G’Day Mate: Meet Ryan Campbell

At 19 years old, after spending two years planning, training, and fundraising over a quarter of a million dollars, Campbell successfully flew solo around the world. This journey broke the world record at the time, for the youngest pilot and first teenager to circumnavigate the globe solo in a single-engine airplane in 2013. Campbell traveled 24,000 nautical miles, visited 35 destinations and 15 countries, and learned some profound life lessons.

Campbell’s true test would come just two years later, on a normal day that turned into any pilot’s worst nightmare. An airplane crash occurred after liftoff and left Campbell in the hospital, fighting for his life. After months of hospitalization and over a year dedicated to rehabilitation, and learning to live life with a spinal injury, Campbell believes he transformed into a different person. He shares, “I may have lost out physically, but I gained mentally in ways I never knew possible.”

Campbell eventually moved from Australia to Tennessee, where he works as a motivational speaker, sharing his new mindset with audiences. His days off are spent in the sky or driving a two-and-a-half-ton pink Cadillac built nearly 35 years before he was born.

AOPA caught up with Campbell to find out more about his passion for aviation, what helped him overcome adversity and continue following his dreams, and why he enjoys inspiring others to pursue their dreams.

Ryan Campbell in Reykjavik, Iceland, during his 2013 solo circumnavigation flight. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.How did you get involved in aviation?

I was 6 years old when I first climbed aboard a [Boeing] 737, we were bound for an island in the Pacific called Vanuatu. We took off out of Sydney airport in Australia and headed across the ocean, I remember being so amazed at the size of the city and the fact we could zoom past the clouds. Between the sites from the window and a visit to the cockpit I was absolutely hooked, I really had discovered my passion in life.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

Freedom. The ability to take control of a personal flying machine and see the world from an entirely new and unique perspective. I always talk about how lucky we are to live in this time where flight is not only accessible but has such a fun, welcoming and encouraging community around it.

What is your biggest fear in aviation?

I have lived through any pilot’s worst nightmare, a horrific accident, and a spinal cord injury and paraplegic diagnosis. I was so determined to climb back into the cockpit despite that. My biggest fear is that I let the aftershock and fears from the accident slow or stop my flying. With that said, so far so good.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve ever overcome?

Learning to walk again, finding my way back into fixed-wing flying with heel and hand brakes, and then pursuing my helicopter commercial as an incomplete paraplegic. Flying a single-engine from Hawaii to California was almost as bad.

How do you feel you inspire others to pursue their aviation dreams?

Whether flying around the world solo or making my way back to flying after the accident, it was all completed by a normal Aussie kid with a determination to get the job done. It was not copious amounts of money or privilege, and I hope that shows what can be achieved if we set our mind to it.

“Doug the Cub,” Campbell's modified Piper Super Cub, is named in honor of WWII Spitfire pilot Sir Douglas Bader who flew with prosthetic legs. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

What is your ultimate goal in life and in aviation?

To solo the Spitfire with the [Boultbee Flight] Academy in England, to zoom by the White Cliffs of Dover and barrel roll over the English fields. The shorter-term goal? To work with Cirrus to put hand brakes in an SR22 and then use that aircraft to fly to speaking events across the U.S. and to fly [EAA] Young Eagles.

What are your thoughts on aviation in the United States compared to Australia?

Aviation in the U.S. is phenomenal, from FBOs to airports, restaurants and beyond. The community is amazing, and I have thrived flying my Super Cub around the U.S. Australia has a solid industry, yet with smaller numbers it is a lot harder to have such a network of airports and operations that make [general aviation] flying a dream.

Do you have a favorite location to fly in the United States and why?

Oshkosh and High Sierra. Aviation events that are almost too hard to comprehend. It has been a dream come true to fly into both events.

What do you think could be improved in the aviation industry in the United States?

Other than the 423 unique ways to use the phrase “departing” in the traffic pattern, I would love to see more ways for young people to become involved in the Warbird scene. I know a lot of passionate young guys and girls who would be a great fit for keeping these incredible time machines in the air.

Do you have an aviation hero?

Sir Douglas “Tin Legs” Bader. [World War] II double amputee Spitfire pilot, ace, and all round incredible human. Some people really didn’t like Bader, but that makes me look up to him even more. He was just a normal guy, determined beyond belief to keep flying despite his disability.

Campbell's modified Piper "Doug the Cub" at the 2018 High Sierra Fly-In. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

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