Like hundreds of thousands of the Europeans who came to America this summer, Eppo Numan arrived in New York City by plane. But it wasn’t a jumbo jet, and there were no flight attendants, in-flight movies or free smoked almonds. There wasn’t even any cabin pressure, owing to the fact that Numan’s plane lacked a cabin. Nonetheless, the 49-year-old Dutchman, an artist and restaurateur by trade, was delighted with the flight: When he touched down in North America. Numan became the first person to fly an ultralight aircraft—basically, a glorified hang glider with an 80-hp motor—across the Atlantic.
Speed was not of the essence. Numan took off from the Netherlands in June 1989, flitting from landfall to landfall. Bad weather and bureaucrats—he needed flyover permission from six countries—sometimes delayed him for weeks at a time. At journey’s end, the divorced father of four had spent a total of 95 hours and 37 minutes in the air and nearly $300,000 of his own money. Why? For the thrill of it, he says, and to publicize a personal quixotic crusade. An enthusiastic recruit to ecological causes, Numan wants the United Nations to add a new article to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one that would proclaim the right of all mankind to a safe, natural environment everywhere on the globe.
If that goal seems remote, so, at first, did his epic flight. European aviation experts, he says, thought the prospect laughable, and one look at Numan’s flying machine explains why. The Eppo Windmaster, as the pilot dubbed his single-seater, weighs just 416 pounds without fuel. Its customized fuselage is suspended under fabric wings by a single 12-mm-thick bolt. It can be as skittish as a kite in shifting air currents. And although it can carry enough fuel to stay aloft for 11 hours, it can’t go faster than 65 knots. The day Numan was to begin his transatlantic quest, he learned he did not have permission to take off from the Rotterdam airport. Numan was beside himself. “I had spent four years nonstop in planning,” he says, “four years looking like a madman.” Eventually the bureaucratic snafu was cleared up, and at 3 P.M. on the afternoon of June 16, his odyssey began.
Clearly, Eppo Numan is a man not easily deterred. Raised in The Hague, near where his father was a philosophy professor and his mother a dentist, Eppo has made self-discovery practically a way of life. His earliest passion was for the arts, developed while attending a Quaker boarding school. In his 20s he painted, mostly in a surrealist mode, and later branched out into interior design. In 1970 he opened a cozy, 67-seat bistro called Charcoal in The Hague, which he says was the first restaurant in Holland to offer barbecue. In the early years, he says, “the average waiting time for a table was two hours.”
Numan’s introduction to flying came in the early ’80s when he saw an ultralight displayed, paradoxically, at a boat show. “This was every man’s dream, a foldable airplane you could take anywhere.” he says. “Two weeks later I was in England at flying school.” His closest call as a pilot—a moment when he says, “I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t survive”—came in 1984 when he crashed into the sea off the Corsican coast. Onlookers ashore saw the accident and rushed out in small boats to pull him from the water, alive but with a broken vertebra, two broken ribs and a damaged eye socket.
Numan’s enthusiasm for ultralights, however, was undiminished. During the same period, he began to take an increasing interest in environmental issues. “As an artist I find nature so beautiful that it hurts every fiber of my mind and body to see it being destroyed by pollution,” he says. Gradually he arrived at the idea of a transatlantic flight to make an environmental statement. To finance the project, Numan was forced to sell much of his personal property. He says he has no regrets: “I was prepared to sleep on the floor, to beg for fuel, as long as I could bring my message to the UN.”
After leaving Rotterdam, Numan crossed the English Channel and made his way in stages to northernmost Scotland. After waiting out the weather for weeks, he proceeded across the North Atlantic to the Faeroe Islands, then Iceland. There, he was blocked by Danish officialdom from overflying Greenland, forcing him to break off his expedition in October. He returned home by commercial jet and sold his restaurant to restore his shaky bank account.
This past June 22, with all permissions secured, Numan resumed his flight by completing his longest overwater segment, 450 miles from Iceland to Greenland, in just under seven hours. The next leg, across Greenland’s featureless ice fields, was such a dicey proposition that he arranged for a chase plane to give him his bearings by radio. A broken compass turned what should have been a routine four-hour flight across the Davis Strait into a harrowing journey more than twice as long. Eventually his route took him across northeastern Canada and through upstate New York. He arrived in New York City in August.
Although Numan reached altitudes of more than 10,000 feet and flew in near-freezing temperatures, he says that his thick flight suit and helmet kept him warm. He survived turbulence and severe cross winds and occasionally flew in near-zero visibility. Still, he says, “The most wonderful experience is to fly above the clouds. It gives you an absolute feeling that there’s nothing in the universe but you.”
Numan’s biggest disappointment was that he reached New York just as the Mideast crisis erupted, and his arrival went almost unnoticed by the press. But he isn’t discouraged. He did get an opportunity to plead his environmental cause to UN officials, and in the future he plans to lecture, work with a Dutch documentary filmmaker and write a book about his experiences. He will also keep flying. Last month he pointed the Eppo Windmaster westward toward the Rockies with the dual goals of seeing the country and spreading his environmental message. “I’ve dedicated a part of my life to that,” he says. “I want to help.”