Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2010 | Features

Around the World in Eight Days

By Kelli Andresen
A UI alumna takes flight to break an aviation record and raise funds for a deadly disease.

Thunderclouds roll in and the skies darken as turbulence battersa small, single-engine plane on its final descent to Orlando International Airport. While the two pilots concentrate on landing safely, their ground crew waits and watches in breathless anticipation.

Finally, the plane touches down—and pilots and ground crew erupt into tears and cheers. Far from the simple end of an ordinary journey, this landing signifies the culmination of a remarkable dash around the Earth.

After crossing 17 countries, over eight-and-a-half days and 24,000 miles, these two women—one of them a University of Iowa alumna—made aviation history, shattering the previous international record for a light-aircraft westward flight around the world. The National Aeronautic Association, the official record-keeper for U.S. aviation, hailed the duo's achievement as one of the most memorable aviation and space records of 2008.

The flight wasn't for glory, though. It was all about love and hope; it was the Dash for a Cure.

As CarolAnn Garratt, 82MBA, the pilot of that amazing flight, explains, "When a disease takes the life of a loved one, you want to do everything in your power to find a cure so that no other family has to suffer like yours."

The inspiration for Garratt's effort came from her mother, who died in 2002 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the debilitating and fatal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. While Garratt's father passed his love for aviation on to his daughter, her mother gave her the reason to circumnavigate the globe and break a world record.

After her mother's death, Garratt determined to use her love of flying to help find a cure for ALS. She decided to attempt a feat of endurance—the Dash for a Cure—that would raise awareness and funds for research into the disease. What better way to garner publicity and support than a memorable accomplishment like an around-the-world record flight?

A former top manager for a Fortune 500 company, Garratt now enjoys a career as a different kind of high-flier. She lives in a fly-in community near Gainesville, Florida, and owns three different aircraft—including one she built from a kit. Although retired from her business career, she logs more than 400 flight hours a year, as she introduces students to the joys of aviation through the EAA Young Eagles program, transports the sick and needy with Angel Flights, and instructs cadets with the Civil Air Patrol.

The aviation enthusiast had already made a solo trip around the globe in 2003, when a visit to New Zealand and Australia to reunite her aging father with his sister for the first time since World War II turned into an epic seven-month flight. In her small, Mooney M20J single-engine plane, Garratt covered 36,667 miles and visited 19 countries. She blogged along the way, eventually turning her travelogue into a book that raised $80,000 for ALS research. With Dash for the Cure, she set a goal of one million dollars.

An early love of aviation

Garratt grew up as the only girl among four brothers. Since the siblings were all close in age and Garratt was a tomboy, they did everything together. "There was never anything I couldn't do because I was a girl," she says. "That was a great subconscious lesson for me."

When Garratt was in high school and working at the local airport to earn money for college, her father started taking flying lessons. Soon, all the Garratt children were taking lessons too. At the age of 17, Garratt completed her first solo flight; she went on to earn her private pilot's license in 1978, her commercial pilot's license in 1996, and her instructor's certificate in 2002.

She studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received her M.B.A. from the University of Iowa. Her background in engineering proved useful to her aviation hobby, while her M.B.A. led to a successful corporate career that helped parlay a hobby into a way of life.

The preparation

For Dash for a Cure, Garratt aimed to topple a record that had been set in 1988. That flight took 18 days, although it was mistakenly noted in the record books as 11 days.

First, though, she needed a co-pilot. In 2004, she'd met Carol Foy at an annual aviation convention and fly-in event in Wisconsin. Foy's husband had recently passed away from lung cancer, so the women bonded over the loss of their family members. They kept in touch over the years, and when Garratt was looking for a co-pilot, Foy was on her short list. After all, Foy also had a Mooney; she'd participated in numerous cross-country air races; and, she had a cousin suffering with ALS. Intrigued by the technical challenge, the opportunity to see new places, and the chance to raise money for a worthy cause, Foy quickly agreed to join Garratt's adventure.

The next 18 months passed in a whirlwind of preparation, as Garratt prepped the plane, sought corporate sponsors, and laid other groundwork. She simulated more than 200 trips around the globe to learn about airways, weather, airports, and supplies of avgas (high-octane aviation fuel used to power aircraft).

Because the women were trying to break a time record in the Dash, the route was critical. Time spent on ground, as well as in the air, counted toward the record. Whenever they stopped in a foreign country to deal with customs, immigration, and airport bureaucracy, the delays ate up precious hours and minutes. With that in mind, Garratt and Foy decided to limit their stops by flying as far as possible on each leg. They also timed their journey between November and January, to coincide with benign weather, easterly winds, few storms, and cool temperatures.

Another crucial factor was the ground crew. The women would only leave the plane eight times to refuel and briefly rest—a total of 46 hours on the ground in eight-and-a-half days. They'd rely on their team on the ground to help with any emergencies that arose.

Garratt recruited various pilot friends in Florida, Virginia, Switzerland, and Thailand. Working from their homes, these support team members monitored the flight via computer and communicated with each other by phone and e-mail. Among them were Bill Harrelson and his wife, Sue, both retired airline captains, who had met Garratt in England when she was attempting her first around-the-world flight. With their international flying experience, they understood the unique demands and challenges of this project.

"The fact that we mostly just monitored was due to the superb planning and preparation that CarolAnn had done for more than a year prior to the first takeoff," says Harrelson. "When people learn of this flight, some think that the women simply jumped in the plane and headed west. Nothing could be further from the truth. An enormous amount of preparation is absolutely necessary and is, in fact, the most critical part of the trip."

The flight

On December 2, 2008, at 8:31 p.m. EST, the Dash for a Cure duo took off from Orlando International Airport. "It was a relief to finally be on our way," recalls Garratt. "After all the preparation, it was great to take off."

The flight was much more than a technical aviation challenge; it was also a test of human endurance. For 158 hours, the women shared a space about the size of a Mini Cooper, but even narrower. With the two rear seats pulled out and replaced with two supplemental gas tanks, the aviators barely had room to stretch their legs straight out and lean back slightly.

In flight, they took alternating sleep shifts every two hours. They drank plenty of water in order to stay hydrated and rigged up a relief tube system for urination. To avoid other mid-air bathroom breaks, they restricted their food intake to two PowerBars and two pieces of fruit per leg of the journey.

Through a combination of careful planning and good luck, the flight was, in Garratt's words, "fairly uneventful." The first three stops—San Diego, Lihue, and Agana—were all in U.S. states or territories, which saved time and paperwork. In Lihue, the women made their first hotel stay—after spending 33 of the previous 35 hours in the air. The next stretch, to Guam, was the first of two 23-hour legs during the journey.

Originally, the women had planned to make their first international stop in Bangkok, Thailand. Then, just a week before their departure, political protesters closed that airport, forcing Garratt and Foy to detour to Chiang Mai. Almost halfway around the world at this point, the pilots restocked on food and water while Garratt supervised mechanics who refueled and inspected the plane.

Garratt had been very careful and deliberate in choosing the next four stops across the rest of Asia and Africa. To avoid India, where airport processes are slow and bureaucratic, they refueled at a tiny airport in Salalah, Oman. Next came Djibouti, on the east coast of Africa. Garratt had been there on her 2003 trip and knew they could get in and out of the country relatively quickly.

After Djibouti, though, they ran into trouble. En route to Mali, the women noticed they were running surprisingly low on fuel. After calculating for speed and weight, they realized they'd been shorted on gas in Djibouti. They wouldn't be able to make it to their next planned stop. Instead, they'd have to call in at an alternate airport—and make a night landing.

"At that stage," recalls Garratt, "there was nothing we could do but fly and leave the research to the ground crew."

After some scrambling, the ground crew located avgas and an open airport in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. That impromptu stop turned out to be the fastest and most efficient of the entire journey. Garratt and Foy landed in darkness, refueled, and headed on to the Cape Verde Islands on the west coast of Africa. Only one thing now stood between the aviators and the world record—the Atlantic Ocean.

Their luck continued, and in the final and longest—at 3,300 nautical miles—leg of the trip, Garratt and Foy enjoyed clear skies and a smooth flight. As they neared Orlando, the women were extremely fatigued, but exhaustion wasn't going to be their biggest hurdle. They faced a potential run-in with a cold front—complete with rain, clouds, wind gusts, and thunderstorms—projected to hit Orlando at approximately the same time they were scheduled to land.

Harrelson, who had been monitoring the cold front for two days prior to the landing, remembers it as one of the more stressful moments of the whole venture. He'd been communicating with the manager of the control tower in Orlando, who promised to offer as much priority for Garratt and Foy as he could arrange.

Hooked into live audio feed, the entire ground crew around the globe watched the plots on the final approach via their computer screens, listening intently as the women began their descent into Orlando.

"The thunderstorms were not yet there, but they were close. It was cloudy and quite gusty," says Harrelson. "The plane was on a five-mile final approach, lined up with the runway. Tower asked for their best speed to the runway. Carol Foy replied that they were peddling as fast as they could. When we saw the position plot on the runway and heard the tower say, ‘Welcome home,' we knew they'd done it. There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Meanwhile, in the cockpit, Garratt began to realize that all her hard work was about to pay off.

"Tears were coming into my eyes on final approach, but I choked them back," she says. "After landing, I really started crying. It was extremely emotional. After 18 months of planning and eight-and-a-half days of flying, we'd done it."

In fact, the women had more than doubled the average speed of the old world record. Unfortunately, they didn't meet their goal to raise $1 million for ALS research. The women paid for the entire flight out of their own pockets so all donations went to charity, but they were unable to recruit corporate donors. Undefeated, Garratt has since raised more than $267,000—$20 at a time—by selling her books for donations and making presentations at events across the country.

Even with this marathon venture behind her, Garratt still has the flying bug. Next year, she plans to start her third around-the-world flight, albeit a more leisurely one. Set to take off in April, heading eastbound, this adventurous aviator is eager to visit different countries, meet more people, learn about new cultures—and take her time.