A global tour, low and slow

Two men, one engine, and a flight plan from South Africa to Alaska

We live in an age of instant e-mail, of CNN around the clock and around the world, of globalization in commerce and culture that promises (threatens?) to chisel off our differences. We travel hermetically sealed in silver tubes up near the stratosphere at high speed. Unable to see what's below, we watch TV and eat bland fare, disembarking in airports barely distinguishable from New York to Berlin to Tokyo.

It's predictable and efficient. But is it enlightening or challenging? How would it be to travel halfway around the world at low altitude and slow speed, noting - savoring - the differences and similarities in landscapes and peoples, traveling with a lot of control and responsibility but also with a high probability of unanticipated experiences?

Arthur Hussey and I are about to find out.

We're taking off from Southern Africa in a small aircraft that barely has room for the two of us and our gear, headed north to Europe and then west to Fairbanks, Alaska. We will cross deserts and mountains, oceans and vast areas of wilderness, ancient rural cultures and modern urban civilizations. Three continents, 15 countries, 12,000 miles, nine time zones. The latest Boeing 777 could make the Windhoek-Fairbanks run nonstop in about 18 hours. It'll take us more than a month with at least 22 stops.

"The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth," Antoine de Saint-Exupry wrote in his 1939 classic, "Wind, Sand, and Stars." We'll cover much of the territory Saint-Exupry did as one of the first pilots to carry the mail between Europe and Northern Africa. We'll also parallel some of Charles Lindbergh's history-making solo route from New York to Paris in 1927.

Arthur's reason for the trip is routine: a move with his family (they'll take an airliner to the United States) to a new home and a new job. An American, he's been working for development agencies and environmental-research organizations in South Asia and Africa for most of his adult life. He'll take up a new post as director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks, while developing a new career as a commercial pilot with a lot of flying experience in the African bush. His wife, Janet Daley, a Canadian and fellow pilot, is leaving her post with an international educational organization. With them is their five-year-old adopted daughter, Juliana, who is Namibian.

Why Alaska? They wanted to move to the United States (the easiest place to settle for a family representing three nationalities), but found the lower 48 states "way too crowded," says Arthur.

"Alaska is a super place if you can accept it on its terms and not yours," he says. "With e-mail and fax, it seems that where you live has become less important than how you massage your connections, so you'd better live where you want to." Arthur and Janet have been planning the move for years. They've already bought a house there.

Introduced to me via e-mail by a mutual friend, Arthur said he was looking for a flying companion. Such a journey, he messaged, would be "a long time to spend alone in a plane that should have a triangular, red-and-orange 'Slow Moving Vehicle' sign attached to it.

"Why the trip?" he continued. "I've lived overseas for 19 years, and it's time to move back to lovely Alaska before I'm considered too old to get a job there.... The cost of crating the aircraft is about the same as flying it myself. So why spend that loot when I can get 100-plus hours in my logbook and a lot of interesting experiences?

"And then there's the chance to set the world's speed record from Windhoek to Fairbanks," he joked, since it's never been done before, as far as he knows.

"There are an enormous number of people who are helping out in this endeavor," says Arthur. Among them: a South African pilot who lent him a life raft; the Namibian president's former pilot who provided landing-approach charts for airports in Africa and Europe; the Boeing Company, which shared proprietary information on winds; and "a guy in New Hampshire who specializes in orienting pilots to the rigors of flying the North Atlantic."

"I'll have to write a lot of thank-you letters when I'm done," he says. I'm listed as "second in command" of Arthur's Cessna 182, a single-engine aircraft. Since I'm the only other person aboard, that's literally true. Long ago, I was a naval aviator, flying jets from aircraft carriers, so I have some experience in flying. But my main job this time is map reader, baggage handler, flight attendant, and designated finder of places to stay when we drop onto a new airfield for the night. I'll also be recording the journey.

Our route was determined by geopolitical factors (relative political stability, where we can get fuel, how hard it is to get visas and landing clearances, etc.) plus geography - crossing the North Atlantic via the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland is really the only way in a light aircraft. We had intended to go up the east side of Africa. But that would have entailed passing through Saudi Arabian airspace, and getting permission became a bureaucratic impossibility. So a week before scheduled launch, the route was changed to the other side of the continent.

Along the way, we'll witness the expanse and connectedness of things below in ways impossible to see from an airliner. We'll move through a world challenged by natural disasters, AIDS, overpopulation, and poverty, through one that is high-tech, rich, and fighting environmental battles linked to consumption and overcrowding, and finally to the resource-rich but barely populated regions of Canada.

When I'm feeling romantic, I like to think of us as a modern-day Lewis and Clark (or maybe Huck and Jim), two guys on a once-in-a-lifetime aerial road trip. But there's more to it than that. Amid the mundane details and daily routine inside the Cessna cabin, I expect there to be unforeseen revelations and epiphanies - about the world seen this unique way and perhaps about ourselves.

Charles Lindbergh wrote: "The important thing is to start: to lay a plan, and then follow it step by step no matter how small or large each one by itself may seem."

In this case, I think I'd balance Lindbergh's instruction with one by Burton Holmes, the grand old man of travel: "Get the gist of a journey, ground fine by discrimination, leavened with information and seasoned with humor."

I'm ready, Arthur. Fire up the Cessna. Let's go.

*First of a series. Part 2 will appear May 4.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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