One October, about 10 years ago, a student of ours called the office. David, an English fellow then living in Australia, had gotten his Private Pilot certificate with us the previous year. He asked for advice on buying a DA20 to fly out of his Sydney base. CEO, Seosamh Somers, quickly suggested he buy a DA40 instead. The price for a DA40 in America was right and the practical aspects of this purchase would make more sense — until we decide to break world records. Without hesitation, Somers suggests to fly it across the pacific to its new home.
Off they went — the search came down to two planes, one in Scottsdale, Arizona and another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They chose the plane in Florida. Since the first leg to Australia was a non-stop flight (by no choice) from Santa Barbara, California to Hilo, Hawaii, it was by due diligence to test the plane’s stamina on a long flight across the United States.
Luck of the Irish 🍀 the alternator failed in Nowheresville, Texas, which was what we would have considered somewhat of an inconvenience if it had happened 1000 nm into the 2000 mile flight to Hawaii as opposed to 1000 miles into the 2000 mile flight from Florida to California.
After fixing the plane, removing all the seats (except the pilot seat) and placing three aluminum auxiliary tanks inside the cabin, the DA40 was converted from a 50 gallon 650 nm flying machine to a 186 gallon 2200 nm ocean crossing mini-beastie. With only one seat remaining, Somers was going to have to do it solo — even with the extra 25% gross weight increase given by the FAA for ferry operations — there was not enough useful load or room for two to do the trip.
By December, we are ready to go. Somers equipped with HF radio, immersion suit, Peanut M&Ms and Red Bull was fully prepared for his journey. Fight planning suggested 5 knot maximum headwinds for launch. So there he sat, ready to go, waiting for the winds and nerves to abate. It only took four months for the trade winds to shift north enough — and the people advising against his plan to forget it was ever happening — when he finally departed Santa Barbara, California at 0530 local.
“I had second thoughts when the DA40 was fully fueled, causing the plane to tip on its tail (‘a little extra fuel for the fairies’ I had mentioned to the fueler). Thankfully, when I climbed into the cockpit and moved the Peanut M&Ms into the front footwell, the plane settled on all three wheels.
Sunrise casting its hue on the morning, I lined up on the long, westerly runway and, cleared as filed, off I went. I held the plane on the runway longer than usual conscious of the extra weight and ferry pilot stories of overloaded aircraft echoing in my head. When I rotated the plane, it leaped to the air like it never knew there was reason it should hesitate and the journey started.
Climbing to 6,000ft, as per my clearance, I became preoccupied with contacting San Francisco for my oceanic clearance on the HF radio, a great time to realize that I had no idea how to use it. LA Center handed me off to San Fran Oceanic when I didn’t deny I had already made the necessary contact. Cue the sat phone — and after speaking to a switch board operator, through the janitorial department (I think), who passed me to a controller — I had my Oceanic clearance.
An hour later, I was picking up ice and not terribly worried until I noticed the HF radio antenna from wingtip to tail was oscillating like a skipping rope with it’s new found natural frequency. Noticing my transponder had no reply light, uncontrolled airspace was below me and the sat phone a pain to operate, I descended toward the pacific below to warmer air. Once the ice was shed, I made a ‘gradual’ climb back to my cleared altitude. This was over the next five hours as the temperatures aloft rose as my latitude dropped.
‘There I was’ as the best jokes start, wearing a diaper and an orange immersion suit that reminded me of a joke sumo wrestling costume.
Not to get overly philosophical, but there is a lovely calm, or maybe delirium, that seems to overcome you in the inevitability of circumstance. I am a bit of a control freak and I did everything possible to plan, prepare and preflight. Once in flight over the ocean, you are now completely out of control as you surrender to this 180hp air-cooled glorified VW Beetle engine. Now I see why sailors became so superstitious. I would check the cylinder head temperatures and EGTs and monitor the correlation in the health of the engine and how it was probably performing at its best as long as I ate the M&Ms in the order of the electromagnetic spectrum (starting with red and working through orange, yellow, green and lastly blue). This seemed to work well — and should probably be adopted by all ferry pilots.
I had a 400 page book to read on the global economic crisis, “Too Big To Fail” and I thought I would make good progress through this wheel chock of a book by nightfall. I was wrong. I did not make it past the first two pages. I would repeatedly become distracted by the noises of the varying molecular disturbances I was hearing in the engine. Checking my M&Ms were still in order to satisfy me the world was right — I would attempt to get back to the book. Inevitably, I lost my place, would start again, hear the phantom noises and so the cycle went.
I had better luck with the HF manual and even managed to grunt at San Francisco Oceanic a few times to update my position and virtual altitude. Unfortunately, my dyslexia got the better of me and, due to a slight mix-up, FlightAware showed my position as if I had decided to turn around halfway. Unbeknownst to me I was even on FlightAware courtesy of these position reports and (worse) poor David in Sydney was watching. He later explained how his coffee spewed from his mouth onto his computer keyboard when FlightAware updated that one time.
Though chasing the sun, the morning turned into day and then back into night.
I continued to baby the engine as I reinforced my colored candy cult. I had now worked out the plane was within its normal envelope and I would engage the co-pilot — wait autopilot. Thirty minutes later and 400 miles from Hawaii sitting in my massive orange sumo suit, my religion had its first schism as I entered an area of cumulonimbus clouds, heavy rain and lightning. The autopilot came off and I was moving the throttle from full power to idle and back with the appropriate pitch changes to keep generally straight and an approximation of level as I became fully awake in the heavy rain and deep black. No time to worry, just fly. After a while and the weather settled I finally felt like I was actually piloting this white dot and not just some gerbil sent on a ride in some cruel child’s remote control toy.
Three and a half hours later I was cleared for the ILS into Hilo with weather approaching minimums in heavy rain with a healthy crosswind. As I flew the ILS with 1000ft to go, I could not work out why the hell my airspeed was so high even though I had the flaps to approach. (I had pulled the flap circuit breaker 18 hours ago after retracting them out of Santa Barbara for fear of the HF radio interfering with their operation — a tenant of the ferry pilots old religion.) After getting the speed under control and dampening the sword fight between the localizer and glide-slope, I saw the lights of the runway and landed on the biggest of the Sandwich islands.
As I moved off the runway onto the taxiway, the airplane seemed to ignore my commands, turned under its own will and settled perpendicular to the taxiway centerline. It was as if a wheel had fallen off. I shut the plane down, opened the hatch to the tropical downpour and stumbled out of the plane in diaper and sumo suit. Kind of thankful in that moment I had worn the immersion suit. I zipped it up and covered my head with the hood as I looked under the wing at the rogue wheel. The tire was deflated and I was stuck on a taxiway after 18.5 hours of flight.
What next? Oh yeah — through the darkness and through the rain I saw a large jet was taxiing out of the ramp and proceeded to head toward me on the taxiway I beached on. They must see me, they are not slowing down, I should run, but this was David’s plane. I opened the canopy of the plane, dived head first into the cockpit, turned on the master switch and turned on all the lights. The jet is still not slowing down. I ripped the hood off my head, popped my headset back on and radioed on what I hoped was the common traffic frequency. ‘Hilo traffic, to the jet taxiing out, yes — you, please look outside — and stop, stop, STOP.’ They stopped, chatted, maneuvered via an alternative route and said bye.
Two hours later, after the kind people in airport security helped move the plane, I was in a hotel room listening to David explain how I owed him a new keyboard. I had just completed the longest ferry flight of a DA40 of 2114 nm from KSBA to PHTO, found the last M&M in my headset bag (it was blue), ate it and fell asleep.”