Over the North Pole with Adrian Eichhorn

July 20, 2021

If you were to go to any major aviation event, Adrian Eichhorn would likely be a guest speaker, talking about aircraft maintenance and other safety of flight topics.  He’s an airline transport rated pilot with over 27,000 hours of flight time, including overseas.

In 2016, he flew around the world in his Beechcraft Bonanza, which inspired Shinji Maeda to make the same trip, in the same type of plane, years later.

Pictured: Adrian Eichhorn and Shinji Maeda resting on their aircraft
Pictured: Adrian Eichhorn and Shinji Maeda resting on their aircraft

With a father who flew for the U.S. Army, a sister working as a flight attendant, and an uncle who was a pilot, it’s true that aviation is in Eichhorn’s blood. However, it wasn’t a linear path.

Growing up, Eichhorn didn’t have access to any aircraft, so he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Army aviator.

“That was the plan, but it never happened because I screwed up, and I got a degree in civil engineering,” explains Eichhorn.

“So, the Army put me in the Army Corps of Engineers, and they said, ‘You’re too smart to be a pilot, we need you as an engineer,’ and I said ‘Well, I don’t want to be an engineer I want to be a pilot.’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s our needs first.’”

When he realized the Army wasn’t going to send him to flight school, Eichhorn began to take flying lessons independently. For 15 years, he took every opportunity he could to get into the cockpit and earned his ratings on his own. Finally, after 21 years with the Army, he retired and began flying for the Washington Redskins football team, General Dynamics, NASA, the FAA, and JetBlue.

In 1990, Eichhorn bought a Beechcraft Bonanza, which he liked because he could easily modify it. One such modification was the addition of large tip tanks on his wings, which enables him to carry 280 gallons of fuel.

“I didn’t buy the [Beechcraft Bonanza] with the intention of extreme long-distance flying. It just happened over the years,” says Eichhorn.

Eichhorn restored the airplane himself over 20 years and thousands of hours of effort.

“I think I’m proudest of the fact that I rebuilt and modified an airplane that’s capable of doing this type of long distance flying,” says Eichhorn, “Working on airplanes is therapy for me because flying can be stressful. I like just going out to the hangar and working away.”

Plus, Eichhorn says he’s always been a bit of an adventurer. So, it’s no wonder that he’s taken on challenges like flying around the world and over the North Pole.

Eichhorn says that there wasn’t much that was fun about his around-the-world trip other than the flying. With issues of permits, clearances, and sometimes unfriendly places to stop in, his journey around the world was rather tricky.

But his trip across the North Pole was a different story. As a much shorter trip, the issue was less unfriendly countries, but potentially unfriendly weather.

Eichhorn watched the winds along the tentative routes he planned for his North Pole trip for two months.

The night before his departure, Eichhorn realized the winds were favorable to leave straight from Iceland to the North Pole and from the North Pole over to Fairbanks, Alaska – a 3,239 nautical mile flight.

When Eichhorn talks about the success of his trip, he attributes a great deal of it to ‘lucky’ factors, like the two low pressure systems over Canada and Russia that made for little icing and tailwinds pushing him towards his destinations.

The weather could not have been any better, either. Taking off from Iceland and heading towards the North Pole, he saw ‘absolutely perfect’ weather.

Photo of the North Pole from above
Capturing the pole from above

“There wasn’t a cloud within 1000 miles on the way to the pole,” says Eichhorn, “To see the whole country of Greenland from 10,000 feet, with its glaciers, icebergs, ice pack, and snow made me think, “Oh my God, I have to come back up here.’”

Eichhorn also shared this part of the trip with his friend Shinji, who was in the middle of his own around-the-world trip.

“Those four legs [of the trip] as a fellow airman flying with Shinji were a riot. When we parted in Iceland, I was kind of sad because I thought, ‘Man, for the rest of this trip, I’m on my own,’” says Eichhorn.

Flying over the North Pole was an experience in itself, too.   For about six hours, from 80 degrees north latitude to crossing the same latitude again after cross the pole, compass indications were unreliable and confusing because of the significant difference between magnetic and true north.  During this time, navigation was accomplished strictly using GPS, which worked great even at those high latitudes.

Spider hardware accompanied by a sandwich!
Spider hardware accompanied by a sandwich!

“It was a real gut check because when you’re flying for 10 hours, you’re not even at the halfway point. You look down and you see the frozen ice pack, and you realize that if the engine quits, you’re probably not going to survive because of where you’d have to land,” tells Eichhorn.

“Plus, it was minus 20-25 degrees.”

But with his Iridium satellite phone, Spidertracks, GPS capability, and a ‘phenomenal’ ground support team, the trip was a success.

Eichhorn is far from finished, too. He has his sights set on the South Pole next year, where he’ll depart from Punta Arenas, Chile, to circle the South Pole and back - a trip that will take about 33 hours.

For pilots with similar aspirations, Eichhorn’s message is simple.

“If you’re thinking about doing it, do it because the rewards come in ways that you don’t even think about. A lot of people who come up with an idea like that lose interest, but if it’s something you really want to do, make the sacrifice and do it.”

Just make sure to get in some long-distance flying and a ground support team who has made similar trips beforehand.

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