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Sir Edmund Hillary on flight deck.
Photo Credit: John Henzell
Sir Edmund Hillary (left) sits in the cockpit of a C-17 aircraft with aircraft commander Lt. Col. Greg Pyke and co-pilot Lt. Col. Lane Seaholm (obscured). Hillary came to Antarctica last week to observe the 50th anniversary of the founding of New Zealand’s Scott Base.


Air Force gets thrill from Hillary's visit


McChord Air Force Base pilot Lt. Col. Greg Pyke has flown countless trips to Antarctica, but nothing prepared him for the cargo he had the honor of carrying on his final mission Jan. 18.

Pyke learned that Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary was due to return to Antarctica to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New Zealand base he built there. Then the Tacoma, Wash.-based C-17 pilot learned that he had been chosen for the privilege of taking the 87-year-old adventurer on what is expected to be his final trip to Antarctica.

“I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve got over 50 missions to Antarctica, but I’ve lost count,” Pyke said.

“This is my last flight before I retire from Antarctic missions. When they heard Ed Hillary was going to Antarctica, my squadron commander said I’d be flying it, and I should pick the guys I wanted to fly with.”

Hillary, it turns out, has a sizeable fan club at McChord Air Force Base, which includes Pyke. Competition for the other places on the flight deck became fierce.

“One of them was an instructor coming down here. He’s a big mountaineer, and he’s read all Hillary’s books,” he said.

“So when he found out Hillary was going to Antarctica, he called and said he’d do anything to get on that flight — anything — to see him and meet him. He just couldn’t believe it.”

The flight included New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who also visited the flight deck.

Pyke said it was an honor and a privilege to chat with the first man to climb Everest and the first man to drive to the South Pole.

Hillary said visiting the flight deck was a highlight.

“It was quite exciting. I’ve been on flight decks in other parts of the world but not here,” he said.

Hillary returned the favor by signing books, copies of the New Zealand $5 note — which carries an image of Hillary, the only living person other than Queen Elizabeth II to have appeared on New Zealand currency — and even the front page of the Christchurch newspaper that featured a photo of Hillary.

Pyke’s co-pilot, Lt. Col. Lane Seaholm, said the experience would be one of his favorite flying memories.

“What an honor to meet him and what a nice guy,” he said. “He’s a legend and what a privilege it is to meet someone like that.

“We’ve got lots of fans of his back at McChord Air Force Base. People who didn’t get on the flight gave us books for him to sign. We also had him sign the $5 note. He was just wonderful about it.”

Seaholm plans to frame the signed front page, to be flanked by photos of Hillary on the flight deck.

As the jet approached the ice runway, Hillary and Clark accepted an invitation to return to the flight deck to watch Pyke land on the ice runway for the final time in his career.

Afterwards, Hillary stepped gingerly onto the frozen sea ice that serves as a summertime runway for the American and New Zealand stations, a huge smile breaking out across his face.

“It feels great. I can hardly believe it,” he said. “It’s a great thrill to come back and to see all the old mountains.”

Asked if he had envisioned returning to Antarctica 50 years after building the first Scott Base, Hillary laughed and replied, “I didn’t even know I was going to be here after 50 years.”

Despite landing in one of the most isolated places on earth, Hillary emerged from the jet to face a phalanx of cameras and journalists, who had accompanied him and the New Zealand prime minister for the visit.

Once he had completed media interviews, a tracked snow vehicle ferried Hillary to New Zealand’s Scott Base, where he settled into a lounge chair with a cup of tea and declared he was “ready to not do anything.”

John Henzell is a reporter for The Press in Christchurch.


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