Plane & Pilot
Thursday, April 1, 2004

Air Vagabonds

Ferry flying may seem glamorous, but Tony Vallone’s book tells the truth

It seems every aviator I know would like to be an international delivery pilot. Each month, I receive more e-mails and letters on the subject of ferry flying than on any other topic, and that’s been the pattern for 20 years. I hear from every segment of aviation: new pilots with the ink barely dry on their private tickets and retired; 20,000-hour airline types; bored accountants hoping to change careers; charter pilots looking for a more exciting job; prospective aviation soldiers of fortune; and admitted aviation bums like me.

The image of ferry flying is ironic, because most pilots who fly the oceans burn out early. Even many of us who’ve been flying overseas for several years aren’t quite sure why we still do it. It’s probably better than being a proctologist, but contrary to popular belief, there’s little if any glory associated with the job. The solitary nature of ferry flying violates the first rule of bravery. If you plan to do something brave and romantic, make sure there’s someone around to witness it.

Without trying to pop the universal bubble of enthusiasm for those on the outside looking in, I try to explain to every correspondent that there’s little glamour and even less opportunity in ferry flying, especially in these days of relatively low aircraft production. Nearly half of America’s light plane production is delivered overseas, and in 1979, that was half of 17,000 airplanes. These days, it’s half of 1,700. You get the idea.

Insurance companies only make the situation worse. Their requirements make it virtually impossible for new pilots to break in—the traditional problem of needing experience before you can get it. (Back in the early ’80s, I sometimes made ferry flights in Cheyennes, Caravans, Conquests, 421s and Dukes with no more than a one-hour checkout.)

No one ever seems to believe me when I tell them ferry flying isn’t what it seems. The working hours can be atrocious, sometimes 18 to 20 hours a day, especially on the long Pacific legs in a slow airplane. One Australian ferry pilot I know, Ray Clambake, specializes in ferrying new Skyhawks, Skylanes and Stationairs from the Cessna factory in Independence, Kan., to points down under. The first over-ocean leg, 2,160 nm from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Honolulu, often requires 20 hours in a Skyhawk.

Ferry flights rarely travel to the places you see in brochures, and on those rare occasions when we do touch down in Bali, Singapore, Sydney, London, Paris or Athens, we’re usually racing to catch a cheap airline flight home or eager to get some sleep before the next day’s 12-hour leg. Most of us fly under contract, which means we keep whatever money remains at the conclusion of the trip, so it’s in our best interest to make every trip as expeditiously and economically as possible.

Broken down on an hourly basis, the pay isn’t that good, although it may seem so if you consider the day rate. Worst of all, the risk factor can be extremely high, probably right up there with crop-dusting, something that discourages most intelligent pilots, but attracts a small, lunatic fringe, of which I’m apparently included.

I’ve been threatening to write a book about ferry flying (and I still may), but a fellow ferry pilot and certainly one of the most experienced people in the business, Tony Vallone, just did. Vallone began flying for Globe Aero in the old days of 1974, and when I started with Lakeland, Fla.-based Globe in 1979, he was already one of the old pros with over 100 trips logged.


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