It seems I’ve been picked to fly some pretty incredible ferry flights lately. In the last 45 days I flew a King Air to China, another to India and, most recently, a King Air 350 from Tahiti back to the USA. To illustrate how much I’ve been traveling, I set foot on 21 countries in the last 45 days and to many of those countries more than once.
Just prior to this Tahiti trip, I planned a big 5-day trip away from home to train in the PA46 with customers in the Pacific Northwest. I flew that 5-day trip and immediately set out for Tahiti, so this has been far more traveling than I’m used to. But, when Travis and the team of pros at Shepherd Aero call with a neat ferry flight, I will usually bend over backwards to take it and I’m sure glad I took this one.
The flight planning started as a fairly easy, 2-stop, flight from Tahiti (NTAA) to Honolulu to get a ferry tank installed and then, with that additional fuel, the 2084 NM trip from Honolulu to San Francisco on the mainland USA. But, the plan to install the ferry tanks got nixed, and I was asked to fly through a bunch of South Pacific islands, across Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, over Alaska, down through the heart of Canada, and into Minnesota. This turned from a fairly short ferry flight into one of the longest I’ve ever attempted.
You’ve probably heard of the “Great Circle Route,” which shows the shortest distance between two points on a sphere (the earth). My route on this trip looks like a huge circle, but it was anything but the shortest distance between Tahiti and Minnesota. I flew a “Great Circle” (of sorts) around the Pacific Ocean.
I cannot say enough about the importance of a business class flight (or better) when making a long international flight. Maybe it is just me and my physique, but I manage those long flights far better in the prone position as opposed to the sitting position. I boarded the long flight (8 hours) from Los Angeles, CA (KLAX) to NTAA near midnight and was able to to ride in business-class. This was absolutely perfect as I was going to be able to sleep all night on the way to Tahiti and that’s exactly what happened. I slept over 6 hours on this flight and arrived in Tahiti at 5am ready to tackle the day.
I was not supposed to leave Tahiti until the next day, so I had a full day to digest the Tahitian culture. I rented a bike and went to see what I could find. The roads were busy with traffic and I stopped at a marina to check out the boats (I can see myself owning a sailboat one day!), stopped at the airport to see the King Air I was to fly home, and stopped at anything else I found interesting. It was a fun, easy day of goofing around Tahiti. I stayed at a nice hotel right on the water, so swimming and a nice meal with a good view ended the day.
I awoke after nearly 9 hours of sleep, which is WAY more than I typically sleep in a normal night (7 is normal). It was good to give my body some rest.
The King Air I was to fly (N929TW) was found in really good shape. The guys at TASC FBO helped me load all the logbooks, supplies, luggage, and other incidentals to make the flight, but the fuel did not arrive on-time. I was hard-pressed to make my takeoff time and I did a much faster run-up than I should have considering this was an airplane I’d never flown before. This abnormally short run-up was going to bite me in about 30 minutes.
I departed the long runway at NTAA and immediately had troubles. The Proline 21 system initiated at a different lat/long than was accurate. In fact, it was about 3000 miles off! It took me about 3-5 minutes (all the while climbing rapidly) to learn the gravity of my error. I picked up a heading (flew HDG mode) and got out the iPad to navigate accurately with Foreflight. After about 15 minutes I had the Proline 21 ironed out and the airplane’s systems were now navigating the airplane.
Soon I was leveling off at FL300, and ATC wanted me to tune up a HF radio frequency. I fumbled and bumbled trying to get the HF to work. Long story short, I had a switch in the wrong position and could not hear the radio. Since I was approaching a FIR boundary, ATC needed to give me a clearance into the next FIR and could not without long-distance radio communication. They asked if I had a SAT-phone (I did not), and then forced me to turn back to NTAA. After about 2 minutes on the way back to NTAA, I figured out my SNAFU with the HF radio and made it work but, if I turned back to America Samoa, I’d have been critical on fuel. So, with my tail between my legs I returned to NTAA to buy some fuel. I called Travis to tell him about my SNAFU, and he laughed because he knew that it could happen to anyone. Crow never tastes good, and it tasted particularly bad on this day. Lesson previously learned and now reinforced: take your time on the run-up on the first flight when you get into a new-to-you airplane the first time. That was a rookie ferry pilot mistake, which fortunately did not cost me too dearly.
I departed NTAA again and, this time, did it right. This time I had a bunch more time to see Tahiti from the air and really enjoyed the scenery. Soon, it was just me, a literal sea of blue, and little, puffy, white clouds everywhere. It was not long before Tahiti Control switched me to HF, I was talking with Aukland Oceanic Control, and settling down to a good flight. When I first heard “Aukland Oceanic,” I thought they were saying, “Oakland Oceanic” and I wondered why the US would control airspace in Tahiti. I began to put two and two together and figured out that I was FAR closer to New Zealand than the USA, so I was talking with Aukland Oceanic. I arrived at American Samoa (NSTU) just as the sun was setting, happy to have the first leg complete.
Pritchett FBO at NSTU really handled me well. They drove me to the Sadie By The Sea Hotel and it was not long before I was catching zzz’s. I slept another good, long night, realizing my body was probably more tired than I was aware. A quick shout-out for Pritchett FBO…this was easily the best FBO I experienced on this trip. Attentive, caring, and knowledgable of the local area, they really went above and beyond while I was at American Samoa. I highly recommend stopping at NSTU to see the Pritchett folks!
In the morning, I learned that there was a problem with permitting at my next destination (Tarawa), so I got to spend another night on American Samoa. I really enjoyed my time on American Samoa. It is a gorgeous island and the people treated me well. I went on a hike, did a Crossfit WOD, ran some laundry, and got a massage. The massage was unusual because I’ve never had a real massage before. I’ll probably do that again!
I got another really good sleep and woke up ready to go to work. I departed NSTU about 30 minutes early in hopes of starting what was going to be a long day. I was soon above the white, puffy clouds and hardly felt a bump the rest of the flight to Tarawa (NGTA), a truly historical island in the South Pacific. I was really excited to see Tarawa because of its significance in WWII. The Japanese occupied the island, and literally fought to the last man. The American Marines lost a bunch of lives here too, but eventually won the island. I wanted to see the bay where we lost so many lives in the botched, amphibious assault, and get a good idea of how the island felt.
It was a long flight (4.3 hours) from NSTU to NGTA, and I began to feel like some of the Americans felt as they flew the South Pacific in WWII. The vastness of the open water is hard to describe. Vast blue with tiny specks of land that are oftentimes thousands of miles apart. I landed at NGTA with about 320 pounds of fuel per side, which is not much in a King Air 350. There simply was not going to be any alternate available.
It was hot and sticky on Tarawa, and I quickly gained an appreciation for the Marines that fought on this island. Being a soldier myself, I could only imagine the difficulties that would be experienced by fighting in the heat I felt. It was about 88F, but super-sticky humid. The locals were all dressed in cool clothing, and everyone walked around slowly, no one in a hurry. It was just hot enough that if you sat around in the shade, you’d be reasonably comfortable. But, the second you were in the sun or moved around, you started to sweat profusely. I’m guessing this is how “island pace” got started.
The fueling system on Tarawa is terrible. The fuel truck arrived with 3 guys standing around, unable to do anything, because “the paperwork” was at the office that happened to be at the other side of the island. So, they waited for me to say, “yes, I want fuel” before sending one of the guys to get the paperwork. It took about 30 minutes to get the paperwork, another 30 minutes for the guys to fill up the King Air, and a full hour for them to return back to the office to get the “properly filled out paperwork.” I had a long day ahead of me and the 2 hour tech-stop at Tarawa was unwanted. No cell phone use, no internet, no communications with anyone off the island. So, I sat around and waited, and waited, and waited. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I don’t wait very well.
While I sat around talking to the linemen, the most interesting point of discussion was “what was the lowest temperature you’ve ever felt”. The 3 FBO guys thought about it, and determined that they’ve never felt less than 66F and never more than 90F. They’d never left Tarawa, so their entire world was this tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific.
I finally got to leave Tarawa and set my course for Pohnpei (PTPN), another small island in the Pacific, but it was completely different than Tarawa. Pohnpei is a mountainous, rainforest island I found stunningly beautiful from the air. The entire island is surrounded by a reef, and the totally green, highly vegetated island was just gorgeous. The FBO/line-guys were again “on island time” and didn’t move very quickly at all. They said they didn’t know I was coming and had been “called back out to the airport” to help me when they realized I was coming. For this pleasure, I got to pay $10/hour for each of the 7 guys that were there. I’m 100% sure it was a scam, but at least it was a cheap scam. $70 in this part of the world is huge to them, but small potatoes for a flight of this length. I just wanted to go to the hotel and relax and the island drive proved to be nearly as pretty as the view from the air. It is a US territory, but the economy is not robust. All of the locals I met were very interested in me coming back and vacationing on their island and I could see myself doing that one day.
I had just about convinced myself the Pacific Ocean is a calm, easy body of water with smooth water and only little, puffy clouds. My flight to Guam (PGUM) proved otherwise. The weather changed completely and, after departing PTPN, I popped into an overcast and never saw the ocean again until short final at Guam. Bumps, thunderstorms, and a completely different scene were the order of the day. To top it off, a typhoon was raging against Japan. This typhoon was small, insofar as typhoons go, but even a small typhoon will stop all flying. Airplanes and typhoons simply don’t go together (unless the airplane is a P3 Orion), so the pace of my trip slowed as I approached Guam. My landing was good, and I was greeted by some really nice line guys who informed me that I was to remain overnight in Guam. I did what I usually do when traveling; I found the nearest Crossfit gym and made my body move. Ferry flying can be a gob of sitting and I always try to finish my day with some sort of workout. If there’s a CF box around, I go there; if not, I develop my own workout or just go on a run. I think these workouts are super important for anyone doing ferry work.
The next day I departed for Mayazaki, Japan (RJFM). The skies had cleared and smoothed up, leaving me a nice tailwind northwestward. As I got closer and closer to Japan the radios got more and more busy. The Japanese controllers are fairly hard to understand, so it took some effort to listen properly, but the weather at RJFM was excellent and I was happy to see the Japan coastline. The tech stop at RJFM went very well and I got to meet the “Quarantine Officers,” the guys who make sure I don’t bring any outside items into Japan. They were very nice, inquisitive about me and what I do for a living, and chatted me up for 10+ minutes. Within 30 minutes I was airborne for Chitose, Japan (RJCC).
My departure from RJFM took me very near Hiroshima and not too far from Nagasaki. I could not see either for the thick haze, but I felt an interesting feeling as I flew northward over the heart of Japan. I had just flown the island-hopping route that many allied servicemen flew in WWII, and I somewhat gained an appreciation for their bravery and duty. It took me 4 days to get from Tahiti to Japan in our modern time. The distances we had to travel in WWII to reach the Japanese cities to bomb Japan into submission are daunting. I did it at FL340, in unbelievable comfort, in one of the finest airplanes ever to be made. They did it in airplanes that went from thought, to drawing board, to production in literal months, and sometimes weeks. I had the benefit of GPS and HF communication and even onboard texting (via Garmin Inreach). This flight gave me an appreciation for the task required just to reach Japan from the Pacific and for those who dreamt up, and then executed, the plan to bring Japan to her knees.
As I flew from RJFM to RJCC, I realized Japan is a big country. It took me 3.2 hours to go from the southern tip of Japan to the Chitose area, with a lot of Japanese land still to the north of my landing spot. I usually think of Japan as being small, and it is compared to some of the larger countries, but it is not small. Our allied forces not only had to reach Japan, but reach the major parts of Japan in order to make Japan surrender. From an aviation perspective, this flight gave me a much greater appreciation for the job that was accomplished in 1945 by the US Forces.
I landed at Chitose, Japan and arrived at one of my favorite hotels, the Grand Terrace Chitose Hotel. It is not the nicest, not the newest, but they have really fast internet, really good local restaurants, and the hotel provides free bikes for me to get around. I always feel good when I’ve got a bike to get around in a foreign country. There’s something about a bike that just makes “getting to know a country” easy. It is intimate, fun, and it gives me the exercise I need after sitting in the cockpit for long periods of time.
I departed RJCC at 5pm in the afternoon. There were problems with permitting from Japan, but this trip had already experienced delays and it was decided that I’d fly through the night. The night is fairly short in the upper latitudes this time of year, so my exposure to darkness was going to be minimal. The flight to Petropovlosk, Russia (UHPP) was unremarkable, except the radio chatter diminished greatly as I moved northbound. I landed on the huge runway at UHPP in the dark of night, around 11:30pm local.
I was met by Anastasia (the nice lady who speaks very good english), a couple of Russian customs officers, and 3 guys to refuel the King Air. Anastasia and the officers took me to the bathroom at UHPP, a short, escorted, bus ride away, during which we had good conversation. Anastasia remembered me from a month or so ago when Ben and I came through UHPP on the way to China. We chatted for about 30 minutes, and I really appreciated Anastasia and her willingness to befriend me.
I departed UHPP enroute to Nome, AK (PAOM) just before midnight (local Russia time), and started having challenges immediately. Russian ATC asked me to squawk a different code and I could not enter the code into the transponder. I discussed this problem with them for about 5 miles and they agreed (since there were no other airplanes in the area) to let me troubleshoot the issue later. When they asked me to change frequencies, I could not change the frequency either. The display unit that manages all avionics inputs would not let me make changes. The knob felt right (turned properly), but it was not letting me make inputs to the system, so I was going to lose radio communication.
Climbing through FL290 (on the way to FL310) the autopilot failed. I still had VERY spotty communication with Russia ATC, but they dd not understand my problem. I was left with the decision to either return to UHPP (where no maintenance help would be found) or press on to PAOM and hope to fix the problem. While this sounds like an easy decision, hand-flying a King Air 350 at FL310 is not an easy task, especially when I would have to fly it for 4 hours in the dark. There’s just not a lot of air at FL310, and the King Air sorta “mushes,” responding to flight inputs sluggishly. It is hard to describe, but you can ask any pilot who has flown at the upper reaches of an airplane’s ability and they’ll testify that 4 hours of hand-flying a King Air at FL310 in the dark is not a fun potential.
The hand-flying was also challenging my ability to diagnose my problems. Simply put, I had to lean over with a flashlight to try to read circuit breakers (CBs), checklists, and the opposite side of the panel. I can’t tell you how many times I looked for the right CB and found myself in an attitude that I didn’t want. For about an hour I hand-flew the airplane until I finally found the right solution for the system. I reset the system and, thankfully, the autopilot came back to life.
There’s a switch on the panel of a Proline 21-equipped King Air labelled “EMER FREQ” that automatically switches the radios to 121.5, the emergency VHF frequency. I pushed that button and was able to transmit and monitor on “guard.” Thankfully, Air Canada 26 was monitoring guard and started to relay messages to Anchorage Center. Now that I had radio communication and an autopilot, life got better. It got MUCH better about 30 minutes later when the first signs of Before Morning Nautical Twilight (BMNT) started to show on the horizon. I was above an overcast layer below and the steadily increasing light was certainly a welcome sight.
As I came into the area of PAOM, I was then able to talk with Nome Radio, one of the last flight service stations left in the USA. They helped me immensely by relaying to Anchorage Center. The tension had been so high for so long that I literally busted out laughing when Nome Radio relayed ATIS which started with “Musk Ox herds on and around the Nome Airport.” That statement was so foreign to me and typified the strangeness of this flight. Thankfully, there were no musk ox on the runway and I landed with no issues at Nome.
Upon reaching Nome, some nice people from Bering Air came out to help me with the inoperative avionics. They removed the display unit and sprayed some electronics cleaner in the connections, but it did not help. I called Deanna Wallace (instructor who works with me at Casey Aviation and knows the Proline 21 well), and she walked me through the way to change frequencies through the main console. I was back in business.
Now, I know there are going to be a bunch of Proline 21 pilots out there who are going to armchair-QB my handling of the avionics on this flight. Most will think they could have handled it better by more quickly moving to controlling the remote panel with the main panel, and I’m sure others could have handled it far better than I. But, those QBs will just have to remember that I don’t fly Proline 21 every day (although I usually fly it on 3-4 international trips (150+ hours) each year), and I’ll also remind those QBs that I was in the dark, over Russia, at 1am and all by myself after already having flown 5 hours this day. Plus, I had the seemingly unrelated (and very poorly timed) autopilot failure compounding my troubles. So, I may have thrown a bad pass down, but the football went into the end zone…ugly as it may have been!
It was decided that I could go to a hotel in Nome for a quick catnap (it was 10am in Nome), and I caught a ride with one of the Bering Air guys to the hotel. The hotel wanted $175 for a room and, when I balked at the price, he became rude and gruff. He pissed me off so much, I called a cab and returned to the airport. I figured (at worst) I could have the catnap in the back of the airplane, but I was feeling more awake as the sun got higher in the sky and decided to continue my flight to Anchorage (PANC).
There wasn’t a wisp of wind at Nome, so I opted for the shortest taxi route to the closest runway. The departure from Nome was as expected and I entered the overcast layer around 10,000 ft. As I climbed, the wind picked up more and more and I soon had a 70+ kt tailwind. The gorgeousness of Alaska opened up below me as I clipped along well over 350 knots groundspeed for most of the flight to PANC. But, as I started the descent, I could hear all sorts of talk on the radio about the winds at the surface.
The winds were gusting up to 40 knots at PANC and it was a direct crosswind. The winds were from the north, and RWY 33 at PANC was NOTAMed closed. There simply was not a better option than to land on RWY 7R and face the big crosswind. Even the big “heavies” were whining about the bumps. When you hear on the radio, “747 Heavy reporting 20 knot change of airspeed on final and severe turbulence below 200’ AGL,” it’ll get the attention of any King Air pilot! But, there really was not much option. I decided to make an attempt at a landing and perform a go around if things got too sticky. RWY 7R is a huge runway, so I hoped I had plenty of room in case I swerved. I videoed my landing and I’m glad I did. If you see the video, notice the dust flying on the extreme left of the screen and notice how the runway was on the far right of the screen (due to my crabbing). I crabbed until about 100’ off the runway and touched down in a surprisingly controlled left-wing-down manner. On rollout there was a big gust that swerved me to the right some, but it was controllable. I taxied slowly to the customs ramp and thanked the Lord for watch care on that approach. It always seems like the worst happens at the worst times, and my most difficult approach of the entire ferry flight was at the end of a very long day in very tough conditions.
Travis splurged and got a room for me at the Marriott Downtown. A fabulous hotel, I felt like a king and slept like a baby. The final day of the ferry flight was coming the next day and I still had thousands of miles to go.
Although a long day, I did enjoy really nice tailwinds for most of my flights. There were clear skies for much of the flight and this gave me a good view of the grandeur of eastern Alaska. The steep mountains, long glaciers, and no civilization were impressive.
The weather was splendid at all of my landing airports. I first stopped at Edmonton, Canada (CYEG), and thankfully the Canadian Border Patrol did not request an at-airplane interview. I then stopped at Minot, ND (KMOT) and was treated very well by the US Customs agent. Now back in the USA, I decided to fly the final flight to my final destination of Flying Cloud, MN (KFCM) under visual flight rules (VFR). The huge tailwinds prevailed and I had over 370 knots of groundspeed at 17,500 ft MSL. Soon I was making an approach into the laser-like setting sun at KFCM. It was too late for me to catch the last flight from MSP back to Texas, so Travis again hooked me up with an over-the-top nice room at the Hilton Hotel near the airport. I again hit the pillow like a ton of bricks, happy that the flight was completed with no bent metal, few regulations bent, and the airplane delivered in one piece.
I flew over 42 hours of flight time and over 12,000NM in 8 days on this ferry flight. It was easily the longest flight I’ve ever attempted. Would I do it again? You bet!
As always, I thank Travis, Penny, Warren, Ed, and Bhrigu for their tremendous support! There’s no way I’d attempt a flight like this without a team of people supporting me, and there’s no better company than Shepherd Aero when it comes to international trip support.