Hours of Boredom, Moments of Panic…
I am sitting on the balcony of a motel in Hilo, Hawaii in early August. The temperatures today have been up in the 80s, a little rain and some strong trade winds, but apart from that, it is probably as close to perfect as you can get.
The story starts some two months ago when I decided to sell my Beechcraft Duchess. Some initial enquiries soon revealed that the only place to look for a serious buyer was in the United States. With the deal done, the only remaining issue was to transport the aircraft 6000 miles from my home in Auckland, New Zealand to its new home in California. What an opportunity! Over 40 hours of flying over the ocean to places you could only dream about. After all, how many private pilots have Pago Pago (PPG) and Christmas Island (CXI) in their log books?
I contacted Ted, a renowned and experienced septuagenarian ferry pilot and the departure date was fixed. He said it was OK for me to tag along; in fact, he said that I could do the flying and he would just provide the knowledge and the expertise. The deal was struck and preparations began in earnest.
First on the list was to get the ferry tanks underway. I calculated that we would need about 200 extra gallons for the trip and set about designing a ferry tank system that would provide the quantity and remain within the aft C of G limit. The end result was two tanks in the back and one in the nose holding just the required amount. A quick chat with Dean at Papakura Engineering and the manufacture was underway.
It very soon became clear that with the restrictive rules of the New Zealand CAA it would be impossible to undertake the flight on the NZ register so I had to get the aircraft re-registered in the US before the flight could take place. The FAA takes a much more realistic approach to this kind of activity and quickly (and very cheaply) issued a 26% overweight authorization and a ferry permit for ZK-ELL that had now become N808DJ.
With the tanks fitted and tested in flight, the engines thoroughly checked and a new 100-hour inspection completed, Ted and I turned up at Auckland International, and set about loading the necessary gear aboard. Essential equipment like life jackets and raft, HF radio, the pee bottle and Ted’s thermos flask took priority, leaving only the tiniest of space for the pilot, co-pilot and a very few personal items. The floor was covered in pipes and valves for the tank system so there was no room to move my legs off the rudder pedals. My enduring memory of the next three days would be the cramp in my right leg and the soreness of my aft quarters.
How would the aircraft perform at this much over weight and an aft C of G? It was with some trepidation that I said my goodbyes and lined up on runway 23. “N808DJ right turn out, direct Pago Pago, cleared for takeoff.”
All checks completed, hold the brakes, 2200 rpm, check T’s and P’s, brakes off, full throttle and watch the airspeed indicator. To my amazement, we were soon at 85 kts and the overweight aircraft was lifting itself away from the runway. Lots of forward trim and a very gentle hand on the controls gave us a 600 fpm climb at 100 kts. Amazing! At 500 feet came the first challenge: a climbing turn to the right, a rate one turn very gently applied took us out over St Heliers and towards great Barrier Island, the last land we would see for the next 12 hours. A quick glance at Ted to see if he had gone white, but he seemed to be content with fiddling with the HF radio so I guessed I was probably doing OK.
Just after Great Barrier having reached the dizzy height of 6000 ft. we encountered our first problem. A wall of strato cu and an OAT of –6 degrees Celsius. This meant only one thing… ICE! A very rapid descent to 2000 ft. cleared the problem and left us with all the work to do again once through the cloud. Back up to 6000, eyes firmly locked on the fuel flow gauges and we switched to the ferry tank system for the first time. Fuel pump on, open rear tank valve, open right engine, shut off main tank, watch the fuel pressure gauge like a hawk and listen for any change in the engine note. Success!
Now for the left engine, a slight waver in the gauge and a minor heart attack in the left hand seat, but no problem and we were now running, as we would be for the next nine hours on the ferry supply.
The ferry permit prohibits the use of autopilot whilst in the overweight configuration and anyway the altitude hold wasn’t working, so several hours of intense concentration on height and heading was to follow. Not bad over calm sunny ocean but then a line of towering cumulus stretching as far as the eye could see. No way round it so in we went. I remembered that the key thing was to hold the pitch and not chase the needles.
At one time we were showing 1000 fpm down on the VSI then 1000 fpm up. Roller coasters have got nothing on this. Twitchy fore and aft controls made for an interesting ride but with the pitch held level we soon got the updraft only to be followed by another down. After a few minutes, we broke clear into lovely sunny skies only marred by the sight of another line of towering cu some distance ahead. And so the day wore on, line after line of beautiful cloud formations, turbulence and peaceful interludes in between. Somewhere near Tonga, our load lighter and the Duchess behaving much more like the lady I know and love, we suddenly came on a line squall, thick black clouds with heavy rain and turbulence, but this time I felt more confident to handle the job.
About an hour out from Pago Pago it started to get dark. By that time Ted had reached a particularly exciting part of his book so he switched on the overhead light and continued reading. The strobes flashed off the clouds as the only indication we were in IMC. I know you are supposed to switch them off in cloud but it was awful dark out there and there was something friendly about the regular flashing white light. Approaching Pago Pago, we made contact on VHF and a friendly American voice cleared us for the ILS. Overhead light off, intercept the localizer, watch for the glide slope and at about 1000 ft. the very welcome lights of Pago Pago came into view.
The formalities on landing seemed endless, customs, immigration, airport security, landing fees… where’s the beer! Eventually having made an arrangement with the refueler to meet us at 6 o’clock the next morning we tipped into the airport café (I suppose you could call it that) but at least they had cold beer. The first epic day had ended. Hours of boredom, moments of panic, and a taxing approach and landing after 12 hours in the cockpit – such is the life of a ferry pilot.
Having made our way to the local “hotel”–a sort of cross between a cowshed and an aero club bar–we dropped into bed for some well earned sleep before the early start the next day.
Up at the crack of dawn, a cold cup of coffee for breakfast, back to the airport only to find that the fueling rig was not operational. Several telephone calls and a delay of an hour and a half brought out the supervisor who had locked the critical pump the night before. “230 gallons of avgas please,” they are quite used to it there, and we were ready to tackle the bureaucracy, a quick slice of toast, hot water in Ted’s thermos and into the aircraft for another long day.
We had been fortunate out of Auckland and picked up some good tailwinds to help us along our way but all that was to change. Fully laden and an indicated airspeed of less than 120 kts our groundspeed was abysmal. Some quick calculations and it became obvious that we were headed for another night landing at Christmas Island. Ted got on the HF and asked Nadi Radio to call them and make sure they were aware of our intended arrival, and later called San Francisco to ask them to do the same.
Throughout the day, the routine continued, changes of tanks, checks for consumption, careful navigation with a little help from the three portable GPS systems we carried on board and as the unforecast headwinds increased, just the beginnings of a little concern that our endurance would be sufficient. By now the changing of tanks was routine, the bouts of cloud in between generally perfect weather had improved my instrument handling to no end and the biggest thing on my mind was the increasing soreness of my rear end. I have some strong recommendations to make to Beechcraft about the comfort of their seats.
Ten thousand feet and 100 miles out of Christmas Island, darkness had fallen and we make our first VHF call. No response. Perhaps we are too far away. Eighty miles, no response and we are now in thick IMC. With no response at 30 miles, we begin our descent, calling every few minutes. Ted calls San Francisco on the HF and asks them to make an urgent telephone call. A few minutes later we are over the island and when we break cloud at 1000 feet there are only a few small lights dotted around and certainly nothing that looks like an airport. At last the radio comes alive and a very pleasant young lady asks for our position. “Can you wait for five minutes? We have to warm up the generator,” she asks. Five minutes later, suddenly a row of the most welcome lights I have ever seen comes up just on our starboard side (amazing thing this GPS!). A quick right base, three greens, flaps twenty and a visual landing – the only kind possible, there are certainly no approach aids.
On entering the terminal building (a rather grand term for a small wooden hut) we were greeted by John, a local small businessman, Mr. Fixit and close friend of Ted’s. It turns out that none of our messages had got through, the airport had not been notified of our arrival but John had heard our engines, put things in motion and got the problem sorted. Even more welcome were the cold beers he brought with him that we drank whilst completing the inevitable formalities.
The immigration lady was most upset that she had not been informed by her government of our arrival even though they had received the proper notification some days in advance; the airport lady was upset because she had not received our flight plan. In fact, everybody seemed upset except John who handed us another beer and drove us to the local “hotel,” the Captain Cook Inn, where we were to stay. Most of the locals live in straw huts in the most amazing poverty and the hotel truly reflected the state of the island. Still, a bed is a bed, even if shared with the odd passing gecko, and a cold shower is very welcome in the hot and humid environment, even if it is the only option.
Another early start beckoned, and this is where things started to get interesting. There is only one avgas tank on the Island and it appeared that it had run dry several weeks previously. “When was the next supply expected?” was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a baffled expression. Although for some the thought of a month or two stranded on an island paradise surrounded by sexy ladies in grass skirts (OK I exaggerate about that) might not be too unappealing, Ted and I had places to go. Enter Mr. Fixit. He had a drum of fuel, what grade? Another shrug of the shoulders. We inspected a sample, it smelled like gas, it tasted like gas but it was brown, not green or blue as avgas should be. After a quick discussion, we decided to put some in an empty tank, do a good runup and take off for a quick buzz around the island to see if it worked. Everything seemed OK, maybe the engines were running just a little hot but they were running smooth which seemed like the most important thing at the time. Refueling off the back of John’s truck from 40 gallon drums, and quickly airborne, this time headed for Hilo.
By this time I’d got the hang of the overweight takeoffs and as usual the aircraft performed impeccably. A quick buzz over John’s house to let him know that we were safely airborne and then up to 9000 ft. for another long day in the front office. The usual bit of weather, the now customary unforecast headwinds but really an uneventful day once we had convinced ourselves that we had enough fuel for the trip and that the engines were not going to overheat or suddenly quit on us. The weather over Hawaii was heavy overcast and rain so we obtained radar vectors, broke cloud at 1200 feet on the downwind leg and continued for a visual approach and landing on Runway 8 at Hilo.
So here I sit. We have waited for three days for the winds to come right to continue the trip to California, but they haven’t and show no sign of doing so. There is a hurricane approaching from the northwest and things are going to get bad in a day or two so today I have made the decision that I will trade Ted’s weight for fuel and make the last leg on my own. Am I scared at the prospect? I really cannot believe that I am doing this.
We went down to ACE hardware this morning and bought six five-gallon cans, some plastic pipe and some plumbing fittings. Ted and I worked out how we could make up a system to put the plastic pipe in the five gallon cans which were now sitting where the right-hand seat had been and then turn the valve and suck out the gas. I took it up for a little test, and I was absolutely petrified but it seemed to work OK so tomorrow is the big day. The weather looks quite benign and if things stay the same it should be a little short of 14 hours to reach Hollister. If I don’t arrive, I’ve had a blast. This is living to the full. I am so scared. I don’t think I will sleep a wink tonight.
Well, I arrived. Fourteen and a half hours–those damned unexpected headwinds again–and flying on fumes. After 2000 miles of ocean, the last six hours in total blackness, the lights of San Francisco had never been so welcoming. My gas cans were dry, I had used them right out of Hilo, my ferry tanks were empty and my fuel gauges showing way less than one quarter. I called up Oakland Center and got the friendly voice of a local controller.
“Hi, welcome to the mainland, we have been expecting you for a while.”
“Yeah, I hit some headwinds they didn’t tell me about.”
Now the only issue was whether there would be fog at Hollister. The forecast had predicted that fog would form in the early morning and now it was midnight. Seven clicks on the mic button and the lights of Hollister lined up beautiful and clear at just a couple of miles out. A smooth landing, a quick prayer of thanks to the aviation gods and a big hug from my mate who had come all the way from New Zealand to meet me.
Yes, I made it, I flew the Pacific Ocean, 6,000 miles, headwinds, squall lines, icing, turbulence. The elements conspired to stop me but I did it. I am so happy.
Am I glad I made the trip? A resounding yes! I have seen so much, experienced so much and, as I said before, how many private pilots have Pago Pago, Christmas Island and Hilo in their log books? Would I do it again? Only if I could take the chair from my sitting room along with me!
This story is written in loving memory of and with great respect for Kelvin Stark, my very good friend. The unforecast headwinds conspired against him and he didn’t survive the ditching on the same trip just six months later.