Colin Hales of Britain is flying his homemade craft around the world
Follow us on Twitter at @AdvocateTribune
Of all the pilots that land at the Granite Falls airport, an unexpected visitor from across the pond certainly made a colorful – arguably historic – splash.
Colin Hales, 40, of Britain was in the middle of a trek around the world in his homemade, personal airplane when he decided to make an impromptu stop at the Fagen Fighters WWII museum.
Beyond the notable difference in his accent, what makes Hales stand out even more than his yearning for adventure is his humility attempting it. While the people he meets are frequently wowed and amazed by his antics and his homemade aircraft, Hale is quick to explain that he is not a god among men.
“People seem quite astonished that I’ve undertaken the journey. But the sky is the same. It’s like me with a dentist,” Hale explained. “‘Oh you drilled a tooth, wow! That’s impressive,’ I would say and he’ll go ‘Well, that is just what I do.’ Same here. I build aircraft, that is what I do.”
In early 2003, Hales made history with a record-breaking flight with companion Nadine Brauns by taking his small aircraft from England to Australia, the smallest plane to have ever flown that route.
This time, Hales decided instead to go all the way around the world, including several stops at American air shows.
One of the biggest reasons why Hale wanted to come to America was for the Oshkosh air show, where pilots, planes and air enthusiasts meet in the hundreds of thousands to make up the largest air show in the world.
“It’s almost like a religious belief,” Hales said. “If I was a Christian I would want to go to Rome. If I was a Muslim I would want to go to Mecca. If I’ve built my own aircraft, I want to go to Oshkosh. It’s everyone’s dream to build an aircraft and fly it to Oshkosh.”
After Oshkosh, Hale continued his journey west to Minnesota. As he learned from previous trips, planning every exact stop is a recipe for delays, so he makes it less complicated by asking where to go along the way.
“I’ve been to America before, but I’ve never flown around, so there is no point in me deciding where I need to go next,” Hale said. “So I listen to people and get advice. I was advised to go to Lakeville, and people there said ‘Do you know about Granite Falls? You really ought to go and see it.’”
Landing mere minutes before the airport workers were about to leave for the weekend, Hales scored a tour inside the Fagen Fighters workshop, where World War II era planes were being reconstructed.
“They are taking aircraft that the bases are corroded, disappeared. They’ve crashed, they’ve dissolved. They only have a little plate that says ‘this was an aircraft’ and they can look up the plate and rebuild new ones,” Hales said. “What they are doing here is very impressive, and I wanted to see it.”
Raised on mechanics
Hales was born, raised and educated in Oxfordshire England, which is roughly in the center of Britain. His father and father’s friends were racers, so Hales grew up in the pit lane.
“I learned how to turn a screwdriver before I could walk,” Hales said.
That is where he developed a love and appreciation for mechanics, but it was the model aircraft hobby of his grandfather and father that peaked his interests well into his young adult life.
“I wanted to be an aircraft mechanic, but I’m not rich, so I couldn’t afford a pilot’s license,” Hales said. “But I thought if I could get into aircraft maintenance, then there is a possibility of somehow learning to fly through the maintenance side of it.”
There was a route Hales could take called the “self-improvement route,” which meant he could become a commercial pilot if he flew 700 hours in an airplane, built up experience and took some exams.
However, the cost of renting a plane for 700 hours was out of Hales’s price range.
“But if I built my own aircraft, I could very cheaply build up my 700 hours,” Hales said. “So that is when I started building my KR2.”
In tandem with the friends he had around the world from his brief stints backpacking for leisure, Hales realized he could put his backpack in his personal, homemade plane and travel the world, which he has done ever since.
The only difficult part of his journeys was being away from home for a few months.
“I have to tell myself ‘All right, I’m going to get in the plane today and I’m going to leave, and I’m not going to see my friends or family or anyone at home,’” Hales said. “There is no big party or celebration when you leave, because if you don’t get very far, you look foolish.”
So earlier this summer, Hales quietly slipped away to start his transcontinental trip, with only a vague idea of where he would be stopping.
“The trip to Australia proved that planning is not necessary,” Hales said. “You just have to go out there and do it. And that’s what I’ve done.”
Despite a bigger aircraft being a safer and more manageable way to travel across the hemispheres, Hales has learned over time that a small aircraft, especially homemade, has different, more intimate perks.
“When you land somewhere in a big fancy aircraft, then the person will assess you and say ‘Okay, I’ll get you a taxi, and you’ll go to the Hilton.’ Then at the hotel you are going to meet people who are foreigners anyway, so you don’t actually get to meet people in the country.
“If you are flying in a small aircraft ... you get involved with the people far more. And then you get to meet the real people of the country. And you get “Come stay at my house, come stay at this house” and it is a far better way to meet people than if you just stay at hotels.”
Not only does staying at people’s houses save Hales on his budget, it also allows for the opportunity for others to be a part of his story.
“It is like a contract,” Hales said of those who help out on his trip. “They haven’t gotten the opportunity or time to be a part of something that what I am trying to do – a journey like this – but they would have loved to have done it. So it’s a small way and I accept it of them being a part of the journey. So in a story, if I write a book or write a film or whatever, they can say in the future ‘We helped that guy do that.’”
The Rest of the Trip
Just in the first leg of the world tour, Hales has already been able to make stops locals may take for granted, like the Mall of America.
“I am just a tourist,” Hales said. “I was told the next I need to see is Wall Drug. It’s a tourist trap, but that is exactly what I am.”
His rough itinerary is to see Mount Rushmore and cross the Rockies north of Salt Lake City in a natural, passable valley.
He will end the current leg at the Chino event in Los Angeles, which is a largest gathering of KR2 enthusiasts in the world. Hales will then park his airplane and start again when he can cross the Arctic circle during the summer months of 2015. He is even allotting several months of potential hang ups around countries like Russia, China and the Middle East that, either through diplomacy or war, might cause a major delay. He expects to be home by late 2015 or early 2016.
All in all, even with the all the nearly-planned delays, time and money spent, Hales finds the whole process to be relatively simple.
“You put the fuel in it, and you go 8 hours of flying. If you keep doing that say 100 times, you will fly around the world.”