Duo celebrate 40th anniversary of woman's polar flight

Ingrid Pedersen was the first woman to fly over the North Pole in a small plane - a feat claimed even today by only a handful

Posted: Monday, August 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Forty years ago today, Ingrid Pedersen left Fairbanks on a flight that would forever etch her name into aviation history books.

Landing a red and white Cessna 21 hours later at Nord Station, Greenland, Pedersen became the first woman to pilot a small airplane over the North Pole. She was joined by her husband, Einar, who navigated the flight and snapped photos from the plane window for his research on ice conditions.

The Pedersens' polar expedition earned newspaper headlines worldwide but never became as well-known as other first flights, according to aviation historians in Anchorage.

Anchorage pilot Tom Wardleigh recalls the excitement it generated in Alaska at the time. Men had flown over the pole before, he said, but the long, dangerous flight had never been done by a woman, particularly not a woman flying a small plane.

"It was an adventuresome sort of thing, and everyone was interested," he said. " 'Gee whiz, here was a woman flying around the North Pole.'"

Even today, just a handful of women have flown over the pole in a small plane. Polly Vacher from England made the trip in a Piper Dakota just this May. Vacher is flying over both poles and around the globe in an effort to start a scholarship fund for disabled pilots.

But while the Pedersens' flight went smoothly, Vacher's did not. After passing over the pole, her engine stalled. She restarted it in midair but described the next few hours as among her most harrowing in a plane. The Arctic scenery that had seemed breathtakingly beautiful just moments before suddenly looked white and hostile, she wrote on her Web site. Forced to land, would she survive?

Pedersen faced the same sort of dangers and uncertainties when she made her polar flight in 1963, only she made the trip without modern navigational aides such as a Global Positioning System receiver or a satellite telephone.

Instead, Ingrid relied on her husband, chief polar navigator for the Scandinavian Airlines System, to find their way using the sun, a sextant and a polar grid system he had perfected.

Today, the couple still live in South Anchorage, at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac. She is 70. Einar is 84.

"It's an amazing feat, what they went through," said Angie Slingluff, chairwoman of the Anchorage chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international association of female pilots. "There's nothing up there but ice."

Like a Stuffed Goose

According to old newspaper accounts, Pedersen was the 13th woman in Sweden to learn to fly. Her husband dared her to do it.

That was the 1950s. She had planned to become a stewardess, but Einar suggested flying. He was an instructor at the school and says now "she was a born pilot."

He also had a selfish reason: He wanted someone to go with him on his polar explorations. He had studied polar ice on many high-altitude flights but wanted to fly low in a small plane to get a closer look.

Ingrid originally wanted to live in Africa. But after meeting the "polar professor," her curiosity veered north. His apartment walls were covered with intriguing maps and photos of polar bears and seals.

"He saw to it that I forgot Africa," she said. "I was adventurous and became interested in the Arctic little by little."

She began flight classes in February 1957, soloed in May and got her license in June. She and Einar married that year, and Einar eventually was transferred to Anchorage for an 18-month stint with SAS.

They talked about and planned the polar flight for at least four years.

Finally, it was time. Ingrid was 30. Einar was 46. They did not have sponsors but were helped out a bit financially by several Scandinavian newspapers.

For the flight, they purchased a Cessna 205 in Wichita, Kan., and removed four of the seats to make room for extra fuel tanks.

They were supposed to leave that spring but were delayed. Finally, they took off from Fairbanks on July 29. She remembers the first few hours as some of the most difficult. The plane was loaded with 280 gallons of fuel and emergency equipment for the 2,400-mile flight. With permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane was more than 700 pounds overweight.

That made the plane, which they named the Snowgoose, very back-heavy, said Ingrid Pedersen.

"It felt like an overfilled goose," she said. "I had to keep the nose down for a long time. And it wagged back and forth a bit."

Because of the extra weight, the plane's stall warning went off for nearly an hour, at times becoming shrill. Pedersen had to ignore the noise and keep flying, exercising extreme caution.

The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful, except for ice that collected on the plane over Spitzbergen. Pedersen said she dropped the plane down to about 500 feet to melt the ice. As it did, they heard clanging as chunks fell off and hit the plane.

Ingrid said she particularly enjoyed looking down on T-3, a floating ice island along the route to the pole that has a landing strip on it and several buildings. "It was a beautiful blue color, she said, "and so lonely looking."

One of the harder things was just being cramped in a small plane for 21 hours. But they were kept busy with Einar's photography and frequent navigational checks.

Einar took along five cameras, including one video camera, and kept track of their position using the sun, sextant and navigational charts. A magnetic compass is useless at the pole.

Wardleigh said Einar Pedersen was the perfect navigator for the flight. Working for Scandinavian Airlines, he had developed a grid system to form a matrix for polar navigation.

In addition to the grid, Pedersen also used a drift sight, a telescopelike instrument fitted into the plane's window that allowed him to look out and calculate wind speed. That told him how winds were affecting the plane's speed, Wardleigh explained.

Wardleigh said the Pedersens complemented each other: Einar lent his skills as a navigator, and Ingrid had the "ability to fly with confidence and comfort in the Arctic."

Ellen Paneok, an Anchorage pilot who worked as a Bush pilot out of Barrow for many years, said that is no small skill. The all-white landscape of the far north can be disorienting, she said. In bad weather, she likens it to flying inside a pingpong ball or a milk bottle.

"The pilot has to have extreme control at all times," she said.

The Pedersens finally touched down in Greenland at 7:37 a.m. July 30. After a brief rest, they flew another 11 hours the next day to Bodo, Norway. They landed there in the evening and were met by a large crowd.

They were surprised and flattered but later found out why: They had just missed the king.

After the flight, newspaper stories touted their accomplishment: "A blond Norwegian housewife today became the first woman to complete a flight over the North Pole from Alaska to Norway in a single-engine plane," read one story from The Associated Press.

From there, Einar went on to a business trip in Tokyo and Ingrid flew back to Anchorage. The couple had two children: Sverre, a son of Einar's from a previous marriage, was then 15; and Einar Jr., then 5. They later had a third son, Gunnar. All three still live in Alaska.

Both authors

The polar flight became one of many for the Pedersens. The couple eventually returned to Europe to live, and Ingrid flew commercially throughout the Arctic, mainly in Norway's Spitzbergen islands. She was essentially a Bush pilot, ferrying miners, researchers and others, along with cargo, to remote mining camps and trapper outposts.

She has 10 first-flights to her name, mostly polar-region routes. In 1976 and 1977, she and Einar landed in seven places on polar ice to place automatic buoys for measuring ice drift. Ingrid said that turned out to be among their most dangerous expeditions. In one landing, they stuck one of the plane's skis in soft snow and did not think they could get back into the air.

When the couple moved back to Alaska in 1979, Ingrid flew commercially out of Skagway and became a flight instructor in Anchorage. She continued to fly off and on recreationally until about five years ago.

She also volunteered at the Aviation Heritage Museum until recently and occasionally lectures about her experiences.

Einar continued as chief navigator for the Scandinavian Airlines System and earned an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks for his polar research. He also worked in the oil exploration business in Spitzbergen.

They have both written books in Norwegian about their flight experiences. The title of Ingrid's book translates to "Perfume and Motor Oil." Ingrid said they are currently working on English translations of the books, which are due out soon.

Dr. Petra Illig recently gave copies of those books to Anchorage's Loussac Library on behalf of the Anchorage chapter of the Ninety-Nines. The group will obtain the translations for the library as soon as they come out, Illig added.

Because Ingrid is not a self-promoter, Illig said, her polar flight never gained the notoriety it deserved. She would like to see their pioneering Arctic work, and particularly the polar flight, gain a higher profile in Alaska.

Ingrid Pedersen said they never set out for fame and she never thought much of her feat.

"If we had wanted to make a big splash, we would have done more advertising beforehand," she said.

Recognition or not, the Pedersens know they have lived an adventure-filled life. Their home is a testament to their many polar excursions, its wood-paneled walls covered with photos from their many expeditions.

And throughout, they encouraged each other to new heights. Einar calls Ingrid "the best pilot he ever flew with." Ingrid touts his navigational expertise and polar knowledge.

"I was fortunate to meet a man like Einar," Ingrid said. "We work so well together. And there's never been a dull moment."

"It has been a fantastic life," Einar said.

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