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Flying friends seize Guinness record

Chicagoland pilots share bucket list adventures

They have a freshly framed certificate from Guinness World Records hanging on the wall, yet Bob Reynolds and John Skittone are nowhere close to done.

The flying friendship of these two Chicagoland residents began with an instrument lesson, then grew through a flight to Alaska and back—by way of every prominent landmark they could think of—and  their aviation continued through the COVID-19 pandemic with landings in a Cirrus SR22T at every Class B airport in the country but one.

Their most recent adventure, an ambitious 38-hour, 13-minute effort May 17 to 19, has been ratified as the official Guinness record for the fastest trip by airplane through all 48 contiguous states. Yet both pilots expressed in a recent video conversation the view that they had left a little time on the table, a few spots where better weather and more direct routing could shave significant time off of their record, and that they might just be moved to take another run at that. Before or after that (to be determined), they might also plan a trip by single-engine piston to the southernmost city in South America.

The important thing, the two pilots agreed, is getting out there and flying.

“We almost forget about a trip once we’ve done it,” Skittone explained. “We start thinking about the next thing.”

Skittone, 50, and Reynolds, 66, credit their patient and supportive spouses and families with abiding their thirst for flying, and more particularly for taking long and adventurous trips to interesting places. Reynolds said he was already an “airport collector” before meeting Skittone, who separately made his first transatlantic flight not long after meeting Reynolds. The two capped off an instrument lesson (Skittone is a CFII) by comparing adventures past and planned, then connected on Facebook—just in time for Reynolds to see Skittone's post about his first Atlantic Ocean crossing (it would not be his last).

“I have a bucket list,” explained Skittone, whose remote work as a financial planner affords him the flexibility to take a few days off here or there to, for example, fly around the continental United States for takeoffs and landings in 48 states in 38 hours and 13 minutes. “It’s a real list. I wrote it down 15 years ago.”

Reynolds, an entrepreneur since two years after graduating from college, owns a technology business. Now with two decades as a private pilot under his belt and an instrument rating, Reynolds had developed a penchant for flying his turbocharged aircraft VFR at low altitudes, low enough to see the sights. He said he never flies with his partner in the Cirrus, who prefers travel with family over long-distance excursions lasting days or weeks. So, when Skittone sketched out a flight plan to Alaska with long legs at high altitudes, taking full advantage of the turbocharged engine's capability and starting with a straight-line run to Seattle, Reynolds had something else in mind.

“That’s great, that’s not how I roll,” Reynolds recalled his reaction. “Give me that flight plan.”

Between Chicago and Alaska, a few pins were added to the route. They headed to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; made a low pass over the Grand Tetons; flew a figure eight over Yellowstone National Park; then flew on to Sturgis, South Dakota, which Reynolds had previously visited by motorcycle: “Devils Tower, Spearfish Canyon… everything I've done on a motorcycle I now want to do in an airplane.”

Then, they headed north to Alaska and all the way to (and then around) Point Barrow, the northernmost part of the country. “Most people go, ‘so did you go fishing, did you go bear watching?’ Nah, we flew,” Reynolds said. “We were there for the air. We just love the view. We’re flying as low as we feel safe, and we just go. And we’re both very happy doing that.”

Their Alaska adventure was followed by a set of trips to the four corners of the country while COVID-19 had slowed air travel to a trickle, taking advantage of the opportunity that created for general aviation aircraft plying quiet skies—along with the patience of air traffic controllers who abided their desire to land the single-engine SR22T at every Class B airport. The pair did not always get to “yes” on first request to ATC, but found that the next controller was sometimes more amenable—and more than a few were downright accommodating, approving requests to land and taxi back for another trip around the pattern (so each pilot would have a landing). Over a series of trips, they eventually logged landings and takeoffs at every Class B airport except Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport—not surprisingly the sticky wicket in that plan, given the security posture in Washington, D.C.

“It’s good to have crazy friends [so] that when you have crazy ideas, they’re willing to maybe indulge you a little bit,” Skittone said.

“We’re both kind of yes men for each other,” Reynolds chimed in. “You want to go? Like the Bravo thing–I’m in. I tell my friends all the time, if I say, ‘Hey, let’s fly to Ushuaia, the southern tip of South America tomorrow,’ John’s going to say ‘yes,’ or he’s going to do his best to figure it out.”

“Darn right,” Skittone instantly agreed.

John Skittone, left, and Bob Reynolds execute the jump photo to kick things off in Sanford, Maine, at 10:35 a.m. May 17. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Flying along Lake Sunapee over Newbury, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. A view including Robert Moses State Park, Long Island, New York. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Approaching Oconee County Regional Airport in Clemson, South Carolina. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Storms along the Georgia-South Carolina state line. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Over Saraland, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds

‘You’ve got to call audibles’

The 48-state record set in 2017 was a tempting mark, and unbeknownst to Reynolds and Skittone, another pair of pilots was also taking aim at the same record. Delta Air Lines pilots Barry Behnfeldt and Aaron Wilson, both captains, were still preparing to launch their own 48-state record attempt when Reynolds and Skittone flew to Maine in mid-May, with a few days of freedom to wait for a weather window.

The Delta team, rounded out by repair station owner Thomas Twiddy, would depart June 4, a little more than two weeks after the Chicagoland pilots began and ended their journey in 38 hours, 13 minutes, as since verified by Guinness. Behnfeldt, Wilson, and Twiddy got a press release from Delta to commemorate their effort, and some coverage ensued, but their final time of 44 hours and 7 minutes was no longer a Guinness record, though it took time for Guinness to confirm that and award the record to Reynolds and Skittone.

Reynolds has not talked to the Delta team, but did track down the pilots whose 2017 record they broke, Calvin Page and Mitch Miller:

“I’ve reached out to them and said we want to buy you dinner and drinks. I’d love to meet them both,” Reynolds said. "And one of them might take us up on that. He’s down in Florida. My daughter found him on Instagram.”

For a pair of GA pilots with day jobs and a Cirrus SR22T to beat seasoned airline captains flying a Piper Saratoga required a combination of planning and luck. Touching down in 48 states as quickly as possible sounds simple enough until you really drill down on logistics. The pair consulted a meteorologist for further insight, but much of it was about being in the right place and ready to pounce.

For this trip, they would prioritize time and distance over scenic vistas, and looked to take full advantage of the SR22T’s capabilities.

“That meant trying to cluster as many airports as possible near state borders, and doing a whole bunch of landings, you know, in a short period of time, and then taking off and flying for two hours, or two and a half hours, and getting tailwinds, and for the most part that worked,” Skittone explained. “We actually had a couple legs where we had two-and-a-half-hour legs at 200 knots, 240 knots with tailwinds.”

A 50-knot tailwind pushed them from Idaho to Montana, Reynolds recalled. “We were kicking.”

Skittone said their shared trip-planning spreadsheet was started in 2022, and Reynolds noted it grew from two columns to about 30, to include time conversions and daylight and night hours, and to organize a lineup of witnesses willing to visit their local airport at all hours of the day or night, just to catch a glimpse of the fast-moving piston pilots and latter attest to Guinness that the Cirrus and crew had been seen on such-and-such a date and time. The pair also captured a GPS record and hours of video along the way.

“We changed everything on the route probably, you know, 100 percent by the time we actually flew it, and then we changed it the day of the flight because the weather messed us up,” Skittone said. “The very first airport we called on the day of the flight was going to be closed the next day, so we had to make some changes there, too. Planning was harder than flying.”

An insight they gained during their Class B tour was that prevailing winds and actual weather can vary by a full 180 degrees, to the extent that it’s possible to circle the country with a near-constant tailwind, if everything lines up just so.

“The weather kept going east to west,” Reynolds recalled, prompting a decision to reverse the direction of the route. “It looks like we should be going the other way around. We ended up saying, we’re doing this backwards.” They moved the starting line to Maine. "When it’s showtime, you’ve got to call audibles.”

Over Vancleave, Mississippi. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Skirting storms near Laverne, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Sunrise on May 18 near Page, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds Snow clings to Nevada mountains. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. A selfie at Cedar City Regional Airport in Utah. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds.

‘A pretty good chance we're going to do this again’

On May 17, they awoke to find storms still stubbornly traipsing through the south and opted to launch in the hope they could work their way through, find the gaps between systems. Weather would force them to extend some legs, or otherwise adjust the route.

While the route changes added time to the planned route, they found just enough time and space between storms to get to Texas by nightfall. They found more favorable weather, and tailwinds, out west, and even after turning back east to their final stop in Indiana. “The parts that weren’t a tailwind, it was a small headwind, or a crosswind,” Skittone recalled.

Reynolds said the spreadsheet that helped secure their top spot on the speed chart is not for sharing outside of the team, thanks for asking.

“There’s a pretty good chance we're going to do this again, to defend it,” Reynolds said, laughing. “Because we know we can do it faster. So, we'’e not going to give you the exact route.”

Still, it wasn’t all about the record, both pilots insist. Skittone’s highlight of the trip was waking up from a sound sleep near the Grand Canyon around sunrise.

“I woke up out of a dream and Bob was flying the airplane as we were approaching Monument Valley,” Skittone said. “The colors were just, I mean, it was surreal, it was spectacular. I tried to take a picture of it and it just didn’t do justice.”

Reynolds said they would have made the trip with or without a chance to set a Guinness record, “but that made it, you know, that’s a really nice icing.”

More fundamental motivation, for both pilots, comes from another ticking clock.

Reynolds explained that he made the “mistake” of looking up his life expectancy and, based on that Google search, he expects nine of his 18 remaining years will be good for having some fun, getting out and about in the world.

“That’s where that freedom comes from,” Reynolds said. “Doing the math and realizing you’re not around forever.”

Over Bighorn Canyon in Montana. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Approaching Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Near Fort Smith, Montana. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds. Journey's end: South Bend, Indiana, May 19, 2023, 1:50 a.m. Photo courtesy of Bob Reynolds.
Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: U.S. Travel, Flight Planning

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