There are moments aloft when it’s just you and the airplane, when you transcend mere existence. When there is no separateness — all sound fades away, you suddenly “see” more than eyes take in, your body still goes through the motions, but you are beyond it all.
Somehow, a glimmer of complete, blissful comprehension. A Zen moment.
In the words of self-described Zen pilot Robert DeLaurentis, “Flying is a spiritual experience.”
In the brief eight years he’s been flying, DeLaurentis has certainly pushed the envelope. In 2015, he was the first to fly a single-engine Piper Malibu around the world. Next month, he plans to start an even riskier venture — flying pole to pole, along Earth’s meridians.
Why? It’s not about glory for this Italian-American businessman, author, and former Navy lieutenant commander. It’s about connections. Pilots, he says, are ambassadors wherever they go. DeLaurentis is already in touch with U.N. offices along his itinerary.
“The plane is a global billboard for any cause,” he told me during a phone interview this week. “I named this plane (a modified Twin Commander 900) the Citizen of the World — but it’s also a citizen for the world, and at a time when the world is so divided and polarized, this is a way to connect the poles — and the people.
Along the way DeLaurentis plans to ask people what it means to be a citizen of the world. He expects the answers will have much in common.
“One planet, one people, one plane. Oneness and humanity.”
That’s what he concluded when he circumnavigated the globe three years ago.
“When I left I had defined people by race, ethnicity, political or religious affiliation,” he said. “But I realized the things all people have in common is their desire for children, to have work, health and happiness. There’s a lot more similarities than differences among people.”
That’s an example of how flying can provide spiritual and life lessons. He hopes the high profile of this big adventure can do that for the world’s 7.7 billion people. He wants to inspire others, proving no dream is impossible — a theme from his book, “Flying Thru Life.”
Why fly along meridians? Being in magnetic alignment has spiritual significance, he says.
“The direction of energy flow from south to north — it’s uplifting. The south and north poles are the only place where there is peace and cooperation among men, so flying (this course) connects the poles and everyone in between.”
His 26,000 nautical mile “global peace mission” starts and ends at El Cajon, Calif. He estimates it will take three to six months, including stops and lectures in more than 20 countries across South America, Africa, and Europe.
Things will get lonelier near the poles, as well as more dangerous. One leg near the South Pole is 4,457 nautical miles over blinding white; the Antarctic ice sheet is bigger than the U.S. and Mexico combined. That means he can’t sleep for up to 17 hours.
He was worried about staying awake, so he asked another adventuring pilot how he did it. The answer was quite simple.
“It’s fear! You’re too scared to fall asleep.”
With the exception of a few brief legs, when he will be joined by Susan Gilbert, the pilot who took DeLaurentis for his first small plane ride, DeLaurentis will be flying alone. But it takes a team of experts to prepare and monitor such an epic journey. Custom designs for the aircraft to handle extreme temperatures, navigate, and carry spare fuel; logistics such as landing and other government permits; and insurance necessitate much help and expense. DeLaurentis is partly self-funding, but also has sponsors and welcomes donations.
This flight also benefits STEM education, he said. The Citizen of the World will be carrying student-designed experiments and “wafer spacecraft,” part of a NASA-funded, University of California experiment called the Starlight Program.
“They’re basically a little circuit board with many components of a spaceship,” he said.
“In the future when [NASA] sends something into orbit, they’ll be space drones that gather pictures and data. Their next space mission will be in 2059; they can blast these things into orbit every 15 minutes.”
The Zen pilot, a California resident who has visited Coeur d’Alene, founded a charity which provides flight training scholarships to youth (Delaurentisfoundation.org). Our nation is facing a serious pilot shortage.
For more information and inspiration see Flyingthrulife.com/pole-to-pole. My thanks to local reader and pilot Anne Anderson for connecting me with DeLaurentis.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network, pilot, and member of the Coeur d’Alene Airport Advisory Board. Email: Sholeh@cdapress.com