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9 Ways to Combat Fear in a Cockpit

“A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skills.” – Frank Borman, Apollo 8 Commander

As pilots, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about what we can do to mentally prepare ourselves before every flight. As the pilot in command, even if you aren’t flying a 20-plus-hour leg over the South Pole, the challenges can be similar for any flight. The goal is to be in your peak mental state to handle whatever comes your way. A quick Google search shows that 75 percent of aviation accidents are caused by human factors such as poor judgement, lack of composure, and an inability to maintain attention.

If the techniques I’m sharing would improve your performance by just a small percentage, wouldn’t that be worth it? Consider drawing on some simple Zen techniques described in my book, Zen Pilot, Flight of passion and the Journey Within, to increase your “Zen Power”—the ability to be mindfully aware in the present moment and focus on helpful thoughts and actions.

Stay focused in the moment

What happened to you last week at work or this morning at the breakfast table is in the past. Leave it there. You can’t do anything to change it. Likewise, if you are thinking about that five-figure bonus you are entitled to that Bill at the office is trying to prevent you from getting, it won’t help you in the cockpit, so don’t let it take up your invaluable and available mental and emotional bandwidth. The most you can ever hope to control is what you are experiencing right now.

Silence your mind

My mind often gets very busy before a flight. The voice of “self-doubt” seems to find its audience and share what it is thinking with me. This voice often judges me as a bad pilot. Thoughts such as, “You shouldn’t have messed that approach up,” “You should have tried harder,” “You should have paid more attention during training,” and “You should be smarter.” In this process, I basically “should” all over myself. The way out of this circular thinking is to simply say the words, “Cancel, cancel,” and use your “Zen Power” voice to remind yourself of some of your successes—“You aced that check ride!” “You read the weather properly.” “And don’t forget that landing you greased!” If you are going to tell yourself a story, you might as well make it a good one!

Overcome your fears by going deeper into them

Rather than running from the things that scare you, like most people do, I’m going to suggest something that may seem even scarier. Go deeper into the things that scare you. Take them head on. To do this, visualize what you fear most—think about it, feel it, really get into it for a few seconds. You need to feel the fear completely before it will go away. One fear for me is how I will navigate over the poles when I lose my GPS and magnetic compass. When that fear shows up, I visualize getting close to the South Pole, having my magnetic compass start to spin and my GPS fail. I close my eyes and feel the panic, confusion, and stress, and I keep going deeper into it. For a time it feels even scarier. I hold the energy and feel it completely. I have a bit of an emotional response and continue to hold it and feel it. And then something amazing happens—the fear starts to fade. In a few minutes, it totally disappears. I can breathe again. From a metaphysical perspective, I received the message from my unconscious, it’s been noticed and released, and now it’s time to keep going: dead reckon, keep the sun in the same position, switch the GPS to true north and put a waypoint before and after the pole, which it can handle.

Whose fear is it? 

Before I departed on my first circumnavigation I had three people come to me and voice their concerns. My girlfriend said, “I had a dream that you died a terrible death ALONE in the Pacific.” My dad said, “You are taking risks that you don’t need to. You’re just going to get yourself killed!” My best buddy suggested, “Wait until you can afford a turbine aircraft, which is 100 times more reliable.”  My impending flight brought up the fears of my top three supporters, but those were their fears, not mine. I listened and I gave them empathy—“I hear your concern, thank you for caring.” You can’t control other’s reactions, but you can control yours. I had to let them deal with their fears; I needed to handle my own.

What is the fear trying to tell you? Trust your intuition!

If you are waking up in the middle of the night like I have in a cold sweat or dreaming that you are stuck in your airplane at night in the water, thumbs and ribs broken, upside down as your airplane begins to sink in the ocean, then it’s time to be bold and take action! That fear is doing you a great favor and detailing what you need to focus on so you can be fully present in the cockpit. How about taking a survival course or two before you fly? Get strapped into a simulator at Survival Systems and get dunked in the dark. Or attend a course with Tim Kneeland at Survival Educators and learn how to survive in those nightmare situations. How about practicing an egress from a smoke-filled cabin at CAPS Aviation? I’ve done them all and highly recommend all of them. Each course is a full day, and it turns out, is actually fun.

Close your eyes and visualize handling different emergencies with ease

When you are sitting in the cockpit, have you ever calmly sat there and thought things like, “I’m losing cockpit pressurization. What do I do?” Me either, until I started using a Peter Schiff environmental system and did a “Zen Power” visualization. In my mind, I grab my oxygen mask, which is located over my left shoulder, place it on my face, and then turn on the backup pressurization system. Thinking through these things in the cockpit can be a great advantage when things start going south, no pun intended!

Pre-plan ways to get an answer while in flight or on the ground

What greater comfort is there for a solo pilot than being able to ask for help from an expert like a mechanic or flight instructor when an emergency arises? The good news is that technology has your answer! Handheld satellite texting devices and satellite phones by the satphonestore.com offer you an almost instant way to reach out in your time of need. I was 600 miles off the coast of California on the last leg of my equatorial circumnavigation in 2015 when my engine temperature jumped 20 degrees in less than an hour. I texted my mechanic and he quickly resolved my emergency situation. Don’t wait to ask for help and plan for it before you need it.

Override your reptilian brain and make decisions with your prefrontal cortex

When you lose your cool in the cockpit, you pretty much become the family lizard and activate your reptilian brain for the next 30 minutes. This is great if you need to kick the window out of your airplane or rip the hatch off the hinges like the Hulk. But the Hulk never flew an airplane. It is natural to go through a brief period of confusion when you’re angry or scared, but when you practice “Zen Power,” you will calm your lizard brain and switch on your CEO brain to make critical decisions. Take a few deep breaths; remind yourself that you have a lot of great training, technology, and hours flying, and then get down to business. You have all the external tools you need within arm’s reach and all the internal tools you need inside your head.

Use a simulator

If you are afraid of doing an approach down to minimums on a windy, low-visibility day with icing, then you are in luck! Most reasonable simulators today can create that exact scenario and you can fly it 100 times from the comfort of your own heated and dry home until you can do it with one eye closed. We all know with repetition comes comfort and better performance.

I hope these “Zen Power” strategies have helped you gain comfort in the cockpit. Each of them takes regular practice but will help you remain cool at that moment in time when you are called to perform like the confident pilot you have been trained to be. Remember, you have been blessed with the ability to fly. It’s a privilege to take flight, and you are an example for everyone who looks toward the sky for inspiration!

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.

Flight training is no place for self loathing

The following is a story about dealing with the ups and downs of learning to fly a bigger airplane. 

It was a chilly spring morning in Talkeetna, Alaska. An uncontrollable shiver racked me as I walked up to the gleaming Garrett Turbine Otter. Set against a pale sky populated by thin cirrus, the white airplane seemed huge, remote, and utterly imposing. This was to be my first session of flight training in the beast, with the intent of culminating in my first IFR 135 checkride. As a mountain guide on Denali, I’d been a passenger in the Garrett Otter before becoming a commercial pilot, and was well aware of their capabilities. To me they’d always seemed like the mightiest weapon in the off-airport kingdom: a fire-breathing steed that behaved like a Super Cub at 8,000 pounds…yet also was able to fly through the clouds, cruise fairly fast (for a STOL airplane), and ascend to the 20,000 foot summit of Denali with ease. It seemed like a big jump for a low-time pilot like myself. My shiver, I realized, was born of nervousness and not the cold.

The mighty mountain ship in its natural habitat. Denali Basecamp, Alaska. Photo by author. 

Our two check airmen are merciless in their flight training and testing. The FAA would be proud. The main instructor is a powerful CFI and one of those pilots that has that “touch.” It’s hard to argue with such talent. He typically employs the method of negative reinforcement. We have been good friends since far prior to my employment at the air taxi, but every spring we set aside our friendship until after the checkride. My hands were shaking as I climbed into the cockpit with him. He sat there in the co-pilot’s seat, clipboard and pen in lap, sunglasses on, his jaw set sternly. And then I began my very first engine start. As I was toggling the fuel enrichment switch, he remarked “…I don’t know how you’re getting it to do this, but you’re moving the whole instrument panel with the switch. Light touch, OK? Don’t white-knuckle it.” Get a hold of yourself, I thought.

The moment I’d been waiting for: takeoff. I’d seen it done many times. Now I was the driver. The whole ship shuddered and ripped into the sky after only a few hundred feet of takeoff roll. All of a sudden we were at 6,000 feet, maneuvering above a glistening scattered layer with the emerald valley below. The session went unbelievably well. My nervousness turned to sheer joy. I’ve got this.

Due to scheduling, a week passed before my next session. My hands still shook as I climbed into the cockpit with my fearsome friend, but I was more excited than nervous. However, things went poorly from the start. I couldn’t even taxi the thing. There were about a million people out on the ramp that day, and they were all watching me, the “girl pilot,” struggle. Everyone on the field has always been very accepting of me, but I do think that I get watched more closely. “You’re not inspiring confidence in anyone,” said my instructor as he looked over at the watchers. A harsh but apt observation. It took all I had just to get the thing to the runway. Inevitably, the distraction of the difficult taxi led to me making more mistakes. We sat in silence on the runway after I’d taken the active before completing the pretakeoff checklist. I listened to the powerful, rich hum of the turbine at high idle, ready to launch into the sky. “What do you think you should do?” he said. After a few seconds, I pulled the condition lever back. “I think we’re done for today,” I replied. He nodded silently. After a fight to get the airplane back to its parking spot, we shut down the engine. “What do you think you could have done better?” The classic CFI question. “I think something is broken on the plane,” said I. His thoughts were written on his face: excuses. I don’t get this.

I lay awake all night, contemplating my failure. A terrible voice played in my head: You think you’re a pilot? You want to fly like the best? Well, you’re nothing but a little girl, and you can’t even get the thing to the runway. And you’re a terrible instrument pilot. How are you ever going to take a checkride in this thing? But another, softer voice spoke through the murk: Maybe something really is broken on the airplane. Taking chances can lead to occasional failure. If you didn’t love the thrill, you wouldn’t have chosen this path. As fate would have it, a bushing in the tailwheel was the culprit. The thing steered beautifully after its replacement. It was time to rebuild my confidence.

When I began to write this, I had intended to share some advice on exactly how I managed to come back after such doubt. But in the process of writing, I realized I was joining the ranks of self-help articles. During my troubles, I read close to a million of those things on rebuilding confidence…and unanimously found them to be annoying and inapplicable to my situation/personality. So I’m not going to proffer any advice. All I can say is this: I simply decided that flight training is no place for self loathing. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and one that I’d probably taken too seriously. The doubt was degrading my performance. Standing in front of the airplane before my next session, I decided to let it go. It was an experiment in personality alteration…but what did I have to lose? And that’s when things started going really well for me.

A stiff crosswind was blowing the day of my checkride. The check airman was also the owner and director of operations, a fact that I found rather intimidating. Though an affable boss, he is every bit as stern with our flying as his henchman the instructor. With my new mantle of confidence, I managed to keep it together as I preflighted the dragon. “Just remember,” said one of my colleagues as I walked out the door, “…if you don’t pass this checkride, you won’t have a job and it’ll be really hard to find another one!” And, because I had chosen to be a confident pilot, I simply laughed.

Post-checkride and fully operational.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

Fix It Now!

Sometimes I just can’t fathom what makes aircraft owners do some of the things they do. Particularly amazing to me are some of the mechanical problems that aircraft owners elect to live with rather than fix.

Now I’m just as averse to spending money as the next guy (and probably more than most). In fact I’ve made something of a crusade out of saving money on aircraft maintenance, and for the past 10 years my company has helped aircraft owners save millions of dollars by avoiding unnecessary and excessive maintenance.

On the other hand, when it comes to my own airplane, I have always had something close to a zero-tolerance policy about mechanical problems. When something isn’t right on my bird, it drives me nuts until I fix it. Almost always, I fix such problems right away rather than putting them off.

My five decades as an aircraft owner has taught me that it’s usually cheaper to fix a problem sooner rather than later…sometimes a great deal cheaper. Not to mention that continuing to fly with a known mechanical deficiency can sometimes be hazardous to your health as well as your wallet.

Fuel LeakFuel leak

Some aircraft owners apparently don’t share my fix-it-now philosophy. Check out this email that I received from an aircraft owner:

Shortly after I bought my airplane last year, I noticed a drip coming from under the aircraft which pooled just to the left of the nosewheel. The drip occurred with the frequency one drip probably every five seconds while the aircraft sat static with the fuel selector on either the left or right tank. Obviously one of the very important shutdown tasks for me was to turn the fuel selector off in order to stop the leak. I never established whether the fuel leaked while the engine is running.

After not flying for the past month, I went out to my airplane last week. The aircraft was leaking fuel despite the selector being in the off position. There was a big pool of avgas beneath the airplane, and the fuel gauges indicated that I had lost almost all the fuel in my tanks…at $4.75 a gallon!

Not understanding why the fuel now leaked regardless of fuel selector setting, I started the aircraft, taxied it around to warm-up the engine and then left it at the maintenance hangar.

I am being told by the very competent maintenance supervisor that originally it was simply a fuel selector gone bad. However, they are now telling me that given that the aircraft now leaks in any position, it’s also a bad engine driven fuel pump. Usually I’d say let’s fix the selector and see if that resolves the problem altogether but I am concerned about the fuel pump going out at some critical time. Please advise.

Here we have an owner who knowingly flew his airplane for a year with a known significant fuel leak in the engine compartment. He only brought it to the attention of his mechanic when he could no longer stop the leak when the aircraft was parked by turning off the fuel selector. Now he’s asking whether it would be okay to fix the fuel selector and continue flying with the fuel leak in the engine compartment unaddressed.

Good grief! I cannot imagine operating my LAWNMOWER with a known fuel leak, much less my airplane. What is this owner thinking?

Exhaust LeakExhaust leak?

While still scratching my head over that one, I heard from the owner of a cabin-class pressurized twin Cessna that made me start scratching my head again:

I don’t push the engines hard, running at 65% power or lower most of the time. However, despite a published service ceiling of 27,000 feet, the engines really don’t perform well over 15,000 feet. I routinely fly over that altitude, but the cylinder head temperatures get a little high, and the engines burn more oil.

Sometimes I have trouble with the wastegates functioning properly at altitude, too, and I get some bootstrapping of manifold pressures (needle separation), which is unpleasant at best (because the props get out of sync), and is dangerous at worst (because the bootstrapping could be due to an exhaust manifold leak). So as a practical matter, I only climb over 21,000 if it is absolutely necessary.

It baffles me how this owner can be sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize that his aircraft has a turbocharging problem that prevents it from operating properly at altitude, and even understands that the problem could well be due to an exhaust leak, yet continues to fly the aircraft with that known deficiency.

Doesn’t he understand that turbocharged twin Cessnas have a ghastly history of exhaust-related accidents, many of them fatal? Doesn’t he know about AD 2000-01-16 that requires repetitive inspection of his exhaust system every 50 hours, and pressure testing at every annual inspection? What is this owner thinking? (For that matter, what is his mechanic thinking?)

Starter drive adapter slipping

The beat goes on. Here’s a post I saw on a popular Internet aviation forum:

On my departure from Pensacola on Sunday afternoon, I turned the key to start the engine (a Continental IO-520) and I could hear the starter motor, but the prop wouldn’t turn. It did twich slightly, but then just sat there.

I have noticed frequently in the past that the prop turns a little and then stops and then a second or two later it continues. Once the prop starts turning, the engine usually fires on the first turn and starts right up.

On my previous airplane, my A&P told me to turn the prop until I hear the click and it would help to start. So, I turned everything off, got out of the plane and turned turn the prop by hand until I heard it click. I turned it again until I heard it click a second time just for good measure. I then got back in the plane and it fired right up like normal.

When I stopped for fuel at Zephyrhills on the way home, the engine started right up with out having to do the prop trick.

I figured I would monitor it and if it acted up again to call in my A&P for a surgical procedure, but after thinking about it this morning I thought I would come to the forum here and see what others have to say.

Continental Starter Drive Adapter

Replies to this owner’s post explain that he was suffering from the classic symptoms of a Continental starter drive adapter (SDA) that is severely worn and slipping. What bothers me is that the owner’s description makes it obvious that he’s been aware of this slippage problem for a long time yet did nothing about it. Even after the slippage got so severe that he nearly found himself stranded in Pensacola, his first thought was to “monitor it” and only bring it to the attention of his A&P “if it acted up again.”

This owner’s approach was clearly to do nothing about the SDA slippage until it becomes so bad that he simply cannot tolerate it any more. This is truly a “penny wise, pound foolish” attitude because every time a Continental SDA slips, it “makes metal” inside the engine. If the owner is lucky, most of that metal will be caught by the oil filter and won’t circulate through the engine and contaminate the bearings and plug up the small passages in the hydraulic valve lifters. If he’s not so lucky, he could find himself buying a $30,000 engine overhaul.

Yet this owner is hardly alone. Countless owners of Continental-powered aircraft have slipping SDAs, but elect to live with the problem until it gets completely intolerable, rather than fix it. That’s not smart.

Fix it now!

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea. Any time you become aware of something on your aircraft that isn’t quite right, the smart thing to do is to bring it to the attention of your mechanic pronto. If the mechanic agrees that the problem is one you can prudently defer fixing until the next scheduled maintenance cycle, fine. But it’s often the case that the fix-or-defer decision is a “pay me a little now or pay me a lot later” proposition.

An exhaust leak at an exhaust riser flange might be solved with a simple gasket if addressed early. If left unaddressed until the cylinder exhaust flange has been severely eroded, the jug will probably have to come off for expensive rework or replacement.

A slipping Continental starter drive adapter if caught early can usually be fixed for several hundred dollars or so by installing an undersize spring. If allowed to continue slipping until the shaftgear is worn beyond limits, you’re looking at thousands of dollars to repair—or if you get unlucky, a new engine.

A fuel leak caught early can often be fixed by tightening a B-nut or replacing a chafed line. If ignored, it can cause a fire, loss of the aircraft, and perhaps even loss of life.

So, don’t just scribble the discrepancy on a post-it note so you can squawk it at the next annual inspection. Fix it now—or at least discuss it with your mechanic before making a fix-or-defer decision. That’s the smart thing to do.

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

Paranoia Pays Off

Normally, paranoia is considered unhealthy. As it pertains to flying, however, in my experience a moderate dose can keep the doctor away much like the proverbial apple. It’ll keep the FAA, NTSB, and unemployment line at arm’s length as well.

There are so many things to be concerned with when aviating that I find great benefit in prioritizing them all by asking: Can this kill me? The answer will vary with the kind of airplane I’m flying, of course. This is where a regular reading of safety and accident reports can pay dividends.

In an aerobatic airplane, the No. 1 killer is the pilot himself. So no showboating, low flying, or things that being with “watch this.” From a preflight standpoint (and the preflight always takes longer than the actual flight where aerobatics is concerned), the canopy latches, fuel selector, and flight controls are high on the list, as is a thorough inspection of the cockpit and tail cone area for any foreign object debris. Those are the things which, historically, have led pilots to grief in those airplanes. I once had a flight control system failure in the middle of an aerobatic sequence. It gets your attention rather quickly.

In the Gulfstream, the top spot goes to the pressurization system. This is a component that keeps the crew alive just as surely as the wings. We cruise at altitudes much higher than the average airlines, where there’s precious few seconds of useful consciousness if a sudden loss of pressure is experienced. But even more insidious is the slow depressurization as it often goes unnoticed until physiological impairment is already at work.

There have been so many accidents related to pressurization, and quite often they’re fatal. Recently an Air China 737 dropped the masks because the first officer decided to vape in the cockpit and, not understanding how the pressurization system worked, shut it off inadvertently. Instead of diverting, they completed the flight without any oxygen for the passengers after reactivating the packs. Unsafe? Yes, and illegal, too. As many politicians have learned the hard way, the coverup is always worse than the initial crime.

I’m also paranoid about the galley oven and microwave on my Gulfstream. Fire in an airplane is really bad. Just the other day on the way to Hawaii, our flight attendant forgot to remove labels from a catering order and almost caught the containers on fire. Rookie mistake? Hardly. This flight attendant is highly experienced, and I’m sure she’s not alone in having made this particular error. We’re all aware that a moment’s carelessness can lead to serious consequences, but it’s vital to remember that this is as true for flight attendants, passengers, and ground crew as it is for pilots.

I try to think of other ways things can catch on fire, too. We have Firebane and a FireSock for containment of lithium battery fires from portable devices. I’ve also often rehearsed what I’d do if a fire or burning smell was detected from an unknown source, practiced the emergency descents every recurrent, and so on. My record is FL450 to 15,000 feet msl in a minute and 43 seconds. The particular Gulfstream model I fly is at somewhat of a disadvantage over newer large cabin iterations in that there’s no “automatic descent mode.” That’s an additional risk factor. We have to get the masks on in time, every time, because the airplane has no backup technology to save us.

I’m also paranoid about things like access panels, chocks, gear pins, and the like. Those won’t necessarily cause an accident, but in my experience they’re by far the most commonly missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fuelers leave the single point refueling door open. We see safety reports about that stuff constantly at my company.

I’m paranoid about what’s behind the airplane. I always perform a final walk around prior to closing the door, and note what’s in the path of the airplane’s jet blast. I fly tailwheel airplanes and have seen them damaged by jets, especially at small congested fields like my home airport (John Wayne-Orange County Airport) where it’s not uncommon to have a Global or Gulfstream starting up with a Citabria less than a hundred feet behind it. I love those small airplanes!

I’m paranoid about landing on the wrong runway. I’ve intervened to save three pilots from that on various occasions. “Cleared for the visual” always gets the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I personally witnessed a Boeing 757 land at the wrong airport in Arizona once at an aerobatic contest. It happens to the pros and non-professionals in equal measure.

I’m paranoid about hitting things during taxi. The G-IV/G-450 wings are not nearly as long as the V/550/650, but relying on a wing walker or marshaller still gives me pause, especially if any of the “big three” risk factors are present: night conditions, obstacles, and/or an unfamiliar ramp. I’ve told everyone on my crew “if you’re in doubt in any way about clearance from objects, stop and shut down the plane. They can tow it the rest of the way.” And if it hits something then? Well, that’s on them.

I’m paranoid about instrument clearances. I always try to have both pilots present when the clearance is received via voice, and we verify what we’ve heard and the routing prior to departure. We see a lot of lateral navigation deviances in our Event Review Committee meetings, and from what I understand that’s true for every Aviation Safety Action Program in the industry. I say “try” because despite my best efforts, I’ve been given IFR clearances when I didn’t want them. Sometimes just calling the delivery frequency to see if the clearance is even available via PDC will prompt them to start reading it to you via voice.

Most of all, I’m paranoid about scheduling pressure, especially in the Part 135 “on demand” environment. This never comes from my company; it’s always self-induced. So: Don’t rush. If the passengers show up early, there’s a mechanical issue, the lead passenger is demanding, etc., well, that’s when things can go sideways easily. I try to slow down, take a deep breath, and be extra methodical. Never skip any checklist. If the passengers are late, they’re late. I’ve been screamed at by an aircraft owner over this. I was nice about it, but basically said, “Too bad.” It’s easy to say, but much harder to stick to in a real-world operating environment. It seems to be baked into human DNA and has to be fought constantly, consistently, and methodically.

It takes a lifetime to build up a decent reputation as a pilot, and just a few careless moments to destroy it. As Joseph Heller famously wrote in his seminal novel Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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.

Benevolent or predatory?

The following message was recently posted to my company’s website by a Skylane owner based in Southern California:

My 1976 C182P is in for its annual inspection. The mechanic removed the propeller and spinner bulkhead. (I didn’t know this was part of the usual annual routine, and I don’t think it’s been done before.) The mechanic advised me that he found tiny hairline cracks (they looked to me like tiny scratches) on the spinner bulkhead around some of the bolt holes. How serious is this? Coincidentally, the mechanic said he “just happened” to have used serviceable bulkhead of the same kind that he’d sell me for $1,500.

Cessna 182 spinner bulkheadI found this disturbing on so many levels.

What possessed this mechanic to pull the propeller in the first place? I’ve never seen an annual inspection checklist that called for propeller removal. The normal procedure is to remove only the spinner dome and then inspect the propeller hub and spinner bulkhead while mounted on the aircraft. The mechanic had no business removing the propeller without an awfully good reason, and even with such a reason he shouldn’t have done it without first obtaining the aircraft owner’s permission.

Then there’s the matter of the alleged “cracks” that the mechanic found in the spinner bulkhead. The owner indicated that they didn’t look like cracks, just tiny scratches. There’s no indication that the mechanic performed a dye penetrant inspection to determine whether the alleged “cracks” had any appreciable depth, or whether they were superficial scratches of no real significance.

Finally there’s the issue of the used bulkhead the mechanic “just happened” to have on the shelf and offered to sell the owner for $1,500.  If the owner really needed one of these, then $1,500 might be a bargain price, since Cessna wants nearly $5,000 for a new one (I kid you not).

On the other hand, if the existing bulkhead exhibited nothing more than the “tiny scratches” described by the owner, it would be crazy to replace it for $1,500. If they were indeed scratches and not cracks, then no action would be necessary or appropriate. If they were actual cracks, they could very likely be weld-repaired by a company like K&K Precision Welding in Troy, Wisconsin that is FAA-certified to do such repairs.

“How serious is this?”

Indeed, that’s the threshold question. To find out, I decided to consult with a colleague who is an A&P/IA, owns a nationally known maintenance shop that specializes in repairing single-engine Cessnas, and who “just happens” to own a Cessna 182 himself. Who could be more qualified to assess whether this mechanic was being benevolent or predatory?

I emailed my colleague the Skylane owner’s query and asked for his reaction. His response was too good not to share.

This would be funny if it weren’t so sad. This is one of those stupid mechanic tricks that make the rest of us look bad.

These bulkheads are a well-known common problem area, but one with no known safety-of-flight risk. Worst case, the spinner departs the airplane. When this happened to me, I didn’t even realized it happened until I noticed it on the post-flight walk-around.

In my opinion, this mechanic is taking advantage of the Skylane owner. The owner should absolutely refuse to pay for the removal and reinstallation of the propeller, which shouldn’t have been done in the first place. The owner should demand a dye penetrant inspection of the original spinner bulkhead, performed while he is present to watch.

If cracks are confirmed by dye penetrant, then the owner should get on Google and research his options for getting his bulkhead repaired or finding a replacement elsewhere (eBay is a good place to start). If he must purchase the one from this mechanic , then he should negotiate the price to something no greater than the least expensive alternative his research came up with.

Others might say that the mechanic made a “great catch” and did the owner a favor. In my view, however, the mechanic performed exploratory surgery without the owner’s authorization and for no valid reason. If the bulkhead was actually cracked but the cracks hadn’t yet progressed past the edge of the mounting hardware (and therefore not visible without removing the prop), then they didn’t constitute a safety issue.

Even in the very unlikely event that a hidden crack suddenly propagated to the point of bulkhead failure, the resulting damage would be minimal. Cracks found in the normal course of an annual inspection must be addressed, but there’s certainly no need to take heroic efforts to find them…like pulling the prop.

My best guess is that the mechanic wanted to dispose of the spinner bulkhead he had on the shelf, and decided this owner might make a good mark. I hope he doesn’t get away with it.

It’s not uncommon for mechanics to take over-the-top maintenance actions that have adverse consequences for aircraft owners’ wallets. But in my experience, these arise mostly out of mechanics’ fear of being sued if something goes wrong, and rarely out of greed.

This one might be an exception. What do you think?

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

The Darkest Hour: A Recap of the Thunder Mountain SAR

 

The following is a story about what happens after the ELT goes off. It is written from the perspective of a fellow Alaska Range Pilot… who happens to be married to the incident commander of the search-and-rescue effort.

At 6 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time on Aug. 4, a de Havilland Beaver on a scenic flight impacted the side of a jagged ridge in Denali National Park. The aircraft’s ELT was the first indication that something was amiss. Shortly following the accident, the improbable occurred: A satellite phone call was made by the pilot. Though exact details remain mysterious, the pilot indicated that there were major injuries and/or fatalities, and that the occupants were trapped in the aircraft. One irrefutable fact was taken away from that call: There were survivors. 

Thus began the largest-scale SAR the Alaska Range has seen in decades. Other scenic aircraft continued to swirl about the mountains nearby, going about business as normal, while the occupants of the Beaver were passing through their darkest hour. Yet, across south-central Alaska, forces were marshaling. Military and civilian aircraft of an astounding mix were to become involved, syncing their combined talents in a battle against the odds.

A photo taken by glacier pilot Matt Bethke, depicting conditions near the crash site shortly before it’s occurrence. Though VFR, it reinforces the old adage “… treat every cloud as if there were a mountain behind it”

The odds were about as big as they come. The crash site was just under 11,000 feet on very steep, serac (ice cliff)-filled terrain below the ridge, one of an impressive peak called Thunder Mountain. Situated about 15 miles south of 20,310-foot Denali, it is actually a fierce arm of Mt. Hunter, the third highest peak in the Range. It is one of the more inaccessible areas in a mountain range known for its vertical nature, and an improbable place to survive a crash. Yet somehow they had. But for how long?

According to other pilots who had been in the area around the time of the accident, the weather was volatile on the high ridges. “Really swirling clouds with a lot of flow,” a colleague of mine remarked. However, there was good VFR in the main glacier corridors, including the large highway of the Kahiltna. A weather camera on this glacier confirmed this for the times before and after the crash.  “We’ve all worked with less… much less,” another pilot said.

A screenshot of the Kahiltna weather camera taken approximately one hour after the event. The summits in the background are just south of the crash site, and depict a ceiling of over 10,000 feet msl. The glacier sits at 6,500 feet in this view shed. Photo by the author.

However, things were about to change. The weather began deteriorating in earnest almost immediately. The National Park Service A-star B3 helicopter was able to get within a mile of the site about one hour after the ELT was detected, but it and all other aircraft were forced to return to Talkeetna ahead of the large storm that was to impact the area for the next few days. Overnight, the rain came down in sheets. I lay awake, listening to the roar of it on our cabin roof. At 1:15 a.m., my incident-commander husband finally made it home from the SAR room. At 5 a.m., he went back to work.

Denali National Park maintains an elite team of Mountaineering Rangers and a contract helicopter for SAR during the summer. This resource is usually  more than adequate to handle incidents. Because of the potential for survivors, the number of occupants, and the location of the aircraft, this was something much larger. It required the outside resources of the military.  The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center established a Unified Command between the military and the National Park Service. The title of Incident Command fell to District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth, head of the Mountaineering Rangers… and my husband. In trying to explain the situation to our five year old, he put it very aptly. “You know, it’s like daddy is in charge of a soccer team, and I’m trying to get them to play soccer… and they all come from different teams.”

The next day passed darkly, with no further contact from the downed Beaver. It’s tracking mechanism continued to give a signal, indicating the location of the aircraft. Forecast conditions aloft indicated high winds and snowfall at the crash elevation. The rainy calm of the morning was ripped asunder by the military helicopters, bravely making their way to Talkeetna through the murk. Two CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks journeyed south from Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks, joined by two HH-60 Pave Hawks from Elmendorf. Additionally, the company of the downed plane sent out multiple aircraft.  But no one would reach the Beaver that day. My husband came home late again, with stooped shoulders. At 4 a.m. he sat straight up in bed, clutching his iPhone. The weather camera showed unexplainable, good VFR on the glacier. “It’s happening,” he said.

A marriage of NPS, Air Force, Army, and Pararescuers surged toward the site, while a military C-130 circled overhead. The downed beaver was in a precarious site, plastered to steep snow above a 4,500-foot cliff. A ranger friend  remarked that it was not the scene they were hoping for. “About the worst-case scenario,” he said. A debate ranged over which helicopter was best for initial response. In the end, the NPS ship, dubbed the “hummingbird” by the larger aircraft, was dispatched. Talented pilot Andreas Hermansky short-hauled NPS ranger Chris Erickson to the precarious site. Hermansky has been the SAR pilot for many years, and has saved lives from as high as 19,000 feet. Ranger Erickson, like all his team, is a light in the dark for those trapped on steep mountainsides. On Thunder Mountain, they battled a fierce wind and deteriorating weather as the military ships massed on the glacier below. The Chinooks had become mobile medical/refueling sites, equipped to handle multiple injured. The Pave Hawks and their attendant Pararescuers were prepared for extrication and paramedic duties. A wave of capability was breaking on the shores of Thunder Mountain. Radio silence fell as Erickson assessed the smashed aircraft. There were no survivors.

Below the aircraft is a 4,500-foot cliff. Photo courtesy NPS.

The belle of the ball: this ship and pilot Hermansky (along with all the mountaineering rangers) specialize in high-altitude, snowy, steep, glaciated rescue.

This incident will forever mystify us glacier pilots. A jagged, snowy ridge at 11,000 feet with swirling clouds is not an improbable place for CFIT. It is, however, an improbable place for a Beaver with other options. We regularly take Beavers past Thunder Mountain on scenic tours, but it seems an odd choice given that the glacier corridor below was so good. But this was not authored to pass judgement on the actions of the pilot. The description of the aircarft’s interior was grim. It is amazing that any occupants survived for any time. Even more amazing was the SAR effort put forth by the Unified Command. The NPS returned to the site a few days later, this time with my husband on the short haul line. He braved avalanche conditions, a crevasse underneath the aircraft, jagged metal, and (of course) a huge cliff below to assess the recoverability of the bodies. Hermansky hovered for nearly an hour as Chenoweth made his inspection. The enourmous hazards precluded removal.

If there had been survivors, they would have had an amazing array of rescuers at their aid. Mountain pilots, capable aircraft, paramedics, climbing experts, extrication experts, and SAR command came together to help the downed airplane. In it’s grief, the community may not have given this the attention it deserves. I encourage detractors of the decision not to remove the bodies to imagine themselves on the end of that short haul line. So I write to highlight this fact: There are a lot of brave, capable people coming to help you after your ELT goes off. If you can survive your darkest hour, there will be light.

The final statement was not directed at family members of the deceased. As the spouse of a glacier pilot, he understands the importance of bringing a loved one home. A local detractor with no connection to the deceased has unjustly criticized our brave public servants, and, through unclear motivations, has suggested that private contractors put themselves in harm’s way to attempt removal.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

The Human and the Pilot: A Story About Irrationality

The follwing are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about her irrational side… and when her greatest phobia somehow found its way into the cockpit. 

I recently read an online article titled “I Hate to Admit it, but Women Pilots Make Me Nervous.”  The piece was written and published for a periodical in the United Kingdom, and penned by a woman. And no, it was not from the 1970s: The date on the article was August 16, 2017. In it, the author acknowledges that her viewpoint is inflammatory and outdated, and apologizes for “…being an antiquated old sexist.” She goes on to list her own instabilities, and attributes them to her gender, expressing concern that a female pilot would also fall prey to such emotional vagaries. For example, she writes, “…I become a terrible driver at certain times of the month.  Might my pilot be flying when she’s pre-menstrual? Arguing with our teenagers can leave me distracted and upset for days. Could she be prone to getting flustered?”

Of course, we, as pilots, know this cannot be true. And, as a fellow female, I have never experienced the symptoms she is describing. There is no place for fluster in a cockpit, regardless of age, sex, outside stressors, and pretty much everything else. Part of being a pilot means maintaining a cool, calm, collected demeanor, especially in times of crisis. It means constant mindfulness, hyper-aware vigilance, and logical, succinct decision making. Though all the pilots I know display these traits on the job, I doubt if any of them are wholly unshakable. We may keep it together in the cockpit, but perhaps we allow unfiltered emotion and irrationality into other aspects of our lives.

I for one, am not unshakable. I was born an artist, with a free, impulsive spirit and not what you’d call a linear way of thinking. Over the decades, I have engineered a different personality inside of my mind: the pilot. I have grown to respect and admire this person: the cool, calm, competent decision maker. The PIC. And the PIC is unshakable in the cockpit (as a few crises have determined). However, the irrational side still exists, and it needs an outlet.

There is a large, black beetle that inhabits the boreal forests of my Alaskan home. And I am absolutely terrified of them. They have been my bane since childhood. Attracted to heat, they make for my dark hair as it warms in the sun. To my dismay, there seems to be a large population on our ramp. I learned to bribe the rampers with tip money to swat the beetles away from my safety briefings so my phobia would not become apparent to my passengers. My co-workers find this behavior hilarious, and query me about it often. In trying to explain it, I say that it helps me be a PIC…  because I allow this irrationality an outlet. I compartmentalize myself, keeping the pilot separate from the person that runs screaming from the beetles. It’s a harmless way to be a flustered person, I tell them. And the two shall never meet.

Last year, while on short final, my passenger started swatting at his neck. And swatted a big, fat, black beetle right onto my leg. It stuck there, looking up at me with its awful pincers and its unimaginable horns. And I realized that my phobia had somehow found its way into the cockpit. The next few seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity as the two sides of my personality faced off. The PIC won, of course, flicking the beetle down by the rudders and landing the Beaver quite nicely (despite the weird wind). My passenger never knew that he’d almost changed the outcome of the flight. However, as I was putting the  cap back on after fueling, I heard a loud “brrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzppp.” And there a beetle was, stuck to the airplane by the filler neck. And the PIC in me just shrugged her shoulders as the flustered person ran screaming for the hangar.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.

Health risks for business jet crews

It’s long been known that flight at high altitudes exposes flight crew and passengers alike to greater levels of radiation than they normally experience on the surface, but a recent Harvard study on the prevalence of cancers among flight attendants has brought the subject into the spotlight once more. It’s been picked up by a wide variety of publications from outside the aviation world. To be honest, I’m a little surprised at their interest in the health of flight crew members.

If you’re flying a real (aka light GA) airplane rather than a modern, automated turbojet, you might not have given the subject much thought. But turbojets operate near or above the tropopause (which varies in altitude from 23,000 to 65,000 depending on location and time of year). This places them well above most of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, and therefore at greater exposure to direct sunlight, cosmic ionizing radiation, and so on. Unfortunately, the preventative measures we use on the ground – sunscreen, long shirts, hats, sunglasses, etc. – don’t provide protection from all of these perils.

For an occasional passenger, the risk is fairly negligible. But for those of us who make their living working on an aircraft, the conclusions offered by this paper are quite concerning. The Harvard study, which has been ongoing since 2007, found the following:

“Despite low smoking and obesity levels indicative of positive health behaviors, we report that flight attendants have elevated rates of several cancers, especially breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancers. These results are consistent with previous findings regarding flight crew health. Ours is the first study to report an elevated rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in a U.S. flight attendant cohort (consistent with European studies). Some of these cancers were also related to tenure as a flight attendant, overall or within subgroups of parity in the case of breast cancer.”

They also note that “…cabin crew have the largest annual ionizing radiation dose of all U.S. workers (e.g. 3.07 mSv vs. 0.59 mSv for U.S. Department of Energy workers). These exposures can easily exceed guidelines released by the NCRP or the International Commission on Radiological Protection.”

The authors of the study don’t claim to fully understand the impact of each risk factor, but I was impressed by their inclusion of other carcinogens flight attendants may be exposed to: pesticides, jet fuel, various chemicals found in uniforms, fire-proofed soft goods, and so on. They also noted the constant disruption to normal circadian rhythms as a risk factor for cancer.

As anyone who’s worked in the industry can probably tell you, the circadian issue is a major one when it comes to the adverse effect on fatigue, quality of life, and long-term health. Other studies have documented how an abnormal circadian rhythm disrupts the body’s ability to fight of illness and disease at a cellular level. The body simply cannot work as designed when work schedules alternate randomly from night to day and back again.

Even when the schedule is steady, if it’s a constant diet of night flying, the body suffers. I once asked a former long-haul cargo pilot if he ever got used to working at night all the time. His response: “Not really. You can always feel it sucking the life out of you.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by scientific studies which have led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify shift work which disrupts normal circadian rhythms to be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Anyway, I’ve been asked about the Harvard study by several coworkers, who wonder about the correlation between flight attendants and the pilots up front. While the study did not address aviators directly, there’s no reason to suspect the folks in the cockpit are any better off when it comes to radiation exposure.

However, it seems logical to assume there may be significant differences in pilot risk depending on the kind of flying being done. A typical domestic Part 121 airline pilot might log 900 hours per year, whereas a charter pilot will only fly half that amount. There are plenty of Part 91 operators who fly 200 hours a year. Or less. Fewer hours at high altitude translate into reduced exposure to radiation.

On the other hand, some business aircraft fly much higher than a typical airliner. A Boeing or Airbus will ply the mid 30s, while many bizjets will climb directly into the low 40s, and can eventually reach as high as 51,000 feet if the weather requires it.

The trend with new business aircraft seems to be toward higher altitudes and longer ranges. While this capability is a boon for safety, it also means even greater exposure to radiation aloft. And as supersonic aircraft enter the inventory, it wouldn’t surprise me to see these airplanes cruising around 60,000 feet.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the aviation industry, but the incessant march toward higher/longer/faster flying comes with risks, some of which may not yet be fully appreciated by those of us who will fly them.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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.
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