The recent tragic disappearance of a Chilean (U.S. built) Lockheed C–130 with 38 souls onboard as it flew approximately 600 nautical miles over the water from Chile’s southern tip of Punta Arenas to Antarctica’s northern tip of King George Island, has me concerned, to say the least. My departure date to the South Pole—the southernmost tip of Antarctica and the Earth, from Ushuaia, Argentina—which is also the southernmost tip of South America, is less than three weeks out. This passage is the longest, hardest, and most terrifying leg of my polar circumnavigation and now, with this Chilean incident, it’s even more frightening.
If a military aircraft with four turboprop engines and two experienced Antarctic pilots in a type of aircraft with millions of combined miles worldwide can go down on a short 600-mile flight, then what is the outlook for me flying solo more than 4,200 nautical miles for 18 hours in an airplane manufactured in 1983 with just two turboprop engines and a pilot with zero Antarctic flying experience?
Needless to say, this compelled me to share some of the things that are flying through my mind during these remaining days and long, dark hours of the night before I embark on the biggest risk and greatest fear of my life, so far.
Mechanically the Citizen of the World is working well—very well, actually. Engines, five-bladed props, environmental and ferry fuel systems are all A-OK. We had some hiccups with each of these systems after their installation which required fine-tuning to achieve maximum performance. In the end, the manufacturers stood behind me, which inspired me to dive deeper into their operations, limits, and maintenance resulting in a safer trip and greater confidence in my equipment, which will matter most when I’m sitting on Runway 07 in Ushuaia, tires bulging over max gross with the two Honeywell TPE 331-10T Predator Drone engines growling at 100 percent torque, pulling Citizen of the World toward her destiny as I release the brakes.
I’ve found once Citizen rockets into the air, this airplane just goes, and goes, and goes—higher and faster as it burns off fuel. The 2,300 horsepower produced by the powerplants are in a word awesome! Getting to altitude is slow, but when I test flew Citizen at 80 percent of ferry fuel, she climbed to 30,000 feet in just 46 minutes. That was the moment I knew Citizen would be able to leave the ground heavier than ever before, with 10 tanks of fuel.
With respect to avionics, I’ve got everything I need through flight management systems—fuel computers, touch screens, synthetic vision, battery backup, infrared, radar, active traffic, terrain avoidance, satellite communications, music, weather, ADS-B In and Out. Today, we restored the satellite signal going to the No. 1 Avidyne flight management system, which is very similar to your average GPS unit (but more capable) and is coupled to two other systems including the L3Harris NGT 900 which provides ADS-B Out, and the EX 600 with position information and supports terrain, traffic, and weather displays.
I flew the aircraft across the Andes Mountains this week to Santiago, Chile, sidestepping off the route one more time to have Abiatronic Ltd., an authorized Avidyne repair center owned and operated by Ricardo Medina, save the day. I now have a fully functional panel for my South Pole flight.
My Shadin Fuel Flow computer shows Citizen appears to be getting about 4.8 nautical miles per gallon range at altitude with 60 percent torque. If I slow the airplane down a bit with just 50 percent torque, it maintains altitude with the lower induced drag, and its efficiency increases to 5.3 nautical miles per gallon, which gives me a tremendous margin of safety. To confirm my calculations I had Robert Morgan, former senior research-and-development engineer at Scaled Composites review my test data. Using a lower fuel load than I will carry, he came up with an estimate that I will have a 27-percent extra margin of fuel.
Peace of mind/sleep
Insomnia has plagued me for the two years preceding this flight. I believe it is due to the enormous stress a polar circumnavigation creates in one’s life. The fear comes from doing something in a class of airplane that has never been done before. I’ve added new systems including engines, props, environmental system, and avionics to a 36-year-old aircraft and I’m asking it to give me three times the range that it was designed for. I’m banking on performance that can’t be confirmed until the airplane is fully outfitted. I made promises to over 90 sponsors that believe in me and Citizen. And, surprisingly I have slept through the night twice in the last week, which tells me things are on track and the planets are aligning. This is what it means to be in alignment!
Physical preparations have definitely been a consideration on this trip. I had health issues that popped up during the two years preceding the trip that had to be dealt with so I could remain focused and present in the cockpit. Issues included a painful tennis elbow (I don’t play tennis), ingrown toenails, a dislocated shoulder, a vitamin allergy, and a cracked tooth that required emergency surgery and a titanium implant just prior to my departure. Getting my body into alignment with this mission has taken effort as well, but I felt good and healthy just before I set out on this flight. I believe that our bodies manifest some of our personal issues and clearing these things out was absolutely crucial so that I could maintain focus during the times that it is absolutely necessary.
Since the beginning of planning this epic trip, we hit every barrier that we could—and hard. It was as if the Universe kept telling us “No, not yet.” I felt like I achieved a 7th degree black belt in being told “No,” while getting the cosmic two-by-four smacked across my forehead. The Flying Thru Life Team persisted when others said it was hopeless. We overcame obstacles of routing, equipment failure, physical injury, loss of funding, and supporters who were not really supporters. I learned to deal with rejection better, which helped me clarify my vision and draw in rock-solid people who believe in our mission and in me. We built a foundation stronger than I thought possible and we continue to rise above anything that has potentially stood in our way. Having the intention of “Flying Thru Life with Grace and Ease” is no longer just a tagline and affirmation; it’s become a moment-to-moment prayer of gratitude.
Unlike the circumnavigation along the equator in 2015 in an airplane I named Spirit of San Diego, I’ve had many people whose wisdom and experience I respect come forward and tell me that they had a very good feeling about this trip. These Earth angels’ intuition, premonitions, prayers, and feelings have led them to trust that this trip is going to be a safe and successful one for me, which instills strength and confidence in me, especially when my mind starts to wander into turbulent emotional territory.
What you have read above may still not, in your mind (and sometimes my own) make this trip safe or risk-free, but it does include some of the conversations that have been in my head for the past two years and raging in my thoughts for the past two days. Some of you may find it more closely resembles the ramblings of a madman intent on taking chances. In my mind, the outcome of this trip has already been contractually determined with other souls long before I came into this world and now it is just a matter of allowing it to happen as it was intended. I will continue to try and anticipate every possible problem or outcome, be as diligent and detailed as possible while keeping in mind that every challenge is a learning opportunity—a “Zen Moment” that further prepares me for the positive impact I hope to have on humanity, and that humanity will have on me.
Join us on the adventure at www.PoleToPoleFlight.com.