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Going Solo

Weeks after finishing his freshman year, an MIT student became the youngest pilot to fly around the world.
October 21, 2014

“Say again, please.” After a month of struggling to understand air traffic controllers across Europe and Southeast Asia, that phrase began to feel like all I knew. This time, though, it was urgent: I was caught in a storm that had definitely not been in the forecast when I’d taken off from Australia in my single-engine plane four hours earlier, on July 6. As hopes of finding a clear path to American Samoa dwindled, I realized I’d have to somehow poke my way between heavy rainstorms to New Caledonia instead—and in the dark of night. As the sun fell farther below the horizon, each massive gust felt as though it might rip me from my small Beechcraft Bonanza.

Matt Guthmiller ’17
Matt Guthmiller ’17 with the plane in which he circled the globe.

Fourteen months earlier, I had read about a 20-year-old from California who was about to attempt to become the youngest person to fly solo around the world. As an 18-year-old high school senior all too familiar with the skepticism that even the most capable teenage pilots face, I was amazed that someone only a few years older was attempting such a feat. I immediately decided I wanted to do it, too. Within seconds I sent the story to my parents and my closest friends, saying, “I’m going to do this next summer.” My parents weren’t exactly eager to buy me a plane when I had never even owned a car. But that wasn’t going to stop me.

For as long as I can remember, aviation has fascinated me. As a kid I became obsessed with flight simulator games and eating at the airport café. I eventually made my first solo flight on a beautiful August day in 2011. Now, inspired by stories of the Wright brothers, Howard Hughes, Chuck Yeager, and the Apollo program, I was convinced that flying around the world would be not only incredibly stimulating but also totally achievable. Hearing experienced pilots say it would be difficult to plan and safely execute only made me more determined.

After nine months of calling and e-mailing everyone I could find who might help, I finally reached Mike Borden, president of High Performance Aircraft, a company based in El Cajon, California, that maintains, buys, and sells planes. After getting a firsthand look at my flying skills, he agreed to lease me one of his planes. Meanwhile, I had been wrapping my head around the logistical nightmare of circumnavigating the earth alone and seeking out people to handle some of the more intensely bureaucratic processes for me. While raising funds to cover the significant expenses that would be involved, I had also realized I had an opportunity to demonstrate that ambitious goals can be achieved. So I also decided to use my trip to raise money for Code.org, which promotes computer science education as a tool for all kids to achieve their dreams.

After those intense few minutes over the South Pacific this July, I managed to land safely in Nouméa, New Caledonia, before continuing on to Fiji, American Samoa, and back to the United States. Between May 31 and July 14, I spent over 180 hours alone in a small plane, covered roughly 30,500 miles, and made 23 stops in 15 countries on five continents, crossing three oceans—as much as 16.5 hours and 2,700 miles at a time. In Cairo I climbed the pyramids, nearly ended up in jail for taking photos of a spice market, and witnessed a family of five riding a motorcycle in six lanes of traffic on a four-lane road in the middle of which two gentlemen were selling sugar water. In the Philippines I was treated like a rock star. And in American Samoa I spent days lying in bed, depressed and almost completely cut off from the outside world while I waited for the weather to clear so I could make the last couple of flights to get home. When it finally did, I had to fly my plane 26 percent above its maximum takeoff weight in order to carry enough fuel. But I had come across an impossible idea, determined to make it happen, and pursued my dream to completion. Now I just have to make it through MIT.

When he landed in San Diego on July 14, 19-year-old Matt Guthmiller ’17, an electrical engineering and computer science major, became the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world. He’s raising money to help cover his expenses and support Code.org at www.limitless-horizons.org.

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