My First Solo

Shinji Maeda

An instructor who overslept, a very busy circuit and having vision in only one eye… Despite all that, Shinji Maeda still felt calm during his first solo.

How did you get into aviation?

As a little boy, I got to fly in an airliner with my grandparents. Seeing the fields below me from the aeroplane’s window was just amazing. Also, every day I’d see Bonanzas from the local flying school flying over my father’s field. Those two experiences made me want to become a pilot and I enrolled in an aviation high school. 

“Aviation gave me a second chance in life. After the car accident, I was ‘dead’ ”

However, in 1998 I was in a car accident and lost the sight in my right eye. In Japan, this disability disqualified me from becoming a pilot. After moving to the USA, however, reactions were different. People there said: ‘OK, you only have one eye, so what?’ and even: ‘Having one eye isn’t a good enough excuse to not become a pilot’. They were right. 

How did your flight training go?

I started my lessons when I was 23 and studying at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. My instructor, Brian, was also a friend of mine and we always had a great time in the cockpit. I still remember my first landing like it was yesterday because it was perfect. It was so good, that Brian actually turned at me and asked if I could really only see from one eye! We thought I’d be having difficulties with depth perception, but that wasn’t the case. 

Did you expect your first solo?

Yes, I was told the date beforehand. As Brian was on holiday that day, I was assigned another CFI, who didn’t show up. The clock was ticking, the circuit was getting busier and busier, and I was becoming a bit panicked. Eventually the instructor, who had overslept, turned up. Alone in the aircraft, I felt calm again. I sang a Japanese aviation-related song and did my three take-off and landings, enjoying the moment of going solo for the first time. Afterwards, ATC congratulated me on doing a good job despite the busy traffic.

Does having sight in only one eye influence your flying?

No, it doesn’t. I feel very comfortable in the air. The sky is wide open so there are no walls to hit. The only difficult thing is parking the aircraft, especially side-by-side to other aircraft. I don’t want to hit anything, so I always ask my passenger or student to pay attention to the wingtip.

On my earthrounder mission I’ll be flying solo, so I’ll have to ask the people at the airport.

What’s the motivation behind your earthrounder mission?

My father, who passed away three years ago, left me the will to make it happen. He said I had a responsibility to meet people and tell them about my experiences.

Aviation gave me a second chance in life. After the car accident, I was ‘dead’ – no hopes, no dreams, nothing. The accident destroyed everything for me in Japan, not just my eyesight.

In the USA, however, people make their dreams happen. Aviation gave me so much and I want to pay that forward through the Aero Zypangu project. Along the way I’ll be giving motivational speeches, spreading the message that if you move step by step, even in these tough pandemic times, eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

What part of your journey are you most looking forward to?

Flying over Japan. Because that’s where people told me I couldn’t do it. Well guess what, 23 years later I’m back – as a pilot. Apart from flying around the world, I’m working for Boeing, teaching and coaching. I’d like to encourage people, especially the Japanese, who may have issues, disabilities or other things holding them back, that there is a way to reach their goals.

Unfortunately, flying to Japan means I can’t visit the UK, because of the Covid-19 quarantine rules. However, I’ll definitely visit some time in the future and meet up with the guys at Aerobility who do great things.

What does flying mean to you?

Being up there in the sky feels natural. It’s so much fun, yet it feels as normal as having a conversation, or breathing. Therefore, to me, flying means life.

Follow Shinji’s trip at Aero Zypangu.

Solo stats

One-eyed pilot, founder of the Aero Zypangu project and CFI Shinji Maeda will fly his Beechcraft Bonanza around the world to inspire people to pursue their dreams.

When 16 July 2004
Where Prescott Airport, Arizona (USA)
Aircraft Cessna 172S
Hours at solo 27.5
Hours now Approx 1,500
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