Robert DeLaurentis, who called himself the Zen Pilot before he launched May 18 on a 95-day, around-the-world flight to showcase aviation, returned a changed man—someone he calls the Zen Pilot Version 2.0.
The trip, flown in his 1997 Piper Malibu Mirage, was completed Aug. 24. It promises to provide limitless topics for the San Diego, California-based author and blogger, whose second book, Flying Thru Life, was released as his journey was ending, to tackle in future works.
"It was all so rich with experience and learning," he said by phone. "I am still getting my arms around it, and I’m beginning to realize what an epic journey it was."
Not just epic as a 27,000-mile aeronautical undertaking. Although DeLaurentis, a pilot of modest experience, had flown long legs and accomplished previous ocean crossings, the journey was an eye-opener about the demands of circumnavigating the globe. When the going got tough, the human factor didn’t always improve the situation. After some difficult days, it took "enormous trust" to get back into his aircraft, named Spirit of San Diego, as he discussed in a Sept. 2 blog.
One of the flight’s missions was for DeLaurentis to act as an ambassador for general aviation, and it was when serving in that role DeLaurentis came to understand how much work remains to be done.
"I was quite honestly shocked by how many challenges GA is facing around the world," he said, launching into a series of anecdotes. DeLaurentis learned that in some countries with only handfuls of GA aircraft and government aviation policy focused on large air carriers, maintenance requires an international flight. In Gibraltar, his emailed requests for an overnight stay were denied three times; his fourth message, gussied up with a reference to the fact that his flight boasted 200,000 followers in the United Kingdom, produced a better result.
"They pretty much came back and said, 'Glad to have you,'" he said.
Laos, he said, wanted to charge him thousands of dollars "just to land." In Muscat, the capital of Oman, the cost of his avgas was $20.60 per gallon, and appointments set up for his refueling were broken several times before one was finally kept, although 26 hours late. On several occasions, he found himself in a contest of wills with air traffic control to avoid being vectored into bad weather.
A brighter note was confirming during his presentations on aviation in countries including Canada, Malta, India, and Malaysia that the natural bond between aviators indeed seems to exist everywhere.
"Pilots are pilots I think anywhere you go in the world. Ethnicity, religion, politics, color didn’t matter," he said. "As soon as we were talking about aviation, we were brothers and sisters. People were excited about the plane, my trip."
Long flights in aircraft outfitted with extended-range fuel tanks need a way for the pilot to add engine oil in flight, and that capability likely saved the day when, after departure from Subang, Malaysia, the Sprit of San Diego’s low oil pressure light activated in the climb at about 14,000 feet.
Immediately his prop over-sped, and oil pressure dropped to zero. DeLaurentis turned to the nearest airport in Kuala Lumpur, at 19.6 nautical miles, and declared an emergency. But as he managed the flying duties, which included adding engine oil three times during the descent, it took four requests to receive approval —and vectors—to land.
"I almost felt like I was being tested in a game I didn’t want to play," he said.
His emergency arrival, with 300 feet of altitude to spare once the runway was made, caused some diversions of inbound air-carrier traffic, and made him a curiosity on the ramp after he landed (still over gross weight thanks to the long-distance fuel load).
The loss of oil pressure was traced to a sheared off oil drain line, the result of a maintenance error in Subang, he said.
DeLaurentis discusses other learning experiences that he hopes will benefit his fellow pilots in a series of blog entries on subjects ranging from being firm with air traffic controllers who don’t seem to grasp that you are in trouble, to having a conversion app on your smart phone for use with currencies, distance, and fuel quantities.
Here’s another: When you will be flying over water with emergency gear packed in a survival bag, "make sure the bag floats."
DeLaurentis said his return to San Diego felt surreal once he was realized he was free of the need to focus all his thoughts on the next flight leg.
He was not sitting around idle, but rather was off, shortly after the phone interview, to the Nevada desert to attend the Burning Man festival.
His near-term schedule also included several speaking engagements, and he is excited about the release of his book, from which all profits will go to AOPA Flight Training Scholarships and San Diego’s Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School.
Whether speaking or writing about his experiences, the Zen Pilot Version 2.0 said he will continue to reinforce his core message: "Go after your dreams."