Defying the Odds: Shinji, the One-Eyed Pilot
Growing up on a family farm in a small farming town in Japan, Shinji Maeda had one dream: to become a pilot.
But at 18 years old, after graduating from one of Japan’s oldest aviation high schools, a life-threatening car accident would change everything.
“Back in 1998, losing my eyesight was not the biggest issue because, at that moment, I was either going to die or survive. And somehow, I survived,” says Shinji.
Although he was lucky to be alive, the Japanese medical requirement in aviation is strict. Under Japanese aerospace regulations, the loss of his sight in one eye disqualified Shinji from obtaining his pilot’s license.
The significant barrier meant that Shinji could no longer pursue his life-long dream in his home country.
But Shinji doesn’t give up easily, and it’s this quality that has shaped his career since. It’s a career that would eventually take him around the world to share a message that anything is possible.
A Second Lease on Life
With Japan no longer an option, Shinji headed to the United States. He attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he received his Master’s in Safety Science. It was here he met his mentor Dr. Ed Wischmeyer.
One day while Shinji was still in school, Wischmeyer offered Shinji a spontaneous trip to the airport. However, Shinji quickly began to notice that they weren’t going to the terminal. Instead, they arrived at Wischmeyer’s hangar, where a yellow Cessna was parked.
Within moments, Shinji was in the left seat, and they were taxiing.
Soon after, they were flying.
“I was holding the yoke, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ You know, yelling and screaming. I wish I had a GoPro because that moment was crazy.”
“After landing [Wischmeyer] said, ‘So Shinji, why you are not trying to be the pilot?’ Of course, he knew. I have one eye. But he knew I wanted to be an airline pilot, so he said, ‘Well, you know what, being one-eyed is not a good enough excuse for not becoming a pilot. You can be a pilot. In fact, you flew 30 minutes ago. I saw it.’”
Shinji says that the understanding that it’s often a lack of information that keeps people from pursuing their dreams is one of the biggest takeaways from that experience.
In 2005, Shinji received his pilot’s license, and today, he teaches others to fly at Snohomish Flying Service.
The fact that Shinji flies at all is a first for the Japanese aerospace community. As a one-eyed handicapped pilot, Shinji wanted to give back to his community by sharing his experience with others who may also be experiencing similar challenges.
In 2008, he founded Aero Zypangu, a non-profit with the aim to support those who were told that their dreams were also impossible. When he’s not flying, Shinji gives inspiring and motivational speeches with the simple message that there is nothing we can’t overcome.
“In my case, aviation in America gave me a second chance at my life,” says Shinji.
Around the World to Spread a Message
On 1 May 2021, Shinji departed Paine Field, Washington, in a modified Beechcraft Bonanza, affectionately named ‘Lucy’ after his loving and energetic three-legged dog, to circumnavigate the globe.
It was an idea brought to Shinji from his father, who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer three years ago. Shinji says that his father deeply understood how short life is. For this reason alone, Shinji was responsible for telling his story to the world so that there are fewer barriers for others.
Flying around the world seemed like one of the best ways to make this happen.
When asked why he chose the 57-year-old Beechcraft Bonanza, Shinji gives credit to his mentor Adrian Eichhorn who flew around the world in 2016 in the same model.
“When I saw his article, I thought, ‘This guy is just crazy, you know? He’s using a 53-year-old plane.’ But then I talked to him, and he said, ‘No, this is how I did it, and this is how you can do it, too.’”
Shinji planned his trip by figuring out the best way to get to Japan, which during COVID-19 is a difficult feat with permits required at every stop and a limited time frame to arrive. Shinji says that he took many risks to get there, continuously battling the delicate balance of limited time and limited fuel.
His trip around the world, named the Earth Rounder Mission, saw Shinji fly from the US to Canada, Iceland, Norway, France, Greece, Egypt, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Russia, and back.
“India to Russia took crazy coordination,” explains Shinji, “Spidertracks was the shining disco ball because we weren’t just coordinating where we were, but we were communicating with our ground staff.”
Shinji could communicate his aircraft condition, his fuel levels, and weather conditions. He says that not having to land to get this information was invaluable.
When asked about his favourite moment on the trip, the answer is quick. After what he describes as a ‘very intense’ and ‘stressful’ leg of the journey from Egypt to the US, experiencing everything from ice, thunderstorms, fog, and minimum fuel, arriving home felt like sweet relief.
“When I heard the N977YL contact from the Anchorage Control Centre, I was not able to hold back a tear because I felt, ‘I’m home.’”
However, seeing Greenland on a clear day comes in at a close second.
“I was able to see the whole view,” says Shinji.
“At the same time, I was telling Lucy, Hey, do not stop your engine, okay? Keep running! Because if Lucy stops her engine, I’ll have to land somewhere on the ice or snow. And I don’t know how deep it is, It would have to be a couple of hundred feet. So, I was like, ‘This is a nice view, but honey, do not stop your engine!’ ”
It was both a rewarding and challenging trip that Shinji is not eager to do again, but that’s okay. Flying around the world was only one phase of a broader mission to spread his message that no matter what you are facing, you can still try.
“A lot of people told me, ‘You cannot fly around the world, especially in this old airplane.’ Even a government agency told me that. So, I said, ‘Well, I disagree, but that’s alright. That’s why I want to show it could be done as an example.”
On a path to prove others wrong, it is no surprise then that Shinji continues to beat the odds, even if it’s just to show others what’s possible in the face of adversity.