As pilots, we know that at some point our skills diminish and it becomes very dangerous not to fly. In the past, I would fly every week to keep my skill set as sharp as possible. This was a promise I made to myself when I first started flying; my intention was to keep myself alive. If I waited any longer than a week, I would start to feel nervous. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s now been almost eight weeks since I have even started the engines on the Citizen of the World, much less lifted off. Honestly, I’m scared.
After being quarantined in Spain for almost two months, getting out with my general aviation airplane would prove to be a very complicated endeavor, because the country was locked down so tightly and immersed in fear. With their older population, Spain had been the hardest-hit nation in Europe. My general sense was that people were terrified that COVID-19 was going to get every last one of them. I was getting word that the Spanish government was not going to open the country to tourism until September at the absolute earliest. Considering that Spain normally collected $200 billion in tourist revenue every year, you could see how scared the govenment/people really were. If I waited until September, it would be too late for me to cross over the North Pole safely; temps would be too low for the Citizen of the World and fuel gelling could take both engines offline.
My travel plans to Switzerland were no longer realistic; it is also a very conservative country and would require a special visa which would take months to get approved, even if I could somehow collect all the required documents in the middle of a pandemic. This was a bummer because we had planned a photo assignment over the Matterhorn in the Alps with my Swiss friend Andre Mueller. Switzerland also had some great mechanics that I had trusted twice before to work on my last airplane during an equatorial circumnavigation and a European summer trip.
The next departure possibility was via a route to England, but there was no ground transportation and nowhere to stay once I arrived. Plus, I would definitely need some help on the ground so this plan could be potentially trading good for bad. At the last minute the British government enacted a mandatory two-week self-quarantine for everyone entering the country, scrapping the idea anyway.
The final option was repositioning to Malmo, Sweden. The country had been practicing herd immunity and the numbers were closely in line with neighboring countries that had been using strict quarantines to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The death curve had flattened, and I calculated a .000095% risk of death given the population size. Compared to the 50% risk I experienced over the South Pole, that seemed like odds I would take all day long. In Sweden I would be able to fly my plane around the country as much as I wanted, get some maintenance for Citizen, and wait out the pandemic. Word was that Sweden would be open to the outside world (and my camera crew) on the June 15.
To make this seemingly impossible task happen required a number of steps and several very generous, persistent, and inspired people helping me in both Sweden and Spain.
Step 1: Get to the airport in Spain
First, I needed to get to the aircraft in Barcelona, Spain, which was 372 miles away from my “Zen Villa” in Sitges. A few emails to the U.S. Embassy showed me I could travel as long as I was leaving the country.
The exception that most often applies to the U.S. citizens that we are assisting is: “to return to once’s place of residence.” The Ministry of Interior has specified that third-country citizens returning to their country of habitual residence are exempted from the movement restrictions.
Determining which activities fall under the above exceptions or any subsequent expanded exceptions is entirely up to the Spanish authorities. We do not have the authority to grant permission to travel within Spain or grant waivers of Spanish laws.
As a backup, I found out Spanish citizens could travel with written permission from their employers, so I had the DeLaurentis Foundation issue a letter showing I was a pilot and an employee supporting the expedition.
The U.S. embassy also directed me to the front cover of my passport, which I thought sounded rather official and would help me justify my movements.
As luck would have it, there were no checkpoints along the way and I drove to the airport without issue as my Spanish police officer friend Meritxell followed in another car.
Step 2: Get to the airplane
With the help of a Spanish friend and fellowpolar circumnavigator Michel Gordillo, I was able to email the Assistant Airport Manager at Cuatro Vientos. I sent him an email pleading my case and asking for access. He said it was possible as long as I was escorted on the field by someone with access. When I was unable to find anyone willing to escort me to my plane after days of trying, I decided to show up and see if I could do it on my own. I talked to a helpful man in the flight plan office and he spoke to police security. I mentioned I had an email from the airport manager, and, to my delight, security just waved me through.
Step 3: Get permission to fly out of Spain
To encourage the Spanish to let me go on my way, I found out that Dr. Dimitri Deheyn, our lead scientist for the atmospheric plastics pollution experiment, was trying to determine if COVID-19 could be transferred on the plastic particles that we were already testing for in the atmosphere. He provided a letter that showed my departure flight was a critical opportunity to test the air over Madrid and all the way out of the country for the virus.
With the help of Michel Gordillo, who called the Spanish Police, the Flight Plan Office, Customs and Immigration, I was told that I would be allowed to leave the country and that if I submitted a proper flight plan it would be accepted by Eurocontrol. From their perspective, it was one less American to worry about and less possible coronavirus risk. (Not to mention Michel would stop calling them every 30 minutes with more questions until they let me out of the country).
Step 4: Get permission to fly into Sweden
Johan Wiklund, an Airbus A320 Flight Commander at SAS Scandinavian Airlines who flew an antique British Gypsy Moth biplane from Sweden to South Africa, was also instrumental. He helped put Eddie Gold and Ahmed Hassan Mohamed — my flight handlers from General Aviation Support Egypt (G.A.S.E.)— in touch with an FBO in Sweden called Aviator Airport Services, which then got me permission to fly into Sweden. Johan also connected me with a mechanic who could repair the Gulfstream Turbo Commander 900’s ferry tanks for my leg over the North Pole.
Step 5: Come up with a flight plan Eurocontrol will accept
This is where the genius of Ahmed Hassan Mohamed from G.A.S.E. helped save the day. Normally, I would use the autoroute function on Rocket Route to find my way through the complicated airspaces of Europe. On this 4-hour, 1,200-nm flight I needed to go through Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany on my path into Sweden. After a couple of hours, he came back with the route you see above. It had over 40 waypoints and airways, but it worked, and he filed it for me.
Step 6: Don’t get quarantined on arrival in Sweden
With the rules changing daily, preventing Sweden from putting me into a two-week quarantine once I arrived was a concern. Michel had suggested a plan, and with the help of my friend MeritxelI I was able to get two tests for the COVID-19 virus before I departed Barcelona. Both tests involved a drive to Barcelona, 36 kilometers to the north. The first test involved taking swabs of my mouth and sinuses that would tell if I currently had the coronavirus. The second test required a sample of my blood and would indicate if I had already had the virus. A positive result here would greatly improve my chances of moving around Sweden and other countries uninterrupted. In three days I got the results, which were both negative. Having some documentation that that I didn’t have the virus as of a certain date would be helpful in making my case that quarantine was not required.
Step 7: Last-minute servicing
The Citizen of the World is indeed a high-performance, high-maintenance aircraft, and upon examination I determined that she needed the emergency oxygen for breathing and the nitrogen for the landing gear charged. The mechanics from Aircraft Total Service were able to help with this, and I was ready to go.
We all know that no great plan ever goes off without a hitch — so as luck would have it, the police came rolling up to do a ramp check on my aircraft as I was getting readying for engine startup. They asked where I was intending to go. Michel Gordillo, the former Spanish airline pilot, was again working behind the scenes, talking with them and letting the officers know whom he had spoken with, the fact that nothing had changed since I had been granted permission to leave a week earlier, and the reasons why they should let me go. After they asked some questions and checked my registration number on the aircraft, they left, wishing me luck on my trip.
The actual flight had my knees knocking on departure, as I would be going from 0 to 308 knots during the flight. Life was about to accelerate to the speed of life once again.
With no other planes in the sky, I was granted permission to depart without delay. The actual flight was busy — as I got reacquainted with the many complex systems on the Citizen, I was uploading databases and relaxing into what I have always believed aviation to be…one of the deepest meditations available to a soul.
Landing in Sweden, I expected to be met by security, a handler, and medical personnel that would take my temperature and assess my condition. However, there was only a security officer who gave me a ride to the terminal, where I walked directly through to the taxi stand and was headed to my hotel in minutes.
I felt a great sense of relief as I arrived at my hotel in Malmo. It felt like I had just been sprung from prison using a well-executed plan and a team of professionals. The following day I met Johan, his wife, his kids, and his tower operator friend Axel. We were eating carrot cake Johan’s daughter made in their kitchen later that day, talking about our aviation adventures past, present, and future — and I couldn’t help but think about how aviation brought us together on my mission of One Planet, One People, One Plane.