HAVING spent two long months stranded on the other side of the world, Larne adventurer Norman Surplus has finally returned home to his family.
The intrepid pilot, who is more than half way through his epic quest to become the first man to fly around the globe on a gyrocopter, spent eight weeks in Japan patiently awaiting permission from the Russian authorities to fly over their airspace and continue on to the next leg of his journey.
Alas, that clearance did not come and with the winter fast approaching, Norman was forced to put his record-breaking expedition on hold.
With his aircraft – affectionately nicknamed Roxy – mothballed at Shonai Airport on Japan’s west coast, the 49-year-old is now back in his Bay Park home with his wife Celia and his two children Felix and Petra, and has had plenty of time to reflect on the last couple of months.
“I originally set out from Sandy Bay in March, 2010 with the intention of completing the expedition by July that year. Little did I know that over a year-and-a-half later, I would still be at it,” he said.
Bureaucracy has plagued Norman throughout this enterprise and caused countless delays, and while he admits that red tape has been a constant thorn in his side, he has remained upbeat and optimistic.
“Of course it was frustrating at times, but at no point did I consider just packing it in and giving up. After so many delays and setbacks, I became quite philosophical about it all and realised there was no point in getting worked up about it.
“During my stay in Japan I did feel lonely at times, and the different time zones meant it was often difficult to talk to my loved ones back home. But I also realised that there were a lot worse places I could have been stuck. It is a beautiful country, there was always plenty to see and do, and I grew very fond of the Japanese people,” he said.
Norman arrived in Japan not long after parts of the country had been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, and he was inspired by the way the Japanese people rallied round to help those affected by the disaster.
He added: “I went to visit some of the places that had been affected by the tsunami, and was amazed by the resilience of the people who lived there. The Japanese are such a proud people and are very socially minded.
“There was a lot of fundraising work going on for the people of Tohoku, which is the name of the region that was worst hit by the tsunami. One way that people raised money was to buy t-shirts with the words ‘Ganbarou Tohoku’ on them, which basically translates as ‘Go On Tohoku’. I was so inspired by this that I had those words etched onto Roxy, as I felt it summed up the spirit of the Japanese people.”
Norman said he was also overwhelmed by the hospitality he received during his stay in the country, where he had a team of interpreters assigned to him at all times to make sure he was well looked after.
“I stayed in a small coastal town called Tsuruoka – which in some ways reminded me of Larne – and I was basically the only Westerner in town.
“The interpreters would sometimes invite me out to socialise with them and their friends, and I think I was like a novelty act for them, as they would get me to try lots of different food and drink and then have a good laugh about it!
“But I didn’t mind playing that role, as I was getting to spend time with the real, salt-of-the-earth Japanese people and experiencing their culture in a way that most tourists would not be able to.”
Because of the incredible hospitality that Norman was shown, he wanted to give something back to the people of Tsuruoka and agreed to give a series of lectures to local schoolchildren.
“It was a great experience, and they all listened intently as I recounted my adventures. After a while, people around the town started to recognise me and would wave to me when I walked down the street,” he said.
Norman’s time in Japan left an indelible impression on him that he will not soon forget, and he admitted it has taken him a while to re-adjust to certain aspects of life back at home.
“Things like sitting down for dinner have taken some getting used to, as in Japan you kneel most of the time when eating. Also, having your meal on one plate seemed strange to me for a while after coming home, as in Japan you get all the different foods served on separate plates,” he added.
The father-of-two, who runs a sustainable energy company, is now busy planning for the rest of the expedition, which he hopes to resume in May when the spring thaw comes.
Assuming that Russia grants him the permission he needs, Norman intends to fly north to the Bering Sea, hop across to Alaska, through Canada, then go coast-to-coast across the USA before flying to Greenland and finally back to the UK.
And while the trip may have taken him quite a bit longer than he originally intended, Norman insisted it is important for him to see it through to the end.
“Thankfully, there is no time limit for this world record, and it is measured by speed. If I finish on schedule in July, I will have circumnavigated the globe at about 1.7km an hour, which will not be a hard record to beat!
“But it was never about doing it fast. One of the main reasons I set out to do this was to prove that it can be done and show the world that the gyrocopter is an aircraft that should be taken seriously. I want other people to look at the record, realise they have a good chance to beat it and try it for themselves.”
Norman’s other main aim behind the world-record attempt is to raise much-needed funds and awareness for bowl cancer charities, as he himself survived the disease back in 2003.
“If I manage to successfully complete this endeavour, I will be the first person to do it, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me!” he concluded.