Flying around the world: It’s the kind of adventure most pilots only dream about. But for Bob Gannon, it became a reality — one that took him more than 10 years to accomplish. And, ever the overachiever and anxious not to miss a thing, he decided to accomplish the feat twice, flying west around the world in the Southern Hemisphere and east in the Northern Hemisphere.
The world journey actually began in 1992 after Gannon sold his construction company. He decided that before getting back to work, a “good adventure” was in order.
One of 14 siblings who grew up on a farm in Iowa, Gannon had sailed halfway around the world with one of his six brothers. “But I always got terribly sea sick,” he said.
A medic on an Army medivac helicopter in Vietnam, he had always enjoyed flying — although he notes, “I didn’t like getting shot at” — so “I figured if I could learn to fly, I could create an interesting adventure.”
Three months later, a new private pilot with the ink still wet on his instrument rating and the owner of a Cherokee 6 named “Lucky Lady,” he departed San Diego for a Harvard Business Class reunion in Paris, France, with 145 hours in his logbook.
From Paris he began his epic journey, but it ended just four months later when he crashed in Nairobi, Kenya, totaling Lucky Lady.
“I walked away without a scratch,” he said, noting that when he crashed he had 295 hours in his logbook and was halfway around the world. “This time halfway would have to do.”
That first trip taught him a lot of important lessons, not the least of which was about “density altitude,” he said. “That was the problem that caused me to crash in Kenya,” he said. “I also learned what I liked and didn’t like about flying around the world — and I learned that I liked most of it.”
That first trip also taught him the procedures he needed to know to enter and exit different countries, as well as how to plan and execute flights. “I also learned a lot about weather and long distance flying,” he said. “And I learned to lower the risk factors that run in one’s head.”
For the next eight years, Gannon found himself doing what so many of us do: Talking about resuming his great adventure, but not doing much about it. Then his 50th birthday rolled around. “I decided quickly to stop talking about it and get at it,” he said.
First order of business: Get a new plane. He bought a 1968 Cessna 182 that had previously been owned by a flying club in San Diego he belonged to. “I named her Lucky Lady Too out of respect for the first woman I wrecked,” he said.
Instead of going east, he decided to head west, after making the decision to take his time “to allow me to see and experience as much of the world as I possibly could.”
He removed the back seats in the 182 to carry additional fuel and in the summer of 2000 took off on the next stage of his epic journey — without an autopilot.
“At that time, the dot com businesses were hot and all the owners of those companies were buying fancy planes and putting autopilots in them,” he remembered. “The wait list was two years and I didn’t want to wait two years. I was ready to go, so I decided I would hand fly Lucky Lady Too. I do believe I am a better pilot for having so chosen.”
Fueled by excitement about resuming his journey, Gannon hit another delay after the first leg of his trip. “It took me 18 hours of hand flying to reach Kona, Hawaii. I parked Lucky Lady Too and went home to have back surgery due to sciatica caused by sitting in one position for so long,” he said.
He returned to Hawaii three months later and restarted his journey, flying on to Christmas Island, then to the French Polynesian islands, establishing a pattern of flying to a couple different countries, then heading home via commercial flights to take care of business and plan for the next leg.
During the journey, he left Lucky Lady Too 40 times to return home. Over the next 10 years, he was away from home 1,600 days, equivalent to about 4-½ years. He landed in 1,200 airports and landing strips in 155 countries, and flew more than 300,000 nautical miles. “That is the distance to the moon and halfway back or equal to 12 times around the earth at the equator,” he said. “As the route map shows, we rarely flew straight.
“I have flown Lucky Lady Too to the Antarctica peninsula and over the North Pole,” he continued. “I have flown into Nepal and climbed to the Everest Base Camp. I scuba dived at many sites around the world and have done a motorcycle trip on the south island of New Zealand, as well as up through the Golden Triangle of Southwest Asia. I have flown to all the Middle Eastern countries, including Basra, Iraq, on a medical mission to take in medical supplies and toys for the newly constructed Basra Children’s Hospital.”
So with all those adventures, which one was his favorite?
“I would not give up any of them, so I would have to say they were all good,” he said. “However, I can tell you of a couple of the scariest flights. One was from Cape Verde, West Africa, to Natal, Brazil. I had 18 hours of fuel, thought it would take me 15 hours, but one storm after another — some go up to 30,000 feet with hail storms on the equator — and a constant headwind caused it to take me 17-1/4 hours to get there. Another was from Ushuaia, Argentina, loaded heavy to fly over the Drake Passage to the Antarctica penninsula. I had to fly that at about 500 feet elevation to stay out of low cloud cover that would have caused me to ice up with nowhere to go. Another was from Eureka, Canada, over the North Pole and onto Longyearbyen, Svalbard, about 700 miles north of Norway. This time I had to fly through storms at 10,000 to 12,000 feet to keep in the temperature range of 15° to 20° to keep from icing up. And another time coming through the Caribbean, I stopped on the island of Isla Margarita, owned by Venezuela, and one of Chavez’s generals tried to take my airplane away from me.”
Through all the adventures and hours flown — he logged 2,200 hours in 10 years and three months — he’s learned a lot about being a pilot. He ticks them off: “Weather, instrument approaches, hand flying, how to land on beaches, roads, fields, and what to look for. But I am always learning and I always like to learn from instructors or pilots who know,” he said, noting that he has taken two advanced flying courses during the last 10 years, one in Australia and another in South Africa.
“I am not a particularly skilled pilot,” he continued. “But I do believe I am a lucky pilot — and I would rather be lucky than smart.”
Now that his epic journey is over, Gannon has no plans to buy a new plane to replace his faithful Cessna 182. “Lucky Lady Too and I have a 10-year relationship that has been very fruitful,” he said. “She has never let me down and I have put her through some nasty places and weather — dust storms in Saudi Arabia, icing, returning back from the Falkland Islands in a 50 knot headwind. We are together until I find a good museum that would like to have her and tell her world aviation record-breaking stories. She is the best.”
So what’s next for the world traveler? “My next adventure? Pay the bills, update my web page, give some presentations to those interested, possibly write a book about the world flying adventure, and begin to give back to those around the world who could use help, such as homeless children.”
And, of course, he’ll continue to fly. “I am addicted to it,” he said.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So how does someone finance a 10-year odyssey? “I am often asked how I am funded,” Gannon said. “I have always worked for myself. I started and owned a construction company, I’m a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, and I am a partner in a small wood manufacturing business in San Diego.”
Gannon, who has never been married and has no children, is also a Name at Lloyds of London, which means he joins with other investors to back insurance policies for the famous insurance exchange.
For those who press for an actual figure, Gannon says the adventure cost him “less than a bad divorce.”
EQUIPPING AN EPIC JOURNEY
What’s involved in successfully navigating the world? Preparation. Gannon started with his plane, Lucky Lady Too, a 1968 Cessna 182L, a Skylane model, powered by a Continental O-470-R engine that produces 230-hp at 2600 rpm at sea level. She has an STC for auto gas and has flown as much as 12-½ hours over the ocean on autogas, he noted.
“To get out of Timbuktu, Mali, Africa, I had a camel pull a cart with a 55-gallon drum of car gas to fuel up,” he said. “I keep two five-gallon plastic jerry cans just behind the front seats and also two self-priming siphon hoses to transfer fuel from the barrel to the cans, then lift them to the wing and again siphon them into the tanks. I have filtered fuel through a chamois cloth and I carry a Mr. Funnel that aids in separating possible water in the fuel. In place of the two rear seats, a ferry tank with a capacity of 125 gallons was strapped down. On top of this tank was a high-frequency Kenwood HF ham radio to make position reports once out over the ocean and beyond land-based radio communication. The tuner for the HF radio is in her tail and the antenna is attached from her right wing to her tail and back to her fuselage. Between her two front seats, bolted to the floor, is a hand pump to pump the fuel from the cabin tank to the fuel line underneath the floor, below the pilot’s seat. About 300 strokes on the hand pump would allow me to transfer an hour’s worth of fuel up into the left wing where the fuel would then gravity flow into the engine.”
Gannon didn’t carry oxygen because it was difficult to get it resupplied overseas. “Lucky Lady Too’s naturally-aspirated engine reduces in power as she rises in elevation,” he added. “At 14,000 feet, where oxygen is required by the pilot after 30 minutes of flying, her horsepower is below 50% and she is susceptible to the whims of the winds either pushing her up or shoving her down with little allowance on my part as her pilot. When it was required to fly at this level or higher — through two different passes in the Andes, and in Iraq — I would frequently test myself with a finger-tip oxygen analyzer. I found that I could maintain my necessary oxygen levels if I breathed slowly and deeply when at this altitude.”
His 182 has a no-name STOL kit and, while in Australia, Gannon installed vortex generators given to him by Micro AeroDynamics.
Lucky Lady Too has no glass instruments, just the ones that came on her panel; two VORs, one for an ILS; no weatherscope; and a Garmin 100, which Gannon said is still his favorite navigation instrument although it is no longer supported by Garmin. During the journey, he added a Garmin 196 with a battery-powered back up. “In Alaska, a commercial pilot on Kodiak Island chastised me for not having a terrain function, so I upgraded to a Garmin 296,” he noted.
He never encountered any problems with the engine, he said, although he lost the alternator twice and broke a brake line on a landing in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. “This forced me to learn how not to use the brakes for the next four landings before I was able to find someone with the right tools to repair it,” he recalled.
In the cabin he carried a Winslow four-person life raft with a survival pack, a locating beacon, a desalination water maker, a life vest, an immersion suit when needed, a personal pack for ditching that contained some rations, a compass, flares, ocean die, signaling mirror and a personal locating beacon. He carried some hand tools, including a machete, an ax and a shovel, as well as three angle iron wheel chocks, an aircraft anchoring system, tie-down ropes, a spare spark plug, an extra oil filter and a couple of quarts of oil, a 12-volt air pump and a can of liquid tire repair. He also always carried a tent and sleeping bag.
Where he was flying determined some of his equipment. For example, he carried a satellite phone only two times, to Antarctica and over the North Pole. If he was flying over the desert, he carried extra water and plastic for a shade structure. When flying from Alaska to Canada and over the North Pole to Svalbard, he carried a shotgun for polar bear protection.
For more information: WorldFlyingAdventure.com