Ravi Bansal
Rotary Club of Buffalo, New York

Some years ago, my sister-in-law died of cancer. I wanted to find a way to raise awareness of the disease and to raise money for the charity hospital in my hometown, so I got the idea to fly around the world. It was an extremely ambitious plan for me, something like climbing Mount Everest — except that more than 4,000 people have climbed Everest, and more than 500 people have gone to space. But only 126 people have flown around the world solo, and I’m the only person of Indian origin to do so.  

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Part of the reason it’s so hard is logistical. I flew more than 26,000 miles in six weeks, and I had to acquire numerous documents for each trip, customs clearances, and insurance. If you have a problem with a single-engine plane and you’re flying over land, you can usually land safely on a road or a field. But when you fly around the world, 70 percent of the time you’re flying over water. 

The scariest part of my trip was flying over the northern Atlantic, from Labrador, Canada, to Greenland. It was my first time over the ocean, and almost immediately my GPS went out. I later found out that this often happens at higher latitudes. But when I first lost the signal, I got extremely scared. When I looked down, all I could see were icebergs — millions of icebergs. I thought, “Where am I? Where do I go?” My GPS was out for no more than two minutes, but I can tell you: Those two minutes felt like two years. 

As a businessman, I had been to many countries. But I had never been to Greenland. When I finally got there, I could see these huge mountains of ice and that tiny runway, and it was the most beautiful moment of the trip. 

Another sight that I’ll never forget is flying from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia over to Alaska. You fly over the Aleutian Islands, and there are hundreds of them. They are part of the so-called Ring of Fire, because of all the volcanoes. You’ve never seen so many volcanoes! Most of them are dormant. But many are active, and you never know when they might erupt. When you fly in a commercial airplane, you’re up at 35,000 feet, so you can’t see them. But I was flying at 10,000 feet and some of these volcanoes were just a couple of thousand feet below me. It was unbelievable. I’ve never been to space, so I don’t know how an astronaut feels when he or she looks down upon the earth. But for me, the journey showed me how just how beautiful, and how fragile, the geography of our planet is. 

There is so much technology available to pilots today. I had a satellite tracking device that plotted my position, so all my family and friends could find out where I was. During most of my flights, I spent the first hour texting people on the ground to let them know how I was doing and to check on the weather and make sure officials at the next airport knew I was coming. 

Before I flew out of Kamchatka, I had my logistics support person in Russia arrange to ship two barrels of special aviation fuel to the airport. After I fueled my plane, a ground official there suggested I check the dates on the barrels. It turned out the fuel had expired three years before. He recommended that I drain it from the plane. But I didn’t know when I might be able to get another barrel, and the fuel looked good to me. I decided to take off anyway. The man made me sign a liability waiver. For a second I thought, “Oh my God. What am I doing?” But you have to take some chances — without being foolish, of course. I knew, for instance, that I was going to have to circle the plane for 10 minutes to get high enough to clear the volcano next to the airport, so I had a chance to make sure the fuel was OK. 

When I first mentioned flying around the world, my wife did not want me to do it. My kids did not want me to do it. My son wouldn’t even make a website for me. He said, “Dad, I won’t do it, because I don’t want you to go!” But once they saw that I was going to do it anyway, they became a part of the team. It’s something I’d been dreaming about for years. Now, it’s been a year since I finished my flight. I don’t have a desire to do it again at the moment. I’m almost 70 years old. But I’m in pretty good shape, so you never know.

— As told to Steve Almond