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Flying round the world for China

THERE'S nothing like flying and seeing the world with a bird's-eye view to set you free and put things into perspective.

There have been many feats of solo circumnavigation and records set for speed, number of stops and type of aircraft. The latest record was set by Chen Wei, a 40-year-old Chinese living in Memphis in the US state of Tennessee.

On July 29, Chen became the first Chinese to fly a single-engine craft around the globe. He covered 40,000 kilometers in 70 days.

On May 22, he took off from Memphis, flew across the Atlantic, landed in 40 cities in 21 countries and regions. After his China stop in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, he flew to Russia, Alaska and then down to Memphis.

Chen, a native of Changsha, Hunan Province, runs a business in Memphis and funded his own pilot's training. He made the flight in a US$1 million French-made Socata TBM 700 single-engine turboprop aircraft.

"When I was a high school student, I dreamed of being a pilot," Chen said in a telephone interview with Shanghai Daily from his stop in England.

He wanted to serve in the air force or become a pilot in civil aviation. "But I failed the test to become a military pilot," he recalled.

Chen didn't lose sight of his ambition. In 1995 he went to the United States and received an international MBA degree at the University of Memphis.

He started his own company, Sunshine Enterprise Inc, and funded his own lessons to get a private pilot's license.

In 2007 he received his US Private Pilot's Certificate and went on to buy two planes. "For business or holiday, I prefer to fly my own plane," he said, adding that he has accumulated 500 flying hours.

In 2009 he got the idea of flying around the world. At that time he realized that no Chinese had flown solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft. That became his goal. "I like challenge. Anyone with a dream and conviction can realize their goal," Chen said. "I said to myself that I have the resolution to fill in this blank. I never considered becoming an American citizen. When I succeeded I wanted to fill in the blank for China."

Before him, 167 people had completed a similar flight, he said. "I wanted to raise China's image by flying around the world and connecting Chinese along the way," he said. "And I wanted to promote aviation in China."

After making the decision, Chen purchased the Socata TBM 700 single-engine. He hired a team and undertook preparation for 18 months. Visas, flying routes and developing the right skills were essential. He had to plan visas carefully.

"If I got a 60-90-day visa, it might have expired before I land," he said. He got an Indian visa valid from February through May but he planned to arrive in June, so he had to reapply. "It was all very time-consuming and I had to make sure I had enough pages in my passport for all the visas."

He got in a lot of practice hours, flew in turbulent weather and at different altitudes. He took off and landed again and again.

Despite the best-laid plans, things go wrong. Shortly after taking off and heading across the Atlantic, a volcano in Iceland erupted. Volcanic ash filled the sky but Chen managed to avoid it and head to Greenland where he enjoyed the spectacular glacial scenery 8,230 meters above sea level. "I felt happy and relaxed, far away from all worry," he said. Chen landed safely and later continued his journey.

Another time he came close to a hurricane moving at 400 kilometers an hour. With help from his team, he again avoided trouble.

But there were other man-made problems. Because the Middle East was in political turmoil, Chen could not stop in Egypt and see the pyramids. Instead he flew over Iraq and landed in Dubai. Instead of flying seven hours as planned, he had to fly for 19 hours. Every day he flew from three to eight hours, usually stopping in one place for a day and setting off the next day.

"I spend two to three hours to get familiar with next country and area and don't have much time on land to travel," Chen said.

But he often had company - his aircraft seats four passengers so he took people along on various legs of his journey.

"It made me happy that I was not alone," he said.

In addition to turbulent weather and political turmoil, there were issues of aircraft maintenance and support on the ground. Since the plane was made in France and owned by a foreigner, repairs and maintenance were complicated and he had to pay customs fees.

Chen spent his 40th birthday flying from London to Paris.

Although he didn't have much ground time, at key stops he met overseas Chinese and conveyed best wishes to them from their compatriots elsewhere.

Chen also helped realize the wishes of 365 Chinese in both China and overseas: He sent greetings to friends, sent a card to a father and mother in China and arranged a video chat for relatives who had been separated for a long time. Along the way, he raised US$250,000 in a charity campaign to help needy children.

He made four stops in China - Changsha, his hometown; Xi'an in Shaanxi Province; Beijing, the capital; and Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, his wife's hometown.

Xi'an was a special stop because that's where general aviation in China originated, Chen said.

"Xi'an has been a pioneer in developing low-altitude airspace for private planes. I hope more people will join me in promoting aviation in China," he said.

Chen has been named China's "Flying Ambassador" and will be honored in October at the China International General Aviation Convention.


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