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Crossing the North Pole three times

Yesterday as I prepared for my first ever North Pole crossing things were going pretty smoothly. Almost too smoothly. I’m used to last minute surprises especially before taking off. But then I remembered I’ve had over 18 months to prepare for this leg. I thought maybe the Universe was finally going to throw me a bone. The taxi showed up on time the morning of departure, the airport manager let him on the ramp—which never happens, the new coordinates for my flight worked in the Flight Management System, I had no leaking fuel from the plane after fueling the night before, the tires held air, the emergency oxygen was near full, the nitrogen charge was still within limits…it was almost hard to believe. The Citizen of the World was in all her glory, fierce and it was a fantastic thing to see.

The good fortune continued as the airport allowed me to take off early without charging me, the tower operator showed up early and got me into the air traffic control system on the ground, and the engines fired right up as they always do. All avionics systems came online immediately, and I thought “Isn’t life wonderful!” I started down the runway like a bat out of hell with enough fuel to get me back to Alaska in the United States after being away for eight very long months. I still had six weeks to go to be back in San Diego but I was getting closer.

As I climbed above the solid cloud layer that extended all the way to Alaska things were going well. I had a great climb rate even with the extra fuel. I flew over Svalbard, Norway, which had been rejecting my departure requests for over a month. I thought skipping one stop reduced my risk and it was time to get going while the North Pole was a nice warm -43 Celsius compared to the -60C I experience near the South Pole.

About two hours out of Kiruna, Sweden, I was beyond VHF radio comms range and my luck started to change. My HF radio was not picking up anything and I was at a wrong-way altitude. My satellite phone calls to Bodo Oceanic control over the most remote part of the planet didn’t work either. I got through to Oceanic control on my satellite phone I just couldn’t hear a word they were saying, and I assumed they couldn’t hear me either. Considering I had eight hours of open ocean flying to do this was going to be a major problem.

One-hundred-fifty miles from the True North Pole things really started to happen. My two flight management systems/GPS units started to fall offline since they didn’t have a satellite signal. This was odd since this didn’t happen until about 75 miles from the South Pole. I figured there would be more coverage over the North Pole since it was a more traveled route. My autopilot would still hold in heading mode, so I made the adjustment and continued on my way using my iPad. “No problem,” I thought as this felt like old times over the South Pole!

About 25 miles from the True North Pole things got really scary. One of my Attitude Heading & Reference Systems went offline. I remember thinking, “this is why I have two ADAHRS systems.”  I flipped the switch and nothing. With the loss of the units I also lost the autopilot. The airplane jerked to one side and I began to attempt to take it offline at 30,000 feet. The yoke cutoff switch chirped but didn’t stop the turn. I was fighting the autopilot at this point and pushed the off button on the autopilot unit itself, but it still didn’t work. At this point, I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and had a thought that this was how those 737 Max planes went down. I reached over to the left and pulled the autopilot circuit breaker with the yellow cap I had marked so it was easy to find in a jam. That was my last hope short of shutting the power completely off over the North Pole which sounded, in a word, “terrifying.” This emergency was making no sense to me. But just as I pulled the breaker the resistance faded away and I felt a slight sigh of relief.

Crossing the Magnetic South Pole I got a brief look at the snow, ice and water the ground through the clouds.

To put things into perspective, I’m five hours of flight time from land, 30,000 feet up over a cloud layer at a wrong-way altitude doing almost 400 mph over the North Pole with no comms. I was using only my iPad to navigate, hand flying in RVSM airspace (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) that requires an autopilot to maintain precise flight level with no autopilot and by myself. My first non-Zen words were unprintable in a family publication. So much for an easy flight across the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole and the North Pole of Inaccessibility!

What I did have was a visual horizon for the time being, two working Honeywell TPE 331-10T engines, two kick-ass MT 5 bladed scimitar nickel tipped composite props, and about three hours of extra fuel which could potentially just extend my misery as I flew in circles around the North Pole while my followers wondered why my track on the InReach explorer was so erratic. I had a directional gyro and knew it would hold my course for a time but as I turned from the North Pole, to the Magnetic North Pole, and finally to the North Pole of Inaccessibility, I got confused and knew it couldn’t hold a course forever.

As if to tease or taunt me, the flight management systems would periodically come online but then fall offline a short time later. This felt like cosmic torture as I had conflicting heading information from multiple points on my panel. My magnetic compass said one thing, my two flight management systems/GPS units had a different heading, my L3 backup system said something else, my directional gyro offered another heading, and my radar display showed yet another heading. “Which do I believe?” I thought. “Will I run out of fuel or fly in circles over the North Pole?”

As I was trying to hold the altitude constant in an airspace that was separated by 500 feet from opposing traffic I start shutting down and restarting the failed systems. The ADAHRS tried to realign in motion but couldn’t do its two-minute alignment. Eventually I realized the flight management systems appeared to have the aircraft flying backwards along the track for a time, then one would right and then go backwards. I was totally confused and trying to make sense out of the conflicting information.

Now I was seriously scared. I was very much alone, and the laws of physics didn’t seem to apply. There were no reference points in the cloud layer below me as far as the eye could see and a bunch of red Xs across my screen. I couldn’t help but wonder what a mess I had gotten myself into. I thought they would be talking about this for a long time. The naysayers were going to have a field day.

I took a minute to take a few deep “Zen” breaths in the midst of the shit storm that was unfolding around me. I took a personal inventory and realized I was still in the air, was straight and level, and wasn’t out of options yet. This was fast becoming a test of my faith.

As I moved between the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole, and the North Pole of Inaccessibility I was mostly hand-flying and occasionally overpowering the autopilot when it didn’t want to turn.

As I continued to hand fly, I realized my autopilot could maintain altitude and it seemed to fly on a heading once I set it but needed to be restarted to program a new heading. Next I realized that my Apple iPad seemed to be as accurate as it had been over the South Pole as well. How odd that a $1,000 iPad was working when $100,000 of avionics seemed totally confused. Flying like this was of course totally illegal but I had no choice. I was doing what my instructors had told me to do, which was “just fly the plane.” I was lucky to have a visual horizon above the clouds for as far as the eye could see.

I expected the failed systems to come back online in about 30 minutes but to my surprise everything stayed offline until I reached the coast of Alaska some five hours later. I literally watched as one system failed and then would come back online with the information making no sense. It was extremely stressful, and I was searching for the lesson in all of this. When the systems came back online at the coast of Alaska, they acted like the bad school kid who misbehaves when the teacher is out of the room and then reverts to becoming the perfect angel when the teacher returns. I realized that the issue was the lack of a satellite signal and not that the systems weren’t working.

Eventually as I got close to the coast of Alaska, I realized that the weather was not the broken clouds that were forecast at Prudhoe Bay/Dead Horse. Instead, I had 300-foot ceilings. Being as that I had been flying for so long and had 3.5 hours of fuel left, I decided to extend my flight for another hour-and-a-half to land in Fairbanks where I was hoping to meet my film crew the following day. As a side note, on my first call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the director told me he could arrest me, impound my airplane and severely fine me if I landed in Prudhoe Bay where they didn’t have an agent.  When I told him my first priority was my life and that weather over vast distances was unpredictable as was aircraft equipment, he told me if I had planned better I wouldn’t be having such a problem. I hung up feeling a bit defeated. About two hours later I got a call back from the director and he said I could land in Prudhoe Bay for an overnight stay but would have to call Customs when I landed, and be in Fairbanks the next day.

It is hard to put into words how I felt when I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska. We had a mechanic and restaurant owner at the airport come over and snap a few pictures. Myself and the film crew that had just arrived by car were offered a delicious pizza lunch by the Wendy, the owner. As we ate, I stared at the plane with a blank expression on my face, exhausted, and in total disbelief of what had just transpired. I felt shock, pride, and relief all at the same time, and just wanted to sleep for a day. My focus was so narrow it was impossible to comprehend what I had just pulled off and the impact it would have on our mission—and I hoped—on the world. Calls and messages would come in for the next 48 hours congratulating me and my team. Most of them had no idea what I had been through, but I was so touched by those that reached out in the most-kind way.

One example that summed up the Citizen of the World’s challenges during the Polar Circumnavigation was from Eddie Gould, one of my handlers from General Aviation Support Egypt.

“Adventures like yours do inspire and create so much more than what you have personally achieved. Having this adventure during one of the world’s most horrific periods must rank high above many of the worthy exploits undertaken by [other] pilots.

I guess we, on the ground, have felt invested in your quest in a way that others would not. Your successes in the air are also ours. I have a massive smile, and I know Ahmed does too, when we get something approved, or a plan works out or even when you say  ‘this hotel is fantastic,’ the work we do in the background can be enjoyable, satisfying and at times…frustrating…like when you lose comms or someone doesn’t answer a phone in an office 7,000 miles away. But your adventures create the memories for us too…and this adventure is yours and our crowning glory…you took on everything the planet could throw at you, faced dangers in every corner of the globe and even had to change everything you knew about to become a Spanish recluse and then a Viking hermit!

I hope you make the book at least half as exciting as the reality was…and by the way…the aircraft was amazing and beautiful :-).”

I’m so happy to share this adventure with all of you and my hope is that it will in some way inspire you to go into the world and be a positive force in the world. To shine as brightly as you can and to allow your dreams to become your reality.

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 flying his second record-breaking circumnavigation from Pole to Pole in his aircraft “Citizen of the World,” on a global peace mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

Citizen of the World: The Bridge between Aviation and Space

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

The flight of the “Citizen of the World,” now scheduled for June 2019, is a flight that will change aviation and quite possibly space travel. Yes, this is a bold statement and an impossibly big dream that is on the brink of coming true with the help of a brilliant team of scientists, engineers, and aviation geniuses who inspire us all to go beyond what we think is possible.

People often ask me why I’m taking on a project of this magnitude and risk. Again and again, I come back to this truth: It’s the most ambitious thing you can do with an aircraft unless you have rocket motors to get you out of the atmosphere. In many ways I’m finding with “Citizen of the World” that we are passing the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere into outer space through the technology onboard.

First and foremost, the satellite communicator in my DeLorme InReach Mini from satphonestore.com allows me to use the Iridium satellite constellation to text, email, and post to social media; get weather updates; and reach out for help if I ever need it—all this without needing cell service! Satellite voice communication is also used as a backup should my onboard and backup UHV, VHF, and HF comms develop “issues.” (But we all know that will never happen, right?!)

Second, the flight will be tracked by a new constellation of 67 Aireon satellites. A supplement and follow-on to the Iridium network, this will be the first time that global tracking is available and the first time that an aircraft will be continuously tracked from the South Pole to the North Pole. Twenty-four million subscribers and followers will be watching with the help of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out information. This is an exciting and important contribution to the world because it will help route airplanes around the planet more efficiently while saving time, reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and reducing the cost of travel.

Third, “Citizen of the World” will be carrying a proof-of-concept Wafer Craft Spaceship designed by UCSB scientists contracted by NASA. As reported in the Flying Thru Life blog:

The Wafer Scale spacecraft experiment will consist of several small (~ 10 cm diam x 1 cm thick) “spacecraft” that are prototypes for the NASA Starlight program. Each spacecraft will be self-contained except for need a small amount of power (~ 1 watt each). All the spacecraft will be a box that is about 30x30x30 cm. Each spacecraft will have a GPS, optical communications devices to interact with each other, ultra-low power radio (optional), inertial navigation, temperature and optical imaging sensors. No dangerous or poisonous materials will be on-board. In addition to power we will need a GPS cable (RG-174 coax) to a small GPS antenna that can be mounted near a window. Data will be recorded onboard and could optionally be transmitted via a small satellite communication interface back to the US.

The “Citizen of the World” will be transmitting information continuously back to the scientists in the United States. This same experiment will next fly on the Amazon Blue Origin rocket and then eventually on a NASA mission into space in 2059!

Fourth and lastly (for now), speaking of NASA missions, “Citizen of the World” may have an astronaut on board for a leg of the flight. That’s all I can say at this time, but stay tuned and keep dreaming your impossibly big dreams—when the Greeks envisioned “space sailors,” astronauts were a twinkle in the sky, and today they sail around our planet and land on the moon.

In many ways, the boundary between two worlds has become blurred with “Citizen of the World.” Not only are its wings turned toward the sky; this aircraft will get as close to space as possible without actually going there, thanks to the Water Craft spaceship onboard and the array of satellite technology that is being activated.

Call me crazy, but it’s not only me that sees this unique connection on “Citizen of the World’s” pole-to-pole flight and mission, “Oneness for Humanity.” Aviation Weekly & Space Technology editor William Garvey wrote a commentary published online on Sept. 21, and in print in their Oct. 1 to 14 issue:

The aircraft will participate in the Wafer Scale spacecraft experiment using extremely small “spacecraft” prototypes for NASA’s Starlight program, which is exploring using large scale directed energy to propel small spacecraft that could enable humanity’s first interstellar missions.

The intersection of aviation and aerospace engineering and human creativity opens a stream of energy that can change history and expand what’s possible for humanity when we are willing to go beyond what we think is possible.

“Houston, ‘Citizen of the World’ is ready!”

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 flying his second record-breaking circumnavigation from Pole to Pole in his aircraft “Citizen of the World,” on a global peace mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

Master your environment

Helicopter pilots work in an amazing, ever-changing environment. The skills necessary to accomplish the task at hand require a high level of concentration, ability, and finesse. Whether it is flying circles around some of God’s greatest work, air medical operations, or instructing the next generation of helicopter pilots how well you utilize your skills can easily be determined by how aware you are with all components of your flying duties. In other words, you must be fully involved and a master of your environment.

WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?

You can’t master what you don’t know. Environment can be defined as “the setting or conditions in which a particular activity is carried on.” The activity is easily defined as flying, however, it is the setting or conditions that can make or break you. It would be impossible to list all of the components that define a particular flying environment but several are common to most, if not all, flight operations. These mainstays include: aircraft, airspace, weather, and regulations.

AIRCRAFT If you really want to get to know your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures, make a plan to review the Rotorcraft Flight Manual on a regular basis. Pick a chapter in the RFM each month of the year and review it religiously. Know the RFM inside and out.

AIRSPACE I used to wonder why designated pilot examiners and check airmen were so stringent about airspace during checkrides. After a few years of operational flying and getting the life scared out of me by people that didn’t know understand it, I realized why this was a pet-peeve of many examiners. Not knowing airspace is like driving in a foreign country with road signs in a language you can’t begin to comprehend. If it has been a while since you actually used a sectional chart to navigate the various classes of airspace here is a good way to humble yourself; on one of your next flights turn the GPS off. Use good old fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning to find your way. Ask yourself where you are on the chart, where you came from, and where you are going. What airspace are you travelling through? What are the weather minimums? What equipment is required? Transponder? Who do you need to talk to? On what frequency? You get the idea. If you are going to master your environment you must know everything about the airspace you are transiting in and out of.

I have a rule about avionics and eyeballs that are in any aircraft I am flying. No avionics or eyeballs ride for free. If you got’em use them! As an example, if you have two GPS systems use both of them. Use one for your destination and the other for a nearby airport close to your departure area that has an instrument approach in the event you inadvertently fly in to the clouds shortly after take-off.

WEATHER If you think all you need to know about weather comes from those ridiculous questions on the FAA knowledge exams you are mistaken. Most areas experience some sort of regional microclimate. Get to know the weather patterns in your area and when to expect them. If you are flying in an area unfamiliar to you, reach out to other helicopter pilots and pick their brains on local weather patterns. The accident statistics are full of stories about helicopter pilots that didn’t have a working knowledge of local weather patterns.

REGULATIONS In this day and age of technology the current regulations can easily be placed in electronic format on all of your neat gadgets. Know all of the regulations that apply to your particular operations and know them well. If you don’t understand a particular regulation, seek clarification. Wiggle-room has no place when The Man is ready to take enforcement action against you. A quick survey of NASA reports shows several high-time pilots making mistakes involving regulations. Like the Rotorcraft Flight Manual, the federal regulations pertaining to your certificate privileges and operating activities need a periodic review.

HOW TO STAY SHARP? Whatever you do, don’t lose the awe factor. Not long ago I read a story about a 39-year physician. This fellow was in his late 80’s, and he still went to the office every day. His friends and family tried to get him to retire, but he simply refused. He had invented a procedure that he had performed more than 10,000 times. He was asked in an interview if he ever got tired of doing it, if it ever got old. He said, “No. The reason why is because I act like every operation is my very first one.” If you find yourself losing that awe of spooling up and pulling pitch, it may be time for a break. Taking pride in what you do and doing it with excellence can foster an attitude that enables you to master your environment.