It was 1998, and my ride was one of the last of the Mooney MSEs, better known as the 201. The destination was Dubbo, Australia, about 8,500 nm from the Mooney factory in Kerrville, Texas.
The ferry business had been good to me in the 1990s, and I had delivered several dozen airplanes: Pipers, Cessnas, Aerostars, Beechcrafts, Maules, plus about 15 Mooneys, the latter all Down Under. (Do the Australians call the rest of the world "Up Over?") This was to be one of the last Mooneys I'd deliver, since the Texas manufacturer was about to eliminate the middle man and go factory direct.
Since I own a LoPresti Mooney, an older Executive fitted with an impressive (and expensive) collection of speed mods, the smaller MSE has always been my favorite. The Ovation and Bravo are wonderful, high-performance machines with some of the best cruise numbers in the industry, but back then, the MSE/201 was probably the most efficient production single you could buy. It turned in a consistent 160-165 knots on 10.5-11.0 gallons an hour. Efficiency was key in those days, as avgas was becoming expensive all over the world, especially in Australia.
For this trip, "my" assigned MSE was a well-equipped example of the type. The bad news was the airplane was a little heavy. Full fuel payload was only about 530 pounds, and I was to make this crossing in winter, when winds are often wailing out of the west. I knew I'd need 15 hours of fuel for the 2,160 nm leg from Santa Barbara to Honolulu. Throw in a two-hour reserve, and that translated to a total of 187 gallons aboard on takeoff from Santa Barbara.
Accordingly, I'd need the right seat and yoke removed and a 30-gallon tank installed in their place, plus a 100-gallon ferry tank where the back seat should be. In other words, I'd need to climb aboard over the right ferry tank and fly at about 1,000 pounds over gross for the long haul across the Pacific.
As much as I love Mooneys, that was perhaps a little too much togetherness for me. While it's true Mooneys' cabins are 11⁄2-inch wider than those of the 36 Bonanza or 58 Baron, cabin height is also several inches shorter. It would be a tight trip.
With all paperwork in order and everything else ready to go, the only thing I needed were agreeable winds. Not. I have the utmost respect for the weather prognosticators who generate wind components between California and Hawaii, and when they consistently suggested the average component would continue to be -10 to -15 for the full month of December, I believed them. Most ferry pilots won't accept a component worse than -10.
In those days, the most challenging leg on the Pacific route to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Australia or New Zealand was the first one, West Coast to Hawaii. If you have to, you can depart from Oakland in Northern California and flight plan for Hilo, flying 2,035 nm. After that, both the prevailing trade winds and the leg distances become more favorable.
(Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Mobil was the primary supplier of avgas on the Pacific islands in those days. Since they stopped refining 100LL, there's no longer any avgas available in Majuro, Marshall Islands, only 1,980 miles southwest of Honolulu. Now, you must fly 2,260 nm straight south from Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa, to buy avgas from BP. At least, the winds are usually on the tail.)
Finally, in early January, the low-level wind backed off to a forecast -4 component with nothing worse than the usual scattered cu over the ocean, and I launched from Santa Barbara for Honolulu, 2,160 nm.
Flying the first leg on the Pacific to Hawaii often requires a certain leap of faith. If you calculate your how-goes-it too early, you'll wind up turning around and heading back to California, as the numbers will suggest you won't make it.
The wind pattern is nearly always the same. You start the trip on a Southwesterly heading, and the wind is usually on the nose at 10-20 knots. Then, the wind begins to shift clockwise to the north as you pass 800 miles out. By 1,100 miles, roughly the halfway point, the wind will have continued to rotate to a slight tailwind, and at about 1,700 nm from Santa Barbara, you'll start to see as much as a 20- to 30-knot push when the trade winds take effect.
For that reason, we nearly always file for an initial 6,000 feet, the lowest IFR altitude, to stay out of the worst initial headwinds, then climb to take advantage of the trade influence. In a normally aspirated single, I'll often climb to 10,000-12,000 feet as a final altitude, starting uphill at 1,500 nm out.
Question is, how long do you wait for the tailwinds to materialize? There's no simple answer, as wind patterns aren't consistent.
On what was to become my last Mooney trip, the wind finally did start to turn, but much later than I had expected. I was grateful that the MSE can still generate good speed at reduced power. The winds weren't quite up to the forecaster's promise, and I eventually diverted to Hilo, 60 miles closer than Honolulu. I still landed with an hour's reserve.
Contrary to what some cynics allege, tailwinds do happen, even in the most unlikely scenarios, but they're more typical up high than down low. Winds of any significance aren't much of a factor in the bottom 5,000 feet of sky. Simple friction of the Earth's atmosphere with the ground tends to nullify the effect of winds less than five knots, regardless of whether they're plus or minus.
And when we do have headwinds, we tend to remember them longer than we recall tailwinds. Then, too, headwinds act on the airplane longer than do equivalent tailwinds, an automatic disadvantage that means equivalent head and tail winds don't cancel each other. Also, tailwinds only apply through about the aft 170 degrees, whereas headwinds operate in the forward 190 degrees.
I'm aware that some pilots have had such a bad experience with winds that they assume they'll never see tailwinds. It's almost analogous to Murphy's First Law of Lane Choice—the lane you're in will always be the slowest, and the first corollary: If you change lanes, your new lane will automatically become the slowest.
I once flew a Cessna 414 Chancellor the other way, from Honolulu to Van Nuys. It was summer, perhaps the worst time to be eastbound, but to my surprise, I had tailwinds all the way, and managed to average well over 250 knots at 19,000 feet.
Just as with life, airline fares and the IRS, don't expect head- or tailwinds to be fair, make sense or have any sympathy. Learn to live with them, and accept the fact that you may never realize tailwinds as strong as headwinds.