Partially blind pilot plans to fly around the world, after some advice from a Bellevue College program
He calls himself the one-eyed pilot. And on Saturday morning, he embarks on the arduous task of going around the world.
The day before his big trip, Shinji Maeda, 41, an aerospace enthusiast from Japan, slowly walked around his bright red 1963 Beechcraft Bonanza – which he named Lucy – performing one of his last pre-take-off inspections. He will leave from Paine Field to Everett.
He’s having some hassle, he says, but he keeps thinking to himself, “This is it, Shinji. This is why you have prepared yourself. “
Maeda has focused on this goal for years and initially planned to go on his trip – which he calls his “Mission Earthrounder”- in May 2020, but decided to postpone it because the COVID-19 pandemic has anchored most international travel.
Although the stops on his trip are subject to change depending on weather and the spread of the virus, he plans to complete the trip in about two months and land in 12 countries, including the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, France, Greece, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand, Philippines and Japan, where he will spend around a month and give an inspiring virtual speech, before returning to the United States. The trip will take around 100 to 130 hours, which Maeda will complete in around six to eight hours.
He expects to be back in the United States in early July.
Maeda knew from an early age that he wanted to fly airplanes. Growing up in the countryside of Hokkaido on Japan’s northernmost island, he said he enjoyed watching planes fly over his father’s farm. He ended up attending an aviation high school and planned to continue his aerospace studies at Nihon University in Tokyo.
Two months before starting college, Maeda had a car accident that sent him to hospital with a broken skull and severe brain swelling, he said. The collision also damaged his right optic nerve. When he woke up in the hospital, he had completely lost his sight in his right eye.
He still decided to start classes at Nihon University, hoping to pursue a career in aerospace, but it was a demanding and fast-paced workload, especially for a partially blind student with dizziness. and constant headaches. By the end of his first year, he was exhausted, demoralized, and had only earned a few credits. His new visual impairment also meant that under Japanese aerospace regulations he was no longer eligible to obtain his pilot’s license.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is it,’ Maeda said. “My dream was gone, hope was gone and the adults (were saying) that I am disabled and that I can’t do anything. I was in the dark.
He called a former mentor – his former high school taiko instructor – and spoke to his father, who urged him to leave Japan and see if other countries have different flight programs.
Maeda eventually stumbled upon a program at Bellevue College called the International Business Professions Program which allows international students to design their own study and career path while taking English classes. At the end of the program, students are set up with an internship in their field.
“For me it was perfect,” Maeda said. It was his ticket to the United States, and when he arrived in Washington state in the early 2000s, he realized he didn’t face as much discrimination as he did in Japan. due to his partial blindness. But his English was still far behind his peers.
Taking English lessons and reading Harry Potter – “It was painful,” laughed Maeda – he ended up speaking English fluently, then he finished the Bellevue College program and got an internship. at Boeing.
“Internship programs like IBP are important for international students because they provide international students with the opportunity to learn off-campus in our local Bellevue / Seattle community,” wrote Ivan Breen, President of the Language Institute. college English.
During the first three quarters of the 12 month program, which started over 20 years ago in partnership with a Tokyo-based recruiting agency, students work with an advisor and a program faculty to design an individual study plan that “fits their professional interests,” said Kazumi Hada, director of Bellevue College’s international education program. It costs around $ 34,000, including $ 12,000 in tuition.
Almost all of the students in the program are college students in Japan who take a year’s leave to come to the United States, hone their English skills and complete their “dream internship,” Hada wrote in an email.
To apply, students must be a high school graduate and be at least 18 years old, meet certain English proficiency requirements, and be in good academic and immigrant standing.
After Maeda received his master’s degree in safety science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona in 2005, he obtained his first-class medical certificate, which means he can operate a commercial airline, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Maeda spent a few years working as a technical coordinator at an aerospace company in California before returning to Boeing, where he still works as a manufacturing and operations analyst.
Now Maeda is also a flight instructor at a Snohomish flight school, with around 1300 hours of total flight time, a motivational speaker and a husband and father of two: a 3 year old son named Tsubasa and a baby girl named Sana.
“Life is very painful,” he said. “It’s not perfect. And I struggled a lot. … But what I’m doing right now is paying for what I got in the aviation community and in American culture. It’s not about me. It all depends on what you can do with your life. “
Maeda said he and Adrian Eichhorn, one of his longtime mentors who planned to fly over the North Pole, will travel together for the first leg of the trip, before going their separate ways in Iceland or Norway.
“Basically I’ll do whatever I can to help him,” said Eichhorn, a retired JetBlue pilot, on Friday. The two met about four years ago, right after Eichhorn himself completed the trip around the world.
After Eichhorn returned to the United States, many people contacted him asking for advice on flying around the world.
“You end up having to decide who’s serious and who isn’t,” Eichhorn said. “Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of time. … After talking to Shinji, I was like, “Yeah, this guy is the real deal.” He is going to do it. ”
Since then, Eichhorn has helped Maeda prepare her plane, change her route, and acted as a sounding board throughout the process.
Maeda said on Friday he would spend his last day before takeoff loading the plane and refueling, before calming his nerves and having dinner with his family.
“Sayonara, Seattle,” he said. “See you soon.”