Is it a record?

Pilot, 21, completes round-the-world solo flight

July 17, 2013

Flying over the Persian Gulf at night in a single-engine Mooney Ovation2 GX, Jack Wiegand said farewell to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) Control and checked in with Bahrain.

Lights from Iran, Bahrain, and Qatar glowed in the darkness. Below, ships and “a ton of oil rigs” illuminated the sea as a fatigued Wiegand girded himself to communicate with a controller whom he feared might only be capable of “broken English at best.”

At times like this—when you are trying to break the record to become the youngest pilot to fly around the world solo, and have tackled ice, thunderstorms, language barriers, HF radio problems, and miles of red tape along the way—you find yourself arriving at a new understanding of what the word “solo” means. 

At such times, all you really want is someone you can talk to. So Wiegand, of Fresno, Calif., was both shocked and elated when the voice in his earphones delivered greetings from a retired FAA air traffic controller who was living and working in the Middle East.

“You’d think you were talking to Houston Control,” Wiegand said.

Those are the things that keep you going when the far side of the planet gets a little lonely.

The pair struck up a conversation. The controller, a Chicago native, told Wiegand, “I read about you,” and asked about the infamous passport incident that befell Wiegand at the beginning of his long journey (Wiegand had crossed from the U.S. into Canada only to discover that he had left his passport in the copier back home—the trip's first delay.)

“It was nice to be talking to an American at that point, over the Persian Gulf at night,” Wiegand said in a recent phone interview that was the latest in a series by which he faithfully kept AOPA informed of his progress.

The controller from Chicago wasn’t the only friend Wiegand would make in the international air traffic control community that night. Arriving in Dubai, he earned a compliment from the tower for complying with a request to keep his speed up on short final. That he did, and then he idled the power, deployed the speed brakes, put down the landing gear and touched down, allowing the other aircraft in the sequence—all big jets—to maintain stable approaches.

‘I’m home’

On June 29, Wiegand posted a brief message on the Facebook page that tracked his round-the-world flight:  “I’m home. Thank you everyone for all your support.”

It was the culmination of an adventure that began on May 2, touched 12 countries in 22 stops, and covered about 21,000 nautical miles.

And because any pilot would want to know the answer to this question, here it is: The total flight time was 135.8 hours.

Unofficially, Wiegand, at 21 years, seven days of age at flight’s end, figures that he broke the record set earlier this year by James Anthony Tan of Malaysia, who was 21 years and 344 days old. Wiegand has submitted documentation to Guinness World Records, and as of mid-July was waiting for confirmation that he has become the youngest solo earthrounder in the world.

It would have been nice if he had broken the record while still a 20-year-old. But after arriving in Japan on a route from India, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines to Okinawa, Kobe, and Sapporo, Japan, three weeks of delays for weather and some administrative headaches passed—as did his twenty-first birthday. A high point of the stay in Japan, however, was a six-day visit with family members who flew over to see him during a scheduled break from the flying.

When weather conditions finally permitted, an eager Wiegand took off at night on the longest flight leg of his trip, about 2,200 nautical miles—literally—from Kushiro, Japan, to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian island chain, spirited on by 74-knot tailwinds, the timing of his departure permitting arrival in daylight. Stops in Anchorage, Ketchikan, and Seattle, Wash., followed before Wiegand’s June 29 return to his point of departure in Fresno.

In addition to being a record bid and an effort to call public attention to the charitable work of the Big Brothers Big Sisters and Ag Warriors organizations, the flight was a major learning experience in ways he continues to size up as he makes a few public appearances to talk about the trip.

One insight that came along readily, he said, is that while there is a tendency to judge a pilot by physical skills such as making nice landings, it might be better to focus on the ability to make good go/no-go decisions, “especially with all the get-home-it-is.”

Wiegand grades himself as having met those challenges “relatively well.”

While awaiting the verdict from Guinness World Records, the resumption of his stateside summer  included local media sessions, a planned trip to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., and, yes, some flying.

“Short flights,” he said.