“My plan is not to plan.”
These are the words and advice that Colin Hales offers to would-be adventurers who are toying with the idea of flying their airplane around the world.
Hales, 45, who hails from Oxfordshire, England, may sound like he’s being flippant, but his advice comes from experience.
He is an Earthrounder, meaning he flies around the world like the rest of us go for the $100 hamburger.
The aeronautical engineer and commercial pilot made his first trip from Oxfordshire to Australia in 2000 in his KR2, a low-wing, two-place experimental airplane.
He is currently on an odyssey that is taking him across the United States as part of another world tour. I caught up with him at this year’s SUN ‘n FUN, where he made a brief stop as part of his latest journey aboard the KR2, which he calls “Itzy.”
Hales’ airplane attracted a lot of attention when it was parked in the Homebuilt Aircraft row at the annual fly-in because the aircraft registration clearly identifies it as from across the pond. There were several people on hand to meet Hales when he arrived, clad in board shorts and a T-shirt with a cockpit stuffed with camping gear, stuffed animals, and even a bicycle.
“Am I in the right place?” Hales asked as he stepped out of the airplane.
You get the impression there is no wrong place for this man, who comes across as a modern day Phileas Fogg, the lead character in Jules Verne’s epic “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Hales is the poster-boy for adventure.
He learned to fly gliders as a teenager, and soon added single and multiengine land certificates to his collection. He toyed with the idea of becoming an airline pilot, but realized to do that he’d either have to be hired by an airline and be trained by them to get the 700 hours required for the British Commercial license, or get the 700 hours on his own.
“In 1995, British Airways put out an advertisement for pilot training. They had 400 places and expected to get about 4,000 applicants. Instead they got 40,000 applicants,” Hales recalled. “I applied and got a letter saying ‘we hope to interview you within the year.’ Well, I didn’t want to wait around for them because I was getting itchy feet and wanted to go travelling again if I didn’t get the job. I figured if I built my own airplane and took the commercial exams on my own, when I’d gained 700 hours, I could get the commercial license anyway.”
Hales decided to build a KR2 because it is a simple plans built, wood, foam and fiberglass design. There is no expensive kit or initial outlay. “You can buy materials whenever the wages allow,” he notes.
With a wingspan just under 21 feet, it measures approximately 14 feet, 6 inches from spinner to tail. Gross weight is approximately 900 pounds. Under the cowl is a four-cylinder 2200 Jabiru engine.
Hales comes from what he describes as a mechanical family. His father designed and raced sports cars in his youth and Hales remembers that in his first years, he grew up in the pit lane.
“As soon as I was old enough to hold a screwdriver, I knew which way to turn it,” he said.
Twenty years later, building an airplane was well within his skill set.
“I had just started building my first KR2 and went looking for what I thought at the time was a suitable engine,” he recalls. “I met a man who had a VW 1832 for sale to power his own KR2 airframe, which he showed me in the back of the workshop. He then said ‘if you buy the engine you can have the airframe parts because I need the space,’ so I ended up with two KR2s. It is said that there are no two KR2s the same, except my two, because I built them both identically together. I named the first KR2 ‘Bitzy’ because I was making it out of loads of odd bits from work. Therefore I named the second one ‘Itzy’, after the famous fairy tale song.”
Both airplanes took about four years to build. By then Hales had the urge to go travelling again. His plan was to fly Bitzy to Australia to visit friends.
“I planned to just set off,” he said. “I’d stop some place and sleep by the airplane and find some work. When I’d swept enough hangar floors to pay to fill my fuel tank, I’d set off again. I had no money at the time.”
That paradigm changed when he decided to make the trip with a friend, Nadine Brauns, a Belgium journalist.
“We have known each other for years and she has an adventurous spirit,” Hales said. “But when Nadine joined in, I was then responsible for someone else and the whole journey changed beyond recognition — now I had to plan. When you go as a single bloke you can muddle through, but when you have someone along you care for, you have to do more planning. It’s only fair.”
Hales took care of modifying the plane while Brauns took care of the route and getting the Visas and the permits needed when you fly into different countries.
“But we quickly learned that long-term plans all go out the window,” he said. “If you get delayed because of the weather or permits and Visas expire or the route changes, then you have to start all over again. I would say that 90% of the planning that we did before we left was literally a waste of time. But that was a good learning experience.”
“It doesn’t take a small fortune to fly around the world,” added Hales. “One of the greater misconceptions about travelling around the world by airplane is that you have to be rich. That’s not so,” he said with a shake of his head. “We flew from England to Australia, 66 flights and 21 countries along the way.”
“It was eight months of travel, seeing amazing sights and doing amazing things, like meeting Saudi Royalty, gala nights out on board royal navy ships while discussing global politics, driving luxury 4x4s in the deserts, plus so much more, and it cost us only $14,000,” he continued. “That is $7,000 each, over eight months, about $875 a month, $220 a week, or $30 a day, including accommodation, food, fuel, permits, everything. I would spend more than that just sitting at home.”
To date, his KR2 is the smallest aircraft to have flown from England to Australia. Hales is quick to say that his KR2 was not specially modified for the journey as the flight was not intended to be an exercise in endurance or a record-setting attempt.
“Another great misconception is about the range of the aircraft,” he said. “People think you need a big airplane with a range of 1,000 miles plus to get around the world via the northern hemisphere. Not true. When I tell them the longest flight I intend to do is one I have already done and it was 480 miles, between Greenland and Canada, they are skeptical. My KR2 has the biggest fuel tank I could fit in the airplane. I have about 600 miles range until the tank runs dry, but that is plenty.”
The trip to Australia involved 66 legs. Once they arrived in Australia, they visited the Jabiru Engine factory and met Rodney Stiff, who developed the Jabiru engine in the 1990s. The factory overhauled the KR2’s engine for them and brought it up to date.
They then flew thousands of miles around Australia, visiting friends. But instead of flying the KR2 back to England, Hales said they thought they’d had enough adventure for a while and dismantled the airplane and shipped it home.
After the KR2 was shipped back to the U.K., Hales started planning a trip to the United States in honor of the Centenary of Flight. He wanted to attend AirVenture 2003, but found himself drawn in to work and projects that kept him from making the flight.
“Life got in the way and the years went by,” he said.
While he worked on the projects at home, he saved money to pay for his next epic flight.
“I take my tent and camp everywhere I can. In Asia though, cheap hotels cost about $5 a night and I can also stay in hostels or with friends. Food is cheap, fuel is cheap. It just depends how you want to travel. I know people who travel the world in style and it costs them a fortune. I’m travelling for about 600 days. If I took taxis to the hotel and ate in restaurants, it could be something like $100 a night on average. That’s $60,000 just on food and accommodation, so the tent saves a fortune. I need a tent for when I land in remote airfields where there is no hotel, anyway. I have cooking equipment on board, so it doesn’t cost that much. My plane only burns $16 an hour of aviation fuel avgas, and I can run it on auto fuel when there is no avgas.”
Hales finally launched with the intention of attending AirVenture in 2014. This time he flew Itzy, the same KR2 he brought to SUN ’n FUN.
“Itzy has a slighter bigger fuel tank, therefore a slightly greater range than Bitzy,” he said. “It also has Bitzy’s old rebuilt engine. I didn’t want to take a brand new engine on such a flight, so I rebuilt the old one. I left on June 20, 2014, first to Iceland, and then to Greenland and then to Canada and finally to Oshkosh.”
Weather delayed his trip and he didn’t arrive in Oshkosh until Aug. 3, the last day of the show.
“When I have time to make a film about it, I have to!” Hales exclaims. “There was drama to start, there were friendships made and low points and high points, and parties and more drama, then in the end, a race against time just to get to Oshkosh. The eventual arrival fanfare and fireworks were a fitting close to a great adventure. I could quite do with a boring journey from now on,” he added with a laugh.
“The journey for me is not primarily about the flying,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’ve talked to people who have flown around the world to try to set records, or just to say they have done it. They fuel up for 18 hour flights. I asked them what they saw and they tell me all they saw was airports and water, lots and lots of water. That’s not for me. I fly for maybe three or four hours in the air at a time.”
When Hales travels around the world in the KR2 he makes a point to talk to the locals of the places he lands to ask what there is to do and see in their town.
“When they ask how long I intended to stay I ask ‘what is there to do in this town? What is there to see?’ if they tell me ‘not much or nothing’, I say, ok, I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
For the trip to this year’s SUN ‘n FUN Hales was accompanied by a toy pig named Fredy, and Gromit, the dog from Wallace and Gromit fame.
“They act as mascots and good luck charms in the aircraft,” he explained, especially Fredy, who Hales notes has been with him since the beginning of his journeys and often appears in social media posts. For example, Fredy recently visited Times Square in New York City, which he found puzzling and commented on social media that Times Square was more of an oblong shape.
Hales also has a teddy bear collection that numbers close to 300, but he says that’s not his fault.
“I found one in a scrap yard and cleaned it up and a friend noticed that I had rescued a teddy bear and then people saw that I liked bears and I now I get given them for Christmas, birthdays or any other occasion as an easy present,” he explained. “It is getting beyond a joke!”
Hales said he’s often asked to take a particular bear with him on a trip. During SUN ‘n FUN, an American Red Cross bear was aboard.
Following SUN ‘n FUN, Hales headed up the eastern seaboard, then turned west toward Alaska. His plane is presently hibernating in a hangar near Anchorage. Next stops: Russia, then across Asia and Europe, back towards the English Channel and home.
He’s not in any hurry, he noted.
“I budgeted about $30,000 for the three years, which should see me around the world,” he said. “I saved it up over the last eight years on and off before I retired. I’ll no doubt have to come back out of retirement and start saving for the next adventure if I ever get home!”
You can follow his continued adventures at KR2WorldTour.com.