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Diabetic pilot plans record-breaking North Pole flight

Rob Stapleton

Famed British aviator Douglas Cairns is attempting to become the first pilot to land a light twin-engine aircraft at the North Pole. Teaming up with Cairns is Alaskan pilot Ron Sheardown, who has made the North Pole trip eight previous times. This expedition will fly from Barrow, the northernmost city in the U.S., on April 17 to raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Cairns has flown other diabetes fundraiser and awareness flights, once on an around-the-world flight, and later when he set five world speed records and two transcontinental speed records in the USA using the Diabetes World Flight aircraft, a Beechcraft Baron B58.

Besides breaking the record for flights into the lower 48 contiguous states, he broke the 13-day record to land in all 50 states by taking just 5 days and 15 hours to accomplish the feat in 2010.

Cairns was banned from flying in the British Royal Air Force in 1989, when he was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. Cairns regained his wings to fly in 2000 as a licensed U.S. pilot. In 2003, he completed an around the world flight -- making him the first ever pilot with Type-1 diabetes to complete the feat.

 Cairns and Sheardown made practice flights landing the twin Beechcraft 58 on an ice landing strip on Wien Lake in Interior Alaska on March 21.

“The plan is that we will take off from Barrow 12 hours ahead of the Beechcraft in a Cessna 185, land and prepare a landing spot on new ice,” said Sheardown. “Douglas will have to land on about a 2,200 foot strip of ice at the pole, and then take off from it and return to Barrow.”

The Beechcraft will be outfitted with an additional 220 gallons of fuel in addition to its 186 gallons of fuel onboard. Due to a lack of fuel at the North Pole Cairns will have to make the trip with the total fuel needed.

Sheardown, who will be flying a wheel-ski equipped Cessna 185, is currently assembling the gear needed for the trip that will include the use of Wiggy's sleeping bags (rated for weather as cold as 60 below), boots and parkas, as well as ice screws, stakes and shovels. The gear is piled in a hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

“Here is what we have,” said Sheardown, pointing to a pile of gear. “I have used Wiggy’s gear on other expeditions and find that it has retained its quality and comfort.”

Sheardown said that the procedure for flying to 90 degrees north -- the GPS position of the North Pole -- gives pilots lots of confusing options once there.

“Every pilot, when asked, says that they will turn south once they get to the pole. Well, every direction is south: it's which longitude south?" said Sheardown. “When using GPS you must use more than one unit and turn off one five minutes before reaching 90 degrees north. Once reaching the spot and you make a turn, then restart the GPS and it will initialize and acquire your actual direction.”

On a practice flight in the interior, Cairns met with Art Mortvedt, who is also planning a flight to the North Pole in April. Mortvedt has a goal of flying his orange "Polar Pumpkin" Cessna 185 to both poles, and has already flown to the South Pole.

Contact Rob Stapleton at robstapleton(at)alaska.net.