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Category: Robert DeLaurentis

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.

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.

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.