Companies plying the aviation trade—airframers, avionics manufacturers, engine builders, pilot emporiums, headset sellers, fuel companies—are often approached to sponsor some flight or promotional event or another. “It’s for the good of the industry,” goes the reasoning.
By necessity, they turn down a lot of these, sometimes for reasons related to safety or just the utter seaminess of some proposals. Let it never be said that airplane and dingbat don’t occupy the same space from time to time. You never hear about the turn downs so it was unusual to hear that Slovakian airframer Shark Aero has pointedly said it’s not onboard with yet another round the world flight by yet another youngest pilot.
Other than a blog I wrote last August, we don’t cover these flights, for reasons I’ll reiterate a few lines down. Just to refresh, the last attempt—successful—was a round-the-world flight by 19-year-old Zora Rutherford, who completed the flight in a Shark last fall and winter, finishing the trip in five months in January. A European site breathlessly reported she was “…paving the way for girls in STEM by setting the record for the youngest woman to fly solo around the world… .” Not to be left behind, her 16 year-old brother, Mack, is about to set off on his own Guinness record attempt in another Shark aircraft.
While Shark did participate in Zara’s flight with support and consulting, it put a prominent notice on its web site explaining why it’s not joining the younger brother’s efforts. “Shark Aero does not join the MackSolo project,” the notice says. It then notes that the war in Ukraine is a factor and “as a matter of principle, we refuse to be part of any project which involves Russia or entry into Russian airspace.” Also, said the notice, “we do not feel comfortable pushing the age limit to the lowest possible point for journeys where a certain level of risk cannot be avoided.”
“From the beginning, I don’t like the idea to send a 16-year-old boy for a trip like this,” Shark Aero CEO Vladimir Pekar told me in an e-mail. “Anyway, we accepted to give training to Mack, to know him better. Mack today has better pilot skills and maintenance training than Zara at departure. He is more familiar with Shark. Anyway, he is a kid. Just confirmed our concerns,” he added.
Further, he said “Russia is absolutely not acceptable for us.” Pekar says the Shark Mack Rutherford will use doesn’t have the range to avoid Russian territory and might require long over water legs for which the airplane isn’t suited or equipped. Pekar said Shark offered modifications, but heard nothing, leading him to believe the family is simply pushing for the Guinness book.
“This is not our game,” he said.
You surely know this, but it’s worth mentioning that Eastern Europe is intensely wary of Russian intentions. Slovakia borders on Ukraine and people in the region have fresh memories of the 1968 Prague Spring when Russian tanks rolled in to put down a liberalization movement. They see history repeating and want nothing to do with it. For us, this is just images on cable news, for them, it’s visceral history. And as refugees flood into Slovakia from Ukraine, history is repeating.
I will reiterate my objection to these youngest-person records. They achieve nothing; they prove nothing while placing a young, inexperienced pilot at considerable risk just for social media exposure and a mention in Guinness, a bar book that has itself had to push back on some of the galactically stupid stunts people do in quest of a two-line record and a moment of fame. In short, these are more for the adults than the kids and the adults ought to know better.
The glib, pro forma excuse to lend some high mindedness to these records is that they “promote aviation” and “inspire young people” to become pilots. In Zara Rutherford’s case, the fig leaf was promoting STEM. If there were a way to measure the results of this promotion, I suspect you would, to recall Cactus Jack Garner’s description of the vice presidency, find that they don’t amount to a bucket of warm…well, you know the rest.
In young Mack’s favor is that he has supposedly completed Atlantic crossings with his father, Sam, a ferry pilot, who is doing the planning. So he’s clearly more experienced than the average just-solo’d 16-year-old pilot. His sister Zara completed her flight largely without incident, at least that we know of. She was 19 at the time of the flight, but without an instrument rating and flying a non-instrument capable airplane. At the time of her departure, that was my expressed worry. That applies here, too. I wish him the best, but wish he wasn’t doing this for the reason he’s doing it.
Three months ago, I wrote a blog about the four friends and acquaintances killed in aviation crashes last year—the worst in my long association with this industry. I’ll admit that this has colored my enthusiasm for risky things done in the interests of teasing people into aviation. Rather than pushing back when we should, we wave the promotional flag in the name of the greater good. Pardon me, but I’m just not in the mood. I don’t think Vlado Pekar is, either.