Polly Vacher - Wings Around the World Flight
Polly Vacher - Wings Around the World Flight
99NEWS July/August 2001
0n a beautiful, clear April day, members of our Chapter gathered at the airport to greet Polly Vacher from the British Section as she arrived in her Piper Dakota. This celebrity 99 stopped in Colorado Springs as part of her around-the-world record-setting flight.
We had been alerted to her arrival by the local office of International Affairs. City dignitaries, the color guard from Peterson Air Force Base, the British Wives Club, other interested citizens and the news media all cheered as this amazing woman emerged from the cockpit. Flashbulbs and questions were popping as Polly walked cheerfully into the terminal building.
Polly was anxious to tell us the purpose of her flight which was to raise awareness and donations for flying scholarships for the disabled in England and the United States.
Since learning to fly in 1994, she and her husband have been involved with a program that helps build confidence and provides encouragement to disabled persons by giving them an opportunity to successfully accomplish a difficult task like piloting an aircraft.
Polly hoped to raise awareness and funding for this program by flying around the world and placing the names of those who made donations on the wings of her airplane. All donations received in the United States go to the U.S. scholarship program which is known as the Bill Blackwood Flying Scholarships for the Disabled and run by International Wheelchair Aviators at Big Bear, California. The Pikes Peak Chapter made a donation with assurance from Polly that our chapter name would be added as soon as practical.
That evening while Polly rested at the home of a friend, we were all glued to the TV while local stations presented the story of the visiting aviatrix. Our Chapter Chair Bridget Rathjen told reporters how inspired she was by Polly's flight and elaborated about the encouragement that 99s give to each other all over the world.
The next morning, we had Polly all to ourselves. Some 99s from Denver met with us at a breakfast meeting where she answered aviation questions about her flight. We learned how she prepared her airplane and herself for the long hours in the air. For instance, to prepare for spending so much time over water, Polly practiced ditching procedures at Fleetwood Nautical College where she was dropped into a pool while belted in a dummy cockpit and had to escape while under water.
Continually flying on an instrument flight plan, Polly was able to take advantage of the monitoring she would receive from Air Traffic Control. Jeppesen provided all her charts and made the necessary arrangements for her to fly through foreign countries. Her Piper Dakota was equipped with two GPS units, an HSI, an ADF, a compass, Bendix/King nav/corn radios and a special high frequency radio to use in case all else failed.
She left England on January 12 and followed the well-traveled route to Australia, virtually the same route flown in 1930 by another 99 British pilot, Amy Johnson (who was featured on the cover of the May/June 1995 99NEWS). After reaching Calcutta, Polly had to wait eight hours for a permit to go onto the tarmac to refuel her airplane and eight more hours to get a boarding pass before she was allowed to depart.
When she left Australia, she faced the daunting Pacific Ocean. Her first stop was New Caledonia, then Fiji, Pago Pago and Christmas Island - where she arrived on Easter Sunday with not a soul around. She used her high frequency radio to call Oakland Center ATC in San Francisco and they were able to arrange a ride into town for a much needed night's rest.
The longest leg of Polly's trip was from Hawaii to California, a distance of 2066 nm. Nine hours of the flight was in darkness. She had no trouble staying awake to make the frequent fuel, engine and position checks and made the trip in 15 hours and 45 minutes, well within her fuel allotment. (The first person to fly from Hawaii to the mainland was Amelia Earhart which she did in 1935. As Polly paused before continuing her talk, we pondered the similarities and differences of these two flights.)
Of course, being Colorado pilots, we were eager to hear about Polly's flight from California over the Rocky Mountains into Colorado Springs. Although she hadn't done extensive mountain flying, she wisely departed early, carefully leaned the mixture and stayed high. But she still encountered turbulence and was glad when the seven-hour flight was over. Before leaving Colorado, Polly visited Jeppesen in Denver to personally thank them for their support.
After Polly left Colorado Springs, I followed her progress on the Internet, where she reported visiting with 99s in St. Louis, Missouri, and Dayton, Ohio. She told about being given the rare privilege of landing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the fact that her approach to Runway 5L took her over the field where the Wright Brothers made many of their test flights. She toured the aviation museum and visited the Hartzell factory to thank them for a most reliable propeller.
Although Polly was setting a record with her route, she was not flying a speed race, so she was able to take advantage of weather delays to visit with friends along the way. Members of her family often greeted her when she landed, a much welcome sight since she was away from home for more than four months. At every stop she spoke about the scholarship program for the handicapped, telephoned or e-mailed messages to her web page, and wrote thank-you notes to those who befriended her.
Polly's husband joined her in Washington, D.C. for some sightseeing and visiting before continuing on to visit their son in Hartford, Connecticut. While on a local fun flight, Polly was questioned as to why a British airplane was flying in U.S. airspace. The air traffic controller was chagrined when Polly explained that she was making an around-the-world flight.
In Boston, a thorough inspection was made of the plane and mechanics worked through the night to have everything ready for an early departure.
From Boston, Polly flew to Gander, Newfoundland, where she was greeted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian RAF and representatives from Shell Oil, another one of her sponsors. On her flight to Greenland on May 10, the sky was overcast with high dark clouds and the sea was covered with ice. The trusty ADF picked up the NDB signal at the mouth of the fjord that would take her to Narsarsuaq, Greenland.
The flights to Iceland and Scotland were uneventful until Polly neared the Scottish coast and found low clouds and poor visibility. Luckily, she broke through the overcast at 700 feet and landed. She took time to rest and have repair work done on the nose wheel. Then on May 16, she flew into RAF Cottesmore for a flight briefing for her escorted flight into Birmingham the next day.
Actually, there were two homecomings for Polly -- a very public one at Birmingham with two Harrier escorts and extensive news media coverage, and another later that day at her home airport, Enstone Airfield in Oxfordshire, where more than 200 friends welcomed her on a cold, stormy afternoon.
Polly set a world record because hers was the smallest aircraft, flown solo by a woman, to circumnavigate the world via Australia and the Pacific. She also brought attention and donations to a worthy cause. Ninety-Nines everywhere can be proud of her accomplishments.
For more details go to her web page www.worldwings.org.