Giuseppe Caltabiano has finished an adventure straight out of a Jules Verne story — a pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe.
Since starting the adventure in August, the Whitefish pilot and his co-captains Jack Long and Josh Marvil have flown 38,273 miles over 144 hours, soared over 28 countries and even landed in five continents, including Antarctica. Like Verne, whose fictional tales told of flying around the world in 80 days and traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea, Caltabiano and company have a yearning for adventure.
But, he said, even after all that, no sight fills his heart like the one he calls home.
“Every time I fly into this valley, my heart gets so happy. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming from Missoula, Bozeman, Spokane,” he said. “I see this valley and Flathead Lake down below, and my heart is like, ‘Wow, I live in a fantastic place.’”
After returning home in Long’s Pilatus PC-12 plane in late January, they are the first pilots certified for completing the trip in an unmodified plane.
The conditions for a polar circumnavigation, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, include flying a course of at least 34,000 kilometers, flying to a control point north of 75 degrees and south of 75 degrees latitude, crossing the equator twice at points at least 90 degrees apart longitudinally and doing all of this within one year. While many eastbound and westbound diplomas have been awarded by the FAI, none had been handed out for the polar trip.
On the way north, they flew through places like Canada, Greenland and Iceland on their way to the North Pole, a trip they completed in August before waiting to begin the second half in January. For the southern half, the flight plan took them from Austin, Texas to Portland, Maine, before hopping over to St. John’s, Canada. Then they crossed the Atlantic to Santa Maria, Portugal, before cutting through Cape Verde, Ghana, Brazil and Argentina. From Puntas Arenas, Chile, they headed south for King George Island, Antarctica, where they met their 75 degree south requirement.
After all that, he said his adventuring spirit is pretty fulfilled.
“After I got off the tarmac I said, ‘you know what? Even if I don’t fly anymore, I’m happy. Because what can beat this adventure?’” he said.
Unlike the northern trip, where Caltabiano and his fellow pilots usually had alternate landing locations and hotels ready for them in case any issues arose, the southern hemisphere afforded no such luxuries.
“When you start going down there, there is no room for mistakes or problems. In some of those places, there were no alternate airports, so once you get there and you’re light on fuel, if there is a patch of fog on the runway and you cannot land, that’s an emergency,” Caltabiano said. “It was a real expedition. We got serious, but you’ve got to be serious, because it’s dangerous what we did out there.”
However, with the exception of an unexpected airport closure on the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic and a stomach bug affecting Caltabiano, the entire plan went off without a hitch. In fact, every takeoff and landing occurred within 30 minutes of the time they’d scheduled half a year earlier.
The sickness took Caltabiano out of the cockpit for a few days, but he spent that time mapping out their flight path to stay near ships beneath them in case of an emergency.
“So that if we had an accident, if the engine quit, we could glide toward the ship. We became very refined, to where I could say, ‘Jack, we’ve got an Italian cruise ship with good wine over there,’” he said with a laugh.
While he kids about sticking close to wine vessels and the very “regimented” schedule of the trip, Caltabiano put more emphasis on safety than any other part of the trip.
For him and the other pilots, preparation is what separates them from other “cowboy” pilots, as he called them, that plan the trip on the fly, and they had rules to make the decision process as easy as possible.
For example, each of the pilots had full veto power if something about the day’s flight felt off, though none of the crew ever had to exercise that authority. They had rules on minimum visibility for flying, and even had to arrange debris cleanup in the event that they crashed in Antarctica.
“As a pilot, safety is as much in planning as it is in execution. Like if you go skiing, safety starts with you deciding which weather you’re going to go in, what attire you’re going to wear,” he said. “It’s when you try to wing it that you get into trouble.”
Another integral part to the trip’s success was the support of his family.
Caltabiano saved screenshots of iPad Facetime conversations with his family from various places around the globe, and recalled a conversation with his wife, Jamie, about his doubts for the trip and whether it was a good idea to leave in the middle of a cold and wet winter in Whitefish.
“There was a moment I was getting exhausted with planning and I said, ‘honey, I’m not sure if this is wise,’” Caltabiano said. “She said, ‘you know, Jack needs you. It’s not just yourself, at this point you guys are a team, you’ve got to deliver together.’”
“If it wasn’t Jamie telling me go, it wouldn’t be possible,” he added.
Despite the more grave nature of the difficult southern half of the trip, there were still plenty of highlights.
In Accra, Ghana, the crew landed to find the plane parked next to them belonged to the president of the Republic of Zambia, who was in town along with many other world leaders for the inauguration of Nana Akuti-Adoo, Ghana’s president.
After returning from the South Pole, a trip they’d set 10 days aside for, the crew had five days to kill before they had to jump back on schedule and head home, which they spent sightseeing at a ski resort in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.
“I saw the condors flying, the glacier lakes, Patagonia,” he recalled. “That was relaxing and enjoyable.”
But the real high point of the trip was at the bottom of the earth.
For months the trip’s success hinged on whether they would receive approval to land in Antarctica, where not many pilots are allowed to venture.
At one point, an officer at a British base, Rothera, put the matter very bluntly.
“I called and spoke to the chief pilot in Rothera and he asked me, ‘are you related to the Queen of England? It doesn’t matter if you say yes because even she cannot land here,’” Caltabiano recalled in September.
However, eventually Long was able to arrange for fuel to be reserved for them and their permits went through, and they were over the biggest hurdle of the trip.
“Landing in Antarctica was like the epitome of that flight. We didn’t know until the end if we could go to Antarctica, and when we realized that very few people get to do that, it was like ‘wow, this is very special.’ And then flying over Antarctica, it was like flying over Mars,” he said.
“The scenery — the ice, the blue, the red of the rocks. I never thought there were rocks, but where the cliffs are sharp you can see them. It’s amazing. It’s a part of the world that probably I won’t see ever again,” he added.
While he may be done adventuring for a while, Caltabiano has some other plans to look forward to.
First, his son Ian, a junior at Whitefish High School, will be touring potential colleges with the family over the summer. On March 16, he officially became a citizen of the United States. And as president of NXGEN International in Whitefish, a payment services business with more than 20 offices serving 30 countries around the globe, he and the team have received the ISO of the year award from the Electronic Transactions Association, which he likens to the “academy award” of the industry. He’s also continuing the push to branch out to an increasing number of countries around the world.
Caltabiano also teaches leadership at various Rotary clubs and Leadership Flathead, a skill he thinks is underappreciated these days, and thinks his role as a mentor for youth is one of the most fulfilling opportunities he has.
“By leaders, I don’t mean bosses. I mean leaders, and the epitome of a leader is someone with a servant heart. The leader is the first one to sacrifice them self for the team,” he said.
He described one particular activity he asks his students to complete — writing their own obituary.
While it sounds a bit morbid, Caltabiano explained how it’s actually a useful tool for aligning one’s priorities for their life.
“It forces you to think, ‘OK, after I’m gone, what did I want people to know about me?’ You realize what things are really important. I want people to remember that I was a good dad, I was a straight person, I was a person of integrity, a good husband and I nurtured the new generation,” he said. “That’s my passion. It’s teaching with the gifts I have.”