There are a few airplanes that deserve better than they got, and I’ve always felt the Shrike Commander is one of them. I flew the big twin for the first time on a ferry to Europe 20 years ago, and I was impressed with its handling and comfort.
Since then, I’ve been privileged to fly a dozen or so other Twin Commanders—four or five domestic ferry flights, some pilot reports and, most significantly, a chance to ride and fly with Bob Hoover several years ago when he was perfecting his energy management routine. Pure adrenaline.
Last fall, I renewed acquaintances with a Shrike 500S. I contracted to pick up a 1976 model in Van Nuys, Calif., and ferry it 8,500 nm to Melbourne, Australia, for General Aviation Maintenance, a major charter company with 23 Commanders in service. I made the trip by a slightly different route than usual. After Honolulu, I flew to Christmas Island, Kiribati; Pago Pago, American Samoa; Honiara, Solomon Islands; and Cairns, Australia. Once again, the Shrike endeared itself to me as one of the nicest flying medium twins in the sky.
After the 14.3-hour crossing from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Honolulu, I took a day off to let my butt recover and then headed for Christmas. This was my first time through Christmas Island, an uncommon destination for ferry airplanes, as most flights route west or southwest out of Honolulu toward Japan, the Philippines or Australia. Although Christmas is 1,200 miles south of Hawaii, sitting practically on the equator, it actually lies 25 miles farther east than Honolulu. Even at only 157 degrees west longitude, however, it adopts the date on the west side of the international date line, where much of the rest of the Republic of Kiribati is located.
Most of the time, Christmas has no avgas available, so there’s little incentive for piston airplanes to stop there. In my case, there had been no fuel available in Majuro or Tarawa islands, so the customer had propositioned four 200-liter barrels at Christmas—at a cost of about $2.20 per liter ($8.30 per gallon.)
The remote 25x35-mile island is perhaps best known as the location of several dozen thermonuclear weapons tests during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The atoll offered the U.S. and British militaries an extremely remote location and is the largest atoll in the Pacific. It’s about 3,000 nm from the North American mainland and at least that far from Australia and New Zealand.
Despite dire predictions of some doomsayers, there appears to have been no lasting effects of the irradiation of Christmas Island. The current residents aren’t riddled with cancer; no one glows in the dark; and marine biologists haven’t discovered any 300-foot-tall, fire-breathing dragons living in the atoll’s lagoon with plans to attack Tokyo. Atmospheric, soil and water tests don’t indicate any higher levels of radiation than that experienced in a typical major U.S. city, regardless of the prevailing nuclear half-lives involved.
Since I was headed for Cairns, my next stop after Christmas was Pago Pago, American Samoa, 1,250 nm southwest of Christmas. Pago Pago is only 170 degrees west longitude, so of course, I had to step back a day to Honolulu’s date.
Pago Pago and Guam are popular destinations in the South Pacific, as they’re U.S. properties with all the amenities of home—well, most of the amenities, anyway—good hotels, food and facilities for little airplanes, something you don’t find just everywhere in that part of the world. Bring your wallet, however, as you can plan to pay about $6.50 per gallon for fuel.
The following morning, I was off early, headed for Honiara, Solomon Islands, on the island of Guadalcanal. It’s a 1,750 nm leg, just over 11 hours in a Shrike Commander, leaping a day forward again to the opposite side of the date line. Almost predictably, I ran into some of the worst weather of the trip, thunderstorms everywhere with rain harder than I’ve seen before. The tough Shrike took it all in stride, plowing through the wet stuff, enjoying its vigorous wash job.
Henderson Field on Guadalcanal was one of the most disputed air bases during WWII. Today, the Solomons are reasonably stable, an independent country heavily monitored by the Australians, who have major investments in the area. It takes three hours to get fueled by a hand pump from barrels, but at least, the petrol is reasonably inexpensive.
Australia has always been one of my favorite destinations, and Cairns is high on the list of best cities. In a dozen trips to Australia, I’ve managed to stop at every major city, and Cairns is an outstanding destination. Like so much of inhabited Australia, Cairns lies on the coast, in this case, the tropical northeast by the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a scenic town snuggled up against the coastal mountains. Just inland from Cairns, the land turns bleak and dry, and the dreaded outback begins. There’s essentially only one major city in the interior, Alice Springs, and the big attraction is Ayers Rock. Fifteen years ago, I flew nonstop from Cairns to Perth in a Cessna 337 and circled “The Rock” several times.
Once you’ve flown inland, you can understand why the vast majority of Australia’s population lives on the country’s east coast or southeast peninsula: Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. Tropical Darwin and modern Perth are the country’s two other major cities, separated by 1,000 miles of dry lakes and sand. In fact, most of the interior is dry and relatively inhospitable, a desert beyond most people’s imaginations. Most of the Australian coast is nothing short of paradise, but the outback deserves its reputation as an extremely hostile environment.
For pilots, flying in Australia is little different from flying in the U.S. VFR and IFR rules are much the same, although you’re encouraged to file at least a VFR flight plan for every trip so someone will know where to look if you fail to arrive at your destination. Minimum altitude is 500 feet, even over the most desolate section of the outback. Flying from Cairns direct to Melbourne is similar to traveling from Miami to Bangor, Maine. In Australia, you fly south into colder weather. When I left Cairns, the temperature was about 85 degrees F as the north country prepared for a warm summer in December. When I arrived in Melbourne eight hours later, it was down to a mere 50 degrees F.
All that was left was the long flight home on a Qantas 747. I needed six days and 53 flight hours to transit the 8,500 nm between Van Nuys and Melbourne. Qantas made the return trip to Los Angeles in 14 hours. Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite fair.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].