Exclusive: Hamish Harding on his world record-breaking circumnavigation flight

Mike Stones
By Mike Stones July 19, 2019 12:07

Exclusive: Hamish Harding on his world record-breaking circumnavigation flight

The Gulfstream crew pictured on the ramp at the Kennedy Space Center after their record-breaking flight.

Fifty years ago this weekend, the five-year old Hamish Harding watched astronaut Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon, pictured on his parents’ black-and-white television. Half a century later Harding, who is chairman of Action Aviation, co-piloted a Qatar Executive Gulfstream G650ER to smash the World Circumnavigation Speed Record in order to commemorate the Apollo crew’s achievements. A week after his historic mission, Harding shared his thoughts with CorporateJet Investor.

“Watching that first moon landing was my first solid, real memory. I remember thinking: this is incredible. We will all be going to the moon when I grow up,” said Harding. While private interplanetary space flights have yet to be realised, there’s no doubt about the achievement of Harding, co-pilot Terry Virts and the international team they led.

The 22,422-nautical mile flight, via both geographic poles, started and ended at Cape Canaveral, now known officially as Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Powered by two Rolls-Royce BR725 A1-12 Turbofans, delivering 16,900 pounds of thrust, the Gulfstream G650ER accomplished the flight in 46 hours 39 minutes and 38 seconds, slicing eight hours off the existing record. Three refuelling stops were made in Kazakhstan, Mauritius and Chile.

Meticulous planning from Qatar Executive, which dedicated a team of 100 people to supporting the flight, ensured all went smoothly. But Harding and former International Space Station commander Virts were aware of what a critical systems failure at a crucial part of the flight might mean.

‘Turned the Gulfstream G650ER into scrap’

“The third sector of the flight [over central Antarctica] was the most difficult because in winter there is no good diversion airfield. If we had lost an engine or pressurisation at a critical moment, we would have had difficult alternatives to face,” said Harding. “In the first five hours of the flight over the South Pole, our nearest alternative was Port Elizabeth in South Africa. In the following five hours, it would have been an airfield in Chile. But there was a bit in the middle, where an emergency would have forced us to land on a rough gravel strip on the Antarctic Peninsula [on the north east of the continent]. We could have landed the aircraft there in an emergency, but such a landing would have turned the Gulfstream G650ER into scrap.”

Their flight transited the South Pole at flight level 430, where they encountered an outside air temperature of -80 degrees centigrade, which later dropped to -83. That forced the crew to descend 7,000ft into warmer air, which turned thoughts on the flight deck to fuel consumption and endurance.

A happier moment was their approach to the Kennedy Space Center. “The best part of the flight was coming into land, knowing we had broken the world record,” he said. The Gulfstream’s descent was caught on film by a chase plane. But no ordinary chase plane. The camera ship was a two-seat Lockheed F-104 Starfighter: the all-weather fighter of the late 1960s.

Camera ship was a two-seat Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

“The Starfighter, with a camera person in the back seat filmed our descent from 25,000 ft: the F104 Starfighter was one of the few planes fast enough to keep up with us,” said Harding. The camera footage of the descent will be used in a film documenting the whole flight.
For Harding, completing the flight was a fitting tribute to the Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong and surviving flight members Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins – whom he counts among his friends. It is also a tribute to all the other astronauts who accomplished stunning feats over the years – and sometimes paid a fatal price for their endeavours.

Harding also wants his world record-breaking mission to influence a younger generation to take an interest in aviation and perhaps learn to fly themselves. A pilot for 33 years, Harding told CorporateJet Investor: “We want this flight to inspire the younger generation to fly more and become more aviation-minded. It’s very important to do that.”

There’s every indication Harding’s wish will come true. The flight was followed online around the world by school children and grown-up aviation enthusiasts who logged onto a live stream broadcasting the voyage. “Children around the world were watching us flying a fast jet and, hopefully, they realised it’s possible to do amazing things – if you push.”

A two-seat F104 Starfighter filmed the Gulfstream’s descent into the Kennedy Space Center.

Mike Stones
By Mike Stones July 19, 2019 12:07

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