Book Review: Floatplane Odyssey Documents Record-breaking Flight

 - September 11, 2015, 3:50 PM
Twenty-five years ago, Tom Casey entered the unwritten record books by completing the first and only flight around the world in a single-engine seaplane (a Cessna 206 outfitted with Wipaire floats) operating only from water.

Twenty-five years ago, Tom Casey entered the unwritten record books by completing the first and only flight around the world in a single-engine seaplane operating only from water. The extraordinarily challenging and troublesome journey was never recognized by the National Aeronautic Association, the U.S. organization that sanctions records, but it deserves attention nevertheless, not just because it had never been done before but also because the flight surmounted huge setbacks, and succeeded both because of and in spite of Casey’s bull-headed approach to flying. The chief facilitator of the flight, William Coleman, has finally finished writing a book about the perilous and expensive venture.

Floatplane Odyssey, edited by aviation writer John Infanger, former editorial director for Airport Business magazine, made its debut at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh in July. At a press conference there, Casey and Coleman shared the stage with Jack Hammond, former head of Phillips 66 Aviation, which sponsored the ill-fated but ultimately successful journey.

Casey was 53 years old when he made the round-the-world trip. Initially he planned to fly west to east, but after failing to obtain permission to fly through Russia he reversed course and flew east. The airplane was a Cessna 206 on floats made by Wipaire, which underwrote some of the costs. But Phillips 66 bore the brunt of the expenses and ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The entire trip took 188 days instead of the projected 60. Delay after delay bogged down the journey. Many of those, according to Coleman, were caused by a lack of communication from Casey, which spawned a phrase found frequently throughout the book: “Where the hell is Casey?” Another problem was Casey’s optimistic but probably misguided belief that doors would open for him. While this did happen in many countries, some–especially Russia–resisted all efforts to permit the 206 to fly through.

Surprises peppered the flight, such as major back surgery provided by kind Saudi Arabian hosts during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and a catastrophic engine failure after a chief Phillips 66 oil chemist had flagged a bad oil sample. Nevertheless, Casey saw it through and alighted on Lake Washington, Seattle, on Dec. 18, 1990.

What Was He Thinking?

The book is fascinating, although at times tough to read because Coleman is unsparing in detail about what went wrong and right during the trip. The reader is left wondering how Casey managed to survive so many harrowing events, among them typhoons, “house arrest,” bribes to aviation ministers and “sneaking” through Japan without permission. Sometimes while reading I wanted to wring Casey’s neck and ask him, “What were you thinking?” Coleman’s frustration while trying to help Casey complete the odyssey comes through clearly. “It was a long and tedious journey,” Coleman admitted at AirVenture. “Why did I write the book? Because Tom never got the recognition he deserved.”

Hammond expanded: “When I told Bill Coleman he would be responsible for this flight, I told him to do whatever he had to do to make it happen. And Coleman did exactly that. Some of it was unorthodox and not in the Phillips 66 playbook, but Coleman got Casey through to the end.”

“You’ve just got to sweat it out and hope it works for you,” Casey concluded.