With his back, ribs and other bones broken, Colin Bodill recalls coming to terms with dying. On Dec. 20, 2003, he and his helicopter co-pilot Jennifer Murray had crashed amid whiteout conditions in the unforgiving landscape of Antarctica while trying to become the first man and woman to fly a helicopter around the globe—pole to pole. His partner was in shock and Bodill was so badly injured he felt certain they’d be dead within hours.
Three years later—with new helicopter, renewed resolve and a few dozen “metal parts” holding Bodill’s body together—the British pair triumphed, becoming the first to fly a helicopter around the world from pole to pole. She was 66 and he was 55. Their story proves fear can be a powerful motivator—whether it’s fear of failure, fear of death, fear of the unknown or fear of venturing into unfamiliar territory.
“Once you’ve gotten over your ‘terror moment,’ you see clearly what you need to do and execute it,” Murray says. “Every time you have a scary moment like that, you learn something.”
Murray was a grandmother who was in her 50s when she took flying lessons at the suggestion of her husband who had bought a helicopter. She remembers being so terrified during her first solo flight that she could see her heart beating. Murray and Bodill, a commercial flight instructor, met at an air show.
Before teaming up, both Murray and Bodill had racked up individual flying firsts. In 1997, Murray became the first woman to fly a helicopter around the world, and in 1995, Bodill won the microlight Colin Bodill… On Life and Death “From the moment we crashed, I knew I was going to die. It actually took me a long time to realize that I was still alive. But once I did, it changed my mindset completely—deciding to be alive.” In 2000, they participated in a round-the-world challenge benefiting ting charity and accomplished individual records—she became the first woman to fly solo around the globe and he the first to do it in a microlight.
The duo’s thirst for adventure wasn’t easily satisfied , and soon they set out to try what many believed impossible. “Everyone must have thought we were crazy,” Bodill says.
On their first attempt to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole, an Antarctic storm transformed weather conditions in a matter of minutes. There was no visibility and the aircraft’s instrument panel offered little help. “If you can imagine a whiteout situation, it is like shutting your eyes tight and not being able to see anything at all,” Bodill says. “There’s no definition of the landscape whatsoever.”
Bodill had flown in poor conditions before, but this was nothing like he’d ever experienced. Unable to decipher how far they were from the icy earth below, they plummeted to the ground at G-force-accelerated speeds.
The impact at approximately 4 G’s caused both Bodill and Murray to black out instantly. “When she came to, Jennifer just kept repeating over and over again, ‘We’ve crashed, we’ve crashed,’ ” Bodill recalls.
“Colin experienced horrific injuries from the crash,” Murray recalls. “His back was badly broken and he had broken ribs that made every move excruciating.”
Despite his near-paralyzing injuries, Bodill braved temperatures of minus 40 F to pull Murray from the destroyed helicopter and into a sleeping bag where she could regulate her plummeting body temperature from the effects of shock. Dragging his broken body through the ice and snow, Bodill erected an emergency tent to protect them from the fierce 35 mile per hour winds, then pulled a generator from the crash and lit a stove for warmth.
If it sounds unbelievable, Bodill admits it is. “I don’t know how I was moving around with a broken back or how I avoided hypothermia. If I had been on my own, I would have just lay there and died because I knew my back was broken and I could feel the internal bleeding.
“But it’s amazing how your mindset changes,” Bodill continues. “I was lying there for a few minutes and I looked over at Jennifer. I realized that I could go out like a lion or a lamb. Soon, it became all about saving Jennifer.”
Rescue helicopters arrived within 4 ½ hours to rush Bodill and Murray to safety and medical care. Doctors later said they wouldn’t have lasted 40 minutes in those harsh conditions if not for their fight for survival.
Reflecting on all the times she nearly let fear stop her from achieving her proudest feats, Murray says, “You haven’t failed until you stop trying.”
In planning their second attempt at the record, they decided to make another stop. On Jan. 10, 2007, Bodill and Murray landed at the site of their crash. The scattered debris had been scooped up and fl own to a landfill . Nothing marked the spot, until that day, when Bodill gave Murray a key to the destroyed helicopter to bury at the site. “It was such an emotional moment when we arrived at the crash site,” Murray says. “I was in tears as we buried the key. After all, we had made it back, and we were once more headed north.”
On May 23, 2007, a cheering crowd greeted Murray and Bodill as they landed their Bell 407 in Fort Worth, Texas, home of the helicopter’s manufacturer. As Murray writes in her photofilled book, Polar First, “The journey is over. We’ve done what no other pilots have ever done before: to fly a helicopter around the world by the South and North poles. We did it.”
Ask Murray why fly helicopters, and she’ll say airplanes are boring. After all, helicopters have the remarkable ability to take off and land vertically, to hover, and to fly forward, backward and laterally. These attributes allow helicopters to be used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft would not be able to take off or land. Perhaps in places that they shouldn’t land, she notes.
“Antarctica has a harsh beauty,” Murray says, describing the sharp contrast of ever-changing light on ice crystals in the desolate landscape. “It’s breathtaking, but… you really get the feeling that man’s got no right to be there.”
After a journey of 171 days, Murray and Bodill say they’re done with the adventure circuit. Bodill continues to give commercial flying lessons, while Murray, who spends much of her time with her grown children and her grandchildren, has attempted other feats, such as running a marathon across the Sahara just last year. Helicopters are not far from her mind—or her home. She can park the helicopter in the garden. But ask her if she would make the journey all over again, and she says, “Not in this life.”