Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Not To Go

Contrary to popular belief, ferry pilots aren’t brave. Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid.

When I slogged down runway 15 ILS into Bangor two days ago, the Columbia had nearly an inch of ice on the wing-leading edge. The airplane didn't seem to mind, but I wasn't exactly happy about it.

Icing doesn't pay much attention to the equipment you fly. Several years ago, a California construction company decided to fly their King Air 200 to Anchorage, Alaska, on business. The crew was highly experienced in the King Air, but not in icing conditions. The trip north went well, but when it was time to return to the Lower 48, the captain and copilot were briefed on the possibility of severe icing conditions.

The captain made a comment to the briefer that, "I'm flying a King Air 200, so a little ice shouldn't be a problem."

Less than 10 minutes after departing Anchorage for Ketchikan, the King Air struggled back down the PANC ILS, covered with ice and nearly out of control. The pilot planted the airplane back onto the runway at Anchorage, appropriately humbled by his first experience with severe icing.

Fortunately, that's more the exception than the rule. Icing isn't the only problem that can delay an international delivery flight. Some pilots believe the biggest hazard of ferry flying is continued flight without continued fuel. In truth, most of us build in such natural reserves that running out is an unlikely option. On the West Coast-to-Hawaii run, the easy rule is simply to wait for better winds. Waiting is often the better part of valor.

The good news is that it nearly always gets easier after Hawaii. Santa Barbara to Honolulu is one of the longest ferry legs in the world, 2,160 nm, and the next leg to Majuro is only 1,985 nm. Then, it's a mere 1,600 nm if you're headed for Guam, or an easy 1,200 nm to Honiara, Solomons, if your destination is Australia or New Zealand.

I've had to answer for a number of delays over the years, everything from mechanical glitches that others might have considered insignificant, to adverse winds, to a bad cold that grounded me (in Bangor, coincidentally) and caused me to lose a Navajo Chieftain delivery to Stockholm. Still, I've learned that he who hesitates is usually correct.

You never know what to worry about and what to ignore, so most ferry pilots try not to ignore anything. Jon Egaas and I delivered a pair of Cessna 402s from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to Guam a dozen years back for a new Continental Airlines commuter service around the Marianas Islands. Since it was my contract, I had first choice of airplanes, and I chose the newer, better-equipped Businessliner.

At least, so I thought. On the first overwater leg from Santa Barbara to Honolulu, I detected a strange vibration that asserted itself about once every five minutes. I could see the evidence of vibration in the glass of the instrument faces, and I assumed it was a rough engine. Jon was in loose formation with me, so I snuggled up to him, and he looked me over but couldn't see anything obvious.

As we burned off fuel, the instrument faces settled down, and by the time we were four hours out of Hawaii, everything was smooth. We landed in Honolulu without incident, and I had Bryan Koki, then service manager at Air Service Hawaii, check everything he could. He found no problems.

On the next leg down to Majuro, the same thing happened. And again on the last leg over to Guam. We finally guesstimated that the problem was aerodynamic rather than mechanical, and related to the 1,500-pound overload of ferry fuel, stressing the airplane in unusual ways.

I've always remembered what instructor Gary Meermans told me quite a few years ago. "If you don't go, there might be some inconvenience and added expense, but I can absolutely guarantee the airplane will not be damaged, and no one will get hurt."


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