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Sir David Hempleman-Adams: Epic Exploits from Poles, Peaks, to Oceans and Skies

In the world of exploration and aviation, Sir David Hempleman-Adams is a pioneer and modern-day adventurer who has etched his name in the annals of history. Born on October 10, 1956, this British adventurer has set the bar high, shattering records and pushing boundaries in the realms of lighter-than-air flight, mountaineering, polar exploration, and sailing.

Now, Sir David Hempleman-Adams is poised for his most audacious adventure yet—a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing aboard the Torabhaig Atlantic Explorer Gas Balloon, which is a hydrogen balloon with an open basket for a gondola. This exhilarating expedition will see him co-piloting the balloon with America’s distinguished balloon manufacturer and pilot, Bert Padelt. Accompanying them on this remarkable journey is the acclaimed Swiss explorer, scientist, and entrepreneur, Dr. Frederik Paulsen. The take off and success of their journey hinges on the temperament of the weather, both at the launch site in Presque Isle, Maine, United States, and throughout their voyage across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

In an era dominated by advanced communication and technology, the Atlantic Ocean remains a formidable adversary to even the most seasoned balloon pilots. Here, the winds and weather hold sway, and the elements are unpredictable. Yet, despite the odds, Sir David Hempleman-Adams and his illustrious companions are poised to etch their names in the annals of aerial exploration.

The Torabhaig Atlantic Explorer Basket. (Photo courtesy- Bert Padelt)

At LTA-Flight Magazine, we believe it’s only fitting to embark on a journey that delves into Sir David’s epic exploits, which are synonymous with courage, resilience, and the unyielding pursuit of new horizons.

David Hempleman-Adams is the only individual to have graced both the magnetic and geographic North and South Poles and has climbed the seven highest mountain peaks across seven continents. In 1998, he was the first individual to complete this challenge and earn the esteemed title of achieving the ‘Explorer’s Grand Slam.’

The story of Sir David’s remarkable life starts in his early years. As a young student, he participated in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, a humble beginning that planted the seeds of his future adventures.  His foray into the world of high-altitude exploration began with the conquest of Mount McKinley in Alaska in 1980, followed swiftly by scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in 1981, and summiting Mount Everest in 1993.

What sets Sir David apart is not just his mountaineering prowess but also his audacity and ingenuity. In 1984, he embarked on a solo expedition to the Magnetic North Pole, a journey that defied convention as he ventured without dogs, snowmobiles, or air supplies. This pioneering spirit continued in 1992 when he led the first team to walk unsupported to the Geomagnetic North Pole—an endeavor chronicled in the thrilling book “A Race Against Time.”

The year 1996 was even more astounding, as he accomplished a trifecta of polar feats. In a solo unsupported expedition, he reached the South Pole on January 5, sailed to the South Magnetic Pole on February 19, and even led a team of novices to ski to the Magnetic North Pole on May 15. The book “Toughing it Out” encapsulates Sir David’s first two decades of adventure—a story of determination and grit.

In 1998, he joined Norwegian Rune Gjeldnes in a quest to reach the Geographical North Pole, the final leg of his Grand Slam attempt, which he described in the book “Walking on Thin Ice.”

While he is celebrated for his mountaineering prowess, his journey into the world of aviation is equally awe-inspiring. In 1998, with just 30 hours of flying, he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first person to navigate a hot air balloon across the formidable Andes Mountains, reaching 32,000 feet.

In 2000, David Hempleman-Adams reached the elusive North Pole in a wicker basket of a Roziere balloon. He is the only person, as of now, to achieve the feat. Landing after the North Pole flight. (Courtesy of Sir David Hempleman-Adams)

One of his most iconic achievements came in 2000 when he became the first and, to date, the only person to fly a balloon over the North Pole ― a monumental achievement that had eluded adventurers for over a century. Inspired by the ill-fated 1897 expedition of Salomon Auguste Andrée, he embarked on a daring mission to reach the North Pole in a Rozière balloon,  built by Cameron.

 He took off in the wicker basket of his balloon from Spitsbergen, navigated through Russian airspace, and steadily closed the gap towards the elusive North Pole. With precision that would impress even the most seasoned balloonists, Hempleman-Adams soared to within a mere eight miles of the North Pole before making the return journey to Spitsbergen. To put this incredible achievement into perspective, the polar circle itself measures 60 miles around the Pole. For those familiar with ballooning, the sheer difficulty of achieving such precise navigation at these extreme latitudes cannot be overstated. This epic odyssey, lasting an astonishing 132 hours and 22 minutes, serves as a testament to his unwavering determination and indomitable spirit. His gripping account of this voyage is documented in the book “At the Mercy of the Winds.”

David Hempleman-Adams on his 1st solo crossing of the Atlantic, in a Roziere balloon. He flew from Sussex, Canada and landed near Blackpool, UK. (Courtesy of Sir David Hempleman-Adams)

Unlike many contemporary aviators, Hempleman-Adams prefers the simplicity of an open wicker basket for his gas ballooning adventures. He finds solace in the low-tech allure of gas balloons and cherishes the sense of camaraderie within the aviation community, which he describes as “very close, very supportive.”

In a historic journey on September 22, 2003, he became the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the open wicker basket Rozière balloon. With Bert Padelt as the launch director, Hempleman-Adams piloted this balloon over a distance of 4427.4 kilometers in 83 hours 17 minutes, setting from New Brunswick, Canada, and touching down in a field near Blackpool, in the United Kingdom.

For his second crossing of the Atlantic in 2007, Sir David piloted the smallest helium gas balloon system (a mere 37,000 cubic feet!) to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean. Padelt had built this balloon and also served as launch director for the flight. Sir David flew the helium gas balloon from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Nolay, France, covering 4,227 kilometers in 89 hours and 20 minutes. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), this flight etched six records in distance and duration into the history books.  

David Hempleman-Adams holds the record to pilot the smallest gas balloon ever to fly across the Atlantic. This was his 2nd crossing in an open basket. He took off from St Johns, Newfoundland, Canada and landed in Nolay, France. (Courtesy of Sir David Hempleman-Adams)

Notably, in 2004, he took off from Greeley in the US in an AM-8, Rozière balloon and reached an altitude of 41,197.5 feet. What’s even more impressive is that he flew in an open wicker basket seated on a fishing stool. His flight broke the altitude record of 38,732 feet held by Breitling Orbiter’s 1999 round the world flight, which had a pressurized capsule.

Sir David Hempleman-Adams’ boasts a career punctuated by numerous ‘firsts,’ surpassing the achievements of many seasoned pilots. His list of accomplishments includes an impressive 47 records recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).

Seated on a fishing stool in a wicker basket, David Hempleman-Adams broke the altitude record, held by Breitling Orbiter around the world balloon, which had a pressurized capsule. Flight in Greeley, USA (Courtesy of Sir David Hempleman-Adams)

His records span various aircraft categories, including AA, AM, AX, BX, and fixed-wing aircraft, with achievements in altitude, distance, and duration.

Sir David’s contributions extend beyond aviation. In 2016, he successfully completed the Polar Ocean Challenge, a groundbreaking expedition circumnavigating the North Pole and sailing through the Northeast and Northwest Passages. The mission aimed at raising awareness about climate change and the vanishing Arctic ice.

In 2019, he sailed solo across the Atlantic, further demonstrating his commitment to exploring and raising awareness of our planet’s challenges.

In addition to his ballooning achievements, Hempleman-Adams also accomplished speed world record flights in Cessna airplanes and embarked on an airplane journey covering the entire length of North and South America.

Sir David Hempleman-Adams’ extraordinary contributions have earned him several honors and awards, including the Polar Medal and bar awarded by Queen Elizabeth II for his polar research efforts. He was honored with the MBE in 1995 (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and the OBE in 1998 (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to Arctic Exploration.

 In 2017, he was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) for his dedication to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. In 2022, he received the Royal Geographical Society Founder’s Medal for his role in enabling science through expeditions and inspiring younger generations of geographers.

David Hempleman-Adams’ legacy in aviation and exploration will continue to inspire generations of adventurers to reach for the skies and explore the farthest corners of our extraordinary planet.

David Hempleman-Adams in Antarctica 2018 by Christopher Michel (Wikipedia)

Below is a list of Sir David Hempleman-Adams’ major aviation achievements.

Source:  Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)

  1. December 2000: A Rozière balloon flight from Alberta, Canada to Montana, USA, covering 536.43 km in 6 hours and 29 minutes.
  2. September 2003: An open wicker basket Atlantic crossing, covering 4,427.4 km in 83 hours and 17 minutes.
  3. December 2003: A world speed record of 25.71 km/hour in a Cameron DP-70 hot-air airship.
  4. March 2004: An altitude record of 12,557 meters in AM-8, achieved in Greeley, USA.
  5. October and December 2004: An absolute BX record of 6,614 meters in Drumheller, Canada, with separate flights covering 95.89 km and lasting 4 hours.
  6. January 2007: An AX-5 altitude record of 9,900 meters, starting from Red Deer, Canada.
  7. July 2007: A solo Atlantic crossing in an open basket from St. Johns, Newfoundland to Nolay, France, setting AA-6 records covering 4,227 km in 89 hours and 20 minutes.
  8. October 2008: Victory, alongside Jonathan Mason, in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett.
  9. September 2009: A duration record of 14 hours and 15 minutes in AA-1.
  10. October 2011: Winning the Americas Challenge Balloon race with Jonathon Mason, making them the only pilots to have secured both this race and the Gordon Bennett cup.

Please look for updates and track the awaited Atlantic balloon crossing at the links below.
Updates: 
https://torabhaig-atlantic-explorer.com/TORABHAIG-DIARY
Track Flight: 
https://torabhaig-atlantic-explorer.com/

By Sitara Maruf

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We are making changes and  apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your patience.