It sounded like the typical complaint of a long-suffering parent whose child calls home only for money. “He was supposed to check in with me but he didn’t,” grumbled H. Ross Perot Sr. “Anytime he wanted to get something, he could get through. Otherwise, the phone and radio didn’t work.”
But Perot’s prodigal son, H. Ross Jr., had a great deal more on his mind than an advance on his allowance. Perot Jr. was circumnavigating the globe by helicopter, and among his needs, for example, was a makeshift refueling station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Then, as ever, his father, the flamboyant Texas multimillionaire who owns Electronic Data Systems Inc., came through. On two weeks’ notice, he arranged for one of EDS’ customers, American Presidents Lines, to rig the S.S. President McKinley with a landing pad and fuel tank and meet his son’s helicopter in the North Pacific. Later, when his son won laurels as the first man to whirlybird around the world, Ross Perot Sr. stepped humbly out of the spotlight. “I’m just the supply sergeant,” he said.
If Junior’s 30-day round-the-world jaunt proved expensive (the Perots are mum on the cost), Ross Sr. has only himself to blame. When his son graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1981, Perot promised to finance one last fling before the boy started work as a land lease negotiator for a family business, Petrus Oil. His son’s request: helicopter piloting lessons. “Dad endorsed my learning to fly so he would have a live-in pilot, one he could get in touch with at any time.” But young Perot, now 23, had other trips in mind. Last fall, he flew a chopper to Alaska, a voyage that merely whetted his appetite for adventure. “I put it in the back of my mind that someday I would fly around the world,” he remembers.
The idea did not remain in the back of his mind for long. In August, an Australian shopkeeper named Dick Smith set out to become the first man to fly a chopper around the world, a trip scheduled to take a full year. When Perot heard about it, he decided to beat Smith to the punch. “There are not many things in today’s world that haven’t been done,” Perot explained. “The United States has always been a leader in aviation and I felt that an American should set this record.”
Armed with his father’s money, Ross Jr. put together his mission in only three weeks. “We ordered a helicopter on a Friday morning and took delivery Friday afternoon,” he says. Within 20 days, the $725,000 Bell Long Ranger jet helicopter was fitted with reserve fuel tanks and other high-tech gadgets enabling it to fly 125 knots per hour and up to 750 miles between fuelings. After christening The Spirit of Texas on September 1, Perot and Jay Coburn, 36, a friend who had flown helicopters in Vietnam, set off from Dallas bound for Dallas via Canada, Iceland, England, Italy, Egypt, India, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Alaska and myriad points between.
They did not go alone. Flying ahead of The Spirit of Texas was a military-transport-sized Hercules aircraft with an 11-member crew to service the chopper at most of its 54 stops. Despite that support, there were a few problems along the way. In Quebec, a fuel pump malfunction forced an emergency landing in an Eskimo village, where Perot purchased a tank of jet fuel from a local chieftain with his Shell credit card. Refused landing rights in Pakistan, Perot ventured into a restricted flight zone over India. “We threw our maps out the window in case we got caught,” he remembers. “That way, it wouldn’t look like we knew what we were doing.” In Burma, they were greeted by angry army troops who demanded a written apology for the unauthorized landing. And then there was the harrowing mid-Pacific refueling, which was accomplished in 50-knot winds and 12-foot seas.
Upon his triumphant arrival in Dallas on September 30, Perot announced that the Smithsonian Institution had requested permission to display The Spirit of Texas next to Charles Lindbergh’s legendary The Spirit of St. Louis: “I can think of nothing I could be more proud of as a pilot.” But Robert C. Mikesh, the Smithsonian’s curator of aircraft, had never heard of any such offer. That doesn’t faze the young Texan, however. He can always put the whirlybird to work for Petrus Oil. “It has a lot of good miles left,” he said.