Flying Citizen of the World to the South Pole and then the North Pole can create stresses on the aircraft that it was never designed to endure. Furthermore, taking a stock aircraft and modifying it in over 50 ways and hoping all those systems will work in perfect harmony for 8 months and 23 days over 26,000 nautical miles is total insanity. But somehow, we did it. Along the way, we learned a lot about what a 1983 Gulfstream Turbine Commander is really capable of when supported by some of the most talented and skilled mechanics, engineers and aviation enthusiasts. Below I’ve shared the most important of these lessons in hopes that you will be able to operate your aircraft in the safest and most reliable way possible.
Be protective of your plane
Before anyone puts a wrench to my airplane, I want to make sure that they are in the mental state to focus 100 percent on the job at hand and have lots of experience. If they are dealing with a major life event or anything that will distract them, then they need to resolve their issues first. Pilots must be in a good mental state of mind to fly, so why shouldn’t the person who you are trusting to keep your machine running over oceans, mountains, in the dark, and in bad weather not have the same requirements? I know the aviation industry says the most likely cause of flying accidents or incidents is pilot error, but I would disagree. New mechanics today are taught component replacement not the critical thinking skills like diagnosing and the repair of problems.
Critical aircraft components fail regularly
If you think you will be lucky and never experience a major component failure in flight then you are in for a few surprises. Airplanes are machines and all machines eventually fail. In fact, the more we ask from these systems the shorter their lifespan. With just 2,000 hours flying time I’ve had engines, avionics, hydraulics, props, environmental systems, tires, fuel tanks, batteries, and even windows fail at critical moments. Using the very best mechanics and equipment money can buy didn’t stop it from happening as well.
The thing that surprised me in preparing for my flight was that new parts could fail as well. I experienced this test-flying my new high-tech environmental system at 34,500 feet. I lost pressurization when the turbo charger blew out with just six hours of life on it. The problem was eventually traced to a sound resonance issue the designer/installer didn’t detect during the test flights.
Install multiple redundant systems
As I watched my flight management systems, attitude heading and references systems, and autopilot fail while flying over the North and South Poles, the importance of having backups never became more important. Redundancy and not becoming attached to any one piece of gear for any critical phase of flight can save your life. Luckily, different types of backup avionics systems are plentiful and relatively inexpensive today. With just an L3Harris ESI 500 with battery backup, an iPad, and an Icom handheld radio, you can pretty much fly your aircraft if you lose the rest of your panel. Having these independent backup systems allows you to troubleshoot when things get difficult.
Go high-tech and low-tech
Technology offers us so many advantages but let’s not forget about our heavier, older, and oftentimes rock-solid steam gauges. I have both in all the aircraft I fly and while it makes for a busier panel that may not look as cool as all glass, you are covered in an emergency. Additionally, just about any avionics shop in the world can change out old-school steam gauges.
In preparation for the Polar Circumnavigation of the Citizen of the World, we reinstalled a directional gyro that was crucial to navigation over both poles as well as an ADF that is required for flight in Europe. Both of these systems likely came with the airplane when it was built back in 1983.
Planning your flight may be the most critical component
Every minute you spend on the ground planning out your flight—and responses to critical issues that can come up during the flight—can save your life. When you are on the ground and thinking calmly, and not under stress, is when you will do your best planning. Spend extra time reviewing your approach plates, writing down the frequencies you will use, studying the weather, selecting alternates, and thinking about the “What if’s?”
When I was in Madagascar two days before departure, I spent time reviewing the weather patterns in this area of the world. I saw the winds starting to swirl between the mainland and the island. It was the beginning of a cyclone and caused me to leave a day early which saved my airplane and possibly my life.
During moments of crises focus on what is working
When I was flying over the North Pole without comms, autopilot, attitude heading and reference systems, or flight management systems, it would have been easy to fixate on the avionics that had gone offline and try to fix them. Instead, in a moment of clarity, I decided to search for what was working and use it. At the time, the iPad was working perfectly, I was above the cloud deck with a reference to the horizon, and the 1,150-horsepower Honeywell TPE 331 engines outfitted with five-bladed props were perfection in motion.
Check the work of your mechanics
I usually allow a half-day after a major maintenance period to look over the airplane with the mechanics. Take a wrench to the fittings that have been worked on. Run the systems, stress the aircraft. You are the pilot in command and the one who’s life is on the line. With the exception of High Performance Aircraft Inc. in San Diego, I don’t know any repair facility that takes the airplane up in the air after major work to test it for the customers. This alone is reason to pay a premium for the work that is done on your aircraft.
In my nine years of flying I’ve never had a truly perfect flight. If you think you did, I can almost guarantee that you missed something. For this reason, aviation is a great place to hone your skills, refine your aircraft, and learn valuable lessons about life on every flight. See your aircraft as a training ground, a place to grow your mind, body, and soul to better experience all the wonders that are available for you! In the process this will make your experience safer and more enjoyable knowing that you are prepared for anything that may come your way.