Nineteen year old Australian Ryan Campbell last year became the youngest pilot to circumnavigate the world in a single-engine aircraft when he completed an epic 24,000 nautical mile journey in 70 days. With the release of his new book, “Born to Fly” on the horizon, Ryan spoke to Derek Royal about his epic journey and his plans for the future.
Now that you’ve achieved your lifetime dream to fly around the world, what is your ultimate flying ambition?
No doubt that flying around the world solo was by far my wildest dream, the experience and challenge of the flight and its preparation has now led to me looking towards the future with a whole new attitude. My future goals revolve around aviation, including finding a method of introducing youth into aviation and finding a way to provide the pathway to the pilot seat to those who may not see it as an achievable challenge. My goal is to fly everything I can, build hours and gain experience within aviation. I look up to people such as Clay Lacy and Bob Hoover, pilots who have seen and experienced so much within a lifetime. I love aerobatics and have an unexplainable dream to fly warbirds. Like many, the thought of taking a single seat fighter up and around the clouds sits permanently at the top of my slightly extensive bucket list.
What inspired you to fly around the world?
I had always wanted to fly around the world, it was the thought of taking off from ‘A’ and never flying any direction other than East before eventually arriving back at ‘A’ again, to fly through every season, endless changes in terrain, to take on the challenges in the air and on the ground and to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of aviation who lived in a time where aviation really was simply magic. Although I didn’t feel I could achieve it, I was dreaming about it so often that I decided to Google it. After some research I found out that it may be more achievable than I thought.
What was your family’s reaction when you revealed your plan?
That was an interesting conversation. I think it had something to do with having just dried the dishes, take note of that. Both mum and dad were very supportive from the beginning, whether or not they (or I) ever expected it to become this big is another thing. My Uncle and flying instructor both passed on the same support, which was a huge confidence booster and led to the next step. Those few people and their accompanying support were the beginning of what would become an enormous team.
You said it took two years of planning for your round-the-world flight. Tell me about those preparations and explain the biggest challenge.
Flying a solo circumnavigation is dangerous therefore the main priority was safety. I was in a situation where if I wanted to complete the flight then I had to fundraise the $250,000 to do so. Along with the planning of the flight itself, the preparation as a pilot and the training to undertake beforehand, there was an entirely different side to the flight that I had not been ready for. To fundraise meant convincing companies, organisations and individuals that I was the right kid for the job. That led to lessons in marketing, business, presentation, media and public speaking. Networking became a huge part of my life, as did listening to those with experience before running away and jotting down all the new information I had just learnt, all to ensure a successful flight. It was a juggling act and a logistical nightmare, although regularly frustrating it was something that paid off in the end. I was to soon learn that flying the plane itself was only 25 per cent of the challenge.
You overcame many different challenges on your journey. What were the biggest challenges for you?
Every day in the aircraft was long, the longest leg was 15 hours and the average was around 10. What was not expected was the ridiculous amount of time it would take to navigate through customs and immigration, barter with ground handlers, refuel, find a way to the airport, access currency to pay the bills and so on. Sometimes getting into the air was actually a relief.
Although each leg was a ‘ferry flight’, 34 back-to-back ferry flights spanning a little over two months become a challenge, the continuous obstacles that seemed to pop up were hard to take when you were on your own.
In the end it was a big mind game, the flight was planned very well and it was up to me to find an attitude that would work, one where I could not let it all become too much.
How did you keep your mind occupied and what did you think about on the long flights over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans?
I had planned a way to keep my mind working, between ferry fuel transfers, HF position reports, trend monitoring, fuel calculations and the careful rationing of muesli bars, I was always doing something every 15 minutes. If I was bored, then I had forgotten something.
The (15 hour) leg from Hawaii to California was very different, I had much stronger headwinds than expected and ‘PNR’ became the topic of the hour. Honestly I was very, very frightened but the decisions that were made ended up being correct, I have never felt as alone as rattling off fuel calculations 1,000 nautical miles from anyone and anything in any direction. That 15 hour leg is ticked off the bucket list, I will not do it again in anything that doesn’t burn Jet A1 and have a drinks trolley.
How did you survive being cramped in a tiny cockpit, possibly deprived of sleep, often in freezing cold conditions, for so many hours at a time?
I think it was purely adrenaline. Although it kept you awake in the plane, it also kept you awake the night before and the night after. There was never a time where flying the Cirrus over water was comfortable. I think too many people had looked at me like I was an idiot when talking about flying a single piston over an ocean. If I started to feel comfortable I would hear a make believe engine noise – known as over water ‘auto rough’ – and imagine all those people and their wide eyed faces looking at me in disbelief.
What were the highlights of your journey?
It’s the impossible question! When looking back and knowing the flight was a success, not all highlights have to have been positive moments in the aircraft. The frightening moments were all navigated around successfully, there were three times when I thought I was in big trouble, whether airspace, weather or fuel related, yet each time decisions were made which solved the issue. Making those decisions is something I am proud of.
The whole summary of the flight is surreal yet the big highlight – 24,000 nautical miles, 34 destinations, 15 countries, 200 hours, five continents. A journey through every season, over nearly every type of imaginable terrain and in and out of phenomenally diverse cultures and their accompanying situations. It’s all very surreal, it was my wildest dream yet we showed what one dream could evolve into. A flight that was a success, including the goals to benefit youth within and beyond aviation, the stories of inspiration that were everywhere including people realising a lifelong dream to fly just because of Teen World Flight, the team of people that became new friends and the way in which the flight affected them. Highlights seem to pop up everywhere, just the other day I shook hands with Prince William and went on to have a chat about flying, something beyond anything I could have imagined happening.
Did you ever question your decision to undertake such an incredibly challenging journey? Were there moments when you thought “Oh my, what the hell am I doing?”
Absolutely! There were quite a few of these times both on and off the ground. The longest leg was one instance due to the amount of fuel on board; I would never have thought nearly 1,000 litres in a Cirrus would ‘not be enough’. Icing conditions in an aircraft with no icing protection and an inexperienced pilot was something to experience and then never experience again.
Along with a few moments where I wished I had more experience or a helping hand when in the air, the logistics on the ground regularly left me wishing I had flown Qantas.
Why did you choose the SR22 to take you around the world?
We had a list of minimum requirements such airspeed, range, avionics, autopilot etc. These were all items chosen to make the flight as safe as possible. We didn’t have the ability to purchase an aircraft and the journey to source something suitable was interesting to say the least, including a trip to Wichita in a stressed state to attempt to source a Cessna as the departure date neared. In the end, after all sorts of ups and downs, we hired VH OLS, a 2009 Cirrus SR22 GTS. It turned out to be perfect, my ‘everything happens for a reason’ attitude was proven to work once again and we prepared the ferry system and other additions for the flight.
So where is Oscar Lima Sierra now? Do you still fly her?
Unfortunately not, the Cirrus was hired and although for sale I was told my only possession, a Commodore with P plates, was not of equivalent trade in value. My hope was that it would be able to stay in its ‘stickered’ form as it looked fantastic and was an attraction for young kids. As far as I know the Cirrus is based in Tamworth, New South Wales, and is on the market. If Lotto is kind then I may just go and pick it up.
I’d imagine that anything you do now would be mundane when compared to flying around the world. Tell me what you’ve been doing since arriving home last year and how have you settled into everyday life?
It was hard to come home and just stop. I trekked around speaking about the flight but the lifestyle was far from the stressful adrenaline-filled rush that had engulfed the last two years and especially the last two and a half months. I took an opportunity to work out of Cessnock flying Chieftains on aeromedical work, an eye-opening experience that was a fantastic way to develop further skills yet that has since made way for a new challenge.
I have no wish to ever fly around the world in anything without a drinks button in the overhead panel, that said I now have an attitude where I need to be aiming towards something at all times otherwise I will begin to go mad. This will be smaller challenges but still huge challenges for myself, whether it be aerobatics, building tailwheel time, working towards corporate aviation or dreaming of how to get into warbirds.
You’re already an author at 20-years-old and your book, “Born to Fly” is due for release in August. Tell me about the process of putting your young life on paper.
I still laugh at the word ‘Author’. During my Higher School Certificate I saved up and ventured to the world’s biggest air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I arrived back home and my Advanced English teacher handed me a pile of novels that I would need to read and catch up on. I couldn’t see how I would fit reading these into my schedule of aviation magazines so I dropped down to Standard English where I read aviation magazines in class instead.
My English teacher is having a good laugh now, but I have managed to successfully finish ‘Born to Fly’ and I am so proud of what has been written down and what will now be able to be shared. I found it relatively hard to talk about the flight when I arrived back home, everyone wanted to know every detail but I didn’t have that in me. Instead, ‘Born to Fly’ is my ‘de-brief’ of sort, a way for me to pencil down all the adventures, memories and feelings of the flight.
Finally, what does the future hold for you?
I will continue to save my pennies, build some tail wheel time, look towards warbirds in my time off and work towards an exciting youth in aviation program to bring young kids into the cockpit.