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Flying around the world solo as a teenager

written by Owen Zupp | July 19, 2018

I first met Ryan Campbell and his parents at Avalon in February 2013. Surrounded by banners and a globe displaying a flightpath around 360 degrees of longitude, the then 19-year-old had his eyes firmly set on being the youngest person to fly solo around the world. Now his dream has becoming reality and Ryan set off for his journey from Wollongong in VH-OLS, a Cirrus SR-22.

(This week’s Throwback Thursday article is from the September 2013 edition of Australian Aviation, where Owen Zupp writes about Ryan Campbell, who in 2013 became the youngest person to fly around the world)

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Ryan’s dream began two years ago, although at this stage he wasn’t even able to grasp if such a flight was feasible. He contemplated how Jessica Watson had circumnavigated the world as a solo sailor at a tender age and drew parallels to undertaking a similar journey through the skies. Bit by bit and Google search after Google search his questions found answers.

With every step he learned a little more and gradually the dream evolved into a concept and Teen World Flight was born. In itself, the ‘age barrier’ was not a significant issue for Ryan. He soloed in an RA-Aus Gazelle on his 15th birthday and followed that up by his first VH solo on his 16th. Three months after he turned 18 he gained a commercial pilot’s licence and it has been onwards and upwards ever since.

From the outset the enormity of the exercise dictated that while he may be alone in the aircraft, only the combined efforts of a team stood any chance of getting the project off the ground. Central to the team was Ken Evers, who with Tim Pryse flew a GA8 Airvan around the world in 2010. Tim was able to mentor Ryan on a great many aspects of the flight with knowledge gained first-hand. Dick Smith came into the mix with his expertise gleaned from multiple flights around the world and veteran ferry pilot Jim Hazelton undoubtedly had wise words to share regarding crossing the vast Pacific Ocean. There were other veteran pilots from various backgrounds also on hand, with the ever constant of family and friends tying the task together.

For Ryan, more than the challenge of flight planning, the new world of visas, taxation, funding and media promotion presented possibly the greatest challenge. As always, time was the enemy and these tasks all needed to be accomplished and set in place before his departure on June 30. The logistics alone of such a flight are daunting. 24,000nm, nearly 200 hours of flight time, 14 countries, five continents and sector lengths ranging from 20 minutes to 14 hours. For an experienced aviator it would seem daunting, but for a teenager it must have appeared to be virtually impossible at times. However, dreams aren’t fulfilled by near-misses and Ryan persevered, undeterred by the uncomprehending blank expressions he often received when telling people of the flight ahead.

Planning, planning, planning

Marking out a route for an around-the-world flight gives rise to challenges ranging from political boundaries and topography to the availability of aviation fuel and customs clearances.

Ultimately Ryan’s route would depart from Wollongong on the NSW coast and island-hop across the Pacific in sectors of more than 2,000nm. Along the way he would stop at Norfolk Island, Pago Pago, Christmas Island and Hawaii before reaching the west coast of the United States. Crossing America he would make a mandatory visit to Air Venture at Oshkosh before continuing  his journey via Canada, Iceland, Great Britain, France and Greece. Europe would be left behind, bound for Egypt, Oman, Sri Lanka and Indonesia and finally home to Australia. 

All of this was planned to take place over 10 weeks in an aircraft carrying minimal baggage and significant amounts of fuel. In fact the aircraft Ryan tasked to travel the world is a Cirrus SR22 and carries an impressive performance pedigree. Powered by a 310hp (230kW) Continental engine, the modified Cirrus cruises at around 160kts, which is a little slower than standard due to an additional HF aerial and an underwing ferry tank fuel line.

For the Teen World Flight, its maximum takeoff weight is increased by nearly 400kg as the SR22 uplifts and additional 600 litres of fuel for a total capacity of 950 litres. This extra fuel is facilitated by an additional tank located in the cabin behind the pilot’s seat and offers nearly 15 hours of endurance. The 2,100nm and almost 15-hour sector from Hawaii to the West Coast made full use of that additional fuel.

With a route planned and an aircraft to fly, clearances through airspace  and crossing borders takes on another dimension. Ken Evers and Dick Smith had a great deal to offer in terms of advice, and UK-based company White Rose Aviation came on board to handle the complex administrative processes of flying around the world. Ryan’s team had grown even further and there were still the ongoing issues of marketing, media and sponsorship to tackle. Yet when his departure date arrived, his house was in order and he was on his way.

More than a flight

Undoubtedly there is a lot of personal satisfaction to be gained by conquering the globe in a light aircraft. However, Ryan Campbell is a motivated young man and amid the maze of preparation and planning, he still saw that this flight could be more than just one man and his aircraft. It could be about inspiration and pursuing your dreams.

When you speak to Ryan, his maturity and sincerity are remarkable for a young man in his teens. He genuinely seeks to inspire young people to follow their dreams, whether those dreams are in the field of aviation or some other endeavour. As he rightly points out, “It’s all about commitment”. Once the dream has been conjured, realisation only comes with persistent dedication. There are always a million reasons why you can’t do something, but you only need to find one way to achieve that goal and then set your mind to it.

Ryan is a classic case in point of practising what he preaches. Furthermore, he has sought to assist other young people with dreams by raising funds through ‘Dare 2 Dream’ scholarships. These scholarships seek to assist other young Australians who have shown dedication, perseverance and a commitment to helping their local communities. It is a noble cause and further highlights the broad view of the world that this young man possesses.

Halfway there

Ryan’s Cirrus set off from Wollongong on schedule and set course over his first expanse of water for Norfolk Island. Over the next five weeks he worked his way to the northeast enroute to the United States. When I caught up with him by phone, he had already crossed the Pacific and the continental United States. He had visited the Hawaiian Islands, landed on the significant runway 16-Right at Van Nuys and been feted at AirVenture at Oshkosh.

Sitting in Bangor, Maine his sights were now firmly set on the Atlantic and the journey around the far side of the globe. So far there had been so many people, places and sights to digest that it was a struggle to nominate a particular highlight. After some contemplation, he suggested that the landing at Van Nuys was special as the movie One Six Right had been such a significant motivator for his flight. He also was struck by a sight he had witnessed the day I spoke to him. He had obtained an airways clearance to allow him to fly past Niagara Falls on the way to Bangor and it was every bit as spectacular as he had imagined.

Yet for all those special moments, there is a lot of hard work tying every sector together safely and successfully.

Teen World Flight

For Ryan, the most challenging aspect so far has been the spectre of fatigue and somewhat surprisingly it rears its head in the early stages of each flight. Possibly there is a slight adrenaline dump and relief in getting back into the skies that causes a sense of weariness. And of course there is no-one there to chat with as he sets course across the world. However, the fact that Ryan is openly aware of this challenge and ensures he is always adequately rested once again speaks volumes for his maturity and commitment to the cause.

At other times he has been entertained by the air traffic controllers across the United States. At first they query his registration with wonder, but when they inquire further they are dumbfounded. Hearing that the flight consists of a 19-year-old circumnavigating the world solo in a single-engined Cirrus, the normally rapid-fire controllers border on being lost for words. In contrast, when he called up the controller at Smyrna, Tennessee to amend his departure time by 15 minutes, a good deal of that period was lost in conversation. It turned out that the controller was a motorsports fan and an admirer of Casey Stoner. Finding out that Ryan was an Australian, he proceeded to occupy the frequency discussing Casey’s new career in V8 Supercars! It was a moment of humourous relief and a chance to smile on such a long flight would never go astray, I would imagine.

From Bangor, Ryan sees the North Atlantic as his immediate challenge. Beyond that, the sectors beyond Greece through Egypt and Sri Lanka are set to offer up a set of unknowns until the Australian coastline looms ahead at Port Hedland. Ultimately, his plan will see the flight completed on September 7 when he lands his Cirrus at Wollongong.

No matter how experienced you are as an aviator, to set off solo around the world is a remarkable undertaking. For a teenage commercial pilot to set his sights on such a goal is amazing, but to follow through and make it a reality is something to behold. Undoubtedly along the way there have been frustrations and even moments where butterflies swirled in the stomach. However, the real achievement lies in Ryan’s ability to confront, adapt and overcome these hurdles along the way.

“Once the dream has been conjured, realisation only comes with persistent dedication.”

As I spoke to him over the long-distance line, there was an unmistakeable sense of wonder in his voice. He oozed unfailing enthusiasm tempered with a mature balanced perspective. He referred to the fact that no matter how much preparation you undertake, the reality will still take your breath away. You can only truly marvel at the power of towering equatorial cumulonimbus clouds when you see them and understand the solitude of such a journey when land lies one thousand miles behind with still one thousand miles to go.

Ryan Campbell is a special young man on an incredible journey. He may be solo, but he is selfless in his dedication to the task and the causes he seeks to support. When the Cirrus appears over the escarpment on that final descent into Wollongong it will mark the end of a phenomenal journey. However, I tend to think that when the wheels touch the asphalt it will really mark the arrival of a truly special young man.

VIDEO: A look at Ryan Campbell flying from Sri Lanka to Malaysia, posted on the TeenWorldFlight YouTube channel.

NOTE: This article was written prior to Ryan’s completion of his around the world journey. He landed his Cirrus safely in Wollongong on September the 7th 2013. His record as the youngest Australian to circumnavigate the globe was beaten in 2016 by Lachlan Smart.

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Flying around the world solo as a teenager Comment

  • Paul


    Well done mate.

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