I was speaking to the Santa Barbara pilot group, “Serious about Aviation,” and asked the question, “What is the most likely part on the plane to fail during a Polar Circumnavigation?” A retired 747 female pilot blurted out with all the confidence in the world, “The pilot.”
The answer caught me off guard and everyone else. The silence in the room was a reality check. We all knew her response was true the instant she said it.
Since then, I have been focusing on how in the world (pun intended) I can reduce my risk of pilot failure to a level that I can accept and will allow me to sleep at night. What you will read in this blog post on “Physical Preparations for a Polar Circumnavigation” and the next one on “Mental Preparations for a Polar Circumnavigation” are my attempts to mitigate risk as much as possible. This allows me to make an informed decision to accept the risk or walk away and piss off a hell of a lot of people.
I believe these nine preparation tips will be of value to all pilots. While you might not intentionally put yourself into a similar situation over the South or North Poles at 40% over max gross, we all know as pilots you can never predict 100% what the Universe will throw your way wherever you’re flying in the air or in life.
There is probably no single thing you can do to improve your chances of survival in an aircraft than to improve your vision. Spotting an airport or hazards even a few seconds sooner can save you. Knowing that, I have made my vision a major focus of my pre-flight efforts. I don’t want to have to rely on glasses or contact lenses that could fall off or out during a critical phase of the flight. I would literally be “flying blind” if that happened. For that reason, I had corrective eye surgery and not just the refractive procedure that lasts about five years. I decided to skip that procedure and have the lenses inside my eyes replaced as they do with cataract surgery. One eye needed to be set closer to see the panel and the other further away since the eye muscles of a 52 year old are not as strong as someone younger. The new lenses they put in are clearer than what I had and can actually focus like my original lenses do, which allows me to see both near and far uncorrected.
The amount of time you will waste in a cockpit saying, “Say again all after” or worse yet, misunderstanding a critical communication, can be more costly than anything you will ever spend on a noise canceling headset. The technology today is absolutely amazing. The Lightspeed headset I use actually charts the surface of my ear and calculates a mathematical equation to cancel out noise based on the environment where I’m flying. Not only does this keep the cockpit “Zen,” but it makes your flying experience so much more enjoyable. Buy the absolute best noise cancelling headset you can afford. If you need to have a garage sale, work an extra shift, or combine your birthday and Christmas presents from family members, do it.
Train for Life and Be the Athlete that You Are
Pilots are rarely referred to as athletes. In my mind however, pilots are athletes that play in the game of life and death and can’t afford to lose even once. This doesn’t mean you need to hire an Olympic trainer and run marathons, but you do need to get moving. I spend 60-90 minutes a day walking, running or riding my bike in Balboa Park. You need to get your heart rate up. My resting heart rate is currently 50 beats per minute which I’m told is very good. Normal resting heart rate is 60-100 bpm and a well-trained athlete’s resting rate is closer to 40 bpm. As someone who spent years in a gym trying to force my body to be something it was not and nursing one injury after another, I learned we need to train at a rate we can maintain forever and we need to be a little gentler and more loving with our bodies.
Heal Your Body
Next, I did an inventory on my body, noticing anything that would be a physical distraction to me in the cockpit whether on the ground or in the air. If you don’t know where to look, start with any pain you have. I had developed some ingrown toe nails from my days in the military and decided I was tired of dealing with the pain and having them cut out every month or two. This recurring situation could be an issue for me in a foreign country on my three month polar expedition, given that it took three procedures with a month’s recovery for each before the nails stopped growing in the wrong direction. But now I’m free of that pain and can bring my focus back to where it belongs when I’m flying.
I’ve changed my diet. After doing a few three-day juice fasts this past year, I dropped my weight by eight pounds. I started to focus on my energy level based on what I ate. I eliminated meat from two of my three daily meals. I noticed how gluten made my stomach bloat and how meals late in the day caused me to sleep hot for half the night. Processed foods tasted great but made me tired. When I ate steamed veggies or drank a fruit shake instead, I performed better and felt like I was doing something good for myself.
Mix It Up
I learned to fly my Turbine Commander from a very proficient instructor with 10,000 hours in that type of aircraft. When he wasn’t available for recurrent training, I had a moment of panic and then realized I could benefit from someone who had flown in many types of turbo prop aircraft. My new instructor from Access Flight Training Services taught me a few new tricks and I’ve become a better pilot in the process. Before I leave for my Pole to Pole trip I’m scheduled to fly with Mike Jesch a 20,000 hours airline pilot and Master CFI, as well as a factory expert on the Avidyne avionics system that is being installed in the Citizen of the World. Flying with other pilots can teach you new things and build your confidence.
Dress the Part
Flight suits and bomber jackets were designed in the 1940s. Aviation has come a long way and there are now street wear style shoes, compression socks, pants, shirts, sunglasses and helmets designed specifically for pilots. They are functional, highly engineered, hip and cool so you can wear them in or out of the plane. For example, the sunglasses I will use on my Polar Circumnavigation were custom designed by Scheyden for me to handle two light conditions – one below the clouds and one above – with a simple flip of the frame. Aviation and apparel company, Lift Aviation, manufactures clothing that has more engineering design in it than the B-1 bomber.
Put Yourself First
This one can be tricky and equally critical to your well-being, relationships and productivity. I came to realize that I had people in my life who were making too many demands on my time and were not helping me get where I needed to go. While it’s important to me to be supportive and be there for others, the clock is ticking for my trip. To keep my plans on track I had to start buckling down and focus on my trip and myself. Now I let people know upfront I will make time for them if they are a supporter of my trip, but if not they will have to wait until after I return. I’ve learned to let in people who add to my life energetically. I know this because when I leave an interaction I feel uplifted and I sense they do too.
Build Your Team
When I realized I couldn’t do it alone and no one person has the expertise or time to do everything I started to look for experts in different fields. To train me to survive in the harshest conditions on the planet, I found Tim Kneeland, a survival expert. To help me with go/no go decisions based on weather I asked Mike Jesch, an Airline Captain and master CFI, for his expert advice. To tell me what day to be over the South Pole and what I should expect, I sought out astrophysicist, Brian Keating. To help outfit my plane with the very best aviation gear on the planet, I found over 50 sponsors, all experts in their businesses and, thankfully, willing to help me go the distance with mine.
This list is far from complete but a great place to start as a GA pilot. Please remember that being a pilot is a lifestyle and staying safe requires you to live a healthy lifestyle every day.
Please feel free to share your ideas with the community. The best suggestion gets a signed copy of the second edition of Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within.