Menu

Author: Robert DeLaurentis

Antarctica – The Biggest Risk of All

If you asked me what part of the 26,000-nautical-mile, 23-country polar circumnavigation scares me the most, I wouldn’t have to think about it long to answer. It’s Antarctica! The earth’s southernmost continent, per Wikipedia, is 5,400,000 square miles of extremes. It is the coldest and driest continent on earth, has the highest average elevation at 7,545 feet above sea level with an elevation of 9,300 feet at the South Pole.

There are six things about flying to Antarctica that chill me to the bone (pun intended) and that keep me up at night.

1 – Weather

The Antarctic is known for some of the worst weather in the world! Winds and temps are intense and it is not uncommon to sit at Punta Arenas, Chile, for a week or two waiting for tolerable weather. On a 20-hour leg, there will be multiple fronts to cross before I can make it safely home.  On the positive side, Punta Arenas has a good weather reporting station and has allowed my team to monitor the weather a year in advance for temperatures, fronts, pressures, and winds.

2 – Distances

The distance from Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile to the South Pole and back is 4,457 nm. This will be my longest leg. My aircraft, a Gulfstream Turbine Commander 900, was originally designed to fly unmodified for 2,000 nm. With the addition of six fuel tanks, five-bladed MT nickel tipped scimitar props, RVSM, and two zero time refurbished Honeywell TPE 331-10T engines (the same type you find on Predator drones), we are estimating a 5,000-nm range, but nobody knows for sure how far and efficiently the airplane can fly that heavy. This is the equivalent of flying from San Diego to Hawaii and back nonstop. I have been asked where I could land if I had an issue. Theoretically, I can land anywhere. It’s just taking off again that is the issue.

3 – Navigation

A magnetic compass doesn’t work at the magnetic south and north poles and GPS doesn’t work where the meridians meet at the true north and south poles. I’ve been told that an old fashioned directional gyro with a metal ball spinning at 15,000 rpms is the solution. One expert told me, “Just fly the heading you are on for about 50 nm and then everything will be fine.” Recently I spoke with the Avidyne engineers who said that when they simulated the poles their units did “fine.” Possible solution: Use a GPS waypoint before the pole and one after it, and the unit won’t get confused. But will I?

4 – Fatigue

How does one stay up for 18-plus hours in an extremely cramped, stressful space loaded with 948 extra gallons of JetA1 in six aluminum fuel tanks expanding and contracting in the cabin near an HF radio and power supply? When I asked a pilot who set a world record flying for 20-plus hours how he stayed awake he answered, “Honestly, I was afraid the entire time.”

The pilots of Solar Impulse, the first solo pilots in a solar airplane ever to fly through the night between two continents, stayed up for longer periods of time but were also flying at very slow speeds in friendlier conditions compared to the Citizen of the World. They took micro naps and were monitored by their team in different parts of the world. I’ve been advised to bring a timer, set the STEC 2100 digital autopilot, and sleep in 30-minute intervals. But even the best of the autopilots can be persnickety at times.

5 – Extreme Cold

With outside air temperatures as low as minus 67-degrees Celsius at 35,000 feet, we were concerned this could result in below-freezing temperatures in the cockpit for up to 20 hours. The airplane’s environmental system, designed 35 years ago, has been unreliable, inefficient, and incapable of handling extreme heat or cold. This has presented a great opportunity to update the Citizen’s environmental system with a Peter Schiff system, giving us 60 extra horsepower, reducing weight by 150 pounds, increasing the pressurization, providing a backup pressurization system, providing non-contaminated air in the cabin, and allowing me to pre-cool the cabin on the ground using ground power. Problem solved!

Outside the cockpit, there are things to consider as well. Jet A1 gels at minus 47 degrees Celsius and Jet A gels at minus 40 degrees Celsius. During the month of December 2017 when we monitored temps, the South Pole got as cold as minus 67 degrees Celsius. You see the issue: Even though my TPE 331-10T engines have heat exchangers to warm the fuel with hot engine oil, the airplane doesn’t have anything in the wings to prevent the fuel from gelling before it gets to the heat exchanger. If you know what the low-temp gel point is or know anyone who does, please comment on this blog post or email me at [email protected].

6 – Survival

The last guy to attempt this trip didn’t bring any survival gear with him. He figured that the extra fuel he could carry was worth more pound for pound than any survival gear. He thought that survival would only prolong his misery. I have heard a similar belief from the highest-time ferry pilot in the world who has more than 500 Pacific crossings. I’m more optimistic. Thanks to modern satellite technology installed in Citizen, my potential rescuers will know where I am within 20 feet and two minutes if the airplane should go down. My survival suit and gear will give me the extra time to stay alive while they get to me.

To help improve my chances for a successful trip, I will fly the longest and hardest leg over Antarctica at the front end of the trip. This will ensure the Citizen of the World is working the best it can rather than letting it degrade over three months and then attempting the hardest leg at the end as I did in 2015 flying from Honolulu to Monterey during my equatorial circumnavigation in the Spirit of San Diego.

When it comes down to it, my team and I are doing everything humanly possible to plan every detail and mitigate the risks associated with flying over Antarctica. In my Zen Moments, I’ve learned that at some point you have to either accept the risks you can’t control or simply walk away. I choose to accept the risks and keep flying. The opportunity to expand the boundaries of general aviation, to inspire present and future generations to live their impossibly big dreams, and to be able fly in the name of world peace makes all the risks worthwhile.

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 preparing for his South Pole to North Pole expedition in the “Citizen of the World,” taking off December 2018 with his mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

Physical Preparations For a Polar Circumnavigation

Robert DeLaurentis, author of “Flying Thru Life” and “Zen Pilot”

I was speaking to the Santa Barbara pilot group, “Serious about Aviation,” and asked the question, “What is the most likely part on the plane to fail during a Polar Circumnavigation?” A retired 747 female pilot blurted out with all the confidence in the world, “The pilot.”

The answer caught me off guard and everyone else. The silence in the room was a reality check. We all knew her response was true the instant she said it.

Since then, I have been focusing on how in the world (pun intended) I can reduce my risk of pilot failure to a level that I can accept and will allow me to sleep at night. What you will read in this blog post on “Physical Preparations for a Polar Circumnavigation” and the next one on “Mental Preparations for a Polar Circumnavigation” are my attempts to mitigate risk as much as possible. This allows me to make an informed decision to accept the risk or walk away and piss off a hell of a lot of people.

I believe these nine preparation tips will be of value to all pilots. While you might not intentionally put yourself into a similar situation over the South or North Poles at 40% over max gross, we all know as pilots you can never predict 100% what the Universe will throw your way wherever you’re flying in the air or in life.

Bionic Vision

There is probably no single thing you can do to improve your chances of survival in an aircraft than to improve your vision. Spotting an airport or hazards even a few seconds sooner can save you. Knowing that, I have made my vision a major focus of my pre-flight efforts. I don’t want to have to rely on glasses or contact lenses that could fall off or out during a critical phase of the flight. I would literally be “flying blind” if that happened. For that reason, I had corrective eye surgery and not just the refractive procedure that lasts about five years. I decided to skip that procedure and have the lenses inside my eyes replaced as they do with cataract surgery. One eye needed to be set closer to see the panel and the other further away since the eye muscles of a 52 year old are not as strong as someone younger. The new lenses they put in are clearer than what I had and can actually focus like my original lenses do, which allows me to see both near and far uncorrected.

Bionic Ears

The amount of time you will waste in a cockpit saying, “Say again all after” or worse yet, misunderstanding a critical communication, can be more costly than anything you will ever spend on a noise canceling headset. The technology today is absolutely amazing. The Lightspeed headset I use actually charts the surface of my ear and calculates a mathematical equation to cancel out noise based on the environment where I’m flying. Not only does this keep the cockpit “Zen,” but it makes your flying experience so much more enjoyable. Buy the absolute best noise cancelling headset you can afford. If you need to have a garage sale, work an extra shift, or combine your birthday and Christmas presents from family members, do it.

Train for Life and Be the Athlete that You Are

Pilots are rarely referred to as athletes. In my mind however, pilots are athletes that play in the game of life and death and can’t afford to lose even once. This doesn’t mean you need to hire an Olympic trainer and run marathons, but you do need to get moving. I spend 60-90 minutes a day walking, running or riding my bike in Balboa Park. You need to get your heart rate up. My resting heart rate is currently 50 beats per minute which I’m told is very good. Normal resting heart rate is 60-100 bpm and a well-trained athlete’s resting rate is closer to 40 bpm. As someone who spent years in a gym trying to force my body to be something it was not and nursing one injury after another, I learned we need to train at a rate we can maintain forever and we need to be a little gentler and more loving with our bodies.

Heal Your Body

Next, I did an inventory on my body, noticing anything that would be a physical distraction to me in the cockpit whether on the ground or in the air. If you don’t know where to look, start with any pain you have. I had developed some ingrown toe nails from my days in the military and decided I was tired of dealing with the pain and having them cut out every month or two. This recurring situation could be an issue for me in a foreign country on my three month polar expedition, given that it took three procedures with a month’s recovery for each before the nails stopped growing in the wrong direction. But now I’m free of that pain and can bring my focus back to where it belongs when I’m flying.

Eat Right

I’ve changed my diet. After doing a few three-day juice fasts this past year, I dropped my weight by eight pounds. I started to focus on my energy level based on what I ate. I eliminated meat from two of my three daily meals. I noticed how gluten made my stomach bloat and how meals late in the day caused me to sleep hot for half the night. Processed foods tasted great but made me tired. When I ate steamed veggies or drank a fruit shake instead, I performed better and felt like I was doing something good for myself.

Mix It Up

I learned to fly my Turbine Commander from a very proficient instructor with 10,000 hours in that type of aircraft. When he wasn’t available for recurrent training, I had a moment of panic and then realized I could benefit from someone who had flown in many types of turbo prop aircraft. My new instructor from Access Flight Training Services taught me a few new tricks and I’ve become a better pilot in the process. Before I leave for my Pole to Pole trip I’m scheduled to fly with Mike Jesch a 20,000 hours airline pilot and Master CFI, as well as a factory expert on the Avidyne avionics system that is being installed in the Citizen of the World. Flying with other pilots can teach you new things and build your confidence.

Dress the Part

Flight suits and bomber jackets were designed in the 1940s. Aviation has come a long way and there are now street wear style shoes, compression socks, pants, shirts, sunglasses and helmets designed specifically for pilots. They are functional, highly engineered, hip and cool so you can wear them in or out of the plane. For example, the sunglasses I will use on my Polar Circumnavigation were custom designed by Scheyden for me to handle two light conditions – one below the clouds and one above – with a simple flip of the frame. Aviation and apparel company, Lift Aviation, manufactures clothing that has more engineering design in it than the B-1 bomber.

Robert DeLaurentis, wearing special Scheyden eye wear for the upcoming Pole to Pole flight

Put Yourself First

This one can be tricky and equally critical to your well-being, relationships and productivity. I came to realize that I had people in my life who were making too many demands on my time and were not helping me get where I needed to go. While it’s important to me to be supportive and be there for others, the clock is ticking for my trip. To keep my plans on track I had to start buckling down and focus on my trip and myself. Now I let people know upfront I will make time for them if they are a supporter of my trip, but if not they will have to wait until after I return. I’ve learned to let in people who add to my life energetically. I know this because when I leave an interaction I feel uplifted and I sense they do too.

Build Your Team

When I realized I couldn’t do it alone and no one person has the expertise or time to do everything I started to look for experts in different fields. To train me to survive in the harshest conditions on the planet, I found Tim Kneeland, a survival expert. To help me with go/no go decisions based on weather I asked Mike Jesch, an Airline Captain and master CFI, for his expert advice. To tell me what day to be over the South Pole and what I should expect, I sought out astrophysicist, Brian Keating. To help outfit my plane with the very best aviation gear on the planet, I found over 50 sponsors, all experts in their businesses and, thankfully, willing to help me go the distance with mine.

This list is far from complete but a great place to start as a GA pilot. Please remember that being a pilot is a lifestyle and staying safe requires you to live a healthy lifestyle every day.

Please feel free to share your ideas with the community. The best suggestion gets a signed copy of the second edition of Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within.

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 preparing for his South Pole to North Pole expedition in the “Citizen of the World,” taking off December 2018 with his mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

Preparing The Citizen of the World for Polar Circumnavigation

The Citizen of the World, a 1983 Gulfstream Turbine Commander 900

To extend the range of the Citizen of the World from its existing 2,000 nautical miles to 5,000 nm, which is necessary for a polar circumnavigation, it was pretty clear that I would need to make some extreme modifications to the aircraft. I was looking for anything that would squeeze an extra nautical mile out of it. It also made sense to do what I could to improve the safety of the aircraft as long as I could do it without adding significant weight.

The first no brainer was to improve the efficiency of the old three bladed Q-tipped props. I went to my friends at MT and asked them to design a propeller specifically for my mission. They suggested putting one of their five-bladed, composite (wood with composite covering), nickel-tipped, scimitar propellers on the Turbine Commander. It had never been done before and would need field approval, but they were confident it could be done and would increase the climb and cruise speeds while starting faster, which would be easier on the batteries. Added benefits would include the props being quieter, creating less vibration, and having more ground clearance for the gravel runways I would be flying off of at King George Island at the tip of Antarctica and throughout Africa.

The next part of the airplane that could be improved was the engines. The Honeywell TPE 33-10Ts (Formerly Garrett) had 4,900 hours on them, which were 500 hours from their 5,400 hour TBO. They were still producing good horsepower, but a refurbishment would increase their power in the flight levels, which would give me more range and fuel efficiency. Honeywell had also made improvements to the engines, so it made sense to upgrade and get the best power possible out of them. Copperstate Turbine Engine Company (CTEC) did the refurbishment and replaced several major components to include the second stage impeller and wheels, combustion cases, combustion liners, and the crossover ducts.

One of the primary reasons I had selected the Turbine Commander was for the geared drive engines that were remarkably efficient compared to the free spinning turbines. They burn roughly half what the nearest competitor does with a TBO 1,900 hours higher.

Mechanics Steve Rodriguez and Morris Kernick from Commander Services 
working hard to get the “Citizen of the World” back in the air

Now that I had more power and some kick-ass props, I wanted to take the airplane higher where it could fly faster with less fuel. I went to AeroMech and bought the STC for RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimum). Along with a backup altimeter and some other components, this would allow the Citizen to fly very precisely (plus or minus 50 feet) at 35,000 feet, which is 7,000 feet higher than the airplane was originally designed. At this altitude, Citizen of the World will burn only 60 gallons of Jet A an hour compared to the much thirstier engines without geared drives. Flying higher helps to avoid weather and allows the airplane to glide farther and fly more efficiently. Altitude is life, especially over the South and North Poles!

The Turbine Commander’s 52-foot wing with winglets, MT’s five-bladed custom propellers, and the two Honeywell geared drive TPE331-10T engines give Citizen of the World tremendous global efficiency and range.

Gulfstream 52-foot wing, MT Propeller five-bladed custom prop 
and two Honeywell geared drive TPE331-10T engines

For safety improvements, we outfitted the aircraft with Whelen LED lights for increased visibility, reliability, and reduced electrical load.

We also will install an AmSafe airbag system. I had these on my Malibu Mirage, the Spirit of San Diego, on my 2015 equatorial circumnavigation, and while they were never deployed, I knew I had a better chance for survival with them. With these airbags, I could potentially avoid breaking ribs that would make twisting out of my seat during an emergency egress extremely painful, and I could exit much faster.

Since the tires are the most likely point of failure on the airplane, to increase safety, we increased the number of tire plies on the main gear from 10 to 16 and on the nose wheel from six to 10 with the help of Desser Tire. Increasing tire plies is required so the tires don’t come off the rims on takeoff when flying at 40 percent over max gross weight.

To increase reliability, the batteries were upgraded with Concorde sealed lead acid batteries, which have been successfully used in arctic environments and had longer life and cranking power than the existing batteries.

To determine just how heavy I could fly the airplane, where we could put fuel, and how much I could carry, I had a feasibility study done by Fred Gatz, the original designer of the airplane’s 52-foot Gulfstream wing. Gatz determined that we could increase the fuel load from 474 gallons of Jet A to 1,402 gallons, putting the Citizen 40 percent over its maximum gross weight. An aircraft with the same wingspan has been flown this heavy without issues, giving us confidence that my airplane can do this as well.

This November, Flight Contract Services will install six aluminum fuel tanks to more than double the airplane’s range to a previously thought impossible 24 hours of flight and 5,000 nautical miles. This is the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Hawaii and back nonstop!

Flight Contract Services owner and ferry pilot Fred Sorenson, the highest-time ferry pilot in the world with over 500 Pacific crossings, will install the ferry tanks detailed above and an old school High Frequency (HF) radio. This radio will allow me to talk to air traffic control from a range of 1,000 to 2,000 nm based on atmospheric conditions.

Since I’m a self-proclaimed button pusher in the air and on the ground, I had a great excuse to load the airplane up with the latest avionics of the day. This included a Bluetooth connection between GPS units and an iPad, a ground circuit, L-3 synthetic vision with battery backup attitude indicator, glass panel GPS units, satellite weather, active traffic, terrain avoidance, X-naut iPad cooler, Lightspeed noise-canceling “Zen” ANR technology. We are currently working to get field approval for a Max-Vis Enhanced Vision System (EVS) infrared camera to help turn night into day at the North Pole where it will be dark most of the day.

At the same time, it made sense to install some old school equipment as well. We put in a directional gyro for navigating over the poles where GPS and magnetic compass do not work, as well as an ADF, which is required for an Atlantic crossing; proof that the best, most reliable panel includes the new technology as well as the old. While dramatically more expensive integrated systems existed, they weren’t in the budget and are difficult to get fixed internationally. Replacing individual components is often an easier solution.

An additional motivation for the upgrades was to make the aircraft one of the best video games on the planet so no kid or aspiring pilot could resist. This was a great opportunity to promote aviation to the world and this panel would be part of the billboard.

Upgraded avionics panel by Randy Morlock of Eagle Creek

In the months ahead I will share insights on our mission, scientific experiments carried, our team, route, and anticipated global challenges. For more detailed information you can go to FlyingThruLife.com/pole-to-pole/plane-modifications as well as PoleToPoleFlight.com.

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 preparing for his South Pole to North Pole expedition in the “Citizen of the World,” taking off December 2018 with his mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.