For Aussie Michael Smith, flying was a childhood dream put on hold until he was 35 — when he finally earned his licence to, in his words, ‘avoid an early mid-life crisis.’ Once he got up in the air, he turned his attention and effort to a lofty goal: recreating the 1930s Qantas Empire Imperial ‘flying boat’ route from Sydney to England via Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe.
Inspired by what he calls the ‘Golden Age of flying,’ Michael had a plane built just for him by Progressive Aerodyne out of Florida. Constructed to resemble those pre-war flying boats he loves so well, the poetically named ‘Southern Sun’ is a two-seater single-engine aircraft that’s able to land on both runways and water. It’s one of about 500 in the world — and in the end, it took Michael around the globe in a cool 212 days.
Constructed to hold 13 hours worth of fuel and able to fly for 21 hours in maximum ferry mode, Southern Sun also carried a vital safety tool in the form of a Spider.
‘I knew I would be covering long distances and would often be out of radio range,’ Michael says. ‘I looked at the various tracking devices on the market, and the Spider was the only one that seemed 100% focused on aviation.’
He also appreciated its aesthetic (‘so neatly sitting up on the dash’), how easy it was to integrate into Southern Sun, and the fact that it’d allow his family and friends to follow his journey. But what would be the actual flight plan?
Michael's Spider sitting pretty
After earning his licence in 2005, Michael spent 10 years researching the original Qantas route. With a few adjustments made for the current political climate (such as being unable to land in Iraq), he took off from Melbourne on April 12, 2015 with his sights set on London.
The idea was to explore — to land in all the spots he possibly could along the Qantas path, to stay in the old hotels, and to meet the locals. He also planned to visit movie theatres along the way as research for his master’s thesis: ‘the perceived value of cinema by the community.’
He ticked all those boxes on his first international landing in East Timor, where his Melbourne establishment the Sun Theatre runs a free outdoor cinema program called Cinema Lorosa’e.
From East Timor, Michael headed across Asia (to places like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and India), the Middle East (Dubai, Israel), and finally Europe, where he landed successfully in London. Along the way, Spidertracks allowed his loved ones to track his journey from point to point, even when he was flying in remote regions or completely out of range.
‘There was a great peace of mind in having a tracking system that meant my family could check in and see where I was,’ Michael points out. ‘But it was also in knowing that if I did go missing, there would be a map of where to look.’
Spidertracks also came in handy when others began hearing about Michael’s journey and tuning in to follow along. ‘When I got home, I met some wives of these people who said things like, ‘Thank God you’re back safely. Now my husband will stop taking the iPad to bed to follow you!’’ he says.
Once he landed in London, Michael enjoyed a brief rest before his plan changed. His wife, who’d flown over from Australia to meet Michael at the end of his journey, suggested he continue on to fulfill a longtime dream: circumnavigating the globe. With her encouragement, Michael took another few weeks to arrange the next leg of his voyage before setting out across the Atlantic for the United States.
‘One of the features I really loved about my Spider was the ability to send texts from the middle of the ocean!’ Michael says. ‘Sometimes it was just a simple note to home, but it really helped my planning and was a huge safety benefit.’
On this second and spontaneous leg, Michael landed on the Hudson River; flew nonstop from New York down the East Coast to visit the Progressive Aerodyne factory in Orlando; wended his way up the mighty Mississippi River; landed in an abandoned, rat-infested town in Alaska, and endured difficult weather and threatening conditions on his way home to Australia via Japan.
Upon his safe return, Michael became the first person to successfully complete a solo circumnavigation in a single-engine flying boat. He was named the 2016 Adventurer of the Year by Australian Geographic, which led him to write a book about his experience and to create a short film from the footage he took while on his journey. The film, Voyage of the Southern Sun, chronicles the seven months he spent flying to 25 countries, making 80 stops, and visiting 70 cinemas. It’s played in theatres across Australia and the UK, and Michael hopes to bring it to New Zealand in the near future. (For now, you can buy both the book and the DVD from Michael’s website.)
When asked for his final thoughts on Spidertracks, Michael has this to say: ‘There just isn’t a better product on the market. There’s always development work going on in the background, and it’s well-priced and affordable to run. Frankly, I think every plane should have one!’