In 2003, Norman Surplus, then 40, was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The prognosis wasn’t good.
“They gave me a 40 percent chance to live 18 months,” he recalled.
As he recovered from the surgery in the hospital, he watched daytime TV and happened on a channel that talked about restoration projects. One show was about restoring an old gyroplane, a type of rotorcraft first flown in 1923, only 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight.
“It reminded me that this type of aircraft existed, and gave me a
little spark. I thought if I get rid of this, it’s something I’d like to try.”
After a grueling six months of chemotherapy, the treatment was working.
The cancer appeared to be gone. And Norman decided it was time to learn to fly.
“I realized a gyroplane had never flown around the world in 96 years,
and I wondered if I could be the first,” he said. Barry Jones had already proved
gyroplanes could be flown long distances when his around-the-world attempt was stopped
by a monsoon in India.
So Norman earned his PPL-G license, and in 2006 bought a new MT-03
gyroplane from AutoGyro, based in Germany. He flew to get experience, and by 2009,
he was seriously planning the around-the-world adventure.
“At the time, I knew the hardest part would be to get through Russia,”
he said. “We made some inquiries through the British Embassy, and at that time Russia
said it would be possible to do.”
And so, on March 22, 2010, Norman set off from a soccer field beside
his home in Larne, Northern Ireland, with his gyroplane modified with an extended
fuel tank. He flew through much of Europe, across the Mediterranean to Egypt, up
the Nile, and then crossed the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, where a thunderstorm forced
him to land and spend a night sleeping in a gas station.
In India, an air bubble formed in one of his plane’s gas lines, and
he stopped near a farm between two villages to fix the problem. “I landed, took
my glasses off, and could see a big cloud of dust with 200 people running from one
village toward me, and another 200 coming the other way,” he recalled. They stopped
about 30 yards from him, and encircled him and his gyroplane. No one could speak
“Once they figured out I was friendly, they came in closer and closer
all around the aircraft,” he said. “Then, when I was ready to leave, an old guy
came in on a motorbike who could speak some English. He told the crowd to move back
so I had room to take off.”
Norman said he flew much of the trip between 800-1,000 feet, often
waving to people below. “I often say it’s like flying a motorbike, but flying in
the landscape, not over it.”
But he did see some fantastic sites as he flew low — bears in Siberia
and Alaska, whales in the Bering Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and wild camels in the
When he reached Thailand, disaster struck. He had to ditch his gyroplane
in a lake on takeoff. The aircraft flipped over, and Norman was upside down under
the water. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt and the gyroplane’s air intake filter stayed
up out of the water, thus saving the engine and the aircraft, he said.
Still it took nine weeks to get permission from the Civil Aviation
Authority to repair the airplane in Thailand, and another three weeks to finish
On August 1, 2010, he started flying again and got as far as the Philippines.
But now it was too late in the season to cross the Bering Sea, and so he wintered
the plane there until 2011, when he flew north to Japan. And that’s when Russia,
which originally said he could fly his gyroplane through the county, changed its
mind. For three and a half years, he reapplied, trying to get Russia to allow him
to fly over its land.
“I kept applying every few months, but the permission never came,”
he said. “So (in fall 2014) I decided to ship it in a container to Oregon. It was
the only way to get it over the Pacific at that time.”
By spring 2015, Norman was ready to carry on. He flew from Oregon
to Maine, over Yellowstone, Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore, and Niagara Falls. He
stopped in Oshkosh in June 2015 before taking off again toward the East Coast, up
into northern Canada and the Arctic Circle.
“From there, I started the Atlantic crossing,” he said. “I am the
only gyroplane to have made the Atlantic crossing so far, and it took me three weeks.”
On August 11, 2015, he landed back in Northern Ireland and home.
About a year later, James Ketchell came to see him because he wanted
to fly around the world in an Italian gyro. Norman gave him some advice, and James
eventually asked him to join him to fly across Russia, since permission had finally
Norman said yes and took off again in 2019 in his gyroplane. He crossed
England, Holland, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, and crossed into Russia, meeting
James in Moscow.
“It took the whole month of May this year to get across Russia,” he
said. On June 7, they crossed the Bering Sea, flew down through Alaska and western
Canada. And after more than nine years and 350 hours of flight time, Norman could
finally say he had circumnavigated the world in his G-YROX, crossing more than 32
countries while flying 30,000 nm. He set 19 FAI world records in his flight, including
becoming the first gyroplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
But after completing that goal, he had one more goal to make — to get to Oshkosh for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. He arrived here on Saturday, flying through the rain. It’s his first visit here.
You can see his G-YROX at the AutoGyro exhibit, Booth 271, across
from the rear of Exhibit Building A, or flying down in Ultralights.
Norman hopes to leave his plane here, perhaps on exhibit in EAA’s museum, so that it will be here when he comes to AirVenture again next year. “I am not flying the Atlantic again,” he said. “And it’s really more of a historic aircraft now and should be preserved.”
This winter he plans to finish writing a book of his exploits, adding
information about the 2019 flight.
Although he flew solo most of the flight, he said he often didn’t
feel alone thanks to online viewers who followed him via his tracker. “They could
click on the tracker button and watch the flight live on their computer at home,
seeing exactly what I was flying over,” he said. “Especially as I was flying across
the Atlantic, it felt like I had 1,000 people sitting in the back of the airplane,
and that was a great feeling. It allowed me to involve other people in my adventure.”
Norman said he decided to make this flight for two reasons: to put
gyroplanes on the map, since every other type of airplane had already been around
the world, and to raise money and awareness for bowel cancer research.
“I hope my flight is a message of hope to people who find themselves
with a similar condition,” he said.