On Saturday, Aug 26, when 18-year old Lachlan Smart taxied his small plane along the runway of Maroochydore Airport in Queensland, the Australian teen achieved his long-held goal: he was the youngest person to ever complete a solo circumnavigation of the world in a single engine aircraft.
Lachie completed the trip at almost a year younger than the previous record-holder, US pilot Matt Guthmiller, who was 19 years and 7 months old when he completed a solo single-engine circumnavigation.
His return marked the end of a big journey. Lachlan spent seven weeks on the trip which extened 24,000 nautical miles. He left Maroochydore Airport at the beginning of July to land in 24 different locations and fifteen countries along the way.
Those seven weeks were the culmination of over two years planning – ever since Lachie saw Australian pilot Ryan Campbell land the first teen world record for the solo journey, in 2013.
Lachlan was just 16, but had had been flying for around two years at this stage – ever since he received 14th birthday gift of a flying lesson from his Dad.
The Guinness Youngest Solo single-engine aircraft world circumnavigation World Record was one of Lachie's goals. The other was more profound. “I have always, for as long as I can remember, wanted to inspire others, particularly young people, to chase their dreams," he says.
It wasn't until he saw Ryan's journey that Lachie could articulate the way that he was going to inspire other young people.
“Age is just a number, and really, if we want to achieve something, in most situations it shouldn't be a barrier to success," he adds.
“It's also really nice to be back in a country where people speak the same language as me!"
Lachie's many destinations have included several Pacific island nations, the USA and Canada, the UK, Portugal, France, Greece, Egypt, Oman, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia.
He's flown over the Grand Canyon, Mississippi River and Niagara Falls in the USA, soared above the famous the white cliffs of Dover in England, and flew through ice and around hurricanes to end his journey safely.
“The language barrier wasn't a problem when I was flying - because the international language of aviation is English - but certainly, while I was on the ground, it presented a few challenges," he says.
“I have always... wanted to inspire others, particularly young people, to chase their dreams”
The longest leg of his journey saw him cross nearly 4,000 km of the North Pacific Ocean in a harrowing 13-hour trip that saw him flying in darkness for several hours before the sun came up.
He left Hawaii at 2:30am local time on July 13 - and once past the runway lights, it was pitch black for hours. He also had to fly the plane manually because of the weight of the extra fuel he was carrying – requiring very high concentration.
“For that flight, I had to plan a point of no return because there were no diversion ports because there's no land between Hawaii and California," Lachie recalls.
“I literally had the two closest airports I possibly could. I delayed that flight for 24 hours because there was a hurricane going through - so I was already a bit more nervous than I would have been," he says.
“Reaching the point of no return it was actually quite an easy decision to make because I did all of my calculations multiple times. I figured that I'd have about 5 hours of fuel, 4 and a half hours of fuel remaining when I landed so it was looking pretty good. It was actually a relief once I'd gone past the point of no return because I knew at that stage I was either going to make it - or I was going to go for a Pacific cruise in my life raft. Either way, it was going to be over!"
It was 6:45 pm California time when Lachie landed on the US mainland.
Lachie says that even though it was tiring, that leg of the journey was less challenging than others. Bad weather between American Samoa and Kiribati was scary, as was bad turbulence for over five hours while crossing the mountains and deserts of Saudi Arabia. He also struck air traffic control problems in a few countries - Greece and Egypt, Oman and Indonesia.
Lachie can't speak highly enough of his support crew. “It might have been just me in the plane, but the trip itself was a huge team effort," he says. They included his parents, a ground crew of eight, and a bunch of talented mentors, including former world record holder Ryan Campbell.
“We've actually become really good friends over the course of planning my flight and me actually conducting it."
Lachie says that Ryan was sanguine about his own record being broken by Guthmiller in 2014. “I know having now done the trip, you can't have just the motivation to have a world record, otherwise you would give up," he says.
“There are plenty of times in the planning where I was getting up at 6 AM and working through until 10 PM at night for 3 weeks straight, every day, weekends included. For me: I wanted to spread a message about achieving goals, for Ryan it was trying to get more young people into aviation. But without that extra motivation, you'd give up because world records – they're just a title, really."
Lachie wants to keep the inspirational message going. “Having it end with the end of the plane trip, wasn't enough for me because it's something I'm very passionate about," he says.
“We're in the process of establishing a new company called Young Achievers International. It's going to be a more practical way of seeing young people getting out and achieving their dreams using a variety of messaging including networking` and a lot contacts that we've gained on the trip," he says.
He plans to also study aviation – by the end of this year he will have his Diploma of Aviation - and to continue with commercial and executive flying.
Soon he plans to upgrade his licence from private to commercial pilot – while he has the hours and the experience, he has to take a few exams before he gains his rating as a fully commercial, licensed command instrument-rated multi-engine pilot.
He also plans to enrol in a Bachelor of Business degree next year. I'm taken aback at first: of course, Lachie is just 18 and has really just finished high school. He seems so much more mature than the average school leaver. “Yes - I think the trip aged me about 30 years," he jokes.
“I've always really loved having and developing relationships with people in different ways - so I think business is something that I'd really like to get in to. Every sponsor that we've had on board has essentially come from a business proposal that we had to put together - what can I offer them, and what can they offer me," he says.
“With my new business of Young Achievers International now beginning, I think it would be good to have a bit more of an understanding of it before I really get into it too much."
For now, though, Lachie will keep both feet on the ground for a while.
Writer: Fran Molloy
Photography courtesy of Barry Alsop and Lachlan Smart