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Pipistrel World Green Flight 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012  
By Michael Coates


Slovenia is a small central European country at the junction of where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, near the northern end of Italy and part of the old former Yugoslavia. Beautiful, pristine country which is home to one of the most prolific light aircraft companies in the world, Pipistrel. 
2012 is starting as one of the best years in the company’s 25 year history. A lone aviation adventurer Matevz Lenarcic is starting his third circumnavigation of the world and his second circumnavigation in a Pipistrel aircraft but unlike his previous adventure in 2007 this time he will be flying westbound, into the prevailing headwinds, crossing the equator six times, flying over three major oceans, flying to Antarctica in the smallest aircraft to ever visit the territory and over the top of Mount Everest, a total of more than 100,000 km in what is essentially an LSA (light sport) aircraft weighing a little over 300 kg.

Adventure is not the only mission for this circumnavigation, Matevz who is a biologist, photographer and environmentalist will also be documenting the ever increasing levels of black carbon in the atmosphere in locations and at altitudes never previously recorded helping to provide hard data and help solve some of the problems attributed to climate change.

Departing Ljubljana airport, the capital of Slovenia on January 8 he is already more than half way through this circumnavigation by the time he has reached Australia. Covering many remote areas of the world, documenting his travels not only with the beautiful aerial photographs uploaded to his website each day but he is scientifically recording levels of black carbon in what is basically a standard production Pipistrel Virus SW aircraft. Weighing a little over 300 kg the aircraft has been slightly modified to carry 350 Litres of fuel in 5 fuel tanks, 4 in the wings and 1 central tank in the fuselage. The engine chosen to help the aircraft at the high altitudes of Mount Everest is the ever reliable Rotax 914, but Pipistrel has installed an intercooler unit. Pretty much everything else is a standard production aircraft.

Flying practically daily in all weather conditions this IFR equipped LSA category aircraft is at times crossing more than 3700 km of open ocean without any landing opportunities, completely solo and unassisted in anyway whatsoever. Brave is not the word I would use crossing these vast oceans in single trips lasting as much as 15.5 hours, flying over the highest mountains in the world and even braving sub -30°C temperatures in a flight to Antarctica.

This world flight not only records vital environmental information but is also a proving ground for the aircraft itself meeting so many challenges on a daily basis. The aircraft must continue to operate safely in +45 degrees temperatures experienced in Africa as well as -30° in Antarctica, altitudes from sea level to almost 30,000 feet with the aim of flying more than 100,000 km which is more than two times the distance of a normal around the world flight using just 3,500 litres of 95 octane unleaded car fuel whilst at the same time offering fantastic performance with a cruise around 150 knots for just 18 L per hour.

Black carbon which is being recorded throughout the trip is a pollutant produced from using carbonaceous fuels in the production of energy. Whether this is from electricity generation burning coal, forest fires or cars burning diesel or petrol fuels, all of these contaminants end up in the atmosphere as an omission of gas and particulate air pollutants. These black carbon contaminants can travel vast distances, some many hundreds and hundreds of kilometres and black carbon is a unique primary tracer to the damage we are doing to our environment.

Black carbon affects the optical properties of the atmosphere when suspended. This means Black Carbon has an immediate local effect on the Earth's atmosphere leading to either local heating or cooling depending on the concentrations and the areas affected.

Black carbon is generally recognised as the second most significant cause of global warming and Pipistrel are demonstrating the use of a light aircraft with a very small environmental footprint can be useful in recording black carbon concentrations across the globe.

The aircraft is modified with an Aethalometer which measures black carbon and updates the recording instrument every few minutes of the flight. At the end of each flight the information is uploaded to the Internet immediately so you can see the varying levels of pollution along the flight plan and altitudes. Continuous measurements have been taken in regions where black carbon measurements have never taken place before including areas of Antarctica, Africa and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Several global atmospheric watch stations lie very close to the actual flight path and the aircraft recordings will be compared to the ground base stations to compare the effects of black carbon and the concentrations at various altitudes. Hopefully when all of the data is crunched at the end of the flight we will have a better understanding of black carbon levels around the globe and these recordings are something which can be researched by scientists for many years in the future.

The world green flight is an unbelievable adventure, leaving Slovenia on 8 January Matevz has flown down to Morocco at the north western tip of Africa, then across the Sahara to Dakar before a 12 hour flight across the Atlantic all the way from Africa to Natal Brazil, this was a very demanding flight and required diversions to go around severe thunderstorm activity often experienced in the tropics. Taking a rest day he then headed North to French Guiana, Puerto Rico and arrived in Florida on January 17 which was starting day of the Sebring Sport Aviation Expo. Cleared on his flight plan to fly directly from Puerto Rico to Sebring Florida (because Puerto Rico is a US territory for customs clearance) he arrived off the Florida coast where they could not believe he could fly all the way without landing (and had suspicions of him possibly landing to collect drugs etc), reluctantly they allowed Matevz into US airspace but he had to divert to land at Miami International airport for a full inspection by the local customs authorities which only took a few minutes and then he was off again heading from Miami to Sebring Florida. A rest day in Florida and a chance to service the engine at Lockwood Aviation before he was off again to Texas, California, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, back to Brazil for another Rotax service day then down to Argentina, Patagonia and Ushuaia which is one of the most southerly town's on the planet. One of the great things about this adventure is you can follow the aircraft in real time because he is using a service originally invented in New Zealand called spider tracks. This gives you real-time updating of latitude, longitude, speed, altitude and everything else over the Internet and displayed on Google maps. Following his adventure I have learnt so much about the countries he has visited by checking out all of the destinations he is visiting as well as all of the airports along the way.

At the bottom of the world there was a couple of days delay due to weather and strong winds. Without much fanfare Matevz flew down to Antarctica which I understand is the first time an aircraft of this size has ever been to the Antarctic subcontinent flying alone and without support. Interestingly it almost didn't happen when his prior approvals were rescinded by local authorities not wanting to go to the expense of rescuing him from the Southern Ocean, they were horrified that an aircraft this small without deicing equipment would even consider flying in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic regions. Anyway, common sense finally prevailed and the unhappy local authorities were overruled by the government permits he had already received and the flight to Antarctica went ahead without incident.

Overnighting in Antarctica it was back to Chile and a mini service for the Rotax engine which was suddenly starting to give a little bit of trouble on the flight back from Antarctica. Matevz reported that the engine was not running smoothly and had some vibration, when he was taxiing fuel was leaking from the carburettor overflows. This was eventually diagnosed by the Rotax mechanic in Chile as dirty fuel clogging the carburettors and also the fuel filters. The fuel that Matevz used in Antarctica was shipped down some six months earlier at the very start of spring, the fuel was not normal 95 octane car fuel that the Rotax engine preferred to run but was aviation avgas 100 - 130 and the high octane was too much for the little Rotax engine. Added to this strange fuel are the various (undisclosed) additives in the fuel to protect it from excessively cold temperatures and octane degradation. This fuel was just not suitable for the Rotax giving it rough operation and in all honesty he felt lucky to make it back to South America. The mini service in Chile was expected to fix the problem but departing the mainland on an epic 15 hour flight all the way from Santo Domingo to Easter Island, a massive 3690 km it quickly became obvious that the point of no return at the engine problems were back and this time worse than ever!

Alone and overnighting in Easter Island new fuel was added and the trip continued hoping that the engine problems would not continue because it seemed to be obviously fuel related and Matevz was hoping by now that all of the contaminated fuel from Antarctica had been used by the aircraft. At appeared all was well for the next 11 hour trip until the aircraft refuelled again at Totegegie in French Polynesia. The fuel ordered by Matevz and shipped to this tiny Pacific island from Tahiti several months earlier and had its own problems making the Rotax run sick again, who even knows what was in that 200 litre drum six months earlier!

Arriving in Tahiti phone calls started going all over the world as Matevz looked for a mechanic who could service his aircraft and carburettors, the Rotax 914 is a fairly complicated installation especially in the tight installation of the Pipistrel and the repairs could not be attained from anybody except a Rotax aircraft engine expert. Answering our calls to help was Colin Alexander the Rotax distributor from New Zealand, calling him at midnight on Saturday he eagerly displayed his enthusiasm to immediately fly out to Tahiti and fix the aircraft! True to his word the very next day he was on the twice-weekly service to Tahiti and after nine very active hours in +30° temperature he had finally flushed the aircraft of all remaining contaminated fuel, completely stripped and cleaned the carburettors and the fuel filter system and returned the aircraft to perfect health.

Proof of his expert mechanical abilities were shown the next day when the aircraft flew 4.5 hours to Cook Island and again the little Rotax 914 ran perfectly. The next day from Cook Island to Auckland was again a mammoth day of over 3000 km in fairly ordinary weather dodging a lot of bad thunderstorms in the region. It was only arriving in Tahiti two days earlier that Matevz noticed his storm scope had stopped working. The storm scope is used to record lightning strikes and tell the pilot where the worst of the thunderstorm activity is. Without a working storm scope you are really relying on good luck and some of those nine lives to get through this tropical thunderstorm zone. Again phone calls went out across the world and the manufacturer of the storm scope immediately organised a replacement unit to be fitted to the aircraft when it arrived in Australia. It is just amazing how fellow aviators and suppliers all come together to provide whatever assistance is needed and then they become themselves a small part of this epic adventure.

A rest day in New Zealand and it is off again for a non-stop 2000 km flight directly into Canberra….  To be continued because he is not here yet or even in New Zealand for that matter.

This is really where my story ends but the adventure doesn't, leaving Canberra and flying via Melbourne to Ayres Rock to overnight before heading to Townsville and then on to Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, over the top of Mount Everest, down into India and the Seychelles, across to Tanzania, over the top of Kilimanjaro and then down to Johannesburg, up to Namibia through the Congo to Chad and finally another ten-hour flight to Malta followed by the last 4.5 hour leg back to Slovenia for the planned completion of the trip on April 3.

Matevz Lenarcic is truly an aviation adventurer, not only sharing his flights online with many thousands of people following him daily on his website but he is also documenting the state of our planet with not only aerial photographs but also by recording levels of black carbon which will be examined for many years to come.

I for one take my hat off to this modern day adventurer!


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