World record-breaking helicopter pilot Jennifer Murray took off Thursday from Manassas attempting a journey that no one has ever completed before — to fly a helicopter 32,000 miles around the world through the South and North poles.
It is flying to the extremes of the planet that carries with it “the big adventure, the big risk that comes with it and the good that it can do to make a difference for the next generation, for all people in our planet and for the beautiful things that are in it,” Murray said in a pre-departure interview at the World Wildlife Fund headquarters in downtown Washington.
The 62-year-old grandmother of “three and three-quarters” (the fourth grandchild is due on November 14) is a 120-pound, 5-foot-3-inche bundle of energy, courage and charm.
Born in Providence, R.I., she moved to England with her family as a youngster. She began flying helicopters when she was 54, after completing the grueling Maclehose Trail in England, a 100-kilometer running race and marathons in Hong Kong and Kenya.
Her businessman husband, Simon, 63, is currently on a separate expedition to walk 850 miles to the South Pole with Pen Hadow, a fellow polar trekker. Murray’s husband hopes to be the oldest man to walk this polar route unsupported. The couple will rendezvous somewhere in the Antarctic peninsula just before Chirstmas 2003.
This is Murray’s third flight to achieve the last remaining world record in aviation. She is piloting the cherry red Bell 407 helicopter in tandem with Colin Bodill, another record-breaking helicopter pilot from Nottingham, England.
When the pilots fly down the east coast of the Americas they will experience the hottest and coldest places on earth, they said. Their journey will bring them from “calm lagoons to hostile territory,” said Murray, including deserts and the frozen regions of the Antarctic in the south and the Arctic in the north.
Both pilots anticipate landing at the South Pole on Dec. 17 to commemorate the 100th aniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. They will then fly to the North Pole, skimming the west coast of the Americas. On April 3, 2004, they will land on Arctic soil. On April 14, 2004, they will return to New York City where they kicked off Wednesday.
Murray and Bodill will make 160 stop-overs on their journey to spotlight the work of the WWF in conservation of forests and wildlife, the saving of polluted places and “how people are making a difference” in conserving planet Earth.
In 1997, Murray won a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a helicopter. Her flight raised $100,000 and awareness for Save The Children, an American non-profit helping orphans around the world.
In 2000, she gave aviation history another milestone — becoming the first woman to fly a helicopter solo around the world — without an autopilot. She did it for the cause of “Operation Smile,” a Norfolk medical organization that treats Third World children suffering from harelip and other facial disorders.
Two years ago, she and Bodill began planning “Polar First” their 2003 flight dedicated to global environmental preservation. They approached the WWF and found “a wonderful match”, said WWF vice president Phil Kavits.
Why is she circling the globe again?
“I got lucky two times,” she said. “I got talking again with people … to do something that would really justify another adventure. I said (the next adventure) must do some good, increase environmental awareness, raise funds and show the big adventure while enriching other people’s lives … Beside, I have more time now, all my kids are grown, I am fit, I have a wonderful family. Age does not matter when it comes to adventure and exploration.”
Polar First is “a journey of hope and exploration, a journey of understanding,” she added. “My co-pilot Colin and I are passionate about doing some good” for the world’s endangered spaces and wildlife.
Their partnership with WWF symbolizes “the best, the biggest and most exciting and optimistic opportunity” to showcase the work of the organization from pole to pole, “to tell people where wildlife is threatened, to arrest the threat and to show the world what a beautiful planet we’ve got,” said Murray, whose expedition will visit 10 countries where WWF does work. During stop-overs, they will help WWF scientists visit conservation sites.
Thirty-two global corporations are sponsoring Polar First, including Anheuser-Busch, Bell Helicopter Textron , Iridium, Rolls-Royce, Tommy Hilfiger, Holcim, the video mobile company Hutchison 3G, Garmin, HSBC, YTL Corporation Berhad of Malaysia , BreakingViews and Reuters.
In New York, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, welcomed Murray on Wednesday when she and Bodill arrived from London. Ferguson signed the WWF banner that carries the Chinese panda, symbol of the world’s most endangered species.
A businesswoman (she has textile company), an avid gardener and “an artist painting watercolor pictures” when not flying, Murray said she is taking “all the risks in this private venture.” She carries with her a medal of Saint Christopher, patron of all travelers, a gift in 1997 from the duchess who is her personal friend and patroness.
“Adventurers such as Jennifer and her co-pilot, Colin Bodill, are a source of inspiration,” said the duchess in a statement. “They remind us that anything is possible if we put our minds to it.”
To join the Murray-Bodill expedition, the public can enter the “Get Your Print @ The Pole” via www.polarfirst.com, the official site of Polar First. For a $5 donation, people can have their names signed on the flags that will be flown at the poles.
It will benefit WWF with 5 percent of all the entries donated to the charity. In May 2004, the flags will be auctioned online in a high profile effort to raise more money for WWF. 703-491-9179