In October 2017, José Atiles embarked on the journey of a lifetime. A Rotor Team Leader working in Advanced Combat Engine Design at GE Aviation in Evendale, Atiles was granted a nine-month leave of absence to fulfill a lifelong dream to drive the spine of the Americas, following the Pan-American Highway from Mexico City down to the tip of South America. Sitting behind the wheel of a Toyota 4Runner kitted out with an iKamper rooftop tent and a built-in kitchen with a fridge and propane stove, José and his fiancé Lindsey Gant crossed 27 borders, traversed 15 countries, and logged 25,000 miles from Ohio to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina.
“This dream was founded from our love for Latin America, and inspired by people before us, among them our own GE Aviation legend, Gerhard Neumann, who also ventured on an overland trip—10,000 miles from Hong Kong to Jerusalem—before starting a brilliant career at GE,” Atiles said. “As a GE engineer, what a role model was he to follow!”
The trip was not spontaneous. To prepare themselves for a variety of environments, Atiles and Gant planned their journey meticulously over the course of two years. They created budgets, schedules, route paths, trade studies, benchmarks, training plans, peer reviews and even dry runs. They branded their trip with the name “VueltAmerica,” a reference to a lyric from a song by the Puerto Rican hip hop band Calle 13: “Dame la mano y vamos a darle la vuelta al mundo.” Translation: “Hold my hand and let’s do a lap around the world.” They even had a personalized license plate made that read: VUELTA 1.
The couple would eventually tackle a multitude of treacherous roads through distant lands and far-flung territories, embracing the GE mantra “stay lean to go fast.” But to hear Atiles tell it, his scariest moment was simply walking into his manager’s office to pitch his trip before he’d even driven a mile. He felt like he was risking his career, his stability, his whole future at GE Aviation. He learned soon enough that he had nothing to fear. By laying out a detailed plan with GE and his team months in advance, he was able to deliver on key milestones for the company before taking off.
“When Jose approached me with the idea of this trip, I wanted to do what I could to support him,” said Jorge Lamboy, Sud-Section Manager for Mechanical Components. “One key aspect was that he started the discussions of his trip plan well in advance and provided flexibility on the date he was going to leave. That allowed me to develop an effective strategy to deliver on all our commitments during his absence. Once we got the strategy, I was onboard and got the approvals for his leave of absence.”
“This was the first successful Detailed Design Review of the entire Adaptive Engine Transition Program [AETP], on-time against all odds,” Atiles recalled. “I have never felt more motivated to deliver. Finally, we were ready to take that chance, cross those barriers, and be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
During the trip, he and Gant morphed into “overlanders”—basically “car camping made cool,” says Atiles—a subculture of self-reliant, vehicle-centric travelers who aren’t afraid to off-road it when duty calls. For nine months they lived out of their vehicle while exploring the countryside and camping in the wild most nights, from the dense jungles and pristine beaches of Central America to the snowcapped Andes Mountains and the stark beauty of the Atacama Desert in Chile.
It was a spectacular experience, though not without its challenges. Over the course of their journey, which kicked off in Cincinnati on October 9, 2017 and reached Ushuaia, Argentina (also known as “el fin del mundo,” or the end of the world) 203 days later, they endured 104 fuel stops, 14 shop visits, five oil changes, three flat tires, one engine breakdown, and one busted 4×4. To surmount all these obstacles, they relied on another well-known GE Aviation mantra: “Learn and adapt to win.”
Perhaps their greatest challenge was time. Their objective was to reach the end of the world before winter set in. With the window of opportunity closing, Atiles dug deep and tapped a third GE mantra: “delivering results in an uncertain world.” He and Gant strategized a tight plan and stuck to it, taking in the breathtaking landscape of Patagonia before the snow started and arriving in Ushuaia on April 24, 2017.
The couple made many friends along the way, whether locals they stayed with or fellow travelers they met on the road, but the truest test was whether their relationship would survive nine months inside an SUV, sleeping under the stars, preparing food in a makeshift kitchen on the back bumper and motoring over bumpy roads from here to the back of beyond.
Any regrets? “Not at all!” Atiles said. “I’m grateful I got the chance to invest this time and share this beautiful experience with my fiancé. We inspired each other from beginning to end.”
They weren’t the only ones who got inspired. Back in Evendale, his colleagues were living vicariously off of Atiles and Gant’s massive trek.
“The whole team was excited about Jose’s trip to the point that we reserved time during our weekly status meetings to look at Jose’s pictures and progress map,” said Lamboy. “We all felt a part of it and were amazed by all the beautiful pictures. What at an amazing trip he had.”
Still, that much time away seeing the world can change a guy. Was it hard to come back to work?
“It only validated and renewed my sense of purpose in aviation,” he said. “For this unique opportunity, I had to focus my intelligence and hard work to the service of solving one of the world’s toughest problems: I had to envision my role inventing the future of flight. Now I want to tell any and every one to just go!”