“It was me who was holding me back,” are the realising words of the former Navy Gulf War veteran and real estate entrepreneur, who started in 2019 to complete a nine-month Polar Circumnavigation. He intended to share peace worldwide by connecting the two places on the planet, where peace has always existed- the North and the South.
His highly modified 1983 Twin Commander aircraft named “Citizen of the World” was the vehicle for his mission, “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oness for Humanity”. Robert used his plane as a carrier for NASA and The Scripps Institution of Oceanography experiments and was for that reason awarded the Explorers Flag no.44, which he as some of the greatest adventurers of our time, took along on the journey.
In 2015, Robert completed an equatorial circumnavigation, going through multiple facing death challenges where divine intervention seemed to be part of him surviving his flights with his single-engine plane Piper Malibu Mirage named “Spirit of San Diego”.
He and his team filmed a documentary of his last journey that will soon be released, along with his book both titled: “Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond ( 2023)”. Two other Roberts books are “Flying Through Life” and best selling “Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within”. He has co-authored two children’s books, “The Little Plane That Could” and “Let’s Fly”.
Robert is the president of the DeLaurentis Foundation which funds aviation scholarships and provides aviation books. Recently Robert purchased his very own airport that will now become a base for his foundation and a museum.
This year he was nominated for the Living Legends of Aviation award for which he thanked his team, composed of one-hundred people. Living Legends of Aviation is an award honoring achievements in the aerospace industry.
Robert is a fierce and highly self-motivated man of honor with a gentle soul, letting the spirit of ease and grace permeate his life.
“If I wanted more of anything in this world, I had to get out of the way and change the way I was showing up in the world. I had to let go of my anger. I had to find a way of doing things that would let everyone win. I had to get in alignment with spirit. I needed to go with the current and not against it.”- from the book “Flying through life”Robert de Laurentis in front of his aircraft Citizen of the World
FLYING AROUND THE WORLD AROUND THE EQUATOR
1.) In your first book “ Flying through Life” you are describing starting your business journey as a “type A”, ego-driven personality that life was breaking into success by making you realize it was time for some authentic communication.
The transformation that happens inside of us takes time and effort, and the universe is pretty good at giving us the lessons we need to work on. If we don’t, it sends us the lesson again in another form. Identifying things that are popping up and dedicating your time to work through them is important.
So, authentic communication for example- people are barely listening or sharing what they need to. You may ask a question and in the process of you asking the question they will be formulating the answer in their head, not truly listening to you.
I think the basic concept of being an authentic person is key in business. It is really easy to go into a tough business mode for me because I did that for so many years, but I find that people don’t always respond to that. Trying to figure out what would work best for the person is very very important. I think sharing how you are feeling is very important too.
“You are in charge. You are the one who will make it happen because you are the only one who can seek and remove the barriers you have built against the peace, healing, and growth that is possible for you.”- from the book “Flying through Life”
2.) You started flying at age 45 as previously you didn’t have finance or time. How did you come to the idea to fly around the world?
I remember when I was flying in Europe, one of my friends sent me a message: “Are you going to go all the way around, you are already halfway.” And I thought to myself, if I had planned I would have been able to keep going. That was what kind of tipped the scale.
I decided I was having a lot of success and I was very thankful in my life and was looking for an opportunity to give back, something that brought different elements or passions in my life together. I knew that was flying and business and I knew it would involve spirituality, so I just started to think about the most ambitious, outrageous, or fun thing I could do to combine all three of those. Flying around the world was exactly that.
Of course, getting across the Pacific Ocean is very dangerous and difficult so there was a lot of planning and things I needed to do before that would happen but yeah, surrounding yourself with ambitious, creative, intelligent, funny, supportive people makes that stuff happen. You are building your team. On the polar trip I had a team of 95 sponsors, people we called “our angels”, my board, and many other supporters. It appears to be the mission of one but it is the mission of many.
“Did I really want to go that deep? Or would I be happier, more content on the shallower side of life? Most people live there and seem to be satisfied with that for their entire lives. Why should mine be any different? So many unanswered questions. Takeoff!”- from the book Zen Pilot, Flight of Passion and the Journey Within
3.) After reading your second book, one feels a need to congratulate you on still being alive. In your equatorial trip, you have been facing death on multiple occasions during the legs, especially in the case of an engine failure over the Strait of Malacca with the dripping fuel that luckily didn’t catch on fire. All these events that followed one another were traumatic to read, let alone to experience. How does one get over such fear and sits back in the airplane knowing there is a high chance something will go wrong?
Yeah, the process is “the freaking out” first, right. Do you deal with that situation at the moment emotionally? I don’t think so. I think you get the mission done and then when you have some free moments it will come up because that’s the issue to work and then you can deal with it.
I guess I was handling it the way they do in the military. You don’t stop, you just get back in the plane and go. You know if you sat there and feel scary moments and have thoughts with all the details you would not rationally get back into a plane, that you think almost killed you.
After most circumnavigations, I have been told it takes almost a year to process everything. In that next year, I realized that the plane didn’t almost kill me, it kept me alive.
Also, always when I have a challenge like that, I call up a mentor of mine. Her name is Susan Gilbert. She is the lady I dedicated the book to. I have known her for many years, we have been in business together for a while and she is a very close friend. In those situations, she seems to give me the best advice of anybody. The goal was always safety first, so we set up a plan for how to, given this has happened, make it safe.
“What is your life worth to you? Leave the plane and go home.” Well, the plane was worth about $400,000 to $500,000 and many people were following my journey, well never told anyone I was afraid, but the truth was that after the engine was out in Malaysia I was genuinely terrified every day. It was like I was stepping into a flying coffin. I needed to tell someone and felt like I would burst apart if I didn’t.”- from the book Zen Pilot, Flight of Passion and the Journey Within
4.) You like to say that the plane is a vehicle for the message.
On the recent trip, I was reflecting on why we need to suffer so much. Why does this have to be so hard? And I didn’t figure it out until almost a year later when my friend said to me that all living things suffer. That clicked for me because that is another thing that connects all people.
I didn’t write the book to say “Hey, I flew over the South Pole”. I wrote the book to say, “Hey, this is what I learned when I flew over the South Pole, these are the spiritual lessons that I can take into my life”. I did it for that and the science.
“Our journey is one of learning that we must receive for ourselves—no one else can do it for us. We must carve our own path.”- from the book Zen Pilot, Flight of Passion and the Journey Within
5.) You finished the first trip “a different person” and mentioned realizing that few things are impossible.
When I look back I often wonder who that person was that took all that on because when I think of myself now, I don’t think of myself as somebody who could pull off all those things.
How do you even think to jump into a plane that is spraying jet fuel when the tank could burst? I rationally would say that’s insane I wouldn’t do that, but I did in the moment. I think we are called to do things and we don’t always think them through.
There is a point in your life when the mission becomes bigger than you. I think people experience that when they have a kid, people will sacrifice themselves for their kids. I know athletes, they say if they can win that second, even if they don’t live anymore. It’s a crazy topic, it’s interesting where life takes you.
“Flying around the world didn’t make me a more confident pilot. If anything, it made me more aware of the risks that were possible. I had become more paranoid, detailed, serious.”- from the book Zen Pilot, Flight of Passion and the Journey Within
THE SOUTH AND NORTH POLE CIRCUMNAVIGATION
6.) After you landed, surprisingly, you decided to take on an even harder endeavor. Circumnavigating the South and North Pole. How did this decision come about?
In the first book, I wrote about pursuing the impossibly big dream. After the first equatorial circumnavigation, there was more to do. I just finished it and thought, maybe that was a warm-up for something bigger. I felt unsettled like there was more and I kept thinking, what about the poles? You know, that would be a lot harder. I say it was three times harder during the second trip than it was on the first.
When I can’t stop thinking about something, is usually when I need to take action and I kept thinking about the poles. What would be the next step? That is how my mind works. Some people are just satisfied with their life but I feel a little bit unsettled, restless soul, like there is more to be done and I still feel that way today.
For his next trip, Robert chose Turbo Commander 900 aircraft and filled it with 50 modifications to be able to meet the never before ”challenge of flying over the poles in a twin-or single-engine turboprop in 18.1 hours as a solo pilot. The plane was equipped with the latest tech and was also carrying out scientific experiments for NASA and The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and using biofuels over the poles for the first time.
7.) As the saying goes, preparation is 99 percent of success. For your next journey, you were taking no chances. It took from the planned 6 months to a realistic 18 months of mental and physical preparation…Many things went wrong because of all the new airplane adaptations before you even started.
A lot of the thinking happened when I would wake up in the night in a cold sweat. Sleep is not possible when you have all that stuff going through your brain. When you realize you made a lot of promises to a lot of people and taken a lot of money to make this stuff happen, that is kind of a terrifying realization. As I got closer and closer to my departure day, there was only one solution. I was trying to mitigate and identify all the risks just like you would in business.
Instead of having a single piston engine which is not the most reliable engine I, for the second trip, had two jet engines that turned propellers called turbo-props. If I lost one, it could still fly. It was much more capable and reliable. So it was a harder trip but more capable equipment. When you fly higher, there are some advantages to that, better weather, more efficiency, and more coasting distance, so we mitigated the risk with a more capable plane.
How do we warm the fuel in flight? We came up with a solution of having the fuel inside the cabin and finding a route that goes within the skin out to the engines so that it wasn’t exposed to the cold outside air. So we have a warm fuel that has been heated with cabin air making it to the engine without freezing.
Super Fred (the person, who designed and built the ferry tanks) let me know that the tires on that plane were the biggest risk. So we ended up putting 727 tires on the small plane.
In the end, is just a matter of thinking it through and talking to some really smart people.
“The relationship between a pilot and his mechanic or mechanics is critical. It would not be an overstatement to say the mechanic has the power of life and death over any plane or pilot. It’s a relationship that must be nurtured and developed. For pilots, finding an expert you can trust 100 percent may be one of the most important things you can do to help ensure your survival.”- from the book Zen Pilot, Flight of Passion and the Journey Within
Robert was finally ready to take off toward one of the most dangerous and hostile places on Earth- the South Pole. It was uncommon to fly to the South Pole, and no one had done it nonstop in a single or twin-engine turboprop, because it was not thought possible. The South Pole is known for its extreme and unpredictable weather conditions. Some of the risks included extreme cold (-67° C), which could turn fuel to gel and starve both engines, vast distances without a place to land, loss of GPS navigation at the poles, the worst weather in the world, snow blindness, and pilot fatigue. Knowing he had 50-50 chances of survival he waved goodbye to his documentary film crew leaving solo on an 18-hour flight. The first leg was flying over the Drake Passage where Chilean Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules had gone down some days before.
8.) From where did you pull the courage to start the engine in Ushuaia, Argentina?
That was an interesting moment in my life. I mean, I was never going to give up. That is not my personality and I have made too many promises to back away from that. The voices in my head were saying: “Hey, at least you will be alive. You may not be able to show face to all these people but at least you will be alive.”
There was too much energy, too much to accomplish, and that was a risk I was willing to take. I remember because I got a text message from Super Fred warning me: “Hey if you do this, this plane may not be usable after this flight.” I replayed: ”If this was the last great thing that I did, then it would have been worth it.”If I was never to fly again, that was the greatest accomplishment of my flying career. A pretty defining moment.
I could feel my body shaking when I turned the engine on just thinking to myself, I may not be alive in the next few minutes. Because I have never flown a plane that heavy so I didn’t even know if it would lift off. And because the winds have changed, the direction of departure was right into the mountains. So I had to lift off and make a 180-degree turn when I was heavy and when you turn you lose lift. I didn’t know if it was going to stay in the air.
When I look back, the most insane thing I ever did, was that take-off headed to the South Pole.
“My first thought: I grossly underestimated this plane. People kept telling me I had really big brass balls, but at that moment, I realized the Citizen’s were bigger. The Citizen of the World climbed to 30,000 feet in just 58 minutes, despite being very overweight. I was in total awe. How she did it, I will never know.”- from the book Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond
9.) Flying over to the South Pole is considered one of the most dangerous things you can do. On the way back you lost contact with the traffic control and were running out of fuel.
I don’t know what would be more dangerous than that. You certainly have the temperatures. You have to burn more than half of your fuel to get there, at least I did because the plane is so heavy on the way out. So it is a unique feeling going to the South Pole and you have that same distance to go back and have less than half your fuel.
I know that if I didn’t have the wind I had to push me along, I would not have made it. That’s a pretty scary moment. And the worst part of that is probably – the final portion is over the Drakes passage which is known to be one of the deadliest areas in the world just because of weather. More ships have gone down there than anywhere else on the planet.
On the route down I was like, “Wow, no problem”. And on the way back, I was like: “Oh my god, I don’t have enough fuel”.
I regret sending the message that I didn’t think I was going to make it. I sent it to Susan and Im sure she was freaking out when she got it. One of my buddies was watching some tracking software when I decided I would trade altitude for distance. So I went down and hold the throttles back to be in flight idle. He was watching a plane descend over the Drake Passage and it looked to him like I ran out of fuel.
Two people were terrified watching that all unfold and it was pretty scary in the cockpit too. I didn’t tell anyone in my family about the things that I was dealing with, the fuel tanks bursting, the loss of the GPS systems. I thought it would scare people too much and I just sort of lived with it, you know.
10.) Having been through many traumatic in-flight experiences by then- do you feel your mindfulness in emergency response improved?
It was similar in a lot of ways to the Strait of Mallaca experience because it’s like you are in a situation that you have to live out. You are in a plane that is descending, low on fuel, in a game you have to play and there are different outcomes.
You hope for the best but in any negotiation, you almost always end up somewhere in the middle. I think in those moments – those are the moments of greatest learning because that is not a situation you normally deal with.
I am not saying I want to go out there and experience that again. But, you deal with self-doubt, you deal with fear, faith. And if you are not communicating directly with god at that moment, I don’t know when else you would be. The focus that you have – being present at the moment, that is truly living it at the moment.
I think when you experience that you become better at dealing with these things because it is not so unfamiliar. And I know those are not the moments where freaking out creates any dividends. It is hard not to have that initial response but the sooner you can get to that steady state of being calm and taking care of problems, that is the best place to be. I like to say that inside the cockpit is one of the best spiritual places you can be.
I think I became a little afraid and every time I step on the plane I am very aware of what I am doing. So that is why I think I had good experiences flying because the second you take it for granted, it will bite you. When I finish a flight, you know when I recently flew home I was still in awe I flew in “that thing” and now Im standing on the ground here. I am in awe of the experience every time. I think the classroom is in session when you are on the plane. Also, you can’t take risks like I took every day and survive. Sooner and later is going to catch up with you. My next project is ground base. It’s an airport.
11.) How is it flying over the South Pole firsthand? What was the feeling like?
It is amazingly beautiful. It is beauty on a scale that I haven’t been exposed to before. I was very curious, looking out of the window just hoping to make some connections and understand more. You know you look out there and you are the only person and it is so beautiful and you realize “this” is for me. This world is here for me, these opportunities are here for me, and the lessons I am learning now are here for me. Fascinating. I would like to go back to the south pole on the ground. I couldn’t see the south pole directly because there was a cloud layer but flying there I got clear weather 30-40 percent of the time.
12.) What was the moment of release like after coming back from the South Pole?
I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was living the dream. When dreams and reality blend and you can’t distinguish between the two. When I landed I was thinking, I am dreaming, or is this real because it seemed like an impossible journey. I went to sleep and I was all crawled up together in a ball. It was very traumatic. I was happy I had done it and that it was behind me, and I thought the rest of the trip would be like a global victory lap. I told that to one of my cinematographers and he just laughed. And he was right to laugh because I kept getting my ass kicked all around the planet. It’s hard to comprehend.
13.) You carried with you the atmospheric plastic particle experiment by Dimitri Deheyn of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There were some yet-to-be-released findings.
What we found is that there is more plastic in the air over the North and South poles than there was along the equator. Do you know how there are these plastic islands in the ocean? The same thing happens in the air. And that is something that will touch every person on the planet. Because of this experiment, we were able to get the Explorer’s flag that we did. He is the genius behind all.
Next, Robert and his team continued on his peace flight, spending Christmas in Brazil. From there he continued to fly over to Africa with gained confidence in himself and the plane. In Dakar the fuelling tank burst spraying all over him, the cabin, and the tarmac. The horrible smell of “Jete” as Robert called his new perfume-the jet fuel, was heavily present for the rest of his trip and additional problem severely affecting the eyes and sinuses.
14.) You took some time flying over Africa and for your mission of peace spoke to many individuals asking what peace means to them. You mentioned how the happiest people you saw were in the most remote African village.
What I was thinking a lot at that time was, what one needs to be happy. The happiest people I found were in Ethiopia. They were living in huts and when the weather was bad they would bring their animals in to protect them from the weather. And when they got sick they went and drank from some well. Lots of old people, everybody had big smiles. I remember driving and there were three little boys and they were all smiling hitchhiking and their smiles were just so moving I thought: “Wow, people are not this happy in the rest of the world.”
All the complications we create take away from the quality of our life. I think there is something to be said for simplicity. I was just as happy in the simple rooms I slept in as I was with modern conveniences in my house. It gets me thinking about how much you need.
“For me,” he answered quickly, “being a citizen of the world means using local, indigenous knowledge or citizen science to provide solutions. Citizen science provides the opportunity to find locally-driven solutions. Being a citizen of the world is recognizing the usefulness of the local person on the ground who uses what he or she has learned to provide small solutions that, when taken cumulatively, can have a global impact- Dr. Matiku from Kenya from the book Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond
Having arrived in Europe just in time as borders started to shut down due to the pandemic, Robert and his team decided they would continue with it despite the pandemic. He spent some quiet moments with the monks in the Montserrat monastery in Spain and later lived in a rented house in isolation before proceeding to Sweden where he continued with his final leg over the North Pole.
15.) It seemed life stopped you in sync with your realization you need to slow down. You got introduced to the idea of meditation.
What I learned when I was in Brazil is if you want to find peace in the world, you have to find it in yourself. For me, meditation is any time there is silence. I don’t play music in my house, I listen to the birds chirping, I am ok with absolute quiet. Getting to that place of peace was happening gradually. It’s not like you get there and you are like, okay I am peaceful until the rest of my life. It’s a fleeting thing. I got a taste of it and I came up with different ways to manifest that in my life and that is a process of being a human and continually trying to get back to that space.
In Sweden where life was going on independently of the pandemic, he was able to fix yet another tank burst, losing faith in aluminum tanks before continuing his trip, crossing the North Pole. They canceled his first plan to fly out of Svalbard, Norway due to the pandemic so Robert took off from Sweden adding 2 hours to now a 10-hour flight. The goal was to fly via the True North Pole, Magnetic North Pole, and Pole of Inaccessibility.
16.) Were you more relaxed about crossing the North Pole knowing that commercial and private jets do it every day?
I thought that was going to be a relatively easy flight compared to the South Pole. Things were going very well on the flight and then everything shut down. Not only the GPS like in the South Pole but also the attitude heading and reference system which tells you if you are level with the horizon, went out. That is connected to many other systems. I was lost over the North Pole. That was a very stressful moment that lasted for about five hours. We think it has something to do with the angle of the satellites and references to that. I never heard of that happening to anybody.
The autopilot wasn’t working properly so I was struggling to shut down systems and restart, trying to figure out the problem. I used my Apple iPad to find my way back because it seemed it was the only thing that was working. And it was funny because when I got within 15 min of the coast of Alaska, everything went back on.
I never felt I was given something without working for it. There is a concept of grace and ease that I don’t know if I ever achieved on the trip. Grace and ease talk about things happening easily, they flow, it’s not with tremendous effort. But for some reason, the lesson I was meant to learn on this trip was the struggle and peace of suffering that I mentioned earlier. Surrender is a key element, but then there are real-world realities.
17.) Did you have the time to enjoy the sight of the North Pole, struggling with all this?
It was cool because over the True North Pole, the clouds opened up a little bit and I could see down. And I thought, how exciting, I get to see the North Pole, but then when I looked down I could see it was all water and ice so there was nowhere to land. Many think the North Pole is frozen year around but it’s not the case. That didn’t give me comfort for long, maybe a minute or so.
After a nine months journey, Robert finally landed in Fairbanks, Alaska where the plane was in a museum in Anchorage for a few days. Flying back to San Diego he was unexpectedly accompanied by five vintage aircraft from the world-famous Tiger Squadron. Together they flew to home base in a tight formation.
“As we ate, I stared at the Citizen of the World and the tears started to well up. She was fierce, shiny, colorful, and perfect to my watery eyes. After what we’d just been through together, I never felt closer to her.”- from the book Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond
Robert was carrying a special honor with him- an Explorers Club flag no. 44, one of the oldest ones, and that has previously been to the bottom of the ocean and on top of Mount Everest. Some of these flags have been carried to space and back in the name of the betterment of the planet since 1918. As of this writing, 202 expeditions have carried flags.
18.) You are now putting together a documentary about your travel. When are we going to be able to see it?
Our goal is before the end of the year. People are reviewing it now. We are trying to get 72 days of footage down to one hour and 45 minutes. It is a big project. It will be available to watch through Amazon.com for sure and also other places.
19.) Where can people see the plane “Citizen of the World”? You recently purchased an airport that you mention will be a base of your De Laurentis Foundation.
Right now it is in one of the hangars at Skagit Bayview but it will ultimately go to the museum at my airport DeLaurentis Airport/Oak Harbor (KOKH) which was born on July 20th, 2023. There will be a special small museum with the Citizen of the World, a few cars, and other planes as well. Hopefully, that will expand at some point too.
20.) You helped work on some flight simulator software, so people can experience flying over the poles. Where can we try it?
If you happen to own a Redbird simulator, there is an option that you can fly to the South and North Pole. It is a total of four simulations but it incorporates lots of challenges that I had, like lifting off from Ushuaia, Argentina, and losing the navigation over the North Pole as well. There are over 3000 simulators out there in the world in different museums so that is an option available for the people. At the airport I’m working on, we will have a simulator there that runs this software as well.
21.) You set “honoring your word” as a foundation. It seems it is at the core of success.
That is a great question. It is frustrating as you know, when people make promises and they don’t keep them. I found when I was in the Navy that was very very important. We lived under a different code and then I got out into a civilian world and it wasn’t so much that way. But I decided I would stick with those principles. And those have served me well. Especially in business. Sometimes it costs a lot of money or a lot of time to honor your word.
My sponsorship agreements with 95 sponsors ended a long time ago but I continue to deliver on some of those things with the book, with the documentary, which seems so important to me. And that is how I find my team too, people that support me because they have similar beliefs. If they tell you something, they are going to deliver on it.
It’s really important for stability in relationships, for getting future business, for staying out of disagreements, and it’s not an impossible thing to do. I value that and value people that honor their word to me.
22.) You have been nominated for a Living Legend of Aviation along with some other accomplished aviators.
Yes, I believe there are about fifty on the planet. Also this October I will be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame which is through San Diego Air Space Museum. One really important thing to me was when United Nations played 10 minutes of our video on World Peace Day. I am very happy to be recognized by these organizations. Again it’s not just an effort of one person, it’s a mission of many. These are huge wins for the team.
“The greatest things we’ve done in history were cooperative, not competitive. Competition can help you when we compete with ourselves, but it defeats the purpose to compete with others. We can make it better but we gotta coordinate. It’s like going out on a vision quest, adventure, a mystical journey. You do face dragons and sirens sweetly singing on the rocks and all of those challenges sort of forge you and lead you to become a different person”- Robert’s friend, aviator Eric Lindbergh, grandson of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh
23.) What’s next?
I am going to make this airport and make it a blueprint for other airports out there that are private as there are 14 000 of them in the US. We are going to try some creative and innovative things.
I haven’t given up on my mission to go twice around the world nonstop over the poles but technology is just not there yet.
Another thing is The World Air Race. That’s never been done before. The idea is for different countries to compete by flying around the world the fastest. There is a Formula 1 but there is nothing for aviation, so we are looking into that.
written by: Eva Kraš
More about Robert De Laurentis:
Twitter – @flyingthrulife
YouTube – www.youtube.com/user/flyingthrulife
Instagram – www.instagram.com/flying_thru_life
Pinterest – www.pinterest.com/flyingthrulife
LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/rdelaurentis