FORT WORTH – Getting an airplane off the ground and flying is still nothing short of a miraculous feat for many people. But flying around the world in a small helicopter is perhaps even more incredible. Yet H. Ross Perot, Jr. and Jay W. Coburn in September 1982 such an attempt.
In the great human history, flight is relatively new. The first airplane flight was in 1903, and the first helicopter did not take to the skies until 1939. Vertical lift platforms or helicopters are typically more difficult to operate than fixed-wing aircraft. They have always required a significant pilot workload and were not known for comfort or long range. At least not before 1982.
In September 1982, a Bell 206L LongRanger II piloted by H. Ross Perot, Jr. and Jay W. Coburn, the world’s first helicopter around the world. Starting in Dallas, Texas, the duo flew ‘The Spirit of Texas’ for 29 days, 3 hours and 8 minutes. They covered 26,000 nm (41,843 km) in 246.5 hours of flight time, crossing 26 countries and 22 seas and oceans before returning to Dallas.
The helicopter had to go through some modifications before it was ready for its mission around the world. All non-essential features were removed and an additional fuel tank was fitted along with folding floats and the best navigation, communication and safety equipment available at the time.
The aircraft was also painted in bright colors to increase visibility to other fliers.
During the incredible journey, Perot and Coburn stopped to refuel 56 times. Their route first took them north, to Canada, through Greenland and Iceland; then to Europe.
While the duo were in Europe, the Bell 206 landed at the Farnborough International Airshow. On departure from Britain, Perot and Coburn flew over France ‘under the radar’ as they were unable to make themselves known on the radio to French aviation authorities due to their inability to speak French.
They managed to make a stop in Marseille before making several refueling stops in Naples, Italy and Athens, Greece. Then they crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa (Egypt).
On the night of September 11, the pilots flew over Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and noticed the bright orange flames from the flares. After a short landing in Jeddah, the aircraft crossed over to Bahrain to refuel and continued its flight to Muscat in Oman.
The Asian leg of the journey began on the night of September 12 with a landing in Karachi, Pakistan. From there, the pilots made a stop in Delhi before embarking on one of the longest legs of the journey – to Calcutta. This was followed by stops in Burma and later Japan.
Unable to land on Russia’s Kuril Islands, Perot and Coburn refueled the American container ship SS President McKinley in the North Pacific and made a dramatic landing amid 15-foot waves and 40-knot winds. The showers continued and almost caused problems with fuel shortages, but they were able to complete each of the final stages – including chasing a bear from an Alaskan airstrip before returning safely to their starting point in Dallas, Texas. Perot and Coburn landed in Texas on September 30, 1982 to a very warm welcome, marking the 40th anniversary of the historic flight this year.
The duo submitted their record flight for approval by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for a record flight eastbound, averaging 56.97 kilometers per hour, and the trip appears in the Guinness World Records as the first to fly the helicopter in an hour. They also set the fastest point-to-point speed record on the mission, between London and Marseille, on 7 September 1982 with an average speed of 111.47 miles per hour (179.39 kilometers per hour).
The helicopter was later donated to the Smithsonian Institution and is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center. Not long after completing their record attempt, H. Ross Perot, Jr. and the Jay W. Coburn FAA Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan in honor of their outstanding achievement.