Seeing smoke billowing from massive fires burning across seemingly-endless stretches of the Amazon rainforest was one of the most jarring perspectives a Vancouver woman recalls from her journey to the "end of the world."
"It's horrible," Samantha Porter tells VIA. "It was really hard to see...when you really see it first-hand."
Porter, 21, is one of three pilots in her family. Her dad, Ian, and younger sister, 18-year-old Sydney, also have their licenses. The three of them, along with mom Michelle and 15-year-old brother Christopher, are known as "Five in the Sky": a family expedition to fly around the world in a single-engine plane.
While many of the places the family flew over offered jaw-dropping perspectives of unparalleled beauty, the view of the widespread fires in the Amazon struck Samantha with a devastating blow.
"You have such a different perspective from the sky," she explains, highlighting how the sheer size of the destruction viscerally impacted her.
"Seeing it from above, you can see so far; it's just smoke and fires everywhere."
The family chose to do the entire journey using visual flight rules (VFR), meaning that they wouldn't be flying above the clouds. While flying like this provided awe-inspiring vistas, it also created some challenges.
In the Caribbean, for example, tempestuous summer weather provided far from ideal flying conditions for the fivesome. Hurricanes are frequent in the region during this time and there were some tense moments.
"There definitely been some scary situations," Samantha describes. "Especially the way we are flying using VFR. We can't enter into the clouds so it can be a bit challenging if there is some dicey weather, like heading down through the Caribbean in the summer, [when] the thunderstorms can really build."
The motto of the trip was 'low and slow'
Despite some "nerve-wracking" flights, most of the family's experiences were positive. The motto of the trip was "low and slow," which allowed them to truly experience all of the places they flew across, with frequent stops and activities in key destinations. Since they couldn't sleep inside the plane, they got accommodation in cities and often went on lengthy excursions, such as a whale-watching trip off the coast of Argentina or trekking across the world's largest salt flat in Bolivia.
While the Porters were forced to stop their journey around the world halfway due to a medical emergency, they covered an impressive amount of territory. Their first flight departed from Pitt Meadows on June 15, 2022, and then they travelled up into the Arctic, across Canada into the Maritimes, down through the United States, around the Caribbean, and made numerous stops across South America before flying to the "end of the world" — Ushuaia, Chile, which is located the southernmost tip of the continent.
For each section of flying, the family averaged 25,000 nautical miles and generally made two or three stops daily. While many Canadian airports did not require a permit or fee, several of the ones in South America did. That said, there were a couple of surprises in North America, including a shockingly steep landing fee at a small airport in New Brunswick.
Since they did not have a special VFR clearance to fly at night, there were a few times the family had to sleep outside of the plane due to an oncoming storm or lack of accommodation. In the Northwest Territories, they had to land on a small dirt airstrip and stay put.
"We just set up camp and spent the night there. There wasn't service so we just kind of had the snacks we had stored on the plane," she explains.
Single-engine plane was 'meant to be'
The plane is only one of two GA8 Airvans in all of Canada and Samantha's dad had been keeping his eye out for one. When one come up for sale in the Lower Mainland, he said it was "meant to be."
Samantha adds that the aircraft is a "head-turner" since there aren't many of them anywhere they travel.
The young pilot majors in Geography and Environmental Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and was taking a gap year for the family expedition, which is on hold for now. Her younger sister, Sydney, is also taking a gap year before she begins her post-secondary education.
Christopher, the youngest in the family, was doing a year of his high school courses online.
While they had to cut their expedition short, the family has travelled to a whopping 19 countries and crossed a litany of activities off their bucket list. They were also raising money for SOS Children''s Village, which provides homes and resources for vulnerable children in over 100 countries around the world.
"It's captivating; it's incredible," she recalls. "Being able to see the Blue Hole in Belize or Turismo Pines in Chile...to see all of these incredible things from the sky that not many other people experience.
"I just feel really blessed and lucky to be able to do that."