Sendai, Japan, is perched far up on the northeast corner of the country’s main island of Honshu. Its airport is well-known among resident pilots and delivery aviators as a popular nesting location for general aviation airplanes, even for owners living as far away as Tokyo or Osaka.
Space is at a premium throughout the country, and there are precious few airports available for tiedown or hangar storage.
More than coincidentally, every pickup or delivery I’ve made to the country has been to/from Sendai. The good news is that you can get to Sendai (or pretty much anywhere else in Japan) in a hurry by using the network of Bullet trains. These electric railroads scream along at the cruise speed of a Bonanza and can easily cover most of the distance from Sendai to Tokyo in a little over an hour.
My last trip to Japan was momentous because it occurred a few years before the cataclysmic tsunami that wiped out most of northern Honshu in a few minutes.
In this case, I’d flown airline into Tokyo’s Narita Airport, ridden the bullet train to Sendai and departed at daybreak the following morning for my first destination of Guam, U.S.A. I lifted off at daybreak and flew the 4-year-old Piper Mirage south along the east coast of Honshu.
It was one of those chamber of commerce days with CAVU conditions and an alleged smooth sky all the way to Guam. Well, at least part of the way.
I ascended above the huge Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as I climbed toward 21,000 feet. There’s a certain irony that Japan relies heavily on nuclear power, in view of its history. (I could never have guessed that several years later, the aforementioned tsunami would obliterate most of northern Honshu, including the Fukushima plant and the Sendai Airport.)
It was a nearly perfect day to fly, despite a major typhoon developing in the Western Pacific, blocking the direct course to my first destination of Guam. I was eager to make it around the southwest corner of the storm before it obstructed the route completely.
As I cruise-climbed south toward Tokyo, I watched the snow-capped Mt. Fuji volcano materialize in the distance, guarding the northern approach to Japan’s capital city.
The Mirage was running perfectly, and true to the forecaster’s promise, the sky was as smooth as a Ferrari paint job.
Level at FL210, I looked down on the incredible expanse of Tokyo. Somewhere down there—in fact, pretty much everywhere down there—35 million people were waking to another early fall day. Until you’ve seen Tokyo from relatively low altitude, you can’t imagine how much larger it is than most any other big city on the planet.
I was shaken from my Wikipedia reverie by a call from ATC advising me to alter course 30 degrees left. I rotated the bug, assumed the new course and headed southeast generally toward Iwo Jima (“Sulphur Island” in English).
Though I’d made several trips to and from Japan, this one was very different in a number of major respects. For one thing, I was flying the “wrong way.” It would be the longest delivery flight of my career, about 12,000 miles, more than halfway around the world, and in the wrong direction.
My final destination was Dusseldorf, Germany, and the more logical and shorter route would have been west through Russia. Slight problem—there’s no avgas anywhere in the country unless you pre-position it. Don’t even ask about the problems associated with that task.
Another semi-western route would be southwest across China, India, the Middle East, the length of the Mediterranean and into Germany from the south.
Political considerations, avgas availability, landing fees and overflight permits made that route inadvisable (read “damn near impossible”).
The eastern route across the Pacific was relatively simple. Fly to Guam (a current U.S. territory), on to Majuro (a former U.S. territory), then on to Hawaii and California (for a total of 7300nm). After that, it would be across the U.S. and northeastern Canada (3000nm) and the usual milk run route through Greenland and Iceland to Germany (2300 nm). This would be longer (12,600 nm total) but far safer, less expensive and less politically unstable.
Another unusual aspect of this trip was that I’d have two passengers in the right seat, though not at the same time. The first was the father of the Mirage’s former Japanese owner. The older man fought on the Japanese side at the WWII Battle of Tarawa and hoped to revisit the island on this trip.
My route wouldn’t take me all the way to Tarawa, but I would stop at Majuro, Marshall Islands, only 250 nm from Tarawa, and a commuter would fly my passenger the rest of the way to Tarawa.
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.
I’d continue the trip through Hawaii to Oakland, and the new owner would fly out from Germany, meet me there and ride the rest of the way home to Dusseldorf.
The old Japanese gentleman was typically courteous and friendly, and his English was far better than my Japanese, which was nonexistent, so we smiled a lot and didn’t try to talk too much.
The typhoon had moved south as we passed Mt. Fuji and Tokyo, and ATC vectored us even farther south to keep us clear of the weather. ATC taketh by adding miles, but gaveth by vectoring us toward tailwinds. At least, the peripheral winds around the typhoon were counter-clockwise and so were we.
The Mirage was humming along at a steady 230 knots ground speed—make that water speed. In this case, ATC was commanding our route, but if you have a choice, always fly right.
After turning the corner to the east, we flew close to Iwo Jima and marveled at how little there was to the island that claimed so many lives during WWII.
Today, both Japan and the U.S. use the island for military training and preparedness. Looking down from 21,000 feet, the place resembles a small desert in the middle of the ocean.
Shortly after we passed Mt. Suribachi, we were finally cleared direct to our destination.
Guam is a familiar stop on the road to or from the Far East. It’s a U.S. territory and home to Andersen Air Force Base, a vital facility. It’s also a major watering hole, a popular vacation spot for folks from Japan, Korea, Malaysia and points south.
The following morning, we climbed out of Guam headed for Majuro, Marshall Islands, 1500 miles east and smack in the middle of the Pacific. My passenger had been apprehensive during the first leg because of the approaching typhoon, but today he seemed more comfortable riding in a single-engine airplane across the world’s largest ocean.
Level at 17,000 feet with everything running smoothly, I advised him that I was going to switch to the 160-gallon, neoprene ferry tank. I wasn’t sure how much he understood, but I wanted him to know that the engine sometimes staggers as it sucks air during the transition to ferry fuel. Yesterday, the switch had gone without incident. My passenger smiled today as I hit the pump and flipped the selector to “ferry.”
Ten seconds later, the engine quit cold. I’m not understating the problem when I suggest that’s not necessarily a major emergency on an airplane fitted with a ferry tank. In fact, air bubbles can occur even on standard wing tanks.
Several years before, on an untanked delivery of another Mirage to Athens, Greece, I stopped in Reykjavik, Iceland for overnight and fuel. When I checked the fueler’s invoice the next morning, the quantity of fuel pumped seemed low. I went out to the airplane, popped the caps and the fuel levels were right to the top of the neck. I went to the wing tips, put my back under each wing and gave it two or three sharp shakes. When I rechecked the fuel levels, one was still at the top of the neck, but the other was well below full. I called the fueler back, and he pumped an additional eight gallons into the Mirage. That’s especially unusual on an airplane with high dihedral and a fuel points near the wingtip.
This Mirage had been tanked with a 160-gallon, Neoprene rubber container mounted on a wooden grating located on the floor between what had been the four aft seats. Ferry tanks can often accumulate slight air pockets that manifest themselves when you switch from a main tank to a ferry tank.
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For that very reason, we always run the engine at simulated cruise power on every tank we plan to use in flight while still in the runup area. I’d done that religiously before taking the runway at Guam, and both wing tanks plus the ferry tank fed the engine smoothly. Ferry pilots are still cautious when they make the first switch of the day from main to ferry.
My passenger didn’t know any of this, however, and his reaction to hearing the engine quit was understandably predictable. He began talking excitedly (in Japanese) and pointing at the engine.
Making matters worse, his pilot, me, simply sat there, waiting for the big Lycoming to clear the air bubble by itself and return to its reassuring hum.
It didn’t, at least for what I judged to be way too long. As speed bled away and it looked as if we’d soon start descending from our assigned IFR altitude, I switched back to a wing tank, and the engine obediently picked up again in a few seconds.
Meanwhile, my passenger was continuing to talk loud and fast and point at the engine, as if I was some kind of idiot and didn’t understand that there was a problem. There was no way I could reassure him, but I knew there was no life-threatening emergency.
At this point, he was looking at me as if I must be totally oblivious to the fact that the engine had failed and we were about to meet a watery grave in the Marianas Trench. Finally, after three attempts to feed fuel from the rubber ferry tank, there was obviously no choice but to return to Guam, now 80 miles behind us. I couldn’t make it to Majuro on internal fuel alone, so there was no other option.
“Guam, November 3274B is level at FL170, but we have a ferry tank that refuses to feed. We need to return to Guam. This is not an emergency, repeat, we do not have an emergency. ”
Guam cleared us for a 180 and a descent down to 10,000 feet. My passenger was now quiet as he finally saw the eastern edge of the island reappear ahead.
Back on the ground at Gum’s only general aviation FBO, I tracked down one of the mechanics who spoke fluent Japanese and English and told him what had just happened. I asked him to please explain to my apprehensive passenger that I was neither incredibly brave nor a complete idiot, and there was never any real risk as I knew the airplane would run normally on either of its two wing tanks.
I also asked if he could take a look at the ferry tank installation and determine why it was not feeding, especially in view of the fact that the system had worked well the previous day on the Sendai-to-Guam leg.
The following morning, the mechanic called the hotel and advised he’d solved the problem. I called the front desk and asked them to call my passenger and let him know we were good to fly, but the manager said he’d already checked out. The Japanese gentleman had left me a note that said he was taking a commuter flight over to Majuro and on to Tarawa.
He thanked me profusely for not making him go swimming the day before but said that experience was more excitement that he could stand more than once
The remainder of the trip went without a glitch. My 100LL avgas, barged in from Honolulu, was waiting for me in Majuro. The legs to Honolulu and on to Oakland went as planned, and the German owner was practically doing back-flips at the thought of riding across the Atlantic in his new/used Mirage.
Despite my basic distrust of rubber ferry tanks, the system worked perfectly for the remaining eight days of the trip.