Pole to Pole... US adventure pilot's historic mission
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Durban - Family, love, safety and health.
Those are the primary concerns of the people US aviator Robert DeLaurentis, 54, has met during his many travels around the world - not race, religion or politics. And it is these common threads through humanity that will form a major part of his journey - flying from the South Pole to the North Pole in his plane, Citizen of the World.
A documentary and book, Peace Pilot: To The Ends of the Earth and Beyond, will record the journey from the bottom to the top of the world.
In 2015, DeLaurentis circumnavigated the globe, being the first solo pilot to do so in a small single-engine plane, a Piper Malibu Mirage named Spirit of Santiago, which carried him for 26000 nautical miles over 23 countries.
De Laurentis was in Durban for a three-day stopover on his epic new Pole To Pole journey which started on December 16 when he completed the first leg of the trip, flying from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole cap and back. He flew a 1983 Gulfstream Turbine Commander 900 and this 18-hour start to his journey was the first time biofuels were used over the South Pole and the greatest distance and time ever flown in a Turbine Commander plane.
“That was a historic day for me, for aviation, and coincided with the anniversary of the first flight on December 16, 1903, flown by the Wright brothers.
“I feel as though my entire life was preparing me for this trip. The flight to the South Pole and back was the hardest trip I’ve ever had,” said DeLaurentis.
With temperatures at -60ºC, there was always the risk of his fuel gelling, while other challenges included loss of navigation many times, pilot fatigue and the risk of having nowhere to land. “When I left (Ushuaia), I felt as though I had never done anything riskier in my life and it was a 50% chance I would still be alive in the following 24 hours.
“The best moment was when I lifted off from Ushuaia because we had never tested the plane with that much fuel before. It was very heavy and I had to bank 180 degrees. The plane did very well and at that moment I felt we had a good chance,” said DeLaurentis.
The flight also included some scientific firsts, including first-time testing for plastics in the atmosphere and the first time flying a Nasa Wafer Scale Spacecraft, a prototype which Nasa intends to blast out to space to conduct interstellar probes.
Growing up in California, DeLaurentis loved model planes as a boy. Obtaining a degree in accounting, he served as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, moving into property development after his naval career. When he retired at the age of 43, he turned his attention to his first passion - aviation.
He wrote his first book Flying Thru Life, followed by Zen Pilot, about his 2015 circumnavigation tracking the equator from east to west.
“I remember one day I was walking in Balboa Park in San Diego and the grass seemed greener, the air cool and clear and the birds were chirping. I suddenly realised I had been numb towards my family, my friends and my work in the property market. I needed to start an inner journey.”
In Zen Pilot, DeLaurentis explores his own journey within, covering some of his most harrowing moments during his circumnavigation, such as engine failure over the Malacca Straits, 20 nautical miles from the nearest landing point.
“I felt terrified and sweat was pouring down my back, oil was leaking and spraying on to the exhaust. I like to think there are spiritual moments when we are close to death,” he said.
Circumnavigation took six months of planning and DeLaurentis said he believed firmly in an “impossibly big dream” and that the trip had gathered a global audience, which led to two years of planning for his Pole To Pole journey.
“I was online reading about the South and North poles and the fact that the two poles are the only places on the globe where peace has always existed. I wanted to do something to promote peace. I think we are all tired of waiting for politicians to do something. So we (DeLaurentis and his team) wanted to go into the world and be the change,” he said.
Interviewing people from across the globe was an integral part of the Pole To Pole journey.
“Our plane is called Citizen of the World and we have been interviewing as many people as we can. From a paraglider in Argentina to a park ranger here in South Africa, the common themes are family, safety, love and health, irrespective of race and religion. People are far more alike than not,” he said, adding that the motto for the Pole To Pole journey was “one planet, one people, one plane, oneness and humanity”.
“I’ve also noticed that when talking to younger kids, they are aware of the major issues on the planet and how the future rests on their shoulders. They are ready for action and that always makes me a little emotional,” said DeLaurentis.
His next stops are Mauritius and Madagascar, before he heads northwards through Africa.
The Pole To Pole trip has been scheduled to take six months.The Independent on Saturday