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MIT freshman aims to be youngest to fly solo around the world

Most college students take a breather at the end of the school year, maybe travel, see a part of the world.

But Matt Guthmiller, a 19-year-old freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to see the entire world this summer — from the cockpit of a small single-engine plane on a quest to become the youngest person ever to fly solo around the globe.

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On May 27 Guthmiller plans to lift off from El Cajon, Calif., outside San Diego and point the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza northeast to Aberdeen, S.D., his hometown. He will continue for another 18 legs for some 26,600 miles until he completes the circuit, scheduled to land in southern California on July 1.

“It’s a lot to look forward to and a little surreal,” Guthmiller said recently while also preparing for final exams. “It would be a lot easier to study for finals if I wasn’t about to fly around the world, but it’s coming along. I’m not nervous, but I’m sure once I get out over the ocean and all I see is blue I will be.”

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The current Guinness world record holder, Ryan Campbell of Australia was 19 years, seven months, and 25 days old when he completed his feat a year ago; Guthmiller will be that age on July 24.

He has leased a 1981 Bonanza, a popular aircraft that flying specialists said is highly reliable and handles well in different weather. The A36 has a 300-horsepower engine and a normal range of about 1,100 nautical miles. But with many portions of the trip exceeding that distance, four of the plane’s six seats are being removed to make room for a 160-gallon fuel tank that will substantially boost its range.

Though the age record has been broken several times in the past few years, experienced pilots said it is still nonetheless impressive for a flier as young as Guthmiller to attempt.

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“It’s a big deal, said Katie Pribyl, a pilot who serves as spokeswoman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “You’re flying a single-engine piston airplane around the world and you’re 19 and you’ve never done it before. It’s absolutely a feat.”

His father said he has no qualms about letting his son undertake such an ambitious adventure, in part because even as a teen the younger Guthmiller was always a careful planner.

“I thought maybe I should get out of his way and let him do what he wanted to do,” said Allen Guthmiller, a real estate developer and investor in South Dakota. “They wouldn’t write an insurance policy on Matthew if they didn’t think he was a good pilot.”

With majors in electrical engineering and computer science, practicing for the flight has been difficult. He’s logged about 120 hours of flying time at Hanscom Field in Bedford, and his longest flight to date is from Austin, Texas, to San Diego, a 1,100-mile trip that took around seven hours.

Guthmiller has given himself a little more than one month to make the circumnavigation to California, and then will make several more stops before ending the trip in Aberdeen, bringing his total mileage to about 29,000. He expects to be in the air about 160 hours total; the longest stretches will be toward the end when he crosses the Pacific Ocean with two successive 14-hour flights, from Samoa to Hawaii, then on to El Cajon.

Picking his route proved challenging. It was tricky, for example, finding locations in Africa and Asia where he could be sure to find aviation gas for the A36. He also chose a more southerly route across the Atlantic, via the Azores, “so if I have a water landing it will be warmer – it’ll still be pretty cold, but above freezing.”

Matt Guthmiller, a 19-year-old MIT freshman, is trying to become the youngest pilot to make a solo flight around the world.

Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

Matt Guthmiller, a 19-year-old MIT freshman, is trying to become the youngest pilot to make a solo flight around the world.

Indeed, he is planning to wear a dry suit and will have two life rafts, a satellite phone, and tracking devices. He plans to record “every little indication” from the plane’s instruments, such as oil pressure and engine temperature, every 10 to 20 minutes on a spreadsheet in his iPad.

‘I’m not nervous, but I’m sure once I get out over the ocean and all I see is blue I will be.’

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“If I notice the slightest little change I can test for problems right away,” he said.

Tom Turner, executive director of the American Bonanza Society, which provides support and information on Beechcraft airplanes, said Guthmiller’s trip requires extraordinary planning and coordination.

“Every time I hear of pilots flying around the world it never comes out the way it was planned, because inevitably there are last-minute issues with flyover permissions from certain countries,’’ Turner noted. “I’ve seen this happen a lot in the Middle East and Asia.”

Guthmiller estimates his expenses at $145,000 but has his sights set on an even larger goal: raising money for Code.org, a nonprofit pushing to have computer science included in the core curriculum for K-12 education.

“I’ve been doing things with computers as long as I can remember,” Guthmiller said, adding that his admittance to MIT was due in large part to his facility with computer science. “I’m hoping to inspire other people to do big things and go out and do something similar. The possibilities of things you can build with computer science are incredibly limitless.”

His goal is to raise about $250,000 — from family members, as well as corporate and private sponsors.

His trip will be tracked live on a website, limitless-horizons.org.

As a child, Guthmiller logged many hours playing flight-simulator video games. He would also spend days at the local small town airport, watching flights taking off and landing. Knowing he could get a pilot’s license at age 17, Guthmiller talked his parents into getting him flying lessons during the summer of 2011.

“They thought I’d do a small flight, and that would be it,’’ he recalled. With some 50 hours under his belt, he got his license later that year on his 17th birthday, Nov. 29.

Another believer is the owner of the Beechcraft, Michael Borden, who said he became comfortable entrusting his plane with Guthmiller after interviewing him extensively and then flying with him in California.

“He has that seat-of-the-pants sense,” Borden said, “and that’s something you can’t teach people.”

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