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Navigating uncertainty: Between the South Pole and coronavirus

The world finds itself in a zone of confusion—a time and a place where the future is unknown—while fear and uncertainly surround Citizens of the World during the coronavirus pandemic. We will likely all be challenged in one way or another, and our next steps could help define our existence.

One of the most challenging parts of my 18-hour, 4,300 nautical mile nonstop flight from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole and back was navigating the 50 nautical mile “Zone of Confusion” airspace just before and after the South Pole where GPS doesn’t work. The effect this particular polar zone has on our modern avionics is formidable because on any side of the South Pole, you’re facing north. Based on my experience there, I have come to call this “Zone of Confusion” the “Time in Between” which not only wreaks havoc on magnetic compasses, but also on the mind.

I suspected I would lose navigation over the South Pole after I learned of similar situations from other pilots who had flown in the area. I was testing an Avidyne flight management system that had never been used over the South Pole, so I needed a backup plan. To ensure my safety, I went back to basics and installed an old-school directional gyro in Citizen of the World to allow me to dead reckon using a metal ball spinning at 15,000 rpm. My backup plans included taking a line of position on the sun—assuming it wasn’t cloudy and that I could see the sun as I crossed the pole and then reverse it. I also installed waypoints on my Avidyne before and after the pole. To create triple redundancy, I configured an iPad to display a magnetic reference as opposed to my more sophisticated systems that were set to a “true” reference.

When I was 50 miles out from the South Pole and my GPS units started to drop offline and then recover several times before failing completely, I realized I was in the “Zone of Confusion” and the “Time in Between.” “Global” ADS-B tracking had failed 1000 nm earlier so I was clearly on my own, isolated in what could be perceived as a hostile world. Honestly, I was scared.

I was entering a space and time that no one had flown in before with this same configuration. The avionics technology I was using was untested over the South Pole. My highly modified 37-year-old Gulfstream Turbo Commander 900 with six extra fuel tanks was over its max gross weight. And biofuels were being used over the South Pole for the first time ever.

During the “Time in Between,” when I reverted to old school navigation techniques, I thought back on my conversations with other circumnavigators, aviation engineers, and mechanics, and there was no one could definitively tell me what to expect and how to handle it. I knew I would enter an unknown dimension when I started this mission and considered the risk of taking on so many “first-time” modifications, but I had run the scenario in my head and on simulators many times. I had written and followed a checklist as any good pilot would. Still, this did not give me 100 percent assurance. I hate to say it, but for a second or two I wondered if all the doubters might be right as I second guessed myself. Had I set myself up for a perfect storm of confused avionics, a highly modified old airplane, and unknown biofuel response at 32,000 feet and -60 Celsius over the Pole?

While I felt panic at times, thinking I was close to powerless to change what was happening to me, fortunately all my spiritual training came flying back into my mind when I needed it the most, reminding me to focus on what I could control and to trust the Universe to take care of everything else. I knew the avionics were the best in the industry, and since the system was intermittently responding in what seemed like a logical pattern, I could tell it was doing its best to navigate. But when it failed and recovered for a third time I took a deep breath and decided to enjoy the journey and the learning. I had faith that eventually this uncertainty would lift and I would be back in a realm that was more familiar to me. I was also grateful I had installed an “old school” directional gyro in the avionics panel because that’s what I relied on until my system began working again a short time later.

When I passed over the South Pole and was turning around, I felt this incredible sense of joy and accomplishment. To acknowledge the magnitude of what I had just experienced—the risks, the obstacles, the learning, the first-time-in-history record with biofuels, I flew two victory laps around the South Pole—one for the planet and one for the people. In the photo below, on the flight management system display, you can see the route of Citizen exiting that second lap and heading back to Ushuaia.

Reflecting back on that time, I can see a parallel to what we are all now experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic.

We are in a time where no one really knows what will happen next. Our experts and the media contradict each other several times a day. Pessimists are predicting doom and gloom. While this pandemic is tragic with people all around the world suffering, I’d like to offer another perspective: What if our planet and people are actually living in a “Zone of Confusion” and the Universe is giving us “Time in Between,” as an opportunity to recalibrate and reconnect with what is most important to us and to the planet while experts in science and technology work on new solutions to treat and eradicate the virus?

We are all growing and evolving at a very rapid pace, which is consistent with the natural order of things. Ultimately, we will learn many great lessons from this coronavirus experience, including the importance of treating our planet and each other better, having more patience, overcoming fears, redefining our role in the world, valuing time in silence, living interdependently with others, and facing mortality with respect and compassion. On a global scale we will come to learn the value of peace on our planet and the importance of cooperation versus competition between countries that is required to achieve this peace, like that which has always existed at the North and South Poles.

Robert and a police officer just after landing at Ushuaia, Argentina following his record-breaking flight over the South Pole on December 17, 2019

Robert DeLaurentis is a successful real estate entrepreneur and investor, pilot, speaker, philanthropist, and author of Zen Pilot and Flying Thru Life. A Gulf War veteran, Robert received his pilot’s license in 2009, completed his first circumnavigation in 2015, and is currently flying his second record-breaking circumnavigation from Pole to Pole in his aircraft “Citizen of the World,” on a global peace mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

1 Comment

  1. How inspiring! You are incredibly courageous and determined! Thank you for sharing your truly amazing, one-of-a-kind South Pole flight experience. The risks you took mirrored with the planning to mitigate equipment failures are quite impressive. Your parallel of that flight to the pandemic we are all living makes sense. The voice of reason and journey to peace are quite welcome during this uncertain time. Wishing you continued success as you complete your mission. Safe travels, be well!

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