Why am I here?
It’s a deep philosophical quandary that has plagued mankind since time immemorial. Why am I here — on this planet? At this time? As this person?
Or, in the case of Bainbridge-based aviator Harry R. Anderson, quite literally: Why am I here in this single-engine prop plane above the seemingly endless expanse of empty blue that is the Atlantic Ocean? Gliding above the otherworldly landscape of the North Pole? Here alone on Christmas Island, a world-renowned fishing hot spot, when I don’t even enjoy fishing?
Surely, there are more relaxing ways to spend a retirement?
And the answer, after many thousands of miles flown and his having landed on all seven continents and in more than 50 countries (and counting) is, by his own admission, less than satisfying: Why, for the adventure, of course.
“Well, when I tell people that they nod with approval, pat me on the back, wish me luck and lament that they don’t have the time, money, or mental energy for a similar leap of lifestyle,” Anderson wrote in his 2015 memoir “Flying 7 Continents Solo.”
“Of course, my explanation is mostly a fiction and ‘for the adventure’ sounds like what you put in the blank space on a form where it asks ‘Reason for trip?’ and can’t think of an honest answer, or are unwilling to write one down,” he went on.
“Telling people I’m flying my plane from place to place around the world, erratically bouncing between earth and sky in some endless pinball purgatory because I had nothing better to do, intrigued in some ways by the thought of crashing into the ocean because the shocking realty of it would be refreshing, fortified knowing that at some point the best anyone could hope for was death with at least some adventurous nobility — that answer would not make anybody happy.”
Except that it kind of does make at least one person happy.
Anderson recently returned to Bainbridge having completed his second, and (he insists) likely last, solo around-the-world flight. He’s been called an “adventure pilot,” and is obviously something of an explorer at heart, but the man himself insists he’s nothing quite so romantic.
“I really look at myself more as a traveler and an airplane happens to be my weapon of choice,” Anderson said. “People find adventure in a lot of different ways. It’s not an inexpensive way to travel; I could go to all the same places on commercial flights and say, ‘OK, I’ve seen this place, I’ve seen that place.’ But the adventure is really in the challenge of getting there, and people who haven’t done it don’t really appreciate all the problems that need to be solved to get from place to place in small airplanes.”
Those problems run the gamut from difficult weather conditions, obviously, to basic logistics and mechanics, the physical demands of such lengthy flights, and being able to navigate the sometimes Kafkaesque world of international aviation bureaucracy.
Anderson, who is unmarried and has no children, moved to Bainbridge in 2002 after partially retiring from his first career as a wireless engineer in Oregon, where he started software companies that made tools for designing wireless networks.
He said learning to fly was not a long-held childhood dream of his, but a passion he came to when he found himself rather suddenly with more free time.
“I got my pilot’s license relatively late in life, in 1998,” he said. “It’s one of those things that was always sort of interesting, but I didn’t feel any compulsion to do it.”
His plane has a 310-horsepower engine and, technically, four seats, but for longer flights he often removes the backseat and replaces it with an additional fuel tank.
“It’s actually a pretty high-powered single engine airplane for a small airplane, and it’s a fairly modern streamlined design,” Anderson said. “It’s made of all fiberglass and composite materials rather than aluminum so it’s got some design features which make it really efficient for these kinds of flights.”
Anderson’s plane can manage about 1,200 miles in one go even without extra tanks. He first flew around the world going east back in 2011, flew to Antarctica in 2013, flew over the North Pole last year, and this year flew back around the world, going west.
The longest single leap he’s made was from Hawaii to California, a little more than 2,000 miles.
Though the autopilot program does the heavy lifting mid-flight, the takeoffs and landings are all Anderson. Still, it often means a lot of time to himself in the air with very little to look at.
“There really isn’t much to do except switch fuel tanks and keep a lookout for bad weather ahead that you want to try and divert yourself around,” Anderson said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you read? Do you sleep? Do you do any of these other things?’ And I say no. Some pilots can, but I’ve never been able to do those things, so I’m just sitting there at peace with my own thoughts, I guess.”
But when there is something to see, all the waiting is worthwhile.
“The flight over the North Pole was interesting; just to be able to look out on the broken up Arctic ice and not really see an ice cap or anything else.”
Weather monitoring programs have greatly improved since Anderson started flying, but despite that and his own meticulous planning he has at times found himself in shaky situations.
“I’ve been in some turbulent situations but never felt in danger by the weather,” he said. “I felt uncomfortable, like, ‘Hey, I wish I was somewhere else.’ But I’ve never felt like the plane was going to come apart. I’ve never been in a situation where I really felt that I was at risk; I was just annoyed.”
The 2019 westbound flight around the world will likely be his last trans-global trek, Anderson said, though he is far from done flying.
“There are still places I’d like to see,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll do any more flights outside the Americas, North and South America. I’ve pretty much done all the things I’ve wanted to do in terms of flying overseas, certainly more than almost any other pilot I know of in small planes like this.
“The Americas still includes a lot — Canada, Central and South America — it’s still a lot, and I don’t need to use any extra fuel tanks to visit any of those places. I still have a lot of options and possibilities.”
Via more traditional air travel, too, less adventurous though it may be, Anderson still gets around more than most.
“I did a lot of traveling before I was a pilot and I continue to travel on commercial flights,” he said. “For example, in 2016 I did a trip that was designed to visit the 10 smallest countries in the world.
“Three of them are just little islands out in the Pacific,” he added. “I did that with commercial flights.”
To have flown around the world once, let alone twice, alone and in a single-engine prop plane is an incredibly rare achievement, and one tracked by www.earthrounders.com, a site dedicated to registering pilots who have flown around the world in light aircraft.
According to group officials, “Out of the 7.4 billion people on Earth, 4,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, 500 have been in space, while only around 700 pilots flew around the world in light aircraft and only 300 of them are alive today.”
One of them lives on Bainbridge Island, where he is currently planning his next trip.