Michael Smith: around the world in a flying boat

From Nine To Noon, 10:14 am on 31 October 2017

In 2015 Australian adventurer, Michael Smith became the first person to fly solo around the world in a tiny amphibious plane.

In seven months, he made 80 stops in 25 countries - landing and taking off from airstrips and waterways around the globe. Smith had limited flying experience, no support team and only basic instruments in his hobby aircraft which is like a tiny flying boat.

Last year he was named Australian Geographic's Adventurer of the Year. He's written a book about his trip - called Voyage of the Southern Sun and is also the subject of a documentary of the same name.

Having flown around the world on a tiny boat-plane it’s fair to say Smith loves a good adventure. He describes reading “voraciously as a kid” and how he loved watching documentaries and films meaning when he finally had the time he “couldn’t help but go and do it myself.”

It wasn’t just having free time that pushed him into the air though, his career in the film industry had taken a turn.

“In the mid-2000s I was working on a deal in the industry, the business went very wrong and it turned into a very ugly court case.

“Unfortunately I realised I couldn’t afford to employ lawyers so I had to defend myself in the Federal Court. It was a very tough three years and at the end of that it really made me realise how close I’d come to losing everything. It really made me stop and focus on what were the good things in life.”

Smith says it was friend who said to him at the time: “look you’ve got to compartmentalise this, think of it as a bad divorce, you’ll get through this but it could consume you.”

It was then that the idea began to take shape.

Looking at the flight maps of the seaplanes in the 1930s, huge double decker bus-sized flying boats which trekked from Sydney to London and back in ten days Smith decided he would retrace the route in a seaplane.

The original adverts were based on speed and luxury and boasted “only ten days to London by plane” with hotel stops every night. But his journey was to be slightly different.

For a start, the plane he flew is smaller than a Cessna and he says his engineering background helped him to customise it for the journey, fitting a carbon fibre hull, stronger wings and extra fuel tanks to keep it in the air for longer.

He describes the cockpit as being “about the size of a smart car. [I] needed the weight of my passenger for extra fuel tanks, it’s the kind of plane that people would have as a hobby plane.”

The small plane would fly at about 15,000 ft and he says at times he flew with the fear of being shot down.

“When I was flying over the deserts of Pakistan and I did just keep thinking, the plane uses the same engine as a predator drone and because the engine is on top facing backwards and it’s unusual. It’s the kind of plane that if you were on the ground looking up, and you saw this bizarre plane you’d easily think someone was spying on you.”

Initially, the journey was only to follow the Qantas flying boat route and then the little plane was to be placed on a shipping container for its voyage back to Australia.

Once he got there however that changed.

He was having dinner with his wife Anne, and they were discussing organising a shipping container to take the plane home.

“She said to me ‘you’ve been talking about sailing around the world your whole life, wouldn’t you rather keep going?’ And in that nanosecond I said ‘well of course I would is that OK?’ and she said ‘just do it, if you don’t do it now you’ll be planning to do another trip anyway’ and it was as simple as that.”

The journey itself however, wasn’t simple.

Crossing from London to America meant going via Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Canada before crossing the length of Manhattan and landing in the Hudson River. A journey that took him through spectacular landscapes and also, a near death experience.

Flying into Canada, the weather came in.

“The coastline completely covered in cloud. My plan A was ‘I’ll fly between the cloud, then cloud came together. As I turned to move through it I turned straight into a cloud and got disorientated. I lost control of the plane and it started spinning towards the ground and I thought this is it.

“The windscreen of the plane started caving in towards me, and I rather pathetically thought ‘I’m going to die’ and I was just so despondent, but then just above me I saw the outline of the sun through a cloud and got my bearings. Instinctively my hands and feet moved and a minute later I came out of the cloud maybe 300 metres from the ground.”

It wasn’t all death defying flying and Smith says he spent a dreamy few weeks “following every curve of the Mississippi.” One night he camped in the plane with a rope tying it to a tree on the banks of the river so he wouldn’t float off downstream.

Michael Smith is one of the founding members of Screens without borders, an initiative set up to bring educational or entertaining films to places that might never have had a cinema. They work with local communities to set the screens up and train staff to run them as an enterprise.