Early last summer, I had to leave a 421 with a mechanical problem in the middle of the Pacific and wrote about it on these pages. Maintenance dragged on for another six months before the airplane finally was ready to fly, delaying delivery from Subic Bay, Philippines, to the U.S. mainland beyond any reasonable expectation.
Since the October 2003 column, I’ve received at least 100 e-mails and letters from readers wondering what happened to the Majuro 421. Here’s the rest of the story.
I had delivered the airplane from Missouri to the Philippines in 2000. The client elected to upgrade to a King Air C90 in 2002 after flying the big Cessna for two years. Accordingly, they called me to return their 421 to the States and on to their offices in Panama, about 10,000 nm.
I departed Subic Bay initially on December 17, 2002, and made it only as far as Guam, where a recent typhoon had wiped out avgas supplies. Typical of the Pacific, not everyone had gotten the message about the lack of avgas, since no NOTAM had been issued. The handler in Subic hired for the trip hadn’t checked on fuel availability along the route and didn’t know about the fuel shortage in the Marianas.
As a result, I was forced to leave the airplane in Guam until fuel became available in mid-June of 2003. Leaving any machine in the rain and humidity of Guam is the ultimate insult, and a complex twin-engine airplane such as a 421 is especially susceptible to the ills of humidity. (It’s revealing that the U.S. military tests all its jungle equipment in Guam.)
When I returned to the island in early June, there was heavy corrosion covering practically everything and a number of corrosion-related problems. I consigned the airplane to Ken Flores of Freedom Air on Guam’s Agana International and returned home to California. The 421 was to require 60 hours of maintenance, a new fuel pump, a new HF antenna, new brakes and a variety of other aircraft parts—$8,300 worth of repairs altogether—before it could continue the trip.
Three weeks later, I returned to Guam for the third time and made two test flights around the island to check out all systems. After six months of delay, I was able to make the second leg, 1,600 nm to Majuro, Marshall Islands, in late June, logging just over 10 hours on the hop.
Two days after that, I was ready for the 2,000-nm leg to Honolulu, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the airplane wasn’t. Operating right at 2,000 pounds over gross, the airplane was sluggish in responding to takeoff power, a good thing as it turned out. Going through 60 knots, the right engine suddenly lost all power, and the airplane veered hard right for the sand beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I chopped the left throttle, stomped hard on the left brake and finally managed to turn off onto the ramp at the end of the runway.
As it turned out, the right throttle cable had snapped during the takeoff run (far better than snapping a minute later), another consequence of corrosion, and the engine had simply spooled back to idle. The airplane was stuck once more. I jumped on Air Micronesia and came home for the third time, pondering how to solve the latest problem.
It became apparent that the client needed a mechanic as well as a ferry pilot to shepherd its 421 the rest of the way across the Pacific. The airplane had so many maintenance issues that nothing less than a licensed mechanic needed to be on board for the trip. There is no FBO in Majuro, and even if there had been, their mechanics couldn’t legally have worked on an American airplane. While I might have been able to install the new throttle linkage, I certainly wouldn’t want to fly anything that I had fixed. Also, it wouldn’t have been legal, since I’m not an A&P. Accordingly, I handed off the trip to a good friend, excellent mechanic and professional pilot.
Fred Sorenson wound up making three maintenance runs to Majuro before the airplane was ready to continue to Honolulu. After a diversion to Tarawa for fuel, he finally managed to make it to Hawaii in November, only to have problems getting the gear down. He overcame that, then, lost partial brakes on landing. Fortunately, PHNL has long runways, and the airplane rolled out harmlessly. Again, corrosion was the culprit, and again, the 421 was delayed while repairs were made. Two trips to Hawaii later, my friend succeeded in ferrying the airplane to the U.S. mainland in early December 2003, just under a year after it left Subic Bay.
But wait, that’s still not the end of the story. On the ground in Las Vegas for de-tanking and a new annual inspection, the 421 had new problems. The shop found such massive corrosion that the client was obliged to top both engines, overhaul both props, both turbos and virtually everything attached to either. The final bill for the ferry, overhauls and annual was to come to just under $200,000.
The original destination for the trip had been Panama City, Panama, and Fred departed Las Vegas for Central America at the end of April. The first leg was to El Paso, Texas, and the following day, Fred was off the ground early headed for Brownsville, Texas, and Belize City, Belize. Climbing through 11,000 feet, the left engine went rough and began blowing smoke. Fred was forced to return to El Paso. A mag had essentially disintegrated and taken two cylinders with it.
Fred overhauled the two cylinders on the ground at El Paso, installed the new mag and was ready to fly the following day. This time, immediately after takeoff, the right prop governor failed and the prop feathered. Again, Fred returned to El Paso, replaced the prop governor and started off one more time toward Panama. “By this time, we’d replaced so much on the airplane, there literally wasn’t much left to fail,” Fred told me later.
This time, he made it, landing at Brownsville, Cozumel, Mexico, and San José, Costa Rica, en route. In view of his nine months of experience with Twin Cessna N49TD, however, it’s highly unlikely Fred will ever again accept a ferry job handoff from me.
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].