Menu

Page 2 of 179

Navigating uncertainty: Between the South Pole and coronavirus

The world finds itself in a zone of confusion—a time and a place where the future is unknown—while fear and uncertainly surround Citizens of the World during the coronavirus pandemic. We will likely all be challenged in one way or another, and our next steps could help define our existence.

One of the most challenging parts of my 18-hour, 4,300 nautical mile nonstop flight from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole and back was navigating the 50 nautical mile “Zone of Confusion” airspace just before and after the South Pole where GPS doesn’t work. The effect this particular polar zone has on our modern avionics is formidable because on any side of the South Pole, you’re facing north. Based on my experience there, I have come to call this “Zone of Confusion” the “Time in Between” which not only wreaks havoc on magnetic compasses, but also on the mind.

I suspected I would lose navigation over the South Pole after I learned of similar situations from other pilots who had flown in the area. I was testing an Avidyne flight management system that had never been used over the South Pole, so I needed a backup plan. To ensure my safety, I went back to basics and installed an old-school directional gyro in Citizen of the World to allow me to dead reckon using a metal ball spinning at 15,000 rpm. My backup plans included taking a line of position on the sun—assuming it wasn’t cloudy and that I could see the sun as I crossed the pole and then reverse it. I also installed waypoints on my Avidyne before and after the pole. To create triple redundancy, I configured an iPad to display a magnetic reference as opposed to my more sophisticated systems that were set to a “true” reference.

When I was 50 miles out from the South Pole and my GPS units started to drop offline and then recover several times before failing completely, I realized I was in the “Zone of Confusion” and the “Time in Between.” “Global” ADS-B tracking had failed 1000 nm earlier so I was clearly on my own, isolated in what could be perceived as a hostile world. Honestly, I was scared.

I was entering a space and time that no one had flown in before with this same configuration. The avionics technology I was using was untested over the South Pole. My highly modified 37-year-old Gulfstream Turbo Commander 900 with six extra fuel tanks was over its max gross weight. And biofuels were being used over the South Pole for the first time ever.

During the “Time in Between,” when I reverted to old school navigation techniques, I thought back on my conversations with other circumnavigators, aviation engineers, and mechanics, and there was no one could definitively tell me what to expect and how to handle it. I knew I would enter an unknown dimension when I started this mission and considered the risk of taking on so many “first-time” modifications, but I had run the scenario in my head and on simulators many times. I had written and followed a checklist as any good pilot would. Still, this did not give me 100 percent assurance. I hate to say it, but for a second or two I wondered if all the doubters might be right as I second guessed myself. Had I set myself up for a perfect storm of confused avionics, a highly modified old airplane, and unknown biofuel response at 32,000 feet and -60 Celsius over the Pole?

While I felt panic at times, thinking I was close to powerless to change what was happening to me, fortunately all my spiritual training came flying back into my mind when I needed it the most, reminding me to focus on what I could control and to trust the Universe to take care of everything else. I knew the avionics were the best in the industry, and since the system was intermittently responding in what seemed like a logical pattern, I could tell it was doing its best to navigate. But when it failed and recovered for a third time I took a deep breath and decided to enjoy the journey and the learning. I had faith that eventually this uncertainty would lift and I would be back in a realm that was more familiar to me. I was also grateful I had installed an “old school” directional gyro in the avionics panel because that’s what I relied on until my system began working again a short time later.

When I passed over the South Pole and was turning around, I felt this incredible sense of joy and accomplishment. To acknowledge the magnitude of what I had just experienced—the risks, the obstacles, the learning, the first-time-in-history record with biofuels, I flew two victory laps around the South Pole—one for the planet and one for the people. In the photo below, on the flight management system display, you can see the route of Citizen exiting that second lap and heading back to Ushuaia.

Reflecting back on that time, I can see a parallel to what we are all now experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic.

We are in a time where no one really knows what will happen next. Our experts and the media contradict each other several times a day. Pessimists are predicting doom and gloom. While this pandemic is tragic with people all around the world suffering, I’d like to offer another perspective: What if our planet and people are actually living in a “Zone of Confusion” and the Universe is giving us “Time in Between,” as an opportunity to recalibrate and reconnect with what is most important to us and to the planet while experts in science and technology work on new solutions to treat and eradicate the virus?

We are all growing and evolving at a very rapid pace, which is consistent with the natural order of things. Ultimately, we will learn many great lessons from this coronavirus experience, including the importance of treating our planet and each other better, having more patience, overcoming fears, redefining our role in the world, valuing time in silence, living interdependently with others, and facing mortality with respect and compassion. On a global scale we will come to learn the value of peace on our planet and the importance of cooperation versus competition between countries that is required to achieve this peace, like that which has always existed at the North and South Poles.

Robert and a police officer just after landing at Ushuaia, Argentina following his record-breaking flight over the South Pole on December 17, 2019

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 1

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great reminder of how interconnected the world economies are. For airline employees, this has been like reliving the post-9/11, SARS, and the Great Recession all at once.

In 24 years of airline flying, I have never seen anything remotely like this. On my last couple of trips, I flew so few people that if I consolidated all of the passengers on one trip, I’d be lucky to fill one airplane. I certainly wouldn’t need more than two.

Aviation has always been a topsy-turvy industry—one that, until a few years ago, had lost more money than it had ever made. Profits really only became a sure thing after 2012, as the economy rebounded and airlines began to a la carte the pricing model after realizing that they had been giving away the store for decades. In the last few years, employees were able to reap the benefits of this with record amounts of profit-sharing, and for pilots, record levels of compensation after so many years of subpar pay (especially at the regionals).

What we have seen since the end of February has been a gut punch, to say the least. It should also bring home a point that is easy to forget when times are good: Never, ever live at or beyond your means. No matter what you make, especially as a pilot, you should always live some degree below that, and put the difference into the bank or into a debt reduction plan.

There is no telling yet what this will do to jobs across the industry. The stimulus bill will provide a bit of a bridge to get employees through the summer, but two airlines have already shut down (Trans States and Compass, both owned by the same holding company), and as I write this at least one other (Miami Air) has filed for bankruptcy, with speculation about others doing the same. The majors are doing everything they can to avoid any furloughs, but they are all offering early separation packages, which almost always means that furloughs are imminent.

The advice offered here is true for anyone, but some industries are more vulnerable than others, and airlines are among the worst. It’s often said that when the economy gets a cold, the airlines get the flu. That said, here are some suggestions for those new to the industry to consider moving forward:

Create your own safety net. Save as much cash as you can, and not just for a C-19 event. You may need to take a pay cut to further your career or to move. You may get sick or injured. Money in the bank is the first line of defense against any kind of economic uncertainty.

Avoid the captain house. Buy smaller than you might want when the time comes so that the mortgage is always affordable. Pay it off early. Not only will the lack of a mortgage give you great peace of mind, it will also free up some cash flow that you can save, invest, or put toward other debt. When my previous carrier went out of business, I was nearly sick at the thought of losing my house during the recession, when prices were bottoming out and neighbors were filing for bankruptcy or just walking away. I was able to keep my home, and now it is paid for, and the difference in my mindset as a result is night and day.

Eliminate debt. Better yet, avoid it altogether if you can, but if you have student loans or credit card debt, make it a priority to pay them down and pay them off. Don’t borrow for vacations. Pay your car off early and drive it for several years while you pay yourself what you were paying for a car loan so that you can pay cash (or nearly so) for the next car.

Invest in yourself. This is a two-pronged approach. Create a fallback plan to make a living if your lose your job or the industry craters around you. If possible, stay in that line of work part time. A friend of mine is a computer programmer, and his flying income supplements his code-writing, not the other way around. Another pilot became a physician’s assistant during the last downturn and practices on the side. Others have gone to law school. A recent captain I flew with owns several franchises. All of them can live off that other income.

Secondarily, put more money into your 401(k) and IRAs than you think you can afford. Mandatory retirement will be here sooner than you can imagine, and since we are living longer, you need to save for a retirement that might be longer than your working career, especially if you have a medical issue that grounds you.

Finally, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Be realistic about various scenarios, and be careful with your major life decisions and the money you plan to spend. Make sure that your spouse and family are on board with financial conservatism. In the long run, they will thank you for it, and you will sleep better at night.—Chip Wright

Overcoming the fear and panic of the coronavirus

As the coronavirus makes its way around the world and people become afraid and begin panicking, I want to share some helpful techniques I have learned over the last several years as someone who has reluctantly but gratefully become an expert on the topics of fear and panic. My list of qualifications includes but is not limited to:

  • Aviation equatorial and polar circumnavigator who experienced engine failure over open water and jungle in Asia with fuel tanks bursting inside my plane and a loss of oxygen at 35,000 feet.
  • Military officer during the Persian Gulf War who had enemy aircraft take attack profiles on our ship while we dodged mines and navigated to avoid poisonous jellyfish and great white sharks at sea; and dodged land mines, oil well fires, and hordes of poisonous sea snakes.
  • Citizen living through riots in Indonesia, Kathmandu, and Chile and performing citizen arrests of gang members threatening to overtake my property.

Here are eight tips that will help you find inner peace during the turbulent times the world is now facing when you need it the most.

1)  Take longer, deeper breaths and slow yourself down 

From my experience, contrary to what you may think in the moment, the Universe only gives you what you can handle. It may feel like more that you have dealt with before but what is happening is actually for your learning and evolution. You will experience a few moments where things feel like they are totally out of control. This is normal and it will pass in time, and sooner rather than later. Press pause and ground yourself through slowing down your breath and pace. Count to 10 or say your favorite prayer or mantra. Recognize and acknowledge that you are in this space and it is temporary, mentally revisit your greater purpose and what matters to you, and then ask yourself what step to take next. Action, positive or negative, follows intention. Aim for positive.

2) Identify the real issues 

If you zoomed out from the situation and looked at it from 35,000 feet above, while letting go of the fear and panic, what advice would you give yourself (or a good friend if that is easier to imagine)? What more realistic questions could you ask yourself?

  • Is the perceived scarcity real or imagined, The human body can go without food for at least 30 days, as long as drinking water is available. In fact, organs don’t usually start breaking down until Day 40. It’s called fasting and many believe it is extremely beneficial to release the toxins in your body.
  • Did you know that some countries don’t even use toilet paper? Newspaper can work in a bind and may be more valuable than what the media is spreading (pun not intended, but if it made you smile, that’s called a stress break).
  • What are the immediate and real issues that you have to deal with?
  • What if you did absolutely nothing?

3) What resources can you draw upon?

Did you know that the number one contributing factor that keeps people alive in challenging situations is the will to survive?  People with loved ones, causes, or a strong desire to live survive much longer than those who mentally give up. Take an inventory of all the people who you love and who love you, and those who need you in the world. Humans have a fierce desire to survive. Don’t underestimate the force of your will. You are capable, strong and never in the history of the planet has there been a living being with a better combined skillset and capabilities to survive than a human being. You are awesome—own it.

4) How much do you really need? 

Chances are you really need much less than you have become accustomed to during the easy times. Think about it. In the short term, we need air, water, shelter, warmth, food, a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves—and not a lot more. The happiest people that I have seen in my travels on this Polar Circumnavigation to 20+ countries are people in the Tigre region of Ethiopia, and they don’t have cars, beds, medical care, cell phones, TVs, or social media. They have each other and nature.

5) Park your ego at the door

Whatever the experience that is happening, chances are you will be eating some humble pie so accept it and let the resistance fall away. Maybe it’s time to call in a favor from a friend or family member, ask for help from others or wear those same socks for a few days. Maybe see what is happening as an opportunity to show how strong and courageous you are and how you can take things in stride. Offer to help others, too. Altruism relieves stress and increases well-being.

6) Don’t give up

When my fuel tank with 100 gallons of Jet A fuel burst inside my plane and sprayed oily fuel in my eyes, on my face, chest, arms and private parts, I splashed water in my eyes, pulled off my clothes, put on dry ones and kept fighting to save my airplane and my mission. Don’t give up no matter how bad things look. You are so much stronger than you will ever know. Trust yourself. Choose to believe this is all happening for a reason and let your intuition and the Universe guide you.

7) Put your situation into perspective

Currently the resources of the entire world, the medical community, every human and scientist, are working toward a solution for our common cause.  We are coming into alignment, steps are being taken, resources provided, and solutions being found. Despite the challenges, these difficult times may just bring the world closer together into “Oneness.”

8) Find a way to recharge and regroup  

You are likely operating at a pace you cannot maintain for the duration of this challenge. Take time for yourself and replenishing your spirit. For me, I re-energize myself and regain my solitude by walking in nature, being in an absolutely quiet place or sleeping restfully. In the silence I’m open to what guidance the Universe has for me. By shutting out the distractions of life I can receive the messages that are meant for me to learn whatever lessons are intended for me to move past the challenges I’m facing.

Finally, what is happening in the world is not any type of cosmic punishment! Things like viruses or “dis-ease” have been happening for thousands of years. As long as people have been around and even before human life appeared, it has been part of the natural order of things here on what is often called “Earth School.” Much as we wish, our bodies are not immortal even though we may believe our souls are eternal. So, we need to get used to the fact that even with all the scientific advances that are being made each day, our time on the planet is still limited. Let’s slow down, take deeper breaths, and look for the good in whatever this amazing never-to-be-repeated today brings.

Robert DeLaurentis is an aviation Polar and Equatorial Circumnavigator with extensive survival training covering all types of environments including mountains, oceans, desert and polar extremes. He has flown himself to all continents on the planet and visited over 140 countries and territories. He is passionate about creating a sustainable planet and easing the suffering of others through his adventure publishing company Flying Thru Life and his non-profit foundation DeLaurentis Foundation, with missions to inspire people to live their impossibly big dreams through the wonder of aviation and the power of courageous action.

Monitoring guard

During the basic course of primary instruction, we learn about the use of the emergency radio frequency of 121.5. We’re generally taught that 121.5, also known as guard, is the frequency we use during an emergency or when we need to get immediate hold of ATC and don’t know what other frequency to use. And…this is all true.

But one other angle to guard is that we should be making a better habit of monitoring the frequency on the number 2 radio. Just as we can use the frequency to reach ATC, ATC uses the frequency to find pilots who have either lost contact or have potentially put themselves into a violation. One thing I’ve learned in a two-decade-plus airline career is how often ATC needs to call flights on guard. Most of the time, they are looking for an airline flight that has missed a frequency change, but a few times a week, I hear them trying to call a 172 or a Bonanza or such that has either missed a frequency change or is encroaching on restricted or prohibited area.

As an instructor, I admit that I wasn’t too diligent about monitoring guard, which, unfortunately, means that my students missed the learning opportunity as well. I knew about it, and I told them about it, but only as an emergency use frequency.

Nowadays, in the post-9/11 world in which the slightest deviation from a known flight plan makes everyone jumpy, there is really no excuse to not monitor 121.5. Even if you’re not the target of ATC, it’s possible in a local area that you will recognize the call sign of the airplane, and you can reach them on a CTAF or unicom frequency, or call the local flight school where the airplane is based and let them know that ATC is looking for them.

Whether or not you’re thinking of getting into professional or airline flying, you should make it a habit of monitoring guard. You may be the first to hear an ELT going off (report it to ATC, and if you’re not getting flight following or flying IFR, make a note of your position when you first heard it, and any trends in the signal strength). You may also hear an airplane in distress and be able to help the pilot.

However, one troubling trend the last few years that has gotten worse is the number of pilots who inappropriately use guard. Invariably what happens is someone inadvertently transmits on guard, and those monitoring can’t refrain from a series of catcalls and jokes. A simple, “You’re on guard,” or “Check your frequency” transmission is all that is needed. The never-ending jokes and silly comments have gotten the attention of the FAA, because controllers are monitoring guard, which means that they too are trying to handle at least two frequencies, and pilots acting like children just makes their jobs harder.

If you’re not in the habit of monitoring 121.5, try to get into the habit , and watch the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of idiots who use it inappropriately.—Chip Wright

Travel tips from a pro

Here are some generic travel tips that a prospective pilot or even a frequent traveler might want to consider. Some of these are ones that I came up with or discovered on my own, and others are some that I’ve picked up from talking to friends along the way. This list is by no means all-inclusive for every possible idea, and it may not even pertain to every trip, but it will give you some place to start.

Money. Always have a bit of cash in your pocket, as cash is always king, and a few places are still cash only. Not many, but a few. Also, make sure you a have a credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees, because these add up. If you plan to continue to use your current credit card, call the issuing bank, and make sure that they are aware of your travels so that the card isn’t turned down on suspicion of being stolen.

IDs/Passports. I never go anywhere without my passport, because I need to present it at the gate to access the jumpseat on another carrier. It’s also a great back-up to the drivers license, and if you ever need a second form of government issued ID, well, voila. That being said, it’s easy to lose or not think about if you’re not in the habit of carrying it, so if you do travel with it, take some pictures of it to keep on your phone and also email them to yourself or store them in a cloud-based account so you can access them from anywhere.

Don’t leave anything behind. Pack your suitcase the same way every single time. It doesn’t matter where in the back you put underwear vs. tee shirts vs. dirty clothes, so long as you always do it the same way. This makes it easier to see that something is left behind or out of place. Use an old grocery bag or dry cleaning bag for dirty laundry. Force yourself to turn the lights off in the bathroom as you take your toiletries out (and don’t turn the light off until you do). For anything of any value, put your name and phone number on computers, tablets, etc. I use packing tape over a typed sheet of paper, and on my phone and tablets, the home screen has my name, phone number and email so someone can contact me.

Phone/computer chargers. I keep my phone charger in one of my sneakers in my bag, and I don’t put both shoes in my bag if the charger is out. Of all of my tricks, this has been the most reliable one.

Storage in the room. Whether it’s food in the fridge or items in the safe, put something in there that you absolutely can’t leave without. Put a work shoe in the fridge or the safe to make sure you don’t walk out the door without your food or wallet. Speaking of the safe, test it with the door open before you close it and lock it. I learned this the hard way when I closed the safe and locked it, only to watch the battery die.

Incidentals. Always get a copy of a receipt when you leave a credit card at the desk, even if you don’t use it. It will help with any dispute with the airline as well as with the hotel.

Protect your room info. Never carry the envelope with your room number on it. Stories abound of people losing a key and finding out they were robbed because someone found the key and used it. If you’re afraid of forgetting your room number, take a picture of the envelope or text the info to yourself.

Bedbugs. Bedbugs can be found in a five-star hotel as easily as in a half-star dump. The quality of the hotel doesn’t matter. Bedbugs often are found in clusters in cities. The best bet to avoid getting them into your luggage is to not put your bags on the bed or the floor, since the bugs seek warm, cloth environments. Use the luggage racks or a desk or table.

These are just a few tips based on years of experience. There are others you will find and can use. But starting here will help, and if my experience helps you, all the better!

Finding Joy: The tale of a restless soul

I’ve visited almost 20 countries in the last three months, talking with countless people about what it means to be a “Citizen of the World” and how we can find peace within us and share it with those around us. I’ve met with Zulu rangers, triathletes, musicians, artists, pilots, dancers, government officials, dog sled mushers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, scientists and many more.

I even met a monk who locked himself away in a cave deep inside the Gheralta Mountains for 70 years for the purpose of evolving so he could move along to the next realm in peace.

Surprisingly, three months into this six-month pole-to-pole circumnavigation, the happiest people I’ve observed so far are those I met in northern Ethiopia’s rural environment. Removed from all the culture, technology, and consumer activity that we enjoy in our first-world life, it was hard to believe what I was experiencing. To give you an idea of how removed they are from a metropolitan area, it was not an easy place to get to. I flew Citizen of the World to Addis Ababa, caught a regional airline to the Tigray region and from there took a two-hour car ride into the remote northern Gheralta Mountains. It was a full day of travel far away from what I would call “civilization.” I felt transported back into another time.

What caught my eye as I traveled into northern Ethiopia was that people were happy and smiling. Some I would even describe as joyful. Most memorable was seeing three little boys, all about the same size, looking to be about six or seven, lined up next to each other on the side of the road, with big smiles on their sweet faces and their thumbs out pretending to hitch a ride. They had their routine down and not a cell phone to be seen on any of them.

Over the next few days I came to learn that these boys, their families and their community had very few material possessions. Their houses and their land were well manicured. It was obvious they took pride in their ownership. But interestingly, their houses had no furniture—at least, the way I think of furniture. They slept on straw mats on the dirt floor. They ate sitting on the floor. If the weather was bad, they would bring their animals inside to protect them from the weather or more often, from hyenas prowling for an easy target.

The land around them was beautiful with the Gheralta Mountains singing out grandeur, God and nature. The mountains were so high they reached up and touched the sky. It was the sort of beauty that made you want to stop and watch a sunset and get up early, even when you were dead tired, to watch the sun rise. The people were nourished by the land. The river was a direct source of drinking water. You could see young boys herding their goats, cows, and donkeys that fed on vegetation that grew naturally. There were no delivery trucks bringing in bags of feed or bottled water. One boy sitting in a tree nearby called out, “These are my goats! I take care of them and then I go to school in the afternoon.” His smile was so big and his delight and pride in his responsibility were hard to miss.

Children were playing and singing and waving in small groups everywhere we passed. They weren’t worried about what happened in the past or what was going to happen in the future; they were rock solid present in the moment.

I could see these people were living in their joy, not searching for happiness. In the “civilized world,” many of us equate the pursuit of happiness with new possessions: New clothes, a new car, a new job, a new house, etc. After a short time, these things don’t make us happy anymore and we need to replace them with newer things. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is with us from the day we are born but it’s difficult to access because we build walls and create distractions that prevent us from feeling this joy.

When I arrived at Korkor Lodge, where we stayed for a week while filming our documentary, I sat with the owner, Luigi, and talked with him about the area. I felt like I was in the presence of a very wise old soul. He said, “Robert, maybe these people are onto something. They may be more evolved than us. Have our modern lives really made us happier or just created more problems for us?”

“I’m not sure they have made us happier,” I said.

My mind wandered back to my life before I took off on this mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.” All our responsibilities. All our things. All the products we consume. All the silly things we do to be better than the next person. I thought about how important our clothes, cameras, cars, dishes, cell phones, sunglasses, shoes, and other items. are to us and wondered, “Why?”

At that point, I brought myself back to the moment. I could see I was beginning to go down the rabbit hole and I said to Luigi, “We must have something that is equally as valuable as the simple joys of these ‘evolved’ people—at least modern medicine is something we can be proud of. What about our ability to use radiation and lasers on precise points on our bodies to prevent “dis-ease,” improve our vision, perform surgery, etc.? Surely that counts!”

Luigi had an answer to this as well. “The locals live to be very old and when they get sick, they go and drink water from the well.”

When he said that, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the issues that modern medicine fixed were the ones that we created from our lifestyles filled with stress, chemicals, ambition, worry, and plastic everything? I clearly had some deeper thinking to do about what it means to be a “Citizen in the World” for the world.

During a two-hour walk through the country I was most impressed by a little girl we met who carved emblems into small stones. In addition to the stones, she showed us a piece of paper with her original design work for creating the artwork. I thought it might be a school project until I realized she was setting up shop when she saw us coming—a budding entrepreneur for sure.

We continued our stroll and entered a 2,000-year-old church about a quarter mile away. When we exited the sacred building, the little girl had relocated to another spot we would pass. She was all smiles when we met her eyes a second time. As a gesture of good will, my friend Susan gave her some local currency. The little girl reached down into her basket and gave Susan the biggest stone carving she had made. Susan asked if she could have one more for a friend. The little girl smiled joyfully and handed her the next biggest stone. Susan ended our time with the little girl by telling her how beautiful she was and how wonderful her stones were. I could feel their souls bonding as they both smiled ear to ear at each other. We later learned that the amount of money Susan gave this girl was more than the girl’s father made in a week.

I felt the little girl knew more about business than most of the people I went to business school with … and maybe even more about the “school of life” that was currently in session for me. She and Susan showed me there are no boundaries when generosity, gratitude and appreciation are present.

After a few days at the Korkor Lodge I couldn’t help but think that we in first-world countries have totally missed this thing called joy as we live our very efficient twenty-first century lives. Joy is available to all of us just as it was for the little girl with her stones, the little boy with his goats, as well as the three boys pretending to hitch a ride. We don’t need to wait to be happy until we get that promotion. We don’t need to wait until we have that dream house or car. We don’t have to wait until we lose those 10 extra pounds to decide that we are whole, complete, and a “success.”

Maybe we are enough just as we are. Maybe we don’t have to keep postponing our joy. Maybe interactions with these earthbound angels are meant to teach us that we already have what we need to be happy. Maybe slowing down and taking the time to notice— with gratitude and appreciation—what is already available to us will help us remove these self-created limitations so we can live a fully joyful life.

A Curious Lack of Crosswinds

There is an old adage about mountain flying, that “the windsock points in three different directions” at mountain airports. The prospect is appropriately disconcerting to a pilot that has not flown in mountains before, as a decade and a half of flatland flying in the East Coast taught me that, if the general wind for a region is from a certain direction, well, one can easily presume that it is blowing the same direction down the runway. Any mental gymnastics as to what could be going on to create swirling winds was not necessary at the time, and therefore was relegated to the age-old heap of reasons to be afraid of mountains.

My first landing in Leadville, Colorado, after crossing Tennessee Pass in snow showers was as advertised. Winds were in three directions as foretold, so I picked something just over the numbers, did the stick and rudder dance, and got the airplane on the runway as though death was the only other option. Then I had to taxi a half mile, noting that the wind really wasn’t that bad.

A few hundred hours of flying in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana confirmed the maxim that the wind is “always” in three different directions. The US West features high valleys, open spaces, and lots of afternoon wind in summer, which is thermally driven. With such vertical winds, localized chinook action, and some orographic wind funnels, it seemed to be the norm to expect something on the wild side, generally not in line with a thing called a “forecast,” and I grew to deal with it.

Fast forward to Spain and La Cerdanya, which featured more hundreds of hours of flying, and it only partially validated this maxim. With an ambient north wind, enormous waves would set up, with a wind funneling out of the Val du Carol in France, before making a turn and working themselves out over the Pre-Pyrenees. On south wind days, a small wave would set up over our house, with slamming doors and windows, bent trees, and afternoon fury, with a light breeze two miles away at the airport. As one would expect, in flight the valley was interesting as the vertical ripples sorted themselves out and found a way to transit the range, though they were predictable. I wrote the experience off as “that’s mountain flying” whereas in retrospect, I would peg the winds as about half as complex as the US West.

Now enter the Alps. A rational presumption, due to the height, severity, and density of terrain would be to expect sheer carnage, with death-dealing winds swirling undetectably around phantom summits, ensnaring pilots that dare enter the range. I can attest that I thought such a thing, and within a short period of my initial adventures in Switzerland, my illusions of sheer terror were replaced with a feline skepticism of nearly everything I saw. Now that the on and off again Swiss adventures have piled up some decent experience, I can attest that presumptions about wind that work in the Rockies are not analogous here, at least when it comes to windsocks on the field.

I arrived at these conclusions by doing one of my “its dark, I’m playing with my computer, and I can’t go flying” exercises, tallying up total landings at various home base airports. When I added up my experiences at three different Swiss “home” base airports, I came up with some very interesting conclusions:

Sion – 16 landings – 100% on runway 25
Bex – 21 landings – 100% on runway 33
Saanen – 33 landings – 91% on runway 26
Samedan – 3 landings – 100% on runway 21

In deeper consideration, I can’t recall a “crosswind” of more than 20 degrees at any of these airports on any of these 73 landings!

One has to ask, if “the windsocks are blowing in three different directions in the mountains,” how the wind is always in one direction? In the Alps, the answer is pretty simple: aside from the reality that windsocks usually are in agreement, terrain is so steep and with such vertical relief that wind channels are formed in terrain. A prevailing crosswind can be blowing at an upper level; however, with a valley a mile or less wide yet 20 miles long, with a mile or more of steep terrain acting like walls, is it really going to rush down 5000 feet, cross the runway, rush up another 5000 feet, and keep going? Winds tend to form channels that find the path of least resistance, turning left and right down steep and long valleys until reaching a pass or relief point, where the pressure can equalize by having the wind roar over a small area to the other side. In fact, passes with towering terrain often have the strongest wind, with more relaxed breezes blowing on summits above the pass. This means that sometimes the wind turns 90 degrees or more relative to general flow down in the valleys, while maintaining a single direction above the summits.

I encountered this reality a bit in the Tetons. Instead of arcing over the Tetons with a resounding fury, rancorous rotors, and a slew of mystery, the wind most of the time just blew around them. In Glacier National Park, with 30 knots of winds at summit level, the same thing happened: winds funneled like the Alps, left and right as they found channels to get to the other side. While there are similarities, I can attest that my limited experiences of the sort in the US were nowhere near as pronounced as the uniqueness of the Alps.

Here are some photos of airports to demonstrate how terrain works:

Bex, Switzerland – The airport is halfway to the horizon. One can understand why the winds are virtually always blowing from the north (toward me in the image). Below is Martigny, which is typically quite raucous as three major wind currents converge and head east to Sion.

Just north of Sion, looking east. The previous image was taken 10 miles behind me. The Rhône Valley continues for another 30 miles, meaning that winds blow most of the time west to east down the valley.

Saanen, taken north of the field, looking west. Terrain to my right, out of the image, is about as high as the left, meaning that winds blow down the valley 91% of the time (at least for me), favoring 26 unless there is a strong post-frontal northeast wind event, for which the reverse occurs.

Samedan. What is evident at this point is that I don’t have good shots of the whole airport of any of these places. That likely has to do with the fact that I do not turn the airplane 90 degrees on final to get a wide photo of what is going on. Nonetheless, the terrain that is on the other side of the airport is mirrored just behind me as I am painfully close to the trees on the right while on downwind. This valley configuration is at least 20 miles long, meaning relatively consistent wind patterns.


In separate news, book #23 is published: Mountain Texture: Glaciers of the Alps. Like my three prior aerial texture works, it features close up perspectives of the many textures and details of glaciers found in Italy, France, and Switzerland.

Airline-owned flight schools

United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.

Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.

Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.

Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.

I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright

On Second Thought: Stop Listening to yourself and Start Talking to yourself

When I first got my Mooney I traveled a lot from my Oregon home in the Columbia River Gorge to my parents’ home in the Gold Country of California. And although I had flown in a Mooney for a few decades (my Father’s M20C/D) I hadn’t owned my Mooney, Maggie, but a couple of months.

I was flying home to Oregon from California. I planned a fuel stop at Red Bluff, California (KRBL),  a small nontowered airport where the fuel prices were good. The winds were gusty, but pretty much right down the runway. I flew a full pattern versus a straight in. I carried a little extra speed to compensate for the gusts. On my first landing approach I was going too fast and I bounced. Being pretty new at the Mooney it only took one hop and I went around. “Red Bluff traffic red and white Mooney is going around.” Okay, I told myself, just fly the numbers and you will do fine. It was hot and windy but I was determined to land safely, fill my tanks, use the facilities and get homeward bound. I will cut to the chase… two more landing attempts, two more bounces and two more go arounds. I felt embarrassed and making those radio calls was making me feel like a loser. The last time I just announced I was leaving the traffic pattern to the North.

I had flown the route numerous times. I knew that there was no fuel in between me and Mount Shasta and that I didn’t have enough fuel to make it to my home base, Hood River, Oregon. As I climbed up I stopped listening to myself: “People on the ground at Red Bluff were probably shaking their heads at the girl Mooney pilot that couldn’t land.” “Just leave, leave the area, get the heck out of here.” “Maybe you have enough fuel to go in to Dunsmuir.” What I chose to do instead was start talking to myself: “Redding airport is right there.” “Stop at Redding which has a longer and wider runway.” “Saving a few bucks on fuel isn’t worth the risk of an incident.”

Learning to fly in rural Oregon meant that I had real-life experience flying in winter weather, mountain flying, and backcountry airstrips. What I didn’t have was a ton of experience flying in to towered airports. I asked myself a question that I remember to this day, “What are you going to do Sis? Fly until you run out of fuel? Or fly the airplane?” I decided to fly above the Class Delta airspace, listen to the tower frequency, and ascertain the traffic flow. I flew to the area where I could fly left traffic, which I was more familiar with. I contacted the tower, told them my intentions to land, and also said I was unfamiliar with the airport. I had a spectacular landing and was off at the first taxiway.

You might wonder what I mean about stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself. In the next three blogs I focus on the materials I developed for my 2020 presentation series, “Nail your Check ride.” These concepts can help you to pass any checkride you have in your future, but can, as well, be applied to every day life.

You cannot control your first thought,

but you can control your second thought

In stressful situations our first thought is typically processed through a primitive part of our brain, the amygdala. This almond shaped part of the brain is highly emotionally reactive but only gives us three or four choices. Three of these choices are: Fight, Flight, And Freeze. In many ways the amygdala is like a restaurant in which there are only four items on the menu.

We cannot control our first stressful thought, but we can control our second thought.  We need to make decisions in the higher part of the brain, not in the part of the brain we share with dogs or cats. This front part of the high brain gives us endless choices, the ability synthesize information and make decisions that are not merely reactions. I call this part of our brain the Board Room. We have to be cognitively active in the Board Room.

Stressful First Thought:

  • Flight: You need to run
  • Fight: You need to fight
  • Freeze: Brain is offline, like a DVD on pause

Second thought:

  • Take it to the Board Room. The high brain has the ability to consider a situation more objectively, analyze risk, assess potential courses of action, and make a decision based on wisdom versus fear.

In the example of my flight to Red Bluff you can see that after the first bounce I was able to use my high brain to come up with a calming, reassuring thought, “Fly your numbers.” It wasn’t until the stress of the second and third attempts overrode Board Room, and fear crept in. First I had “flight”= leave the traffic pattern, the perceived judgment and stress. Then came “freeze”= climb out and circle, a bit in a daze. It was only when I recognized these two fear-based reactions that I could have the insight and judgment based on wisdom that would help get me to Redding Airport safely.

In the airplane, or in a checkride/test situation, we don’t want the ancient part of our brain that we share with animals, making our decisions. We need to take it to the high, front part of our brain that gives us access to a decision-making tree. If you act on your first thought, there is a high likelihood that decision is based on fear. If, however you are in control of your second thought, chances are your decision will be based on wisdom.

If you are headed to Sun ‘n Fun at the end of the month, please consider joining me for the full workshop on April 4th at 2:00 p.m. at the AOPA Pavilion. I have generous door prizes from: Lift Aviation, Flying Eyes Optics, and King Schools.   Come and learn the psychological and physical ways to nail your checkride. As a practicing psychotherapist for 28 years, I have come to understand and appreciate the confluence of the psychology of life and the psychology of flight. In our next installment “Act the Way you Want to Feel,” we will cover techniques you can apply to feel calmer and more prepared. I look forward to your comments and seeing many of you at Sun ‘n Fun, AOPA Regional Fly-InsEAA Oshkosh Airventure, and beyond.

The new me: Zen Moments flying over the South Pole

Change, welcome or unwelcome, is going on all the time. Our challenge and our opportunity is to be aware of that change and use it for the greatest good. After flying my 1983 Turbo Commander for 18 hours non-stop from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole and back over some of the most beautiful, but unforgiving terrain on the planet–not knowing how my airplane would perform with ten fuel tanks and flying biofuels for the first time over the Pole at -60 degrees Celsius — I discovered that it’s impossible not have change happen inside of you. This leg of my polar circumnavigation was a defining moment that started change in motion that will have a lifelong impact on me. While it’s hard to know what the exact impact will be, it has gotten me thinking, processing and wondering how this experience will affect my present and future life and the future of the planet.

Flying over the South Pole

The impossibly big dream recognized

The first thing I thought when the big 16-ply tires of Citizen of the World touched down on terra firma was, “Oh my God! I did it! I’m alive! I made it!” I learned I am capable of going after, preparing for, and accomplishing something that was bigger than I ever thought I was capable of achieving. I really had gone after the impossibly big dream, which I had dreamed about, written about, and spoken about in my first book, Flying Thru Life.

As I prepared to leave Ushuaia headed southbound that Monday morning, December 16, 2019, I kept my self-talk as positive as I could, but underneath the bravado, I honestly wasn’t sure if I was coming back. I had assessed my chances for survival at 50 percent–not just making it to the South Pole, but a 50 percent chance of being alive after the next 24 hours.

Given all the unknowns and first-time ‘it’s been done’ modifications I had made on the aircraft, I knew I had never embarked on such a difficult journey with a higher probability of absolute failure. I thought about all the people who were counting on me whom I had talked with or heard from in the previous hours and days. Even the local hotel owner, who had been so kind to me, was on my mind. Before I left my hotel room, I packed up my things so if I didn’t make it back, they could be returned to my family without causing the owner much difficulty — he hadn’t asked me to come into his place of business and create extra work for him. This was my doing, my dream — and now, my reality and possibly, my demise.

It wasn’t a dream

Fortunately, my dream became a reality. But, I wondered at first. For the month that followed the successful completion of the South Pole leg I was still floating in the clouds. My feet were not planted firmly on the ground. I really did not believe I had done it. How could I have done it? If you applied a rational thought process, including the laws of physics, to taking a thirty seven year-old airplane that was designed to fly for seven hours and increasing its non-stop flight hours to 18 hours, it was really beyond reason and probability that it would stay in the air. After landing, I walked around in a daze for days actually afraid to wake up in the morning and found myself imagining that I was belted into a bed in a psychiatric hospital or doing meaningless work somewhere realizing I had been living a life getting by day to day having no impact on the world. Sometimes, when I would tell people what I was planning or what I had just done, they would just get a blank look on their faces, as if what I said wasn’t even within their perception of reality. Our interactions reminded me of the story of the natives in the New World who couldn’t see the early explorers off the coast arriving because it was beyond their comprehension. Like the natives, when I shared what I was doing, people would go on as if I had never said anything.

Falling in love with Citizen of the World

I know that during this trip I fell in love with my airplane, Citizen of the World. I think I know what Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, in the movie Cast Away felt like when he personified that soccer ball into “Wilson,” his best friend, after being alone on an island for so long. Citizen became more than an aircraft to me on that Polar flight.

Truth be told, I was always a little afraid of the power of this aircraft. With 2300 horsepower, a 52-foot wingspan and an enormous roar from engines that are running at 100-percent torque, this machine is a force. My previous airplane, Spirit of San Diego, was an elegant, long-bodied aircraft, but Citizen is all muscle—a brute force like a charging bull that you’re not going to be able to stop. On this flight, Citizen showed me what an old but solid airplane with major modifications is still capable of doing. I put the aircraft under so much strain–and it continued to meet my demands and delivered in such form–that I was left speechless at times. Imagine a plane sitting almost fully loaded with fuel for a South Pole Flight and not springing a leak, not blowing out the struts or bending the wing spar! I remember as I sat waiting for takeoff clearance at Ushuaia, I promised Citizen that I would never demand so much from her again.

Once I took off, the airplane climbed in a narrow channel and I performed a 180-degree turn so heavy-laden with fuel that even I doubted it could be done. Citizen climbed at almost 1800-feet-per-second like it was a walk in the park all the way up to 28,000 feet in 58 minutes. Unbelievable! This is a testament to the brilliance of engineer Fred Gatz, who designed the wing for Gulfstream and did the feasibility study.

Stronger than I could have imagined

In the process of completing this flight, I realized I was so much stronger than I had imagined. The months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes leading up to my departure were the most challenging of my life. The universe accelerated personal issues leading up to my departure. Instead of getting three problems every week they started rolling in at a rate of three per day. It was like the universe was trying to test me with enormous mental and emotional weights and see if I was strong enough — if I was worthy of being an aviation Polar circumnavigator.

On this journey, I built a level of trust in myself that I never had before. I was up for over 30 hours before I completed the mission and returned to bed. I started the flight at 2:30 in the afternoon when I normally would be winding down my day. I had almost called off departure due to the rejected flight plan, winds in the wrong direction for takeoff, permits that we were told we would not need, but actually did need, and because I didn’t want to return to a departure airport in the dark when I was exhausted.

I wondered at take-off and all throughout the flight, “How many times will I be tested on this trip? How strong must I be? What are you trying to prepare me for?” I’m still finding answers, but I know I see the world differently now. A few things I’ve noticed are that I am incredibly grateful for every breath, I walk with a little more confidence, and I believe that God kept me around for a reason bigger than me.

The plane was finally ready

During the two years leading up to departure it seemed like something would break on every flight. New systems that we installed continued to create emergency situations during test flights. All these modifications not working as promised and needed to be repaired, replaced or fine-tuned, which drained my bank account and my patience, delayed my departure three times over two years and made me lose faith in the aircraft. My friends heard me complaining about the enormous cost of this project even with the generous support of my 90-plus sponsors providing help with services, parts and their vast technical expertise. Preparing a plane to perform at a level three times what it was designed to do is a fantastic undertaking—and one I began doubting myself for doing. Miraculously, we finally did reach the point where I knew it could do a flight this big and ambitious. The airplane has worked very reliably during all legs of the flight to date and worked flawlessly on the South Pole leg with the exception of a single fuel gauge that went offline for just about five minutes.

People of the world

One of the most meaningful, enjoyable, and “in-joyable” learning elements of the trip so far is that I have gained enormous respect for all the people I’m meeting around the world. I have seen citizens in the most remote parts of the planet show compassion and respect for my efforts, for my struggle and for what seemed like an impossible mission at times. Prior to the South Pole departure, a group of four young people in Ushuaia became my friends and in the eleventh hour helped me get my permit from Chile. As I flew nine hours into the deepest part of the South Pole and was feeling so alone, I made contact with Cory, an air traffic controller at the South Pole and his colleagues, who complimented me for flying the experiments for NASA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the betterment of the planet. It may not seem like a lot, but it meant the world to me that my new friends wished me luck on the nine-hour flight back to Ushuaia. That encouragement reminded me that there’s still a little seven-year-old boy inside me making paper airplanes, and like all of humanity, wanting love and encouragement, a dream to grow into, and family and friends to share the journey with.

Ushuaia Team who helped me get my permit from Chile at the last minute

Change in me

One last thing, and maybe the most important, and to paraphrase social justice leader Mahatma Gandhi — I have realized that the change that is needed in the world must start with each of us. It begins in our hearts and minds and is reflected in the world around us. If we can each find inner peace within ourselves wherever we are, we can then share that peace with others wherever they are.

We are also tasked with taking peaceful action and not waiting for others to do our work for us.  It’s up to each of us to do something positive for our communities, for humanity and the planet. As the International Children’s Choir from nations all around the world has been singing every year since I was a child, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Just before take-off from Ushuaia, Argentina to the South Pole

« Older posts Newer posts »