Before you read further, rest assured that this isn’t a treatise on how to ditch an airplane. In 40 years and 250 trips delivering new and used aircraft across one (or, in some case, both) of the world’s largest oceans, I’ve only lost one airplane—a six-seat Piper Lance, and that was in one of the driest places on Earth, the southern Sahara Desert of Ethiopia, Africa.
On that trip from Santa Monica to a planned destination of Nairobi, Kenya, I almost wished I had been over water. When the engine failed, the blistering desert below was anything but flat and level; no roads or even game trails, nothing that passed for an imaginary runway, just rocks, sand dunes and acacia trees, all baking at 114° Fahrenheit. At least an ocean landing would’ve been cooler.
Long story short, the airplane was totaled in the crash, but I must have done something right, as the owner and I walked away without a scratch.
Flying over water didn’t come naturally to me. In 1977, I was doing a story on how Piper moves airplanes from Vero Beach to points European. With the help of Phil Waldman, managing director of Globe Aero Ltd. in Lakeland, Florida, I flew a new Seneca from Lakeland to the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport, where the Seneca joined a group of new Pipers on static display.
I was a little apprehensive about my first Atlantic crossing, 1,800 nm across one of the angriest and least-hospitable oceans on the planet. Typical water temperatures in late May rarely rise above 50 degrees F in mid summer. In winter, the water temp drops far below that level, down to 30 degrees or less. (Moving salt water can remain liquid well below normal freezing level.)
Additionally, the North Atlantic off Newfoundland, below Greenland and Iceland, is infamous for fierce storms that can swell ocean waves to 30- to 40-foot crests.
In other words, if you’re forced to ditch in the Atlantic at any time of year, no matter how complete and expensive your complement of survival gear, you have only three chances of survival: slim, fat and none.
One ferry pilot, Harry Rhule, was flying a Twin Comanche home to the U.S. from Europe in November and had a tank fail to feed during the relatively short 650-nm leg from Wick, Scotland, to Reykjavik, Iceland. He had about 30 minutes of fuel remaining when he maydayed, but there was no land close enough to reach. He had passed the Faroe Islands, and there was nothing but water between him and Iceland.
Harry finally reached a Bondurant turboprop that was over-flying the same route at FL 200. Harry explained his problem, and the Bondurant pilot suggested he ditch while he still had some power remaining rather than attempt to dead-stick into the North Atlantic with few control options.
The Bandit pilot dropped down to Harry’s altitude and spotted the little Twin Comanche above the waves. He also saw a cruise ship a few miles ahead and directed Harry toward it.
Unfortunately, there was no way to talk to the cruise ship, as aviation and marine radio traffic use different frequencies. (I used to carry a portable marine radio for that specific reason.)
In desperation, the Bandit pilot circled the ship and buzzed it several times, trying to get it to stop. He finally succeeded—the ship’s lookout spotted the Twin Comanche and the ship captain turned his vessel toward the airplane.
Harry had managed to get into his survival dry suit before he hit the water, but the waves were running 15 feet at the crests, and the ditching was very rough. Harry lost his raft in the ditching and was left bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean with a water temperature later estimated at about 36° F.
Harry said later that he couldn’t believe how cold the water was. He said the 15 minutes the rescue boat took to reach him seemed like an hour.
A very cold Harry Rhule emerged from the experience unhurt but wiser and determined to buy a portable marine radio before his next trip.
Many years after Harry’s brush with eternity, I was flying a new Piper Arrow straight across from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Shannon, Ireland, and I was reporting my position through a relay courtesy of TWA. When the Trans World captain finished the relay back to Gander, he asked me questions about my airplane and my sanity.
“How many engines on an Arrow?” he questioned. That’s not as elementary as you might think. Many airline captains cycle through the military directly to the airlines with little general aviation experience.
“Just one, a four-cylinder 200-hp Lycoming,” I answered.
“Do you have any radio navigation aids to help you determine position?” he asked.
“Just an ADF tuned to an LF commercial broadcast station near Shannon and a flight log with lots of numbers,” I replied.
“I see from your position report that you’re down at 9,000 feet in the clouds. Are you picking up any ice? Do you have de-ice equipment on board that little airplane?”
“Yeah, I have pitot heat,” I joked, “but I just flew through some light rime a while back, not too bad. It’s pretty much sublimated now.”
The TWA captain chewed on that for a while, then said, “Better you than me, buddy. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have four turbine engines.”
The captain’s point about number of engines over the ocean brings up an interesting question. How many are optimum? If you’re flying behind only one and that one quits, you’ll obviously have to ditch.
But don’t imagine that having two engines provides ultimate protection. Very few general aviation aircraft can manage an ocean crossing, especially on the Pacific, without supplemental fuel tanks.
On a big twin such as a 421, Duke or Chieftain, you may have as much as 250 gallons of ferry fuel installed in the cabin. That can put you as much as 25% over gross (about 1,400 pounds in a 421), and few twins will maintain any altitude at all if an engine fails at that weight. (The FAA issues Special Airworthiness Certificates to ferry aircraft that must operate at abnormal gross weights.)
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Conversely, having two engines can be a major advantage in some types of emergencies. Since we virtually always have ferry tanks installed on every oceanic flight, we make it a point to test fuel feed at near-cruise power on each tank before departing. If you fail to do that and one tank refuses to feed, you may discover too late that you don’t have sufficient fuel to complete the trip if one tank refuses to feed.
One pilot headed for Hawaii failed to test each ferry tank in a twin on the ground in Santa Barbara before departing for Honolulu and discovered the problem as he was approaching the Big Island of Hawaii. He knew he couldn’t make land at any power setting with both engines running, but he also knew the airplane had burned down to relatively light weight near the end of the trip and could probably maintain altitude on one engine. He also theorized that the airplane would actually realize slightly better fuel specifics with one mill feathered.
He shut down one engine and snuck into Hilo on the north side of the Big Island with what turned out to be 10 gallons remaining.
Another pilot, Ray Clamback of Sydney, Australia, one of the world’s most experienced ferry pilots, went in the water halfway between the Big Island and Christmas Island in the Pacific in October 2004.
Ray was on his way to Australia in a near-new 182 and began to lose oil pressure 600 miles south of Kona.
As it happened, I was flying the same leg 50 miles ahead of Clamback. I was driving a freshly reconditioned Shrike Commander to Cairns, Australia, and I was talking to Ray about his new HF radio, when he suddenly said, “Stand by. I’m losing oil pressure.”
Nothing Ray did alleviated the problem, and it soon became obvious he was going into the Pacific.
Like Harry Rhule above, Ray made a semi-successful ditching, but the fixed-gear Cessna “submarined” on touchdown (went inverted), and Ray lost his raft and all other survival gear except the vest he was wearing when the airplane nosed into the water.
“When the airplane hit the water, it flipped end-over-end, and I was lucky to get out at all,” Ray said later. The Skylane went down, leaving Ray alone halfway out on the 1,000-mile leg to Christmas.
Well, not exactly.
Clamback had another Skylane flying with him, and pilot Lyn Gray marked his spot until the U.S. Coast Guard C-130 arrived overhead and dropped survival gear. Ray was picked up later by a container ship headed for Melbourne.
Though both Harry Rhule and Ray Clamback lost all their ferry gear in their ditchings, the big question is always how much survival gear is enough. I know of some pilots who skimp on the major investment necessary to cover all eventualities. Many of them are no longer with us.
It’s important to remember that you’ll need to get all that equipment home somehow after you deliver the airplane. An HF radio, two- or four-man life raft, die markers, flares, portable GPSs, survival rations, a fishing kit, water and a myriad of other items can increase the cost of getting into the ferry business by thousands of dollars.
It’s important to remember, however, that it all may be worth the investment if it only saves your life once.