Month by month, pilot makes his way around the world

Wednesday, June 6, 2012
PHOTO BY RUSS MITCHELL

A plane hummed in the background just before 10 a.m. Monday as co-pilot Claude Cordelle crammed backpacks and duffle bags into the ultralight "Sky Ranger" plane flown by fellow Frenchman Thierry Barbier.

It's a routine Barbier and his teams have repeated around the globe. Barbier's tiny white plane with orange and black trim has stopped in 83 countries. The view from above has given the pilot a world view.

In fact the mix of lush green and blue water is what inspired Barbier and Cordelle to make an overnight stop in the Iowa Great Lakes.

Through photos, articles and video, Barbier wants to show everyone how beautiful the earth is -- and the importance of protecting it. The pilot sees hope in the children he meets around the world.

"They know much better than us -- in our modern world -- how to live in harmony with nature," he said.

Barbier has picked up a substantial mix of Spanish and English during is travels in the Western Hemisphere. The Sky Ranger's tour began in South America and took the pilot and co-pilot to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Barbier and Cordelle then flew over the Caribbean Sea, including views of Haiti and Cuba. The route backtracked so Barbier could add Central American countries to his list of visits. Cordelle and Barbier entered the United State near San Diego.

"I learn English and Spanish while traveling, mainly," Barbier said. "When I reached the American border I was mixing English and Spanish. Now, it's OK. I don't mix anymore. I've switched to English."

The pilot has been in 120 counties in total. He's been to 83 as a pilot in the ultralight aircraft.

"Poor or rich counties, developed or undeveloped, it's all the same," he said. "I don't find big differences between two counties. Even when I was in Venezuela, nothing happened to me. You see it with your eyes and you find good people everywhere. Being a citizen of the world is more important."

The pilots came to Iowa after a visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Their next stop was Oshkosh, Wis., where they'll scout the site before hundreds of aircrafts arrive for an international light aircraft show in July.

They have stops planned at Niagara Falls and in French-speaking Quebec in the meantime. Canada will be the 84th country Barbier visits.

"When I was a kid I dreamt about going all over the world," Barbier explained.

By the time he was 18, Barbier started hitchhiking in Europe. He received his pilot's license in 1991 and has taken to the skies for the past two decades. He was teaching in Madagascar when he bought his first light aircraft in 1999.

He flew throughout Madagascar and made his way back to France -- crossing all of Africa along the way -- in 2000 and 2001. The journey through Africa took seven months because he shot video, took pictures and wrote articles to cover the cost of his tour.

"I like to stop and meet the people of other countries," Barbier said. "That's as interesting as it is to fly."

Barbier spends about five months each year on his tour of counties. He then leaves the ultralight Sky Ranger behind, returns to France and raises funds the rest of the year. He resumes his tour of the world when he has enough money for the next leg of the adventure. Barbier anticipates he'll be able to finish his journey around the world in about five years.

He crossed most of Europe on a previous trip, with visits to North Cape, Europe's northernmost point; the Black Sea, England, Ireland and Spain. South America followed. He left his plane in South America to raise money for a North American swing.

Each phase of the around-the-world trip has moments Barbier will remember. He relished the opportunity to fly over Cuba. He'll remember the night he spent near the Grand Canyon, where he slept under the stars.

For less memorable moments, he has a parachute and a GPS: The Sky Ranger has made abrupt landings. As he went from Yellowstone National Park to the Great Plains, Barbier had to reach high altitudes to climb over snow-capped mountain ranges.

"I don't lose my way and I've been lucky," he said. "After I was lucky I became more experienced."

Upon his return to North America, he hopes to fly to Alaska, over the Bering Strait and into Russia, Japan and possibly Korea.

He'll then leave the plane in Asia and return to France for another fundraising effort.

More patches of green and blue waters await.

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