I was not having a particularly good day. To be honest, I can’t even recall why. All I know is that my head was pounding, and I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to stay focused and carry on working.
We were driving several hours north of Manila to meet a chap named Norman Surplus – and it was the only time he had to spare. I was sure glad he did.
His energy was infectious from the start his smile enough to brighten any day. This was clearly a person drunk on life – and rightly so. His was an extraordinary journey, and we were lucky enough to be there to witness it.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” he said. The statement meant so much coming from a man who was told in 2003 that he had a 40 per cent chance of surviving another year with cancer. But he did survive, and how.
Here was Norman Surplus now – eight years later – flying around the world in an attempt to make aviation history in an odd little machine called a gyrocopter. It barely looked air-worthy. A two-seater aircraft much smaller than a helicopter, it looked like a huge mosquito against the bright blue sky.
“The great thing about it is that you fly low enough that you can actually see the people on the ground and they can see you. Often, they wave, too,” he said. “It’s such an amazing interpersonal connection a connection lost in modern aviation, where you’re too high in the sky to see the earth and enclosed in a steel shell.”
As he said this, the twinkle in his eye was like a beacon in the dark.
Up, up and away
It had taken him several months to get to the Philippines from his home in Northern Ireland. And that was in 2010. His gyrocopter had been grounded here ever since.
There were problems with the weather and challenges getting landing rights in onward destinations. But things were looking up now, and he was ready to get going again.
“The best part about this trip is all the wonderful people I’ve met,” he said. “Everyone’s been so supportive. It’s like they all just want to see me succeed.”
He told us the story of how he had crashed upon take off in Thailand and an entire village came out to help him. They took care of him and made sure his flying machine was ready to fly again.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done without them,” he recalled. “It was the only time I thought I might have to call it quits, if not for those villagers.”
Another time he flew over the desert and had to make unplanned landings. It surprised him to learn there were so many colours to the desert landscape. He was grateful for the hospitality of the desert tribesmen who had never seen such a peculiar flying spectacle.
Leap of faith
You could sit and listen to Norman’s stories for hours. They all had the same theme: life is good, people are more gracious than you’d think, and the world can truly be on your side.
“Sometimes I worry that others might think I’m making light of how serious cancer is, but I’m not. It’s a terrible thing to have, but one can survive it and there is always hope,” he said.
That sentiment is the main message Norman wants people to take from his journey: that a positive attitude can do wonders for the soul.
Many people have wondered what it is that fuels him, and that is his answer.
I was lucky enough to get up in the air on the back of his unenclosed gyrocopter. Let me tell you, there is nothing like being up in the sky with the wind in your hair and the wonders of the earth sprawled just within reach all around you.
Norman’s right: it’s difficult to be up there and not smile.
Since that day, he has left the Philippines and landed safely in Japan. Just a few more countries and he’ll be home. His family eagerly awaits his arrival.
Setting a world record is secondary to the more primal, personal, triumph of meeting life head-on, taking a leap of faith, and believing that, no matter what, you can fly.
To follow the remainder of Norman’s adventure, visit www.gyroxgoesglobal.com