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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”