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Teen aims for around-world, solo flight record

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) — A 19-year-old Australian who describes flying as “magical” aims to become the youngest person to go solo around the world and could break a world record set just a month ago by a 21-year-old Californian.

Ryan Campbell left Wollongong, Australia, on June 30 and wants to finish his trip by Sept. 7. He took off a day after Jack Wiegand landed in Fresno, Calif., finishing his world flight in 59 days. Both young men spent much of this week in Oshkosh, Wis., at AirVenture, one of the world’s largest air shows.

A number of young pilots began dreaming of a world record in 2007 when Barrington Irving, then a student at Florida Memorial University, completed a solo flight at age 23. Wiegand broke a record set in May by James Anthony Tan, of Malaysia, who was just shy of his 22nd birthday.

Wiegand says he has no concerns about giving up his title to Campbell in a few weeks: “Records are meant to be broken.”

The young pilots said they started with dreams of being listed in Guinness World Records but that became less important as they confronted long periods in the air, foul weather and a dangerous ocean.

Campbell’s route placed what many consider the toughest challenge — crossing the Pacific Ocean — up front. Wiegand, who did that leg last, said it was extremely challenging mentally.

“You’re looking at the ocean; you see, ‘OK, there’s water, and that water is deep, and if I land in that water, it’s not going to be a fun time,’” Wiegand said.

He prepared for the worst by ensuring his engine was in good shape, having a raft with him and wearing an immersion suit and life vest during the flight. Wiegand flew a single-engine Mooney Ovation2 GX, which he said has safety features such as anti-icing system along its wings.

Campbell, who is flying a single-engine Cirrus SR22, said he ran into headwinds that slowed him across the Pacific and forced him to reassess whether he would have enough fuel to make it from Hilo, Hawaii, to Van Nuys, Calif. The trip took more than 14 hours.

“It was hard being in an airplane that long,” Campbell said. “It was hard to be the only one that can make those decisions as to whether you should keep going.”

Wiegand and Campbell worked with companies that planned their routes, provided translators in some countries and helped them deal with customs, fuel suppliers and other vendors.

Campbell said there’s often an expectation that the two will be competitive, but Wiegand has been very supportive and offered the benefit of his experience.

Wiegand said there was only so much advice he could give Campbell because the routes, and therefore the challenges, were different.

“The real advice I had for him is you’ve got to keep yourself motivated, because there are times when you’re down, you want to stop, you don’t want to hop back into an airplane again and fly into the unknown,” he said.

For Wiegand, the tough time came in Japan, where weather delayed him for more than two weeks. He celebrated his 21st birthday there, having lost the chance for a record at age 20.

“Every single day I had to make a decision: Should I go or should I not go?” he said, adding, “I was so close to home, but yet I was so far.”

Both pilots said age matters less than experience, but there’s likely a minimum age for a global flight. Campbell said he can’t see anyone attempting a record without at least a private pilot’s license, which has a minimum age of 17 in Australia, and an instrument rating.

He and Wiegand both have years of flight experience. Wiegand started flying gliders at 13 and flew solo in a single-engine plane at 16.

A business student at the University of Colorado, Wiegand said he could see himself doing something on the financial side of aviation in the future. He noted he raised $170,000 for his world record bid, spent about $80,000 on the trip and donated the rest to charity.

Campbell’s piloting dreams began at age 6, when he visited the flight deck of a Boeing 737 during a family holiday. He comes from a flying family, with a father and brother who are pilots and another brother studying to become one. Campbell completed his first solo flight on his 15th birthday, earned his private pilot’s license at 17 and his commercial pilot’s license at 18.

He plans to spend some time promoting youth in aviation after his journey is complete. Then he will resume his career as a pilot. He worked for his uncle’s company, Merimbula Air Services, before devoting himself to planning his bid for the world record.

He described his trip so far as “amazing” and “an emotional roller coaster” that began with a stressful flight over the Pacific and a warm welcome in the United States.

Flying “is magical,” Campbell said. “You either understand that or you don’t.”

 

 


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