Taking yourself and your aircraft to their absolute limits can teach you things you never knew about yourself, your aircraft, and those involved in the operation of your airplane. While we strive for perfection in our training, the maintenance of our aircraft, and the planning of our missions realistically we will never achieve any of those. That doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying. This art form I’m describing is called flying and can be our greatest source of joy but also at times be the most frustrating and the riskiest thing we will ever do. It is my hope that these lessons learned will help you enjoy your practiced art form while keeping as safe as possible.
Take your time preparing
Don’t rush your preparations for flight. This is a vitally critical time where you get into the zone and begin your transition from being a two to three-dimensional being. Methodically pre-flighting and thinking through your flight can help you avoid making dangerous mistakes. If you are hurried, tell whoever is waiting for you, counting the seconds, that it’s going to be a while longer, and you will be delayed. Take the stress off and take time out of the equation. If you feel like spending 30 minutes with the instruction manual on that new piece of equipment, pushing buttons on your panel, studying the approaches, walking yourself through the emergency checklists, or just sitting for a minute and being quiet then do it. This time is well worth it and will make your experience flying more enjoyable.
When I was in Sweden, I was instructed to park in a particular location that ended up partially blocking the taxiway. In my rush to move the plane the following day, I forgot to take one of the exhaust covers off the pilot side engine. After shutdown, I found the burnt-up exhaust cover 25 feet behind the Gulfstream Turbo Commander 900. I ran to the front of Citizen of the World to see if I had removed the intake cover knowing if I hadn’t, the engine would need to be removed, shipped to a repair facility, and inspected at great cost and delay.
Listen to what your inner voice is saying to you!
If you keep thinking about a nagging problem on your airplane or a concept you don’t quite understand you need to delve deeper into the issue and find out why the Universe keeps tipping you off. I couldn’t help thinking about the environmental system that I ran hard during my polar expedition. I flew the airplane at altitudes higher and colder than it was originally designed to fly while simultaneously using the environmental system to heat the ferry fuel stored in the cabin. When I got back to the United States, we found two stainless steel bleed airlines that had been cooked and burst from long flights of up to 18.1 hours in duration. When the Universe talks, listen!
While a Polar Circumnavigation can be extremely complicated organizing sponsorship, speaking engagements, social media, and repairs to the plane when it’s time to fly, your focus should only be on that. Erik Lindbergh said it best before I left the U.S., “You have only one mission and that is to stay alive!” None of the other things that you have going on in your life that are unrelated to aviation will help your decision-making skills in the cockpit. Your ability to stay 100% at the moment will allow you to do the best you can. If you are feeling distracted by something major in your life, visualize taking the issue from your mind and put it into a little wooden box that you will open when you are back on the ground and have the bandwidth.
Never give up on your passion
There are times when things went terribly wrong on my Polar Circumnavigation and I could have quit. One of those moments occurred when my #1 ferry tank burst inside the airplane in Dakar, Senegal, due to a misalignment of the valves, and sprayed fuel in my eyes, on my legs, stomach, arms, chest, and groin. I could have stepped back and watched the airplane be destroyed, packed it up, and called it quits. Instead, I splashed water in my eyes, deflected the fuel out of the plane by cutting a fuel line and using a plastic bag, and did what I could to save it while others around me watched in disbelief. Once the leaking tank drained, I tossed my clothes in the garbage can, showered, had a meal, went to sleep, and left the following day. I skipped the judgments and got on with the mission.
Have faith in your ability to accomplish the impossible
For 18 months I had been told by the industry flight planning leader that they would be able to get me permits to fly to the South Pole. Two days before my departure from the United States, they told me they were unsuccessful, and based on some calls they had made to the Chilean government I would now need permission from their scientific community a process that would take six months.
I recall getting this news standing on the ramp in Las Vegas feeling defeated and betrayed. After 18 months of making promises to 95 sponsors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and working harder than I ever had in my life—things looked very grim. I turned to the U.S. Department of State and they refused to help me despite the fact that the Antarctic Treaty permitted all member nations free movement in the airspace over the continent.
Within 24 hours my team and I shook the setback off and shifted into high gear. Our senior scientist Dr. Dimitri Deheyn from Scripps Institute of Oceanography reached out to the senior scientist for Chile asking for an exception. General Aviation Support Egypt reached out to a British military base in the Falkland Islands asking for permission to depart from there and famed circumnavigator Michel Gordillo reached out to his contacts in Ushuaia, Argentina . In the end, we got approval from all three countries and pulled off what the industry leader could not. It was an epic win for our team and a testament to what was possible when you choose faith over fear.
Get used to stretching your comfort zone on every flight a small amount
If you aren’t growing, then you are stagnating. It’s an easy space to slip into and before you know it you are afraid. I’m not suggesting taking major chances, but I am suggesting trying new functions on your panel, simulating different emergency procedures, and memorizing the location of critical circuit breakers. With time you will become a more confident and skilled pilot. You may feel uncomfortable at times, but my guess is you have felt a little awkward during your training and worked through the issues only to be rewarded with a heightened sense of accomplishment and confidence.
Mitigating the risk of flight
Every flight is an opportunity to identify and mitigate the risks that you will encounter. Before each flight, you need to sit for a moment and ask yourself what risks will you encounter on this flight? What can you do to improve your chances of success? Most flights offer different challenges like weather, distance, terrain, day/night, foreign countries, corruption, runway length/surface, and pandemic considerations. One of the most challenging risks I had to mitigate on my Polar Expedition was extreme cold. To mitigate the risk, I flew at the warmest time of the year, installed additional temperature sensors, installed a new environmental system with higher heat capacity, heated my fuel inside the cabin of the plane, wore a survival suit, used Prist and biofuels with a lower gel point, spoke with people that had flown my type of aircraft in the extreme cold and even considered burning avgas in my turboprop engines which is permitted on occasion. How far are you willing to go to make your flight safe?
While the Pole to Pole flight of the Citizen of the World did many things in support of STEM Education, aviation, science, and world peace I am most proud of what I have learned and shared what I hope will make flying safer for each and every general aviation pilot. As a community working together to share what we learn in our areas of expertise we can make everyone safer and our flying experience more enjoyable.