An Aviator's Feat

by Maegan C.M. Gilliland Wright

A husband and wife cross oceans, mountains and deserts—attempting a feat just 200 pilots have ever accomplished.

Around The World in Eighty Days… The celebrated Jules Verne novel has fueled the imaginations of adventurers and explorers for nearly 150 years. Prior to the 16th century, no human had managed to circumnavigate the Earth—and since then, it’s been an undertaking reserved for only the most rugged of pioneers. But as technology and navigation systems have evolved, the call to experience this unique adventure is being taken up by a growing group of modern Magellans. For Peoria’s David and Betty Schlacter, it was a challenge they knew had to be checked off their bucket list. It was no 80-day race to the finish, but a 79-day journey that changed their perceptions of the world forever.

Finding His Co-Pilot
A pilot for more than four decades, David Schlacter took his first lesson in his early 20s, and quickly developed a passion for it. “We used to charter planes, and the charter pilots… were young kids,” he remembers. “It didn’t look that hard, so I got the inspiration to go take a few lessons… I found that this was something that I wanted to pursue.”

As vice president of M & W Contractors, Inc., David flew often for business purposes. When he first met Betty Schlacter, current owner of Jones Bros. Jewelers, he decided to take her up on a flight. She, however, was uneasy about this first “date.” “I called a mutual friend and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” Betty recalls, laughing. “She said I should just get on the plane. That was his test. If I wasn’t going to get in the plane and fly with him, we didn’t have a whole lot of hope for the relationship to work, because that was his passion.” She accepted the invitation.

“When I look back, that was absolutely the right thing to do,” Betty explains. “He wanted a partner who was willing to go on his adventures. So I did.” The rest, of course, is history—though she later made an uneasy discovery. “What I didn’t realize was that the plane had just come out of maintenance—we were testing to make sure everything was fixed,” she laughs.

“The airplane was in the hangar for repair,” David acknowledges matter-of-factly. “Once it comes out of maintenance, typically you want to fly it to make sure the maintenance department fixed it and didn’t break something else.”

“So then you bring your new friend along and just check things out!” Betty, notes, still laughing.

The plane was fine, and though they did not know it at the time, the couple had years of adventure ahead of them. A few years ago, they began to discuss the trip of a lifetime. Several of their friends and acquaintances had flown around the world, and they decided that 2014 would be the year they did the same.

“We realized that we were progressing in age,” David admits, “and we had a capable enough airplane to be able to make the trip.” It would take some work to leave their businesses and families behind for three months, but as Betty notes, “It was on [our] bucket list, and needed to be checked off!”

The Right Stuff
Their airplane of choice was a TBM 850, a single-engine turboprop manufactured by a French company. “We were maybe the fifth TBM to fly around the world,” David notes. As one might imagine, circumventing the globe requires far more than a talented pilot and reliable aircraft… it takes planning. Months before departure, Betty began to blog about their experience, describing the hours spent organizing visas and paperwork—and packing for 79 days of travel. “Fortunately, my trips to Haiti taught me how to pack for 10 days in a carry-on bag,” she notes on her blog, titled And Then We Went Around The World!

The Schlacters made their arrangements through Air Journey, a Florida-based company that specializes in private aircraft vacations. The agency provided a route that did more than fulfill the goal of circumnavigating the Earth; it offered a world of unique places to explore. And though the route was preplanned, the burden of flying rested solely on the shoulders of each plane’s crew. Four other planes joined David and Betty on the trip, but David was the only pilot without another trained pilot on board—and the only one to pilot a single-engine plane.

He knew the risks of attempting such a flight. “People have attempted and failed, and failed with their lives,” he admits. Yet David can fly under a wide variety of conditions, facing perils that many pilots never experience. And while he is soft-spoken about his abilities, his wife happily acknowledges his talents. “A pilot—a person who has flown an airplane—they get it. They know how hard it would be to fly into Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Betty explains. “It takes someone who’s extraordinarily competent.”

And while David was the sole pilot, Betty didn’t just sit back and enjoy the view. “Some women do,” she remarks. “They sit in the back and read a book, and don’t want to know one thing that’s going on in the front. Then there’s the group that wants to know and be a part of all of it. And I’ve chosen [that] because it gives me a connection with David’s passion.”

And Betty is David’s second set of eyes and ears, performing basic duties that are important but easily overlooked. “We’re working all the time,” she explains. “There’s some downtime once we get up to altitude and everything, but I have a whole checklist that I work [through] with him.”

It’s a good thing, too. Throughout this journey, the Schlacters met their share of scary moments—from a headwind that nearly spent all their fuel on a lap from Iceland to Great Britain, to significant icing issues in Russia. With all the risks, the other pilots were skeptical that David was skilled enough to complete the trip without another pilot on board. But he soon proved his competence when he correctly predicted a bad weather situation that everyone else chose to ignore. “And with that,” Betty notes, “the other pilots looked to him as an expert.”

A World of Insights
And so, in May of 2014, the five planes took off for the first leg of their journey: from Quebec to Kuujjuaq, Canada. From there, the Schlacters traveled 79 days—some 30,000 miles—visiting 27 countries and sleeping in 34 beds. At any given stop, they would typically spend a few days exploring or just resting. “It wasn’t a race,” David notes. “It was meant to be enjoyable.” The other pilots often had family members join them at spots along the way, so the entire journey was full of lively company. “It was a big, happy family,” Betty notes, “We had a harmonious trip, and got along well.”

The trip left a permanent impression on the couple, changing the way they view the many cultures spanning our globe. “We got to see a good part of the world,” David notes. “Now, as we listen to the news, we’ve been fairly close to a lot of these different places.” For Betty, that was the true value of their journey: “The world is a lot smaller now.”

Their itinerary included visits to places the Schlacters never imagined they would see. “We grew up in the ‘60s and never thought we would be in Vietnam,” David offers. “But there we were, in Cambodia and on the Mekong River”—the same waters once patrolled by the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force.

Among the challenges they faced on this journey involved navigating cultural expectations. “One of the hardest things for me was to be in the heat and humidity and watch the Muslim women completely covered up,” Betty recalls. In Marrakesh, Morocco, she had to wear long sleeves and long pants, and could not walk more than two steps behind her husband. But as they met people from various cultures and learned more about them, they were struck by the significance of religion at every step of their journey. “My memory is of the number of temples and mosques,” David recalls, “and how important religion is throughout the world.”

“And the variety!” Betty adds, noting their increased appreciation for other religions and people whose lives were vastly different from their own.

One might assume their favorite stops involved tourist hotspots like Malta or Ibiza, but it’s no surprise that both Schlacters have a taste for the unusual. When asked, Betty quickly responds: Magadan, Russia, former administrative hub for a brutal, forced-labor camp during the Stalin era. “I would never have gone there,” she notes. “It’s not on a tourist map… so I was fascinated to see that area.” Because it is so isolated—the nearest city is 1,200 miles away, via an unpaved road—the accommodations were not exactly five-star. “The food was terrible,” she recalls. “I think it is because it’s so remote. They can’t even grow corn.”

As for David, his favorite stop was Reykjavik, Iceland. He loved the food, the weather and the hotel, but he was mostly happy to be halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. While he did not attempt a nonstop, cross-Atlantic flight as Charles Lindbergh so famously did in 1927, he admits a connection to explorers of times past. “You feel a little of that sense of being a Lindbergh,” he says, “but you’ve got much better navigation equipment. You know where you are along the way.”

No Place Like Home
Crossing into the United States from Russia on the final leg of their journey, the Schlacters were happy to return to their home country. After three months away, the moment they found themselves back in U.S. airspace was one of the most impactful of the entire expedition. “We both had tears in our eyes,” Betty recalls. “We were home.”

“We were over the North Bering Sea,” David adds, chuckling. “But we felt like we were home.”

Back in Peoria, the Schlacters say they have no plans for a comparable excursion—though Betty still has the travel bug. “I’d go anywhere,” she says. “I’m ready to go anywhere!” David, on the other hand, is content to stay closer to home, having earned membership in an exclusive group of pilots who have flown around the world in a single-engine aircraft. According to Earthrounders.com, a web-based community connecting this elite group, just over 200 others have accomplished the feat.

“The interesting thing for me is that someone from Peoria did this,” David observes. “But we never thought we would be the ones.” a&s

Read more about the Schlacters’ journey at bettyschlacter.wordpress.com, and visit earthrounders.com for more information on this rare accomplishment.

Add new comment