Like most new pilots, I began my career renting airplanes and flying with as many friends as I could to mitigate the cost. By today’s standards, the rental rates were a mere pittance, but to a pilot new to the wonders of the sky and eager to learn more, it was frustrating to let money stand in my way. I was always looking for interesting ways to expand my horizons.
In those days, I’d do anything to fly. Working at Douglas Aircraft as an engineer as my day job and writing at night, I scraped together a few bucks, $3,700 as I recall, and purchased a Globe Swift, the first of six airplanes I was to own. When the family budget barely allowed me to pay the Swift’s hangar but not buy fuel, I found other ways to fly.
I befriended a local Mooney/Maule/Grumman-American dealer in Long Beach, the most successful in the world for all three marquees, and delighted in ferrying a seemingly endless chain of new airplanes from Texas or Georgia back to the West Coast, sometimes stopping in Wichita.
I also became friends with local dealers for Piper, Cessna, Bellanca, Commander, Aerostar and anyone else whose checks were good, and I delivered airplanes domestically from pretty much anywhere they were to somewhere else they needed to be.
Eventually, of course, that wasn’t enough, so I landed a typical, aviation-bum, part-time job with a company in Florida, Globe Aero Ltd., delivering airplanes overseas. Through the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s from my base in California, I ferried any model someone was dumb enough to trust me with the keys to, everything from Conquests, Cheyennes, Caravans and Jetprops to Cherokees, Centurions, Mooneys and Bonanzas. It was often incredibly long hours and sometimes hard work, but it was fun and exciting flying. The pay wasn’t that bad (if you ignored the risk), and I got to see much of the world on someone else’s nickel.
Fortunately, in all that time, I only busted one airplane, a Piper Lance bound for Nairobi. The engine threw a rod over the Ogaden Desert of Ethiopia, only 400 miles from my destination, and I somehow found a spot flat enough to let me walk away from what was left of the airplane. I can only attribute my good fortune to a combination of luck and the fact that I had two German shepherds thinking good thoughts back home in Long Beach.
There were a few other emergencies here and there, a double engine failure in a Crusader over a small dirt strip in Gabon, frozen landing gear on a Mirage in Canada and a few other stupid pilot tricks, but miraculously, I never damaged another airplane. It truly was a miracle, so help me, Ernie Gann.
But there was nearly always something missing. Another person. The vast majority of my flights were flown solo. That’s no big surprise on international trips with ferry tanks in the airplane, as the ferry permit nearly always forbids any passengers while operating with fuel in the temporary cabin ferry tanks.
On some small singles bound for points across big water, passengers weren’t even a possibility, as all the seats except mine were replaced with fuel tanks. Even if I had a right seat installed, the insurance policy usually precluded carrying passengers because of the liability. Another limiting factor was the need to carry twice the survival gear, often impossible in small, single-engine airplanes.
On some Pacific deliveries, there sometimes wasn’t even room remaining for a suitcase, so I had to fly an “unpacked trip,” with clothes, toiletries and personal items tucked away anywhere there was space. “Did I put my toothbrush between the ferry tanks or was it under the rudder pedals?” I’d often have to buy a cheap suitcase in Australia or Japan to pack for the trip home.
I’m not complaining. In 35 years of delivering airplanes, I’ve seen some amazing things in the skies above the planet, from sunrises over Fiji and Capetown to sunsets in Seoul and Geneva. I’ve looked down on and sometimes flown through sandstorms in the Sahara, typhoons in the Pacific (from a distance), monsoon rains in the Philippines, blizzards in Greenland and Iceland, and the wildest of thunderstorms in Darwin and Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been broiled in +45-degree C temperatures in Djibouti and the Australian outback, and flown through -45-degree C cold in Northeastern Canada and Alaska.
Probably two million miles have passed beneath my wings, plus another two million on the airline trips home, always the toughest part of any ferry flight. While I envy buddies such as former TWA-captain Barry Schiff, who circled the globe hundreds of times in his 35-year career, the airline jets fly so high that crews and passengers rarely see much other than seven miles of vertical haze except during departure and approach.
I’ve flown most of my two million miles on delivery flights below 12,000 feet, relatively low where mountains and deserts, coastlines and rivers, cities and villages decorate the Earth and suggest how insignificant humans are to the planet.
Along the way, I’ve earned several hundred-thousand frequent-flyer miles, unfortunately all on the airlines, none in general aviation. Just what I want to do with my spare time—take an airline trip. Now, if I could only earn frequent- flyer miles in an Aerostar…
And, of course, it’s not over. The economy has slowed down, and so have I, although I still do a few trips a year, but now, I’ve suddenly discovered that flying alone really isn’t that much fun. Lord knows, I should be an expert at it by now. I still have the same appetite for the sky, the same enthusiasm to learn all I still don’t understand.
When I look back over what I’ve been privileged to see and do in my checkered career, my only regret is that I haven’t been able to share most of those experiences except in print. I was always just trying to make a living. Even so, I can still remember so many things I could never possibly forget, but it’s more than a little sad that I’ll never be able to truly share the visual, audible and tactile memories with anyone.
There’s still time, however. One of these days, when time and money allow, I’ll wet more of the wing on the LoPresti Mooney to provide nine hours endurance and take pilot Peggy to Europe. I’ll fly the route I’ve flown hundreds of times—Bangor, Goose Bay, Narsarsuaq, Reykjavik, Glasgow, London, Paris—and I’ll enjoy it immensely, specifically because I won’t be getting paid to do it.