Century Mission, accomplished: Bobcat pilots make history with westward world record

Think planning a cross-country road trip is tough? Try planning a trip around the world in a small plane with just four companions, making 11 stops and spanning over 26,000 miles. Oh, and just to make things a bit more interesting—you’ll be flying into headwinds the entire way on an extremely tight schedule.

Gabriel Preston '06 | June 20, 2024


For some, this sounds like a logistical nightmare, but for Bart Gray ’99, Joshua Podlich ’12, and three other flight crew members traveling together on a crisp Kansas night just before midnight on April 3, this was the adventure they had been meticulously planning for months.

Inspiration from pilots of the past

“A friend of mine gave me a book in August of 2023 that chronicled the first world flight,” said Gray, a 1999 Airway Science graduate of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology and seasoned pilot for Global Jet Care, an emergency flight service based out of Brooksville, Fla.

The gift would become the impetus for the OHIO alumni’s record-breaking journey. On April 6,1924, eight U.S. Army Air Service pilots and mechanics left Seattle, Washington to complete a 175-day circumnavigation of the globe, which had never been done before. April 6 also happens to be Gray’s birthday, which was the coincidental spark that ignited his plans to embark on his own record-breaking flight, called the Century Mission. It was aptly named too, because the crew managed to complete their journey on April 6, 2024, exactly 100 years later to the day.

The Century Mission crew consisted of four pilots and one observer, led by pilots Gray and Podlich. The mission would take them across the globe, with a total of 11 stops spanning the Pacific, Asia, Africa, and Europe. 

Bobcats take to the skies, where every minute counts

Taking off from Wichita, Kansas, in a Lear Jet 36A, Gray, Podlich and the rest of the flight crew wasn't content to simply repeat the historical flight from 1924. The Century Mission upped the challenge by tackling a westward route, a feat never attempted before. This meant facing headwinds—a significant hurdle compared to the tailwinds that typically benefit eastward journeys.

“We wanted to make as few stops as possible, but we also wanted to set a westward speed record, so the logistics were very challenging,” Gray said. Add in the fact that there was no onboard restroom, so the stops had to be very strategically scheduled.

From the sun-drenched beaches of Hawaii to the bustling streets of Singapore, the five crew members endured a grueling yet exhilarating 67 hours and 28 minutes of flight time, spanning the Asian, African and European continents. This accomplishment stands in stark contrast to the 175 days and 74 stops it took The World Flight pilots to complete their journey in 1924. Technology and aviation advancements have come a long way, but the spirit of exploration and human ambition remains as strong as ever.

“Each person had a specific task, from who would check the air pressure in the tires all the way down to who would refill the cooler with ice,” Gray said, when talking about the challenges of planning such a demanding flight schedule. 

Aviation reunion with OHIO plane

OHIO alumni celebrate aviation history, new and old

Gray, Podlich, and more than a hundred other alumni were able to celebrate the momentous journey during the Joan E. Mace Aviation Alumni Reunion on the Ohio University Athens campus, just a few weeks after the Century Mission. The reunion wasn’t just to raise a glass to the record-breaking pilots—they also raised funds for the Joan Mace Russ Vision Aviation Scholarship. The reunion and Q&A panel culminated in a closing dinner with an alumna keynote speaker Connie Tobias in the Avionics Hangar at the airport.

Breaking records to preserve a piece of aviation history

Gray, who’s also a board member of the Classic Lear Jet Foundation, saw an opportunity to use their record-breaking journey not just to make history, but to elevate visibility for a cause near and dear to his heart and many other pilots. The team agreed to use the mission’s promotional efforts to elevate the Foundation’s mission: Restore the very first Lear Jet commercially sold. The plane, a Lear Jet 230, sold in 1964, will be restored to full flight capability, and with Gray and team raising more than $80,000, they’re well on their way to resurrecting a piece of aviation history and turning heads all over again.