, went into town, had dinner, and spent the night in a local hotel.

Armed and ready for more adventure on the way to our final destination, we headed for Ainsworth, Nebraska. Clear skies and pleasant weather were with us on takeoff. DB and I were flying over America’s Heartland. As far as one’s eyes could see, mile upon mile, corn and soybeans carpeted the land. Emerald and the colors of the rainbow filled the horizon, as giant water sprinklers worked their circular paths. What a breathtaking sight to behold!

Ainsworth Airport, Nebraska, has two huge runways built for accommodating planes in World War II. The Army Air Corp. trained thousands of pilots at the facility during the war. Nothing remains today except soybeans, several hangars and a small FBO. A courtesy car was made available, so we took a leisurely drive into town for lunch. The drive was breathtaking. All the homes were neatly kept, their yards covered in a beautiful carpet of thick Kentucky Blue Grass, and the air was filled with the fragrance of fresh cut grass. True rural America.

The next leg of our journey was six and a half hours flight to Great Falls, Montana. It was my first time flying over the Badlands of South Dakota. The ground was barren, almost like a desert. Numerous plateaus, flat at their tops, were surrounded by huge gullies. These gullies are hundreds, if not thousands, of feet deep.

Badlands of South DakotaThey meander along in all directions. A fleeting thought crossed my mind, and I said to DB, “This has to be archaeology heaven.” According to history, at one time the entire area was covered over with water. As the water receded, it left rings of sediment circling the plateau with a spectacular color display. It was amazing and breathtaking!

Midway through the six and half hour flight, we both needed a break and re-routed to the tiny Belle Creek, Montana airport located in the middle of the farming district. The airport was deserted and desolate, with a small shed housing two unknown vintage airplanes. I wondered what the deserted runway was doing here, out in the middle of nowhere. DB suggested that it was probably one of hundreds speckling the countryside that had been built for World War II pilot training.

Great Falls International Airport is the jumping off spot when leaving the United States and going into Canada. DB made contact with Great Falls approach, and we were cleared to land on “21,” which is the longest of three runways. Like the brilliant pilot he is, DB nailed the numbers right on the spot. We didn’t realize, however, that the FBO was the last exit off the runway, which was a taxi of almost two miles. Oh, well. It took us nearly 40 minutes to reach the FBO. It was a good lesson learned. In the future, (FYI) know where you are going before you land. Had we landed long, our taxi and time would have been greatly reduced.

Going international

The following morning, DB and I were dressed and ready to go International. Excitement was in the air as we left our room for the airport. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada was our objective. DB filed our departure with Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (EAPIS), and I called ahead to Canadian Customs and declared half a bottle of whiskey and a few packs of cigarettes, otherwise, our departure was uneventful.

An hour and a half later, we landed at Lethbridge, a rather large airport. Yep, we were in Alberta, Canada, no longer in the good old USA. After we landed, Ground Control directed us to a small building just north of the main terminal. We parked the airplane in front of Customs, got out and waited for our agent. Ten minutes passed, and not one soul had come out to meet us. We both thought that was strange. Finally, DB said, “Let’s check the office.” To our surprise and dismay, the door was locked and no one inside. There was a phone next to the entrance with a number to call, so DB dialed the number, and an agent answered the call. DB spoke with a guy for a moment and we were cleared to go. Boy, that was almost too easy, I thought. I guess the Canadians hadn’t heard about September 11.

In our state-to-state travels, I found that most FBO’s offer a courtesy car to pilots for small excursions into town for food or supplies. Lethbridge was no exception. After a wonderful lunch at Tony Roma’s, we were ready to continue our adventure.

Our next leg was to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It’s amazing how far one can see from 7,500 feet Above Ground Level (AGL). Beautiful forests of pine trees swept across the landscape. The problem is that the land is checkered with dirt roads where buried underneath are hundreds of miles of pipe, filled with millions of cubic feet of natural gas. I suppose that’s the price we have to pay, not at the pump, but for the environment.

Our flight to Edmonton International was just under three hours. Edmonton Approach directed us to land on Runway “30” (10,200 feet), and then Ground Control asked us to exit “A-3”, which is the first exit off the runway. Runway "02” is located at the end of Runway “30,” which meant we had to taxi 2.5 miles to the FBO. I was surprised to see so many commercial and private jets parked along the tarmac. It was obvious that the airport is a major hub for Southwestern Canada.

After taking a short break and refueling the airplane, we again took flight en route to our next destination, Fort Saint John, British Columbia. The flight took about six hours without incident.

The following day we were in the air again heading to Fort Nelson, British Columbia. While en route, the weather quickly began to deteriorate. Thunderstorms and lightning surrounded Fort Nelson, and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) changed to Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). DB was Pilot In Command (PIC), and my job was to talk him around various thunder cells using a yoke mounted Garmin 496 (GPS System), which was weather equipped. We finally broke through the clouds at 600 feet AGL. With great relief, we saw the runway directly ahead. Upon landing, neither of us said anything for a moment. We just looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. We’d both had enough excitement for one day.

Low ceilings kept us in Fort Nelson for two days. Several other airplanes suffered the same fate. Finally, on the third day around noon, the weather cleared, and we were on our way, with three other planes following us, to Watson Lake, Yukon, which is mostly a stopping off place for fuel. After a short break, we headed for the next stop on our itinerary, Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Yukon has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and July is a great time of the year to fly over the Canadian Rockies. Whitehorse is the capital and largest city of Yukon, Canada, as well as Northern Canada. It is also one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited. It has breathtaking wilderness, several beautiful lakes, plus many other sights. We stayed at the High Country Inn and were very impressed with their amenities and restaurant. We looked forward to staying there on our way back.

Our next stop was Northway, Alaska. The runway was being refurbished and lengthened, so when we landed, we were instructed to pull off to a non-discreet taxiway and wait for Customs. While we waited, we were greeted by hundreds of horseflies, which hungrily attacked us as we exited the plane. Finally, “Officer Friendly” pulled up in his SUV and got out, holding a Geiger counter in his hand. Not even close to being pleasant, he demanded, not asked, to see all the paperwork for the airplane, DB’s medical certificate, pilot’s license, and of course, our passports. After scrutinizing them several times, and with a sour look on his face, he proceeded to walk around the airplane, pointing his Geiger counter in every possible direction. Luckily, he didn’t find the atomic bomb we had hidden in the airplane (joke). In retrospect, I continually ask myself, why are Customs and Immigration in the U.S. such a pain? Keeping our country safe is essential, but blatant rudeness and discourtesy to two fellow Americans while performing that task is unacceptable.

Early that afternoon, we headed for Fairbanks.

Every adventurer needs to keep one important factor in mind. As Robert Burns once wrote in 1785, “The best-laid schemes ‘o mice an’ men gang aft agley.” The bottom line is, no matter how much planning you do; Murphy’s Law is always ready to pounce. That’s what happened to us as we approached Fairbanks, Alaska.

We were flying VFR from Northway to Fairbanks at an altitude of 7,500 feet. Unknown to us at the time, three major forest fires were burning, all within 100 miles of Fairbanks. As we drew closer, haze and smoke became denser by the moment. Unable to see the ground, we slowly reduced our altitude until we were finally able to see the ground at 3,500 feet.

Twenty miles from the airport, DB, contacted Air Traffic Control (ATC) to give them our position, altitude, and to advise them that we were flying VFR. To our dismay, ATC came back and said that the airport had recently been closed to VFR, and had been declared InstrumentFlight Rules(IFR) only, and that we’d have to use an alternate location.

With only one hour of fuel remaining, it was impossible for us to backtrack to Northway. DB had several hours towards his IFR Certification, but neither one of us was “legal.” Obviously, we were in a dilemma. Mr. Murphy had just made his appearance and said, “Hello!”

Most people don’t know that Fairbanks International is one of the busiest airports in the Northern Hemisphere. Freight from Canada and the U.S. bound for the Far East pass through this airport 24 hours each day. Needless to say, it’s busy!

DB called ATC and told them that we had no choice but to land in Fairbanks. ATC asked if we’d like to declare an emergency. Trust me; you never want to declare an emergency with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unless it’s a life threatening situation. DB and I looked at each other and quickly agreed that we still had a little life left in us. To declare an emergency, the paper work would have taken days.

DB asked ATC, “What do you recommend?”

“You can request a Special VFR approach.”

Needless to say, it took a split second for us to agree.

Our instructions from ATC were to maintain a 360 degree turn 20 miles from the airport and to squawk 1242 on our transponder until further notice. They needed time to clear all of the approaching traffic that was already stacked up before they could vector us in for a landing.

All of a sudden, our simple VFR flight was beginning to turn into a nightmare. Seventeen minutes into our pattern work, the gyrocompass began to spin out of control. My first thought was, “The Devil’s Triangle.” No, it can’t be, I thought. We’re not in the Bahamas. Our backup was a small dash-mounted magnetic compass, which was difficult to read but it would have to do.

DB notified ATC of our situation. ATC immediately realized the seriousness of our plight and began vectoring us toward the airport. In essence, we were flying blind. There was no horizon because of the dense smoke. The only directional orientation we had was an occasional glimpse of the ground and the artificial horizon mounted in the dash. In this situation, you have to trust your instruments completely and ignore the urge of vertigo. I believe the fact that DB and I were constantly speaking with each other and confirming every maneuver that was made, helped create an air of confidence and calmness. It’s the ultimate form of teamwork; and it’s probably what saved our lives.

ATC slowly vectored us toward Runway “7” by changing our speed and altitude until we finally saw the runway, which was less than one-half mile. As our wheels met the runway, we again breathed a big sigh of relief. Big sighs of relief were becoming a habit with us. There’s an old saying, “Any landing that you walk away from, is a good landing.” DB had made a great landing!

We had to hold over in Fairbanks for two days, waiting for the smoke to clear. It gave us time to have the engine oil changed and the gyrocompass repaired. By the second day, we were both anxious to get in the air again, putting our narrow escape out of our minds.

On the seventh day of our journey, we left Fairbanks for Bettles, Alaska. The odor of smoke still filled the air as we lifted off the runway. Four and a half hours later, we landed on a gravel runway at Bettles. As we taxied to the fuel pump, we noticed several outbuildings, and directly in front of us was what appeared to be a small hotel/restaurant. It was a quaint establishment resembling a log cabin. A moose rack welcomed us as we entered the restaurant, which was warm and cozy.

After taking our seats, we looked at years of memorabilia decorating the walls as the courteous waitress took our orders. Our $12 hamburgers were delicious.

Later, we were in the air again, flying over the tundra, heading for Barrow, Alaska, our final destination. Our excitement was mounting as the little Cessna flew us toward the end of our flight to the northernmost point of the United States.

The welcome sign at Barrow, America’s northernmost city.As we flew closer, barrenness is the only word I can use to describe the flat tundra. We dropped down to 1500 feet AGL to get a bird’s eye view. The moss-covered ground was dotted with thousands of small pools of water. Occasionally we’d see a bird, but to our disappointment, no caribou.

Wily Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport, Point Barrow, Alaska, was under major renovations. As we approached Runway “7,” we observed dozens of vehicles and heavy equipment moving around the runway and surrounding buildings. Several passenger jets were parked at the main terminal, as well as a few private jets. I requested taxi information from Ground Control and directions to their local FBO. The FBO was in the process of moving to a different location. Ground Control gave us directions to the new location. Upon arrival, we discovered that the FBO apron was gravel. As DB maneuvered the plane, the front nose wheel became stuck in the loose gravel. Here we go again! DB tried several times to free the wheel, but his efforts were useless. Eventually, the FBO sent a tractor to our rescue, and we were free. My first thought was that we weren’t off to a very good start at the final destination of our great adventure.

After all the excitement of finally arriving, the drive from the airport to the Top of the World Hotel was a major disappointment. The streets were lined with deserted and dilapidated cars, disabled snowmobiles and other debris. Water trucks moved about wetting down the dirt and gravel roads. It reduced the dust but was replaced by mud and potholes. Most of the houses and building were of modular construction, many in major need of repair. There was no color; no trees, no flowers and no grass. A more fitting name for the northernmost point of the United States would be Point Barren.

Upon check-in at the hotel, we were told that no alcohol was allowed in our rooms. If any alcohol was found, we would be subject to arrest and fines. We felt as though we were in a police state. Oh, well, so much for relaxing with a toddy after a hard day’s work in the air.

The one saving grace to Point Barrow is that next door to the hotel is, believe it or not, a Mexican restaurant called Pepe’s North of the Border. DB and I had a wonderful dinner there, as well as a great breakfast the next morning.

After breakfast, we took a cab ride up to the Point. The gravel road meandered along the coast. Dirty icebergs dotted the horizon, as well as a few freighters burdened with their cargos. Small abandoned fishing huts lined some stretches of the road. No human activity was found, until we reached the Point, where a few freighters were tied to their moorings.

On our way back to the hotel, DB and I were both anxious to leave this barren place. I suppose if one was born here, and if this was the only life you knew, one would never question other options available around the next bend in the road. Our next bend in the road was the small town of Franklin, N.C., which was calling us home.

At 10 a.m., we lifted off from Runway “25,” in route back to Bettles. Our spirits lifted higher and higher as the miles separated us from Point Barrow.

Our return trip was uneventful until we arrived at Great Falls, Montana. DB had filed an EAPIS in Lethbridge, British Columbia, and had even called U.S. Customs to let them know of our arrival in the USA. After landing at Great Falls, the tower directed us to the Customs facility. Again, a Customs officer came out with his Geiger counter and went through the same routine as the agent did in Northway, Alaska. The young officer became very rude when he could not find our EAPIS. DB kept insisting that he had sent it. I even told the officer that I had witnessed him filing the information on the computer. DB’s argument was that it was not our fault there were “bugs” in their system. The bottom line is that DB received a warning from our Homeland Security Department. Welcome to the U.S. fellow citizens!

Our next leg took us to Rapid City, South Dakota, where we spent the night. We got an early start so we could fly around Mount Rushmore. We were issued a special frequency, which enabled monitoring of our flight. We could only fly at 7,600 feet and could go no closer than one and a half miles from the statues. Visibility was very poor, and the thick haze prevented me from taking any clear photographs. That was a big disappointment.

Bowling Green Missouri, was another break time. The FBO was deserted and the airport abandoned. DB relaxed in an old hammock for a few minutes before continuing our flight. I had some commitments in Franklin, so we decided to push on. At dusk, the weather began to deteriorate. Please, not again! Before we realized it, we were flying IMC conditions, and our Garmin 496 was again a great help. We were able to avoid the major thunderstorms in the area.

DB was beginning to get tired, so we decided to spend the night in Terre Haute, Indiana. We landed about 10 p.m. The FBO was gracious enough to loan us their courtesy car for the drive into town. After getting on I-70, I took a wrong exit and ended up driving 17 miles before realizing the mistake. Guess I was a little tired too. We arrived at the Drury Inn after midnight.

We slept late and finally arrived back at the airport around 9:45 a.m. After the preflight, we departed Terre Haute. The weather was marginal at 3,500 feet. ATC said that conditions were IMC and recommended we return to the airport. DB insisted on climbing through the cloud coverage. ATC spoke to another aircraft in the area and the pilot said the tops were around 8,000 feet. We broke out of the clouds tops at 8,200 feet and continued our flight VFR. Franklin was looking better and better the closer we got.

Macon County Airport came into view about 1:30 that afternoon. It was a sight for sore eyes, as the old saying by Jonathan Swift goes.

After all was said and done, my only regret was that I wished we could have had more time to visit the places where we had stopped. Our round trip took 14 days and 80 hours flying time. Would I do that trip again? Probably not, especially the way we planned the trip. Live and learn …

While having lunch the next day and rehashing our adventures and near-misadventures, I casually asked DB, “What’s next?”

Thoughtful, he said with a broad grin, “How about around the world?”

After all we had been through together, what could I say except, “Count me in.”

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