Change, welcome or unwelcome, is going on all the time. Our challenge and our opportunity is to be aware of that change and use it for the greatest good. After flying my 1983 Turbo Commander for 18 hours non-stop from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole and back over some of the most beautiful, but unforgiving terrain on the planet–not knowing how my airplane would perform with ten fuel tanks and flying biofuels for the first time over the Pole at -60 degrees Celsius — I discovered that it’s impossible not have change happen inside of you. This leg of my polar circumnavigation was a defining moment that started change in motion that will have a lifelong impact on me. While it’s hard to know what the exact impact will be, it has gotten me thinking, processing and wondering how this experience will affect my present and future life and the future of the planet.
The impossibly big dream recognized
The first thing I thought when the big 16-ply tires of Citizen of the World touched down on terra firma was, “Oh my God! I did it! I’m alive! I made it!” I learned I am capable of going after, preparing for, and accomplishing something that was bigger than I ever thought I was capable of achieving. I really had gone after the impossibly big dream, which I had dreamed about, written about, and spoken about in my first book, Flying Thru Life.
As I prepared to leave Ushuaia headed southbound that Monday morning, December 16, 2019, I kept my self-talk as positive as I could, but underneath the bravado, I honestly wasn’t sure if I was coming back. I had assessed my chances for survival at 50 percent–not just making it to the South Pole, but a 50 percent chance of being alive after the next 24 hours.
Given all the unknowns and first-time ‘it’s been done’ modifications I had made on the aircraft, I knew I had never embarked on such a difficult journey with a higher probability of absolute failure. I thought about all the people who were counting on me whom I had talked with or heard from in the previous hours and days. Even the local hotel owner, who had been so kind to me, was on my mind. Before I left my hotel room, I packed up my things so if I didn’t make it back, they could be returned to my family without causing the owner much difficulty — he hadn’t asked me to come into his place of business and create extra work for him. This was my doing, my dream — and now, my reality and possibly, my demise.
It wasn’t a dream
Fortunately, my dream became a reality. But, I wondered at first. For the month that followed the successful completion of the South Pole leg I was still floating in the clouds. My feet were not planted firmly on the ground. I really did not believe I had done it. How could I have done it? If you applied a rational thought process, including the laws of physics, to taking a thirty seven year-old airplane that was designed to fly for seven hours and increasing its non-stop flight hours to 18 hours, it was really beyond reason and probability that it would stay in the air. After landing, I walked around in a daze for days actually afraid to wake up in the morning and found myself imagining that I was belted into a bed in a psychiatric hospital or doing meaningless work somewhere realizing I had been living a life getting by day to day having no impact on the world. Sometimes, when I would tell people what I was planning or what I had just done, they would just get a blank look on their faces, as if what I said wasn’t even within their perception of reality. Our interactions reminded me of the story of the natives in the New World who couldn’t see the early explorers off the coast arriving because it was beyond their comprehension. Like the natives, when I shared what I was doing, people would go on as if I had never said anything.
Falling in love with Citizen of the World
I know that during this trip I fell in love with my airplane, Citizen of the World. I think I know what Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, in the movie Cast Away felt like when he personified that soccer ball into “Wilson,” his best friend, after being alone on an island for so long. Citizen became more than an aircraft to me on that Polar flight.
Truth be told, I was always a little afraid of the power of this aircraft. With 2300 horsepower, a 52-foot wingspan and an enormous roar from engines that are running at 100-percent torque, this machine is a force. My previous airplane, Spirit of San Diego, was an elegant, long-bodied aircraft, but Citizen is all muscle—a brute force like a charging bull that you’re not going to be able to stop. On this flight, Citizen showed me what an old but solid airplane with major modifications is still capable of doing. I put the aircraft under so much strain–and it continued to meet my demands and delivered in such form–that I was left speechless at times. Imagine a plane sitting almost fully loaded with fuel for a South Pole Flight and not springing a leak, not blowing out the struts or bending the wing spar! I remember as I sat waiting for takeoff clearance at Ushuaia, I promised Citizen that I would never demand so much from her again.
Once I took off, the airplane climbed in a narrow channel and I performed a 180-degree turn so heavy-laden with fuel that even I doubted it could be done. Citizen climbed at almost 1800-feet-per-second like it was a walk in the park all the way up to 28,000 feet in 58 minutes. Unbelievable! This is a testament to the brilliance of engineer Fred Gatz, who designed the wing for Gulfstream and did the feasibility study.
Stronger than I could have imagined
In the process of completing this flight, I realized I was so much stronger than I had imagined. The months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes leading up to my departure were the most challenging of my life. The universe accelerated personal issues leading up to my departure. Instead of getting three problems every week they started rolling in at a rate of three per day. It was like the universe was trying to test me with enormous mental and emotional weights and see if I was strong enough — if I was worthy of being an aviation Polar circumnavigator.
On this journey, I built a level of trust in myself that I never had before. I was up for over 30 hours before I completed the mission and returned to bed. I started the flight at 2:30 in the afternoon when I normally would be winding down my day. I had almost called off departure due to the rejected flight plan, winds in the wrong direction for takeoff, permits that we were told we would not need, but actually did need, and because I didn’t want to return to a departure airport in the dark when I was exhausted.
I wondered at take-off and all throughout the flight, “How many times will I be tested on this trip? How strong must I be? What are you trying to prepare me for?” I’m still finding answers, but I know I see the world differently now. A few things I’ve noticed are that I am incredibly grateful for every breath, I walk with a little more confidence, and I believe that God kept me around for a reason bigger than me.
The plane was finally ready
During the two years leading up to departure it seemed like something would break on every flight. New systems that we installed continued to create emergency situations during test flights. All these modifications not working as promised and needed to be repaired, replaced or fine-tuned, which drained my bank account and my patience, delayed my departure three times over two years and made me lose faith in the aircraft. My friends heard me complaining about the enormous cost of this project even with the generous support of my 90-plus sponsors providing help with services, parts and their vast technical expertise. Preparing a plane to perform at a level three times what it was designed to do is a fantastic undertaking—and one I began doubting myself for doing. Miraculously, we finally did reach the point where I knew it could do a flight this big and ambitious. The airplane has worked very reliably during all legs of the flight to date and worked flawlessly on the South Pole leg with the exception of a single fuel gauge that went offline for just about five minutes.
People of the world
One of the most meaningful, enjoyable, and “in-joyable” learning elements of the trip so far is that I have gained enormous respect for all the people I’m meeting around the world. I have seen citizens in the most remote parts of the planet show compassion and respect for my efforts, for my struggle and for what seemed like an impossible mission at times. Prior to the South Pole departure, a group of four young people in Ushuaia became my friends and in the eleventh hour helped me get my permit from Chile. As I flew nine hours into the deepest part of the South Pole and was feeling so alone, I made contact with Cory, an air traffic controller at the South Pole and his colleagues, who complimented me for flying the experiments for NASA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the betterment of the planet. It may not seem like a lot, but it meant the world to me that my new friends wished me luck on the nine-hour flight back to Ushuaia. That encouragement reminded me that there’s still a little seven-year-old boy inside me making paper airplanes, and like all of humanity, wanting love and encouragement, a dream to grow into, and family and friends to share the journey with.
Change in me
One last thing, and maybe the most important, and to paraphrase social justice leader Mahatma Gandhi — I have realized that the change that is needed in the world must start with each of us. It begins in our hearts and minds and is reflected in the world around us. If we can each find inner peace within ourselves wherever we are, we can then share that peace with others wherever they are.
We are also tasked with taking peaceful action and not waiting for others to do our work for us. It’s up to each of us to do something positive for our communities, for humanity and the planet. As the International Children’s Choir from nations all around the world has been singing every year since I was a child, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”