The world is a very big place, especially when you’re flying around it in a very small plane. But that didn’t stop inspirational Italian Roberto Bisa zooming from one end of the planet to the other in a Fly Synthesis Syncro, on the way to his second Guinness World Record.
The heroic 49-year-old made headlines across the globe two years ago when he flew an ultralight from Italy to Australia, which at 20,126km was the furthest journey of its kind and enough for the fine folks at Guinness to hand him a big, shiny trophy. And now he’s gone and smashed his own record.
Over the course of 28 magical days in August last year, the plucky pilot did what most thought impossible, taking his Syncro an incredible 25,804km as he flew through Belgium, England, Scotland, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina and a dozen other countries before touching down in Australia and becoming a legend.
An ultralight has never flown so far, and it took an incredible pilot to complete the odyssey. It was a tough journey, with Roberto battling fierce storms, bad landings, lack of fuel and fatigue on his way to immortality. But through perseverance and nerves of steel, he proved that anything is possible with the right plane.
Astonishingly, Roberto completed the entire journey by himself, with minimal help from others. It was a long and lonely trip around this big, blue ball we call Earth, and there was enough excitement and adventure to fill a book – or serve as inspiration for a big-budget Hollywood action film!
When he finally made it back to terra firma, Roberto spoke to legendary aviation analyst Greg Doyle. This is the story of a round-the-world journey that re-wrote the record books and shattered perceptions of what an ultralight is capable of.
What made you decide to go for this record?
“Fifteen years ago, I started flying ultralights, and I always wanted to push my limits and see how far I could go. I was looking at a map of the world one day and thought to myself, ‘I wonder if I could fly all the way to Australia?’ I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I started putting things in motion, and two years ago I made the trip for the first time.”
How different was your second round-the-world flight from the first?
“The first time, I flew east, over Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia, before landing in Queensland. That time, I had another plane flying with me, and for my second flight I decided to do something even bigger and better. I wanted to fly west from Italy to Australia, which is a lot further… and I wanted to do it alone.”
How long did it take to plan?
“I was able to draw on my experiences from the first flight, but it still took two years to plan this attempt. Flying alone meant I needed to know everything about my plane, because I would be responsible for everything and would have no-one to help me. It was a lot of effort, with a lot of late nights, but it was all worth it.”
Why did you go with the Syncro?
“I was originally going to fly the Texan again, because it served me so well on my last journey, but after looking at the Syncro I knew it was the plane for the trip. It’s newer, faster, more comfortable and far better for long journeys. The new Rotax 912 engine is brilliant, and the performance is very good. It’s a reliable plane that’s well suited to flying round the world. Until recently, only a GA aircraft could have completed a trip like this, but the Syncro handled it well.”
You must have plenty of memories from your epic flight…
“Yes, both good and bad! I broke my propeller after a poor landing in Belgium, and had to wait three days for a new one to arrive. This delay meant that I left in bad weather, and had a very rough flight to Scotland. The weather was getting worse by the minute, so I left first thing the next morning and headed straight to Iceland. The poor weather followed me to Greenland, and then Canada, where the clouds disappeared. Fortunately, I had a wonderful flight through North America.”
And it was all smooth sailing from there?
“Not at all! The toughest leg of the journey came in Argentina, when I was flying through the mountains and a severe storm came through. I left very early in the morning to beat it, but I found myself surrounded by thick cloud and ice, and I knew I had to do something quickly or I could find myself in serious trouble. I thought that if I could climb to 7000ft, I could escape it, but when I reached that altitude I was still surrounded! I climbed to 10,000, the same, 12,000, the same. I was becoming worried, because this storm was really throwing me around, and I had nowhere to land. So I climbed to 16,000ft and finally, mercifully, I broke through the clouds and into the sunlight.”
And that was the end of that!
“No, unfortunately the clouds came up to meet me, and before long I was swamped again. Ice was hitting my windshield at 220km/h, my wings were freezing over, and I couldn’t see anything, so I started to descend. After a long time, I came out the bottom of the storm and was able to make it to my destination. I flew 1684km during that one day, and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life.”
Was it hard getting clearance to fly through all those countries?
“It was at first, but then I contacted an agency in England who were able to organise all of that for me. The route I took this time was a pleasant change from my earlier trip, which required me to fly over some very dangerous areas, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where I had to remain above 9500ft to remain safe. This time was fairly relaxing compared to that!”
What was your favourite country to fly through?
“The United States of America, for two reasons; firstly, the flying was easy because the weather was good and there were plenty of places to land. For this reason, I could relax after some difficult times. Secondly, the scenery changed so much that I was constantly in awe of what I was seeing. There are mountains and fields, lakes and rivers, cities and beaches. I will always cherish that part of the journey.”
How did you carry enough fuel for such long flights?
“People assume that I must’ve heavily modified my plane to make this journey, but that’s not true. It was a stock Syncro, with the exception of two small additional fuel tanks on the wings, which held a total of 100L. This, combined with the Syncro’s efficiency, made this record attempt possible. Finding fuel was difficult at times, however. I used Avgas where possible, but would sometimes use motor gas if that was all I could find.”
Did you take care of all the maintenance yourself?
“For the most part, yes. I was responsible for keeping the aircraft in working order, changing the oil and filters, and conducting any minor repairs. Every day I was flying at maximum weight because I was carrying spare parts, tools, and oils. I carried everything necessary for a round-the-world trip.”
What sort of radio and safety equipment did you have with you?
“I had a life jacket, three radios and a satellite phone. I even had a website where my friends and family could track me the whole time. It updated every two minutes, and it was nice to know that they were following me the whole time. My wife was happy to know that I was alright, too!”
Happy wife, happy life. Did the Syncro get uncomfortable after flying so far?
“Actually, no. I was surprised to find that it was actually quite roomy, and I was quite comfortable the whole way. That was important, because it allowed me to maintain concentration without having to worry about getting into the best position all the time. I really did enjoy my flight.”
Did you take a few photos of your trip?
“Just a few, haha! I actually took more than 1400 photographs, which was easy because there was so much to see. From the golden mountains of the United States, to the frozen tundra of Greenland, to the colourful plains of Europe, the view was always changing and it was always incredible. Sometimes I would simply look down at the scenery and become speechless at the beauty.”
You must’ve gotten lonely, spending all that time by yourself?
“When I was flying, I had so much to concentrate on that I didn’t have time to become lonely, and when I touched down I was able to contact my family via Skype. In the future, I may be able to take my son along for the ride, because he’s currently the youngest ultralight pilot in Italy and very adventurous. Who knows, maybe he will break my record one day!”
Looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Did you mingle with the natives during your downtime?
“My schedule was so full that I didn’t get to spend much time in each country, but the people I met were lovely and helpful. If I ever needed anything, they were more than happy to help me out. Fortunately, I had some friends in various places who were able to make my trip much easier, including a lovely gentleman in Canada who provided me with a nice meal when I needed it the most, and a friend in Maryland who helped me plot my route through the United States. It was a solo flight, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of these people.”
It must’ve been difficult to go to the toilet during those long flights…
“There are ways to do pee-pee during a flight, but for more substantial movements, I had to train my body. For one month before embarking on my trip, I did not allow myself to go to the toilet during the day. My body soon learnt that I only go in the morning, or at night. I also only ate in the morning, and at night, so that I wasn’t carrying extra weight in food.”
What else did you do to get your mind and body ready for such a difficult journey?
“I cycled 100km every day before leaving, so that I was ready for the physical challenges of the record attempt. I also trained at altitude, to allow myself to fly higher. My biggest battle ended up being against boredom – I had some very long legs without much to look at, but I managed to get through it.”
What’s it feel like to be a Guinness World Record holder?
“Magnificent! I have the certificate up on my wall at home, and I’m very proud of it. To work so hard for something and succeed, makes me very happy.”
What other adventures are you planning?
“I have many things on my mind, but the biggest hurdle is my family! My wife doesn’t want me to be gone for so long, but she understands that it’s difficult for me to stay on the ground. I would like to fly an ultralight above 30,000ft, and I would also like to take my Syncro for a tour around Africa. It’s such a beautiful continent and I would like to visit every country, but the only problem is the wars. Every day, there’s another war, and the world is a very, very crazy place at the moment. But still, I can dream.”
Good luck with everything in the future, Roberto. We’ll let the fine folks at Guinness World Records know to expect another call from you soon!