MOSCOW — An explorer flies all the way to the South Pole but has to ask someone else to fly him out. Question: What is it called? a) A triumph of aviation? b) An embarrassment? c) A diplomatic snafu?
Answer: All three.
On Jan. 8, Artur Chilingarov, a deputy speaker of Russia's parliament and a polar scientist, flew with some adventurous buddies to the South Pole. He claimed that their An-3 biplane, which flew about 750 miles over the Antarctic landscape before landing at the Earth's southernmost point, was the first single-engine aircraft to make the trip. Their derring-do earned them a congratulatory phone call at the South Pole from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
But for some reason--some say that the engine wouldn't restart, others simply that the weather was bad--the plane couldn't make the trip out. So Chilingarov had to ask the United States, which has a research base at the South Pole, to rescue him.
But the biggest indignity was yet to come--the U.S. Antarctic Program is billing the Russian government $80,000 for his rescue.
"We by law are not permitted to provide assistance to private expeditions," explained Peter West, spokesman for the U.S. government's National Science Foundation, which administers the program. "We reserve the right to recover our costs if we have to provide humanitarian assistance to private groups," he said Wednesday.
Chilingarov says he wasn't told that the rescue would cost money and that if he'd known he might not have accepted the help. Regardless, he insists, asking for money violates the spirit of cooperation on the continent, which is internationally recognized as nonmilitary territory for scientific exploration.
"It seems some American bureaucrats have forgotten the principle of polar cooperation," he huffed in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. "I myself have more than once pulled Americans out of very difficult situations, and I did it absolutely for free."
The U.S. State Department has gotten involved, certifying that, indeed, Chilingarov's expedition wasn't officially sponsored by the Russian government and so he is liable for the rescue costs. Chilingarov plans to discuss the matter with the U.S. ambassador in Moscow this week. The Russian government has so far remained mum on the incident.
"It seems some people aren't happy we made it to the South Pole," he groused at a news conference Wednesday. He didn't say who those people might be.
The incident appears to have embarrassed Chilingarov, one of Russia's most accomplished polar scientists, who grew defensive about questions as to the wisdom of his trip. At the news conference, he bristled at suggestions that he was on a high-risk joy ride with fellow travelers rich enough to buy into his Antarctic adventure.
"I don't deny that there is an element of adventurism in any expedition," Chilingarov said. "But for a polar explorer, common sense and cowardice are not the same thing."
Chilingarov, 62, trained as an oceanographer and geographer and has participated in Soviet and Russian Arctic and Antarctic programs steadily since the 1960s, earning a Hero of the Soviet Union award. Since 1993, he has been a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, where he is now one of eight deputy speakers.
Chilingarov said he set off from Punta Arenas, Chile, near the southern tip of South America, on Jan. 7 in a Russian Il-76 jet with the dismantled An-3 in the cargo bay. He and his party landed at Patriot Hills in western Antarctica, a common staging ground for private expeditions, and reassembled the An-3.
They left for the South Pole the following day, he said--seven Russians and seven other passengers who had contributed to the air fare. Chilingarov refused to identify the other passengers, but news reports said they included citizens of Ukraine, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States whose fares helped pay for the estimated $1-million trip.
The flight lasted about 6 1/2 hours, Chilingarov said. When they arrived at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, they were greeted warmly by the U.S. scientists, presented with certificates commemorating their journey and given a tour of the base. The scientists were "stunned," he said, when Putin phoned to congratulate the group. The Russians planted a Russian flag.
From that point, things began to go wrong. And explanations of what happened next begin to diverge.
At the news conference Wednesday, Chilingarov said the major factor in the decision not to fly the An-3 back was the weather, which had taken a sudden turn for the worse.
"I want to emphasize that the plane was in working order," he said.
Some news reports, however, have said that the engine wouldn't restart after it had been shut off for several hours. West, of the U.S. National Science Foundation, said Chilingarov made a request to the State Department asking that his plane be refueled. It wasn't clear if that request meant that the aircraft was low on fuel.