James Ketchell - The Basingstoke adventurer who was the first to circle the globe in a gyrocopter
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 March 2020
Having climbed Everest and rowed across the Atlantic, a Basingstoke adventurer took to the air for his latest challenge
"I've always wanted to fly, ever since I was young," proclaims Hampshire's own adventurer James Ketchell. "Even after I'd managed to successfully complete other challenges like Everest and rowing the Atlantic, I didn't know if I would be able do it. I assumed learning to fly was for the super intelligent and super rich. I thought I might fall short of the grade."
Cycling around the globe, a solo row across the Atlantic and reaching the summit of the world's highest mountain, this Basingstoke boy has managed to overcome all obstacles in his path so far. He landed at Popham Airfield five months ago after successfully circumnavigating the globe in a gyrocopter - proof that there is no such word as 'can't'.
"I went along to Popham Airfield to meet Steve Boxall, who runs The Gyrocopter Experience. During my trial flight I decided I was definitely going to learn how to fly one." Anyone who has seen a gyrocopter might worry about sturdiness and the fact it's open to the elements, so why opt for a gyro at all? "Well no-one had ever flown around the world in one," says James. "It is the last great aviation record, plus I wanted to do something a little bit different. Plenty of people have flown around the world in helicopters and fixed-wing planes, but there's been no successful trip in a gyro."
James diligently studied other people's attempts and got advice from those who had tried before. But as with all of his adventures thus far, the biggest challenge wasn't the flying it was getting to the start line. "Contrary to belief I'm not some rich guy. I don't have endless pots of money. So I had to try and figure a way to make it happen." Purchasing the gyro, equipment and the accommodation for the 175-day trip was going to cost thousands. "But it's all about commitment. If you put a good sponsorship package together and relentlessly pursue backers, you will get there in the end."
James was due to take off from Popham in October 2018, but: "People were suggesting I didn't have enough flying experience, so I decided to fly to the south of France as a training flight." However he got stuck in bad weather and had his first real scare. "I flew over a small mountain and on the other side of it I got caught in wind turbulence. It was the first time I'd felt out of control. The ground was coming up fast so I had to increase power." The incident was a reality check for the adventurer: "I realised I wasn't ready to go around the world yet. I arrived home thinking: 'I really don't think I can do this, how can I get out of it?' But I gave myself a talking to, I told myself I had to."
So with an abundance of flying hours under his belt and feeling confident, James finally took off from Popham on 31 March 2019. Planning the route around the world was a complicated task: "I wanted to route through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, then up into Russia, but Pakistan had shut all their airspace down a month before I was due to go," he says. There was no way around. Going north would take James through the Himalayas and he didn't have the range to go from Dubai to India. "It forced me to look at alternative options. Russia was opening their space to general aviation and it became an option to cut all the tricky countries out and fly through Europe. With the help of General Aviation Services Egypt and MAC Aviation we were able to route the whole way through Russia."
As with all of James's adventures, he had more than a single motivation for completing this circumnavigation: "This wasn't really to say 'look at me fulfilling my own dreams of being a British adventurer doing another challenge'. I do a lot of work with young people and I'm an ambassador for the Scouts. I wanted to visit a school in every country and reach out to schoolchildren via my YouTube video blogs and social media. My goal was to try and inspire a million children around the world to pursue their own goals and dreams. We did just that," he says proudly.
Seeing the world from above must have been an inspiring sight. Thanks to his rerouting through Russia James ended up flying through the coldest place on earth, Oymyakon, where the temperature falls to an average of -50°C. However it wasn't just cold temperatures to contend with: "For a lot of Russia I was outside radio coverage as I was flying low, so I was relaying to airliners. I was at the end of the world but talking to a British Airways pilot relaying my position to air traffic control. Where I was below them I could hear their transmissions, it was comforting to hear an English accent," he admits.
Once he had reached America James was over half way. "The landscape and scenery were incredible in Alaska and Canada, but I got caught out when I had to make an emergency landing on a road due to some lightning. I was only 30 miles from where I needed to land and a thunderbolt struck a piece of high land just below me. The ground caught fire, its sheer power was remarkable." With the bad weather closing in, James realised he had to get on the ground: "This was a remote part of Canada and there was a long road below where I managed to land. The next day a kind lorry driver used his truck and blocked the road so I could take off again."
Weather became an issue again as he flew from Greenland to Iceland over 400 nautical miles of ocean. "It had deteriorated to below minimum flying standard and I was flying 100ft above the sea." James had practically zero visibility and was flying off his instruments. "When you cannot determine where the sky starts, you can fly straight into the ground. It's confusing and disorientating but thanks to my training I managed it."
Then it was Hurricane Doreen's turn to keep him in the Faroe Islands for longer than he wanted. This was his final flight that would bring him back to the UK, to Scotland.
One hundred and seventy five days after setting off, James was escorted into Popham by a helicopter and a couple of gyrocopters to cheering crowds. James had completed his mission and broken a world record: "The first speed record around the world, the only official recorded circumnavigation in a gyroplane. I'm the only official person to do it," he declares. "Three years ago I didn't even have a licence!"
James's next challenge is set for 2022 when he'll be sailing around the world: "For each leg there will be two young people who are at a point in their life where they are either going to jail or they will use this project to springboard off in the right direction. They will have the opportunity to do this with me and every time we stop in a different country they will give talks in schools with me on stage to other young people about what they have learned."
If James and his young crew complete the challenge, it will mean he will be the only person in the world to have circumnavigated the planet by air, sea and land. A true explorer of the modern world then? "I would never compare myself to the great explorers, because it's a different world now. But I hope Christopher Columbus will be looking down on me saying 'well done and fair play'."