09 Oct 2018 21:41 IST

Viewing the world from a Piper

Mason Andrews made history as the youngest person to complete a solo flight around the world

If something important happens around the globe, you’re sure to find it mentioned here, in Worldview. In a sense, we view the world through this screen. So, it seemed fitting that I met someone who has viewed the world very differently: at about 10,000 ft in a single-engine Piper aircraft.

On Oct 4, I had the privilege of watching history being made when I saw Mason Andrews, all of 18 years and four months old, touch down at the executive airport in Dallas. Mason will shortly enter the Guinness Book of World Records for being the youngest person to complete a solo flight around the world in a single-engine plane. And for being the youngest to fly solo across the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Mason was flying into Dallas on the penultimate leg of his global adventure. We were a dozen enthusiasts waiting to welcome him. A fire truck had positioned itself to honour his plane with the traditional “water salute”. And out west, we saw a small Piper plane approach the runway and land flawlessly.

As the Piper turned around at the end of the runway towards the taxiway, we could hear the high-pitched growl of the single engine. It made its way to the open tarmac in front of the small terminal building, glistening in the sunlight after being showered by water plumes from the firetruck. Mason turned the engine off and got out. He's an extremely tall young man, and I wondered how he survived sitting in the cramped Piper cabin as he circumnavigated the world. Alone.

He walked out to the gate, where we all cheered him. Two TV cameras captured the moment. A lady, presumably a relative, gave him a warm hug.

Mason’s interests in flying started about five years ago. When he was 13, he went to Europe on a family vacation, took a paragliding flight and fell in love with it. By the time he was 14, he already had a paragliding licence.

Back in Monroe, Louisiana, he started practising flying on a simulator at home. Slowly, he began flying with his dad in his Piper single-engine 6-seater aircraft, racking up nearly 300 flight hours in just a few years.

When he turned 15, he learned of an organisation called Medcamps, which helps children who are mentally or physically disabled attend summer camp. He began to volunteer there even as he continued to pursue flying as a hobby.

At 17, he had already earned all the FAA certifications for a single-engine aircraft including those coveted instrument ratings that allow a pilot to land at night and in rough weather. This, he says, was when he dreamed up a plan to take his Piper around the world to raise awareness and funds for the Medcamps charity.

But his plane wasn’t ready for international travel. The Piper PA-32, which has been in continuous production since 1965, is not exactly a Boeing 777. The plane has a maximum speed of 174 mph and a flying range of 840 miles. It has no pressurisation technology, so the service ceiling is 16,250 ft. Most pilots fly at altitudes of 10,000 ft or less.

For him to cross the Atlantic and Pacific, he had to increase the range or else he would run out of fuel over open water. So, he had his plane modified by having extra fuel tanks installed in place of the rear seats. This extended his range to 11 hours of flying — about 1,900 miles.

His next challenge was to find islands in the two oceans that had refuelling and maintenance facilities. The Azores (Portugal) and Dutch Harbor, Alaska, both offered him this support. So, he set out to chart out his route.

His adventure took a little over two months and 19 stops. He told me he spent 180 hours flying his plane. I asked him about his scariest experience. When flying over the Bay of Bengal from India’s southern coast to Malaysia, he got hit by hailstorms so strong that the ice chipped away parts of the elevator on his wings. And while he was flying between mountains in Siberia, it got so cold that he had to drop to 4,000 ft just so that he could keep relatively warm.

His most memorable experiences were flying over the pyramids in Egypt and across the vast expanse of the Sahara and the West Asian deserts.

These are unbelievable experiences for anyone, let alone for a young man who just turned 18.

We should honour Mason not only for his adventurous spirit but also for the leader that he is. Not only has he demonstrated a commitment to flying, he has also shown leadership by promoting a charity in which he strongly believes. Medcamps would probably have never gotten as much TV and print news coverage around the world were it not for Mason. He even had the Medcamps logo emblazoned on his plane. And along the way, he has helped raised over $25,000 for the charity.

Finally, there’s his humility. With such an uplifting story (no pun intended), Mason could probably have gained admission to all eight Ivy League schools and performed the ‘Ivy Sweep’. Instead, he is now enrolled in Louisiana Tech, where he will earn a degree related to flying.