He calls himself the one-eyed pilot. And on Saturday morning, he’s embarking on the daunting task of circumnavigating the world.
On the day before his big trip, 41-year-old Shinji Maeda, a lifelong aerospace enthusiast from Japan, slowly walked around his bright red 1963 Beechcraft Bonanza — which he named Lucy — giving it one of its final inspections before takeoff. He’ll be leaving from the Paine Field in Everett.
He has a few jitters, he said, but he keeps telling himself, “This is it, Shinji. This is why you’ve been preparing.”
Maeda has been focused on this goal for years, and initially planned on leaving for his trip — which he calls his “Earthrounder Mission” — in May 2020, but decided to postpone it because the COVID-19 pandemic grounded most international travel.
While stops on his journey are subject to change depending on weather and the virus spread, he’s planning to complete the trip in about two months and touch down in 12 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Norway, France, Greece, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan, where he’ll spend about a month and give an virtual inspirational speech, before returning to the United States. The trip will take about 100 to 130 hours, which Maeda will fly in about six- to eight-hour stints.
He expects to be back in the U.S. by early July.
Maeda knew from a young age he wanted to fly planes. Growing up in the Hokkaido countryside on Japan’s northernmost island, he said he loved watching planes soar 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 got into a car crash that sent him to the hospital with a skull fracture 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 sight in his right eye.
He decided to start courses at Nihon University anyway, hoping to still pursue a career in aerospace, but it was a demanding and fast-paced workload, especially for a partially blind student with constant dizziness and headaches. At the end of his first year, he was exhausted, demoralized and had earned only a few credits. His new vision impairment also meant that, under Japanese aerospace regulations, he was no longer eligible to get his pilot’s license.
“I thought, ‘OK this is it,'” Maeda said. “My dream was gone, hope was gone and adults (were) saying I’m handicapped and that I can’t do anything. I was in the dark.”
He called an old mentor — his former high school taiko instructor — and talked to his father, who urged him to leave Japan and see if other countries offered different flight programs.
Maeda eventually stumbled across a program at Bellevue College called the International Business Professions program that allows international students to design their own study and career path while also taking English courses. At the end of the program, students are set up with an internship in their field.
“For me, that was perfect,” Maeda said. It was his ticket to the U.S., and when he arrived in Washington state in the early 2000s, he found he wasn’t facing as much discrimination as he did in Japan due to his partial blindness. But his English was still far behind his peers.
By taking English courses and reading Harry Potter — “That was painful,” Maeda laughed — he eventually became fluent in English, and he later completed the Bellevue College program and landed an internship at Boeing.
“Internship programs like IBP are important for international students because they provide international students with an opportunity to learn off-campus in our local Bellevue/Seattle community,” Ivan Breen, chair of the college’s English Language Institute, wrote in an email.
During the first three quarters of the 12-month program, which started more than 20 years ago in partnership with a Tokyo-based recruitment agency, students work with an adviser and program faculty to design an individual study plan that “aligns with their career interests,” said Kazumi Hada, Bellevue College’s director of international education. It costs about $34,000, including a $12,000 tuition fee.
Nearly all students in the program are university students in Japan who take a yearlong leave of absence to come to the U.S., polish their English skills and complete their “dream internship,” Hada wrote in an email.
In order to apply, students must be a high school graduate and at least 18 years old, meet certain English language proficiency requirements and be in good academic and immigrant standing.
After Maeda received his master’s degree in safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona in 2005, he earned his first-class medical certificate, meaning he can operate a commercial airline, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Maeda spent a few years working as a technical coordinator at an aeronautics 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 about 1,300 hours of total flying time, a motivational speaker, and a husband and father of two: a 3-year-old son named Tsubasa, and an infant daughter named Sana.
“Life is very painful,” he said. “It’s not perfect. And I’ve struggled a lot. … But what I’m doing right now is paying forward what I got in the aviation community and American culture. This is not about me. This is all about what you can do in your life.”
Maeda said he and Adrian Eichhorn, one of his longtime mentors who has been planning to fly over the North Pole, will travel together for the first leg of the journey, before splitting up in either Iceland or Norway.
“I basically will do anything I can to help him,” Eichhorn, a retired JetBlue pilot, said Friday. The two met about four years ago, right after Eichhorn completed the around-the-world journey himself.
After Eichhorn returned to the U.S., a lot of people reached out to him to ask for advice on flying around the world.
“You end up having to decide who’s serious and who’s not,” Eichhorn said. “Otherwise, you waste a lot of time. … After I talked to Shinji, I thought, ‘Yeah, this guy is the real deal. He’s going to do it.’”
Since then, Eichhorn has helped Maeda prepare his plane, modify his route and has been a sounding board through the process.
Maeda said Friday he’ll spend his last day before takeoff loading the plane and fueling it up, before calming his nerves and having dinner with his family.
“Sayonara, Seattle,” he said. “See you soon.”