Two weeks ago, Wei Chen became the first Chinese citizen to circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine plane when he landed his Socata TBM turboprop in Memphis on July 30th.
Chen moved from China nearly 16 years ago to attend the University of Memphis, and he's been living here ever since. Though he's only been flying for four years, he and co-pilot Rob Williams began their expedition on May 23rd, making their way over 21 countries in 69 days.
Through his expedition, Chen was able to raise $250,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital while promoting the need for loosened restrictions on private aviation in China's government-controlled skies.
Flyer: How does it feel to be the first Chinese citizen to circumnavigate the globe?
Chen: To fly a small, single-engine plane around the world is a big deal. Less than 200 people have done it. Of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, I'm the first one to accomplish that. The Chinese have the dream of flying. We invented the kite 2,000 years ago. To them, with the limited ability to fly around the world, it's such a huge deal.
Why did it take so long for a Chinese citizen to do this?
It's not allowed. In China, the entire airspace belongs to the military. You need permission to take off and land in China, so flying becomes very difficult.
What preparations were involved?
When I started planning the trip, I had 350 hours [of flying ahead of me]. It was like learning to drive a car and then driving the Indy 500. You have to believe in yourself. I think that's the message I was trying to spread around the world. We planned it for 18 months. There are so many things that can go wrong. When I was on the trip, I just had to stick with the plan.
What was the trip like?
I was in a different country every day, a different airport every day. I was meeting with people I had never met before, sometimes having dinner with 300 people. It's what I wanted to spread my message, but it's also very draining.
What sort of challenges did you face?
On the day I departed, I got a phone call saying a volcano [in Iceland] erupted. The airports across Iceland and Greenland were closed. It affected Europe for two weeks, so it added a lot of uncertainty. I still took off and continued with my plan.
Flying in the Middle East was a big challenge. We had to go around Iraq and Kuwait. Not being able to land in Egypt was disappointing. I really wanted to see the pyramids, but I couldn't do that. It took two hours to fly around Egypt to land in Saudi Arabia. If something had happened, there'd be no support. I don't speak the language.
How did you use the trip to promote cross-cultural relations?
Along with promoting St. Jude, I was promoting Memphis. I was able to tell people about how I came to Memphis and all of the opportunities here.
Because I'm the first Chinese citizen to fly around the world, I received a lot of media attention in China. People in China could see they've got a fellow Chinese person living in the U.S. who can do this.
Did the Chinese government help in any other way besides opening up their airspace?
The Chinese Ministry of Culture wanted to spread [the news of my trip] to unite Chinese around the world. Sometimes they would send in a performance group to greet me and celebrate the flight. When I arrived in Barcelona, they sent around 30 performers to perform for the local community.