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October 20, 2014

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Around-the-world flight makes pit stop in Las Vegas

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Imagine Media Works

Captain Riccardo Mortara, center, and his crew present the route for their record-breaking circumnavigation of the earth

360 World Record

Gabriel Mortara, Riccardo Mortara, Flavien Guderzo and Tom Zorman at a press conference after their record-breaking circumnavigation of Earth. Launch slideshow »
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Cpt. Riccardo Mortara Mortara with Larry Edwards as Tina Turner at McCarran International Airport.

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Cpt. Riccardo Mortara, the fastest man to circumnavigate Earth.

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Cpt. Riccardo Mortara, second from right, and his crew celebrate their record-breaking circumnavigation of Earth upon their arrival in Geneva.

With his only mainland U.S. fuel stop in Las Vegas, 62-year-old Swiss aviator Cpt. Riccardo Mortara went on to successfully claim a new around-the-world record of 57 hours and 54 minutes. But the stop in Sin City was the start of major drama and a battle with Mother Nature that nearly prevented the bid from being achieved.

Everything was plain sailing and crystal smooth after take off from Geneva, with stops in Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka, Macau, Osaka, Russia, Anchorage and into Las Vegas. But a hint of air traffic delays and McCarran runway congestion should have been a red flag for the three-man crew of the 30-year-old Rockwell Sabreliner plane. Riccardo’s 28-year-old son was co-captain, and Flavien Guderzo, 26, was co-pilot.

What should have been a 12-minute refuel and oil change here turned into a 30-minute stop. Earlier in the secret submarine city of Petropavlovsk, Russian authorities wouldn’t allow the crew off the plane even for a bathroom break during refueling. In Anchorage, U.S. Customs confiscated all their food supplies onboard, including proscuitto and 4 pounds of caviar given to them by the Russians, but at least they replenished the plane with U.S. produce, and “Tina Turner” was waiting for them in Las Vegas!

Female impersonator Larry Edwards was on hand as our official representative. He also doubles as Beyonce in Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas at Imperial Palace and was on the runway for Mayor Oscar Goodman to present a key to the city for the 360 World Record crew sponsored by Swiss energy company Selectro.

Larry told me: “What an amazing experience to be a part of history. It was awesome to see Mortara’s jet land in Las Vegas after traveling all over the world in just hours. I greeted them with a Las Vegas welcome and the key to the City of Las Vegas. We’re known for neon lights and celebrity lookalikes; therefore, I thought it would be fun to greet him as my alter ego and tribute of Tina Turner. I strutted down the runway singing, ‘I’m your private dancer in your private jet!’

“I even gave Riccardo Las Vegas chip pillows to rest his head while flying -- a fun Vegas souvenir to take back home and use on the plane while his son flew it. I will always remember this wonderful experience. What an honor to be the only Vegas entertainment personality at the airport to greet Riccardo as he broke the world record.”

But problems loomed as the crew battled unexpected monster headwinds from Las Vegas to Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil casts greeted them. Next stop then was supposed to be Keflavik, Iceland, but halfway en route, there was a volcanic eruption that changed flight plans.

They’d taken off from Geneva early Friday morning and miraculously made it back to Geneva on Sunday afternoon covering 36,770 km at an average speed of 647 kph for the time of 57 hours 54 minutes flying over 33 countries with stops in 10 cities. But a twist of Mother Nature’s fate nearly cost them the entire mission.

It was the first volcanic eruption in Iceland in 176 years! They were forced to turn back and head to Goose Bay in Labrador. Riccardo refused to run the risk of running out of fuel over the Atlantic. The next unscheduled fuel stop took them to Shannon, Ireland, and the re-routing cost them 4 hours of lost time. Despite that, they set a new world record in the Sabreliner’s weight class, beating the 2005 record held by Richard Branson’s Virgin Air-sponsored flight by Steve Fossett.

Riccardo’s time was so good that had they not been delayed by the volcano, they would’ve also beaten golfer Arnold Palmer’s 1978 record of 57 hours 26 minutes in a lighter-weight Learjet 36 class. They missed capturing his world record by just 28 minutes because of the re-routing.

Riccardo said: “The volcano was not in the script, but it made the mission more thrilling. We only learned halfway there. If we’d continued, we would never had taken off. I had only two options: Return to Canada or divert to Shannon. That was too risky for my crew and the observers onboard. Nothing below us but ocean. We’re in Goose Bay. We ditched the original flight plan, recalculated a new one we had as backup and still based on keeping within limits and rules of the Aeronautical International Federation passing through all the meridians with a minimum distance of 36,700 km. The Goose Bay stop added 64 minutes to the journey.

“To complete this circumnavigation and establish a new record is a tremendous honor and the proudest moment of my career. I was confident we could beat Steve Fossett’s time in this category of plane, so we set our target even higher, to beat Arnold Palmer’s record in a lighter weight class. We came so close to achieving this, and would have done so by four hours were it not for the volcano in Iceland. Everything was going to plan until then.

“In the 35 years I have been flying across the Atlantic, I have never heard of this airport closing. We did calculations on weather and risks like this for the last 40 years, and the risk of a volcanic eruption that would disrupt our trip was not something we were expecting.

“The Sabreliner aircraft is known as ‘the legend’ for a reason. She is a very special plane and a great teammate. Very few aircraft can fly for 58 hours straight without experiencing any mechanical troubles. After this mission, she returns to her regular job as a luxury air taxi for my jet charter company Sonnig SA.

“We won’t forget the Las Vegas stop ever. Not only did we meet Tina Turner, but also we’ve now got a get-out-of-jail-free key! We’re coming back because we flew all around the world and were there less than one hour!”

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.