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.
Three decades later, Vallone is out of the ferry business, having somehow survived 260 trips. Survival, in fact, was the primary reason he retired. The annual mortality rate among ferry pilots is typically 5%, and since there are less than 100 full-time pilots doing the job, that means five ferry pilots a year make their final flights. After 21 years of delivering everything from Piper Cherokees to Grumman Albatrosses to destinations from New Guinea and South Africa to Austria and Japan, Vallone knew the odds were starting to run against him. Accordingly, Tony decided to turn in his life raft.
Air Vagabonds (Smithsonian Books, 2003) is one of the most interesting and accurate books I’ve seen on the subject of ferrying little airplanes across big water. The book took six years to produce, and Vallone relates the experiences of a quarter-century pretty much as they happened, describing the inevitable dangerous missteps and ludicrous incidents that sprinkle a career spent flying above every ocean (except the Antarctic) and every continent on earth.
Better still, the author gets his points across without indulging in pilot-speak. Like doctors and attorneys, pilots sometimes speak to each other in their own language, effectively excluding those outside the club. Vallone wisely avoids this trap, explaining technical details when necessary in layman’s terms.
He also details the many, diverse characters he’s met in 30 years of ferry flying. I’ve known most of these folks since I took my first trip for Globe from Florida to the Paris Air Show in 1979 in a new Seneca II, and Vallone’s characterizations are right on. He describes the people and the time with humor and accuracy, never embarrassing anyone but sometimes glossing over the lowest points.
An inveterate adventurer more interested in fun and international intrigue than money, Vallone disdained an airline career and signed on as a ferry pilot with Globe Aero at exactly the right time. In 1974, general aviation was approaching its modern apex, and Globe was eventually to ferry 400 or more airplanes a year across the oceans. At that time, Globe was under the direction of veteran ferry pilot Walt Moody. Later, Phil Waldman took over the reins and steered Globe through the ’80s and ’90s to become the largest company in the business. As one of Globe’s most senior pilots, Vallone would rank among the company’s most experienced delivery experts. In those days, a pilot could easily fly 20 trips a year and make $25,000, not a fortune, but a reasonable wage in the mid-’70s. (One energetic ferry pilot, Bob Moriarty, flew 38 international deliveries in 1983—nearly one every 10 days.)
Vallone became especially proficient on the Pacific and was well-known on the route through Honolulu to Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. He was also something of an Africa expert and spent his share of time leading other pilots across the Dark Continent, usually headed for South Africa, a single beacon of civilization in an otherwise primitive, hazardous continent.
Flying Africa was always a challenge, and Vallone learned to ad-lib when flying off the edge of the chart to places where whatever government there was in the country often made up the rules as they went along. Over-flight and landing clearances could be impossible to come by, and standard procedure was to fly at night with all the exterior lights off to keep from being shot down from the air. If something did go bump in the flight and you went down for mechanical reasons, search and rescue assets were mostly non-existent, so if you couldn’t make it out of the bush on your own (as I learned in Ethiopia in 1998), you were probably out of luck. Maintenance facilities were similarly sparse and primitive, and Africa was almost universally regarded by ferry pilots as the world’s most difficult destination.
Vallone tells the story of international ferry flying better than anyone I’ve read, and I highly recommend his book, Air Vagabonds, to all my e-mail pals and anyone else with an interest in this most unusual aviation discipline.
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]