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Teen makes circumnavigation record attempt in Skyhawk

Travis Ludlow, 18, close to completing 45-day journey

British pilot Travis Ludlow, 18, was flying over desolate terrain in Russia when he realized the enormity of being alone for six weeks during an attempted circumnavigation in a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

Instrument-rated British pilot Travis Ludlow checks a VHF antenna as he preflights a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk after an overnight stop at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, June 30. He is a month into an expected 45-day, 24,520-mile circumnavigation. Photo by David Tulis.

“I got out of range from ATC contact and below me was nothing but forest, so it was kind of scary. That’s when it really hit me that I’m all alone out here,” he said during a stopover at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland to visit AOPA headquarters.

The instrument-rated pilot has about 400 hours in his logbooks. “If I didn’t have an instrument rating, I’d probably still be in Russia right now,” he confided.

He departed Booker Airfield/Wycombe Air Park in Marlow, England, on May 27 when he was 18 years and 103 days old and expects to land at his home base July 10, after covering 24,520 miles over 45 days in the air during an attempt to become the youngest aviator to circumnavigate solo.

If successful, Ludlow would eclipse current record-holder Mason Andrews of Louisiana, who was 18 years and 163 days old when he flew around the world in in a Piper PA–32 Lance in 2018. Before embarking on the journey, Ludlow looked to Andrews for mentorship, tips, and guidance and later stopped in Monroe, Louisiana, for a visit to personally thank Andrews for his support. “He is such a great guy and really helpful,” Ludlow said. Andrews’ family took Ludlow to dinner and prepped him for the “many challenges I might face over the North Atlantic.”

Ludlow began planning for the trip of a young lifetime soon after he earned a glider certificate at age 14. The world journey included a stop at Teuge in the Netherlands for some last-minute maintenance and plans for a formation flight send-off.

Travis Ludlow displays a U.K. pilot certificate but he also carries a U.S. pilot certificate containing certain stipulations. Ludlow earned a glider pilot certificate in the United Kingdom at age 14. Photo by David Tulis.                                          Crossing the North Atlantic in a Skyhawk without auxiliary fuel tanks begs the question of how to do it. Ludlow’s answer was to secure a late-model Cessna 172R powered by a Continental CD-155 engine. The aircraft has a fuel capacity of 44.6 usable gallons and much lower fuel consumption than an avgas-powered Skyhawk.

“The engine is what’s different. The reason I chose this engine is because it only burns four gallons an hour of Jet A and you can get it pretty much anywhere in the world. It can run on car diesel as well, and it’s perfect for an around-the-world flight. Burning four gallons an hour, I have 10 hours plus of endurance, so I can go 1,000 miles in one flight. I needed that range.”

His longest flight from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, Russia, was “about eight and a half hours but it gets tiring. I’ve got no rudder trim on this aircraft” so leg cramps factored into the 986-mile flight.

The Skyhawk’s cockpit includes two yoke-mounted iPads; an Iridium satellite phone and several cameras for social media updates; a large container of popcorn for snacking; and a stuffed elephant, Ellie, to keep him company. “Tom Hanks had Wilson, I have Ellie … so don’t worry about me,” he posted on Instagram.

A three-blade prop, an extra cowl inlet, a single thrust lever, and full authority digital engine control differentiate the model from an average Skyhawk. The diesel-powered Cessna 172 never caught on the United States and was discontinued by Textron Aviation; however, it remains popular in Europe, Africa, and Asia, where Jet A is more plentiful than avgas.

Travis Ludlow, 18, arranges some of his favorite objects during an overnight stop at Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.

Running out of his favorite snack food, Jaffa Cakes—a chocolate-topped biscuit made with zesty orange jelly—was a significant challenge early in the journey, but the kindness of strangers more than made up for it.

Challenges he faced included battling loneliness, negotiating short and unimproved runways, encountering icing in Russia, facing weather in Alaska, experiencing routing changes, and coping with myriad international regulations. He planned to meet in Russia with fellow earthrounder Shinji Maeda, who corresponded with him, but the two “missed each other by one day” because of weather. “I was one stop behind him. He is such an inspiration and I loved following his story.”

There were other trials, too. He posted on Instagram that avoiding thunderstorms in the United States was “like dodgeball but at 7,000ft with storm clouds coming at you instead of a ball. To be fair the storms were not 'fast movers' but they can get pretty nasty and churn up a lot of lightning, so I was keen to keep well away from them.”

When a Maryland motel manager turned Ludlow away from a planned overnight late in the 22-country journey, it caught him off guard. “I handed the manager my passport and he’s staring at it for ages” before advising the teenager he had to be 21 to book a room. A local pilot assisted with accommodations and Ludlow was soon on his way again.

British pilot Travis Ludlow, 18, meets Virginia pilot Leo Middleton, 17, who flew to Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Maryland, to offer encouragement during Ludlow’s attempted solo global circumnavigation. Photo by David Tulis.                      After Maryland, he continued up the East Coast and flew New York City’s scenic VFR corridor. From New York, the route included 16 additional fuel stops through Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Scotland before ending with a 490-mile final leg to England.

Ludlow tasted alligator in Florida, witnessed a cattle drive in Texas, sat in a North American P–51 Mustang in Minnesota, circled the Statue of Liberty in New York, and encouraged other young people to become pilots through in-flight social media posts (while the autopilot was engaged). He’s also raising money for UNICEF through contributions.

The airplane is adorned with sponsors logos, stickers, and decals, including a large heart recognizing the work of health care professionals worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed the original May 2020 starting date by a year.

The circumnavigation exposed Ludlow to a variety of aviation-inspired career options, but he hasn’t had any career offers yet. “I’ve always been addicted to aviation. I wanted to do it and I pushed [myself] to follow my goals,” he confided. “Wanting to beat this record keeps me going, but I haven’t thought about the future. I’ve pretty much been focused 100 percent on this trip.”

His advice for young people is to “keep believing in yourself, keep following your dreams no matter what gets in your way. Just believe in yourself and one day you’ll make it.”

Travis Ludlow, 18, preflights a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk. He is a month into an expected 45-day global journey that began May 27 at Booker Airfield/Wycombe Air Park in Marlow, England. Photo by David Tulis. Travis Ludlow documents a visit to Red Square in Moscow during a global circumnavigation. Image courtesy of Travis Ludlow. International flags accompany Travis Ludlow during his solo journey around the world in a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Photo by David Tulis. Travis Ludlow posts a video from Ulag Use, Russia, during a global circumnavigation. Image courtesy of Travis Ludlow. A single-lever power quadrant distinguishes the cockpit of a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk flown by 18-year-old British pilot Travis Ludlow. Photo by David Tulis. Line crew personnel use Jet A fuel to top off a diesel-powered Cessna 172 Skyhawk piloted by 18-year-old Travis Ludlow. Photo by David Tulis. Travis Ludlow earned a glider certificate at age 14 and has been planning a solo global circumnavigation for the past four years. Photo by David Tulis.                                    Instrument-rated British pilot Travis Ludlow, 18, has been planning a solo global crossing for the past four years and if successful he will become the youngest pilot to do so, replacing Mason Andrews of Louisiana, who earned the distinction in 2018. Ludlow looked to Andrews for mentorship and support before attempting the 45-day, 24,520-mile journey. Photo by David Tulis.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Content Producer
AOPA Media Content Producer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Awards and Records, People, Around the World Flight

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