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The first glimpse you get of Hawaii on the long ferry leg from California is usually the twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island, punching through the clouds some 2000 miles from the mainland.
The Big Island is the farthest east of the Hawaiian chain, and it definitely deserves its capitol B. It comprises 80 percent of the land in Hawaii, and Its two monster mountains, both nearly 14,000 feet tall, are the tallest in the world when measured from their shared lava base, nearly 19,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific. The island’s twin dormant volcanoes stand like round-top sentinels guarding America’s 50th state.
If you’ve been sitting in a single-engine, piston airplane for fourteen hours, destination Honolulu, the very sight of those rounded peaks makes your butt hurt just a little less. The capitol of Paradise is less than two hours away.
In this case, it’s the dawn of the 21st century, and I’ve been plugging along in a new 2000 model, Cessna Turbo Stationair, bound for Australia four days from now. The reliable Trade winds began rotating clockwise toward the tail four hours ago, and I’ve been gaining on 170 knots ever since.
The new T206 is running well. All systems are functioning perfectly, and all engine indications are in the green. Cessna’s Stationair is a talented, comfortable machine, with Swiss Army Knife versatility and plenty of room for me, my raft and vests, Jepp plates, survival suit, food, water and an HF radio and a satellite phone on the right seat. (Much of the time on the high road to Australia, the long legs demand a right seat tank, so we often must pull the copilot’s bucket and ship it or find a place to tuck it in back.)
The Stationair isn’t terribly fast, but that’s less important than what it can haul and where it can go. The T206 is, after all, a utility machine with modest off-runway talents. It’s also a stable platform, capable and comfortable on a 15-hour flight, where comfort scores more points than an extra 10-20 knots.
I’ve gradually drifted up to 14,000 feet where the Trades provide a welcome push for little airplanes flying above big water. At this altitude, I hardly ever see any traffic, except for the contrail of an occasional airliner flying high above.
Back in the bad ole’ days before GPS, contrails could came in handy. Hawaii’s plethora of AM Broadcast stations made it practically impossible to miss the islands if you had an ADF aboard, but beyond Hawaii, contrails used to help us navigate the long ocean legs.
Aircraft without the benefit of VLF Omega or inertial navigation were relegated to finding the next islands by point and shoot, better known as dead reckoning. We always had a rough idea where we were on the chart, but If we needed to check the winds or our current position and spotted a contrail above, we’d tune in 121.50, and ask, “Airliner at about 16.40N, 170.50W, come back if you read me.”
If anyone responded, we’d suggest a change to 123.45, then say something like, “We’re out of Honolulu for Majuro in a Cessna Stationair and were wondering if you could verify our position for us.” The airline pilots were usually bored to tears, and they were nearly always happy to help.
To make sure we were looking at the proper airliner, we’d ask, “We may be looking at your contrail. Could you make a gentle S-turn so we know we’re talking to the correct airplane and then give us your inertial position.” If the contrail above made a slight ziggy in the sky, we knew he was roughly where we were. GPS made the whole process much easier.
On my Stationair trip, Honolulu starts me downhill toward the entry corridor over Kalaupapa, Molokai into PHNL. As usual, ATC vectors me out to sea south of Honolulu International at 1000 AWL (Above Water Level) and finally turns me back in for a long, straight-in approach to runway 4R.
The landing is uneventful, and I turn off the active and head for Air Service Honolulu. Flight time from Santa Barbara – 15 +08, and the Hobbs meter reads 31.2 hours as I taxi in to the ramp. My friend, service manager Brian Koki, is in front of the hangar and waves me into a parking spot.
Following the usual pleasantries about where I’ve been lately and what I’ve been flying, I casually pop open the oil door and pull the dipstick to check oil burn on the 15-hour leg. I had the oil changed at the Cessna dealer in Long Beach, but experience suggests there’ll be some burn, even on a new engine.
Brian looks over my shoulder and comments, “Boy, that’s some of the cleanest oil I’ve seen after a Pacific crossing. I can hardly see a level.”
I can’t see one either. I wipe off the dipstick, push it back into place, and pull it back out. Again, neither Brian nor I can see a level.
Brian walks back to the shop and returns with three quarts of Shell’s finest. We pop the plastic caps and pour the contents of two bottles into the funnel, then, check the oil again, and we can just barely see a level at the very bottom of the dipstick.
“Bill, it looks as if you burned eight or nine quarts of oil between Santa Barbara and here,” Brian comments. He adds the third quart, and the level rises slightly on the bottom of the dipstick.
And so the mystery begins. The Australian owner’s new $360,000 Stationair (remember, this was in 2000) sits forlorn on the ramp in Honolulu. Lycoming suggests the engine checked out to specs before it was shipped to Cessna. The Cessna factory claims the airplane was perfect when I picked it up in Wichita.
Understandably, the owner, a retired Qantas 747 pilot, wants a new engine for his new airplane. Someone would probably blame me if they could, but no one can figure how a pilot could induce high oil consumption, so I’m off the hook. Also, I still have the invoice for the oil change in Long Beach, so I’m not a factor in the debate
I’m installed at a comfortable hotel looking out on the sights of Waikiki Beach while everyone fights it out.
Brian pulls the cowling, drains the oil, does a compression test and performs every diagnostic he can think of. The airplane’s belly is a little oily, but it hardly looks dirty enough to account for eight or nine quarts of blow-by. No one can come up with a reason for the high oil consumption. The question is, now what?
Finally, with everyone pulling their hair out trying to understand where all that oil went, I make a suggestion that Cessna, Lycoming, the customer and the Australian dealer agree with.
Why not, I propose, top off the oil and let me take the T206 on a four-hour flight above Oahu at 12,000 feet, circling high above the airport; then, land, check oil consumption on that flight and decide on the next step?
The following day, I launch into a typically beautiful Hawaiian morning, ATC vectors me in the climb, and I set up a racetrack pattern in case I need to return to the airport. Again, the airplane runs perfectly, and the engine instruments give no hint of problems.
Four hours later, I wake up and advise ATC that I’m ready to land, and thirty minutes after that, I’m shutting down in front of the Air Service office.
The engine burned one quart. After more conference calls across four time zones, the only logical course of action is for me to continue the trip if I’m willing.
I’m willing. The following day, long before the sun has topped Diamond Head crater, I’m off and flying toward Majuro, Marshall Islands, 2000 miles south-southwest of Honolulu, located in the geographic center of the Pacific.
If there’s any sign of trouble and I develop engine problems early in the flight, Johnston Island is only about 700 miles out, right on track. It’s an allegedly top secret military base, but I was in there once before when a Mirage I was ferrying from Sendai, Japan to San Jose, California developed a fuel leak in the ferry tank. I was forced to stop and make repairs. The military wasn’t happy, until I declared an emergency, and that seemed to solve the problem.
The Stationair seems totally oblivious to all the furor back in Honolulu and is again flying beautifully, breathing comfortably at 12,000 feet, pushed along by the full force of the Trades and managing 180 knots across the water. I have a supplemental oil system on the floor of the copilot’s position, and I’ll pump in a quart of oil every four hours, just in case. If the airplane doesn’t need it, the only consequence will be another dirty belly.
I land at Majuro 10 minutes before curfew, and immediately check the oil level. Sure enough, things are getting better. I added two quarts during the 12.5-hour flight, and the level was down a quart, so I’d used three quarts total or a quart every four hours. I call the dealer in Sydney and give him the good news, and he promises to pass the word to the owner.
I refuel, check into the Majuro hotel and file my flight plan for tomorrow’s hop down to Honiara, Solomon Islands on infamous Guadalcanal. A half-century ago, the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal was a deadly confrontation that kicked the Japanese out of the Solomon Islands for good. Today, Henderson Field is a sleepy stop for vacationing Australians and ferry pilots.
The next day, I depart early and pass by the tiny Micronesian island of Nauru on my way south, now a desolate moonscape of pockmarked earth and not much else. Up until the late 20th century, Nauru was the richest country in the South Pacific, all because of phosphate mining.
Before you look it up, phosphate is basically, well, bird poop. In the glory days, the minuscule, 15 square mile island was a popular nesting spot for millions of migrating seabirds, and the government made big money off what the birds left behind. International fertilizer companies moved in and began to strip-mine the island aggressively.
Wallowing in boundless cash, Nauru built a 7,000-foot runway capable of handling 737s, then, bought a half-dozen of the talented Boeings and started Air Nauru with a route structure that reached all over the South Pacific.
Eventually, after the government had squandered their country’s only exportable product, Nauru went bankrupt, and most of the population moved away. Air Nauru sold all its aircraft except one and continues to fly on a limited basis. Today, hardly anyone lives in Nauru, but I understand land is really cheap.
The big question on the ground at Honiara was again oil burn, and almost predictably, it had improved. The Stationair’s Lycoming had burned just under two quarts in 9.5 hours. That’s about a quart every five hours. Whatever mysterious mechanical gremlin prevailed on the first leg had apparently healed itself.
The final 1500 nm leg down to Sydney is anti-climactic. When I arrive at Bankstown Airport, everyone is all smiles, and the new Stationair is the star of the ramp as the FBO removes the ferry tanks, HF radio, survival gear and other ferry equipment. Oil burn is one quart every six hours.
The owner is understandably ebullient that his airplane has finally arrived, and he insists I stay over an extra two days for a party with his pilot buddies. They’re all curious about the idiot who drove a single-engine, piston airplane from Wichita to Sydney, 8,200 nm across the Pacific, with an unknown oil consumption problem.
And I even get a first class ride home to California on Qantas.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.