After flying over forest fires, escaping a giant thunderstorm, landing with drops of fuel left and almost drowning after ditching in a Thai lake, Norman Surplus became the first to cross the Atlantic by gyrocopter.
The global journey, inspired by a TV program Surplus saw while he was recovering from a shocking cancer scare, was run to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK. It culminated in the ultimate long-distance flight, but after circling the barren coast of Greenland, he almost came unglued in swirling fog just off the Faroe Islands.
Surplus at the controls of "Gyrox"
RedBull.com: What made you take on the adventure?
Norman Surplus: I had been diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer at age 40 — it was very sudden. I was lucky to recover. While I was in hospital, I saw a program about restoring an old gyrocopter and decided to learn how to fly one. During my training, I found out that no Autogyro aircraft had flown around the world, so I decided to do it in support of Bowel Cancer UK.
What were your most amazing moments?
Ridge-soaring with a bald eagle on the Pacific coastal mountain range was amazing, as was seeing more than a dozen whales between Greenland and Iceland. And flying over an erupting geyser in Yellowstone Park.
Surplus’ home for almost 40,000 km
And what about the scariest moments?
Flying around the coast of Greenland was daunting. It was just not "normal" aviation — such a brutal and unforgiving landscape! And then, crossing the North Atlantic near the Faroe Islands, I became disoriented by swirling clouds just 300 feet above the sea. Also, earlier in the trip, in Myanmar, I lost all my communications but luckily a passing airliner was able to relay my messages!
But perhaps the worst was realizing I had been trapped upside-down underwater in a crash in Thailand. I had to ditch into a shallow lake shortly after takeoff because of poor climb-out conditions and an urgent need to avoid a set of low-lying power lines! It was less than [3 feet] deep, but I got trapped underwater until I could unfasten my seatbelt and squeeze out. I was not scared at the time, but it was a delayed shock.
Did you think that was it for the trip then?
Yes, but Autogyros are robust. The aircraft was quite badly damaged, but with fantastic local help we got the engine running again. I had to wait nine weeks for permission for repairs, but then it was rebuilt in three weeks.
Your Autogyro is pretty basic, with an open cockpit and limited instruments. What is it like to fly?
It’s similar to flying a motorbike nonstop for four to six hours per day, in all weather! So it’s quite pleasant in hot temperatures, not so pleasant in the cold. The right arm of my sunglasses faded because I was always flying east! It’s hard work because there’s no autopilot function and no co-pilot. So I had to physically fly the aircraft the whole time.
What was the biggest challenge?
The North Atlantic crossing. It was the first crossing by an Autogyro aircraft. In a way, the whole circumnavigation flight could be viewed as "intensive training" in the lead-up to this flight. It was by far the most technical and mentally challenging section.
It was very cold in the cockpit, so I had to have 100 percent belief and conviction in my capability to get the job done. There was absolutely no room for any self-doubt or anxiety. I had not truly grasped the significance of it until I was well into it! The remote isolation set in as I flew through the vast emptiness of Northern Quebec in Canada and stayed until I was back in the UK.
The final landing home in Ireland
So what’s next?
I will be a TV pundit for the 2015 FAI World Air Games and am also busy writing a book to give the definitive account of the whole flight.
And if President Putin or the Russian Federation FSB get to read this article and would allow me the necessary flight permission, then I would also like to go for the world record circumnavigation again.
Facts and stats
Distance: 21,300 NM (39,450 km)
Time: 309 flight hours
Power: 115 bhp
Range: Three hours standard; up to seven and a half hours with added fuel tanks
Fuel: Regular 92-95 octane gasoline or AVGAS 100 octane
Top speed: 100 mph (160 kph)
Cruising speed: 80 mph (128 kph)
Northern Ireland – England – France – Italy – Greece – Egypt –Saudi Arabia – Qatar – UAE – Oman – Pakistan – India – Bangladesh – Myanmar – Thailand – Malaysia – Philippines – Japan – (Russia refused permission so the Autogyro was shipped to USA) – USA – Canada – Greenland – Iceland – Faroe Islands – Scotland – Northern Ireland