Thursday, May 6, 1993


By Barbara Whitaker, FOR THE INQUIRER

Dateline: When Tom Claytor touched down on the small remote airstrip in
Liberia, he wasn't surprised to see soldiers. It was the skulls at the end of
the runway that troubled him.

"You're not quite prepared mentally or emotionally for what you see," said
Claytor, 30, of Radnor.
Or for what you're told.

"A former soldier took me down and showed me the skulls," Claytor recalled.
About 200 were showing, Claytor said, but a United Nations bulldozer had
recently buried many victims of Liberia's civil war, and the soldier claimed
there had been nearly 20,000 skulls on the ground.

"He looked at me and said, 'Tom, you know during the war we ate people . . .
we ate people not because we were hungry, but because we were scared, and to
eat your enemy makes you strong."

Claytor was interviewed last month at this airport just north of
Johannesburg, where he was recovering from tick-bite fever and giving the
engine of his small Cessna bush plane its annual inspection. He had left
Wings Field near Blue Bell on Dec. 2, 1990, to try to become the first
American to traverse the world in a single-engine plane while touching down
on all seven continents.

He is working his way around the world in a small, six-place "tail dragger"
(minus the four back seats, which were removed to make way for an extra
100-gallon fuel tank) with tires that look like overblown doughnuts.

Although he is less than halfway through the journey he began 2 1/2 years
ago, he has seen extremes of 40 degrees below zero in Greenland and 122
degrees above zero in the Sahara. He has skirted military coups and
suspicious governments, been accused of smuggling, eaten bush rat and learned
some very interesting lessons.

In Greenland, he arrived to temperatures so cold the metal handle of his
plane broke off in his hand. The modern cold-weather clothing and sleeping
gear he had brought with him didn't keep him warm, so the villagers gave him
something that did: seal skin. It wasn't tanned, but the fat had been scraped

"You may smell like a dead seal," he said. "But the skin is very, very warm."

The route of his journey is traced by a bold black line on a map taped to the
window of his plane. The line goes over the northeastern United States to
Newfoundland, north to Baffin Island and east to Greenland and Iceland.

It then turns south and continues over the United Kingdom, France, Spain and
on to Morocco, where he touched down in December 1991, his first stop in
Africa. The line cuts east to Algeria, then down to Niger, over to Burkina
Faso, Nigeria and Cameroon before continuing on down through central and
southern Africa to Johannesburg. After Africa, he plans to fly to Asia,
Australia, South America, and finally, Antarctica. He hopes to complete his
journey by the end of 1996.

In Africa, he's been in 22 countries, and if it looks like a fairly direct
journey on a map, in reality the travel has been erratic.

Claytor is traveling as a fellow of the Explorers Club and has received
donations from more than 300 sponsors, half from at home and the other half
good-hearted people along the way, but he has had to work during his journey
to keep going.

Aside from a book contract and doing film projects for the National
Geographic Society, he worked for several weeks in an Iceland shrimp factory
while his plane was being repaired, and in Niger he got a job counting

Those stops have actually enhanced the trip, he said, since "the whole point
of this exercise is to go to remote areas and share what life is like."

How did he find the areas, let alone know where to land?

"My trick is bush pilots," he said. "They teach me how to fly through these
areas safely. I have experience, but I don't have local knowledge and you
need both to fly safely."

Actually, bush pilots are the reason Claytor is here. As a student at Colby
College in Waterville, Maine, Claytor worked at a small airport. While he
studied physics, he fell in love with the lives of bush pilots.

After graduating in 1985, he won a fellowship that allowed him to go to Kenya
as a bush pilot. He was there for three years gathering information and
making films for the National Geographic Society.

After returning to Philadelphia, he took a year to find a plane, outfit it
and scrape up money for the journey. Initially, he thought the trip would
cost about $70,000, but now he predicts it will cost at least $130,000.

Claytor said he has been amazed by the generosity of the people he has met.
In one remote village, a man concerned about Claytor's diet of orange Fanta,
tea and malaria pills brought snakes and bush rats to round out his menu.

In the Ivory Coast, a villager helping to refuel the plane saw his sponsor
list, which is tacked in the window of the plane.

He pulled out the equivalent of four dollars and offered it up.

"I'm sorry that I'm poor - I have two wives and 12 children - but your job
seems very hard, and I want to help you," Claytor said the man told him.

Though four dollars may not seem like much when the cost of refueling the
plane has run as high $1,000, Claytor said it's the type of support that
gives him the most encouragement.

Runways may be little more than open fields tucked away in some forgotten

When he headed for the Faroe Islands from Iceland, he was looking for a World
War II-vintage airstrip that had been designed to be invisible to German
planes. The local directions were, well, unscientific: Let down out of the
fog, you'll notice a cliff on the left, fly along until you see a waterfall,
climb up until you see a lake, follow the lake into the fjord, at the end of
the lake is the beginning of the airstrip.

"You can't miss a call or a heading," he said. "If you're flying too long or
the wrong way, you'll hit the cliff."

There was also the problem of keeping up with local politics, which can be
particularly challenging in Africa.

When Claytor flew into Algeria, the military had just taken over the country.
A lone white man flying into these areas generally raises some suspicions,
and this time his goodwill orange calling cards - "Bush Pilot Expedition
Seven Continents" - did no good.

In Algeria, the slogan was interpreted to mean he was a pilot for former
President George Bush.

Claytor said one of the most important lessons he learned is that in Africa
''it's a lot easier to get pardoned than it is to get permission."

"I've only had three flight clearances in 22 countries," he said. "It's not
for lack of trying."

Although Claytor has been accompanied through much of Africa by Larry Norton,
a wildlife artist from Zimbabwe who is illustrating Claytor's book, he spent
the first year of his journey alone.

Through the long monotonous flights and the difficult times, his primary
salvation was provided by a tape recorder, which he used to talk to his
father Norris Claytor, of Radnor, and the simple desire to make it back.

"On a trip like this you can either make it or you'll crash and be just
another guy that tried and failed," he said. "That's what it's reduced down
to. All I have to do is get home."