Diamondo Earthrounding

The birth edition,  Issue 02

 

Words by: Glenn Galea

Visuals by: Yentl Spiteri

Glenn

Hey thanks for meeting with me. I really appreciate your time and your initiative. I did a little research and quickly learned that I was interested in what you’re doing and that’s when I stopped reading and tried contacting you to get the information directly from the source. Besides, I need a good article for our magazine so, you know, two birds one stone. 

 

Matt

No problem Glenn, thank you for taking an interest in our cause. We’re happy to do this.

 

Glenn

Awesome. Let’s just start with a little ice breaker before we dive into the real burning questions. Tell me a bit about yourself; work, academia, how you met and how you ended up here.

 

Matt

Robin and I both studied aeronautical engineering. That’s how we got to know each other, in our bachelors. Then I went on to do a masters in air transport management in the UK, so more on the commercial side of things, but with a strong focus on data analytics and that is why I work as a data analyst and consultant within the aviation industry. I’m also a private pilot. I have been for 8 years now and I’m trying to get my commercial license to become a professional pilot but Covid happened. I’m enrolled in the Swiss program actually, but they postponed any starting date indefinitely so we don’t know when we can continue, but yeah that’s the ultimate goal.

 

Robin 

As Matt said we have the same bachelor course. After that I became a military pilot for the Swiss air force and now I fly a helicopter full time. I also fly small planes, like the one we will use for the earth rounding, as a hobby. I grew up right next to the airport and ever since I can remember I wanted to become a commercial pilot. When I got involved in the military—which is mandatory here—I thought it was a good opportunity to try the military pilot route and if that doesn’t work out, I can try the normal commercial route.

 

Matt

Truthfully, this has been a shared project for us since university. We used to write papers and study together and during those sessions we’d look at a map or a globe and actually talk about how cool it would be to circumnavigate the globe in a small aircraft. The dream still stands but since then people—even relatives of mine—ask me how I could justify taking an aircraft anywhere without an express purpose. “Aren’t you concerned by the pollution your dream is going to produce?”. Hearing this makes you put things in perspective. There’s many valid arguments for why flying still has its justifiable place in the transport industry, of course, but for us, our dream since forever was becoming a bit bittersweet. It didn’t take much for us to make this earth rounding trip environment-themed. Being in the industry for a number of years, we know that there are a lot of initiatives. The problem is that, in our view, the industry lacks a coordinated approach to communicate these initiatives to the air travelling public. 

Glenn

Oh okay, so it’s an awareness issue. It’s not that the technology isn’t there, it’s just that the public doesn’t know about it. You’re raising awareness for a very good cause and living your dream at the same time. That’s pretty genius.

Robin
Exactly! When we first came up with the idea to have a cause behind our trip, we talked to a lot of people in the industry and it was often the case that they just didn’t know about all the possible ways of flying—both as a pilot or passenger— without leaving such a negative impact on the environment. Promoting these initiatives while on our dream trip, our passion, it just fits perfectly, you know?

 

Matt

When I was a teenager, I thought I had a unique fascination with flying. When I first got my private pilot’s license, people would react to the news like, “Oh my god that’s so cool! Where are you going? Can you take me with you?” And when I actually did take them with me, they all looked pretty fascinated themselves. I guess it would be anyone’s dream to circumnavigate the globe, if they actually started flying. That being said, with the climate debate, our dream to fly around the world just for the sake of it, did start to leave a bad taste in our mouth. With Diamondo we are trying to show that you can still fly without carrying the environmental guilt with you. It’s like everything else in life— much like the premium you pay for organic, pesticide-free vegetables to avoid polluting your body, you can invest some extra funds to avoid polluting the air as much. Our aim is to show you where to allocate your money to make flying environmentally sustainable.

 

Glenn
Okay great. I think it’s fair to say we have smashed the ice and we are already getting into the thick of things here; the Diamondo Earthrounding initiative. You guys are the masterminds behind it; could you lay out your vision for those who don’t know?

 

Matt

Our mission or cause is to promote sustainable aviation to air travel passengers, air freight customers and private pilots. Ultimately, we are attempting to inform a wider community on what they can do to fly in a more sustainable manner. What is most important to us is that, should people want to invest some of their hard earned money into this cause, we want them to see exactly where the money actually flows to and how it is being spent to contribute to the goal of making flying sustainable. There is a lack of awareness surrounding sustainable aviation and we want to bring attention to this cause by visiting many initiatives around the world to educate people about the different possibilities available to not only offset their carbon footprint but also reduce their emissions when flying. By going to different locations around the globe we want to shine a light on the array of different approaches toward sustainable aviation that work best in different climates and geographies.

 

Robin

I would also add that, approximately fifty years from now, we will be flying using different forms of energy like electric or hydrogen, but fifty years is a very long time and that’s what we’re focused on. While we are in this transition period, we want to show what can be done now to reduce environmental harm and we believe the best way to do that with full transparency is by going to these locations and documenting it. Being pilots ourselves, we feel a sense of responsibility in this respect but everyone, everywhere uses air travel nowadays, so circumnavigating the globe to raise awareness seems like a fitting approach seeing that the industry itself is worldwide.

 

Glenn

When you say, we, are you just referring to Matt and yourself, Robin, or are there more people involved?  

 

Robin

We actually have a small team of six students and Matt’s longtime friend, Alex, that support us. We did come up with the idea, so you could technically call us the masterminds—it sounds good at least—but pretty early on we found out that we could not manage all the work that is associated with the project by ourselves. We had the opportunity to go and give a presentation at the university where we both studied—Zurich University of Applied Sciences—and yeah, fortunately for us, six students decided to join our team. Alex, who Matt knows from his Masters, joined the project this fall to coordinate from the ground when we are finally flying.  From communications to possible partnerships to accommodation to flight operations, the logistics involved are insane. We are very happy that now there’s nine of us working towards the same goal. 

 

Glenn

Oh wow. Shout out to your old university then, for making the alumni that are making all of this possible. Now, I’m guessing doing all of this isn’t cheap. How are you funding it?

Matt

You’re absolutely right in that it’s not necessarily cheap. The trip is partly self-funded and partly funded by the public—crowdfunded essentially. We are currently in the process of raising money to cover the operational costs. We will not be pocketing anything from it, it is totally not for profit. We just really want to make the most out of it, for ourselves but also for everyone else. Nowadays air travel is ubiquitous and we just want to do the best job we possibly can in communicating initiatives to make it sustainable. Of course, there are several costs associated with flying in general and our project is no exception. To turn this into a reality we need to cover these costs and, umm, let’s just say they exceed our savings by quite a factor.

 

Glenn

I’d like to go a bit deeper into this. Could you break down some of the costs for me please?


Matt

There are many different cost-generating blocks. Renting the plane is a big one. Another one is fuel, then there’s landing taxes, accommodation, maintenance, insurance. Almost too many to mention. Our main strategy is going to the companies that we need services from to do this project—the people that will present us with a bill—and say, “Hey can we do a cashless partnership in return for sporting your company’s brand on our aircraft?””. As you can probably imagine, this doesn’t always work so then the expense falls on our shoulders. The owner of the aircraft—who is already being very generous in trusting us and lending us his craft— also expects a rental fee. This is essentially a five digit figure which we have to pay and that’s the single largest cost component of our trip. All financial sponsorships are welcome of course and we’ve come up with some funding schemes to make it easy for anyone to donate. For the general public, we have a patron scheme where people can donate and we instantly reinvest 10% of their money in sustainable aviation-related projects. For companies, we are offering to print a sticker of their brand onto the aircraft. The bigger the donation, the bigger the logo. Our entire journey will be video documented so having your logo printed and associated with such a good cause is great advertising. 

 

Glenn

And the stickers stay there after the trip is done?

 

Matt

Pretty sure we’d have to talk to the owner about that.

 

Robin 

I’m pretty sure I know what he’s gonna say… no.

 

Glenn

Fair enough. I know the readers would want me to ask that question. To those people, I’m sorry, but no. Since we’re on the aircraft topic, is there a reason you chose this particular model?

 

Robin

First of all, the aircraft is brand new. It’s one of the first DA50s delivered, so obviously it’s quite efficient right out of the gate. They’re Austrian manufacturers called Diamond Aircraft Industries. They make single and twin engine airplanes, all of which have a maximum capacity of four to seven, so just small planes. I’ve had the opportunity to fly two of their models in my training to become a commercial pilot, so I already had some experience with them and I really like their handling in the air. It’s a very smooth flight. Besides, it’s a really good looking plane! That being said, the biggest factor is that this aircraft runs efficiently on jet fuel. In the industry at large, the majority of small aircraft operate on petrol-type fuels,so called AVGAS. When compared to the volumes of the global jet fuel market, the AVGAS market is miniscule. So there are limited incentives of revolutionizing it with a sustainable fuel – especially when factoring in the hurdles to get certified for use in aircraft. On the other hand, there are a lot more initiatives whereby Jet A-1 fuel is mixed with synthetic and biofuels. These alternative jet fuel types have a similar chemical structure as traditional fossil fuels and essentially combust in the same way. The big difference lies in the manufacturing process because they can be produced in a CO2 neutral manner. This basically means that the CO2 that would usually end up being emitted, would instead be used as part of the fuel’s manufacturing process, thereby closing the carbon cycle. Some of the sustainable aviation initiatives we will be visiting are focused on this fuel-making process. For this reason, the brand new high efficiency engine and the fact that I have experience with Diamond aircraft are why we chose this plane.

 

Matt

As Robin said, apart from having a different, cleaner fuel mixture when compared to the other gasoline competitors, it actually burns less fuel per hour. This advantage comes from the new technology that comes with this aircraft’s engine, and I think that it’s important to point this out. The very same thing happened in the commercial industry; Airbus and Boeing commercial planes have used jet engines for quite a while and the engine manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce, have pushed this technology to peak efficiency. There have been so many improvements and iterations of the jet engine that I don’t think we’ll see major leaps in the coming future. Since the 1990s the fuel consumption per passenger went down by around 50%. The same has to happen with smaller aircraft. If you take a very fuel efficient machine and fill it with sustainable aviation fuel, then you’re already running a super efficient aviation model. I think that the industry has done its work in building efficient planes, now we have to invest more in tackling sustainable fuel options. There are many options here; some are made from biological sources, mainly waste, while the synthetic options are produced from electricity or solar powered reactors. The reality is that, if you take an electrical production method, for example, one whereby wind energy is used to produce electricity, then the fuel cost is directly proportional to how much it costs to produce the electricity. I have learnt that, in a spot where wind is abundant, taking current market prices for renewable energy, it costs around five times  more to produce the sustainable aviation fuel mixture compared to using fossil Jet A-1 alone.

 

Glenn

Very interesting. Could you give me a little outline of the trip you’re taking? 

 

Robin

We are planning to depart east/southeast bound in January 2022 from Switzerland. The first part covers Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and Bangkok, which will be our first maintenance stop. Then after that there’s the pacific crossing to do. We move south to Singapore, then east. The plan for now is to go through the Philippines and then through some pacific islands to Hawaii and then to California which will then allow us to go through Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean and back to the USA. From then we will go to Canada, Greenland, then Iceland, Scotland and we’re back to Europe. That’s more or less the planned route but right now it’s a bit hard with Covid regulations so we have to stay flexible as much as we can. We’ll obviously try to avoid any quarantining where possible so as not to lose too much time. That’s more or less how we want to do it and if everything goes to plan we will be back in Switzerland by April 2022.

 

Glenn

How big of a wrench in the wheels is the pandemic for you guys?

 

Matt

Even without Covid, it’s not that easy to plan something like this. You need permits to fly over countries, organize fuel, book hotels, arrange handling for the plane and so many other things. We would not have been able to plan it without the help from the students. Covid just adds another level of complexity to that, especially with rules varying from country to country.

 

Glenn

While on your trip, are you taking care of maintenance?

 

Matt

No, you need technicians to do repairs. Us pilots have an understanding of the systems so we can point the certified mechanics and technicians towards the problems but the hands-on work is not done by us. As you may know, aircraft go through regular inspections and, yes, that is something that you can plan for. You can plan ahead to do one in Thailand and one in the US, but when something happens along the route, when there’s no mechanic to do an inspection, then you need to come up with solutions. It’s for that very reason that I took the maintenance seminar so that I would be able to communicate effectively with the mechanics over the phone.

 

Glenn

When flying around the globe for four months; is the weather a consideration of yours?

 

Matt

Definitely. If you talk to people attempting a similar undertaking, they will tell you that the time frame is not ideal for an earthrounding from a meteorological perspective. That said, we had to do it in this timeframe because Robin’s employer would like to have him back before summer and I’m also anticipating my training to become a commercial pilot might start again in summer so we just decided to do it at the start of 2022 and that decision was taken a year ago now. To prepare for this, when choosing our stops— being the nerdy data analyst that I am—I built a model that outputs graphical plots of the weather based on historical data. It’s an approximation or an estimate if you will but at least it gives us an understanding of what to expect in terms of weather in different geographies across our timeline. If we realise that a planned stop of ours coincides with horrible weather—cloud coverage is too low for us to fly in, for instance—then we would have to see how to mitigate that risk by rerouting.

 

Robin 

It’s a very important factor actually. For the longest flights we have planned, we also have taken a look at the winds we are expected to have. A 10 hour flight with a head wind or a tail wind is a completely different flight and it’s very important to know and plan the route accordingly.

 

Glenn

I think I’ve gone through all the questions I had prepared regarding the flight itself. Can you talk to me a bit about the initiatives you will be visiting and promoting?

 

Matt 

One of the most affordable ways to compensate for emissions is through reforestation. While there are many ways of doing this wrongly, we are visiting and reporting from an initiative in Nicaragua, which tackles the issue holistically. Other means of offsetting emissions is by funding replacement of fossil energy production facilities with renewables. We aim to illustrate by visiting a solar power plant in the Dominican Republic. You may ask why we advocate emission offsetting and it has to do with leverage. Well, the same dollar invested in quality carbon offsetting initiatives currently can achieve at least a 20x higher effect on our atmosphere than when investing it into sustainable aviation fuel. To make sustainable aviation affordable to everyone flying, we need a mix between carbon offsetting measures and investments into alternative fuels.

If we go back to the different types of sustainable aviation fuels we can show what types are manufactured in the different locations along our route. For biofuel derived from waste products we will visit facilities in the US where there are many initiatives using old cooking oil to produce sustainable biological fuel. Then there’s synthetic aviation fuels and the cool part about these is that, in order to produce the gas that ultimately the fuel is refined from, as a starting point you need carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. The CO2 is taken from the atmosphere. That’s where direct air capture or carbon capture technology comes into play. Climeworks just opened the world’s largest direct air capture facility in Iceland, called ORCA, which we will be visiting. Then there is Synhelion’s demonstrator facility in Germany where they use sunlight as the provider of energy, but then also use CO2 removed from the atmosphere and water to produce the Syngas which is then used to refine the fuel. It’s a different approach to achieve a similar result. It is important to note that this plant is in Germany, but as we both know there’s more sun in other places, like the Arabian peninsula or in deserts, for example, so we also want to show where the different technologies would offer the best results in terms of geography.

 

Glenn

How can people follow your journey and join in helping these initiatives?

 

Matt 

We are currently running a little competition, if you will, with 2 companies editing vlogs for us. We shot the first round of videos in August covering parts of our training but also the delivery of the aircraft. I’m sending the material to one of these companies and they will put together a vlog—something which we’d like to do on a biweekly basis—to then upload to YouTube. The videos will be around 10 minutes in length and they will cover different topics; the fascination of flight, the adventures of our trip, but also the educational aspect on sustainability and aviation at large. For a more real-time approach with people following our journey, to be able to interact with them, we will use social media platforms such as Linkedin, Instagram and Facebook. We have set up pages and accounts on these platforms for Diamondo Earthrounding but much like our trip, they still have to take off. We’re also thinking about implementing a live tracker on our website so that everyone can see where we are around the globe. We also thought of a live feed but it would be hard to do that because of bandwidth reasons. Besides, we don’t want it to be a distraction and a safety concern. So ultimately we have a satellite phone that tracks position and we are trying to use that to track our flight. We hope to convince our viewers and followers of the technologies and initiatives we are visiting. So naturally, and apart from supporting the initiatives via the 10% of donations towards Diamondo Earthrounding, we will also touch on how our focus group can continue to support these projects once we have landed and completed our flight around the world.

 

Glenn

Will you be doing live videos on Facebook of you in the air?

 

Matt

Of course we could technically shoot a live video from the flight deck, but we have to do it in a way that the safety of our flight is not impaired. Everyone is an aviation expert on YouTube, so if something looks a bit dubious, people would catch on to it fairly quickly. Video and Social media are very important to get eyes on us and attention, but because our subject matter is technical to a certain extent, print media that can contain a bit more information is very important to deliver the technicalities of our message, so thank you for this.

Glenn

And thank you, Matt and Robin, for the time and for all that you’re doing for the environment. Readers, please, support Diamondo Earthrounding in any way you can. Donate, tell your family, your friends, aviation enthusiasts, shout them out on social media, follow their awesome journey and live vicariously through them. That’s what I’ll be doing. 

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