Hangar Flying: The Big Book of Ferry Tales

 - December 17, 2007, 9:22 AM

During the heyday of small-airplane manufacturing in the mid- to late 1970s, factories in Wichita, Lock Haven and Vero Beach built tens of thousands of airplanes, and every one of them somehow had to find its way from the conclusion of the production flight-test process into the hands of an owner or dealer. In some cases, the factory would roll out the red carpet and make a little ceremony of handing over the freshly minted airplane to its owner. Maybe a dealer would send an employee to pick up the order. Sometimes an aviation journalist would deliver a new airplane to a dealer and write about the machine and the trip.

Delivery of small airplanes into the hands of overseas customers presented a higher degree of complication, and a cadre of international ferry pilots sprang up to meet the need. Faced with crossing thousands of miles of open ocean before (they hoped) arriving at an island tech stop, these pilots kept alive the sort of derring-do that shaped the adolescence of aviation in the 1930s. Make no mistake, ferrying a light piston single over the North Atlantic in the pre-GPS 1970s and 1980s took no less guts than the pioneers had summoned when dry land receded behind them 40 and 50 years earlier. The ferry pilots were doing it not for glory or for the record books but simply to make a lonesome living while satisfying the same quest for adventure that drove the pioneers.

Anthony Vallone was one of that breed, and he has written a book about his experiences (and those of his compatriots) ferrying small airplanes worldwide between 1974 and 1995. (Air Vagabonds: Oceans, Airmen and a Quest for Adventure; ISBN 1-58834-137-2; Smithsonian Books; 305 pages; 16 pages of b&w photographs; $29.95.) The author writes with no swagger or bravado about his accomplishments, and with keen observation about those with whom he worked and about the people he met on his wanderings.

Vallone found himself in the ferrying industry by answering a help-wanted ad in Trade-A-Plane that read: “Pilot to fly solo throughout the world. Contact Globe Aero, Box 555, Lock Haven, PA 17745.” The decision to respond to the ad had not come easily: “The problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Some days I thought about finding a stable job with a good retirement, getting married, having kids and spending holidays at home with family and friends–everything exemplified by such dubious icons of cultural lore as Ozzie Nelson and Ward Cleaver…The next day I wanted to chuck everything, fly to Africa and hitchhike down the Cape Town to Cairo highway. I was constantly floundering between wanting a normal life and one of adventure and travel.”

He had followed “every lead and cockeyed scam that sounded the least bit interesting” for two years before stumbling across the Globe Aero ad in Trade-A-Plane.

Vallone was also still enamored of the theory that airline flying represented the pinnacle of aviation’s social structure and general aviation was the province of bottom feeders. Globe Aero owner Walt Moody had locked up a contract with Piper to ferry its airplanes hither and yon, and it was in his interests as a businessman to convince job candidates that ferry pilots, in fact, led a much more challenging and rewarding life. “Everybody wants to fly for the airlines,” he told Vallone. “Big airplanes, fancy uniforms, and you can’t beat the pay. But you don’t do anything yourself any more. They’ve got dispatchers and schedulers and ground crews to do everything. Ferrying small airplanes is different, because if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. You have to do your own flight planning, analyze the weather and decide on the best route. You have to take care of customs, hotels, airline reservations and everything else yourself. It’s one of the last jobs in aviation where the pilot is still kind of like a pioneer and is responsible for everything. And you don’t have a lot of regulations and paperwork.” True words, as evidenced by the remainder of the book.

Not all ferry pilots were able to align the realities of the job with their expectations for it, as Vallone reflected shortly before taking off for his first transpacific ferry flight (bound for Australia in a Baron and in formation with Phil Waldman in another airplane) and leaving “the safe familiarity of the North American continent for the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.”

“Several times in the past, pilots [with nothing but hours of ocean in every direction beneath their wings] returned to San Francisco after reassessing their faith in things mechanical. More often than not, they just abandoned the airplane, leaving Globe Aero to bear the costs of straightening out the logistical mess.”

Departure times for oceanic legs were often dictated more by the time of day on arrival at the destination (to avoid afternoon thunderstorm buildups or to have daylight remaining for a ditching in the water if, for example, Pago Pago failed to materialize as planned and could not be found before the fuel ran out) than by conformity with the pilot’s circadian clock. So it was that Vallone and Waldman, bound for the Hawaiian Islands nonstop from San Francisco, “settled in for the long ride of nothing but ocean and stars. I felt secure in my cocoon, protected from the elements of wind and water. All seemed so placid that it was difficult to imagine the ferocity of the ocean a mere mile below me. As I steered toward an unseen speck of land 2,000 miles away, the impact of my folly began to sink in.

“I thought about how the successful completion of the flight rested on the accuracy of the magnetic compass–probably the cheapest instrument in the airplane–and the mechanical integrity of the twin 285-hp engines…If one of those engines were to quit, how long would the airplane stay in the air?…Now was the time Waldman had warned me about. The lights of San Francisco had disappeared behind a black and formless horizon, and without their earthly reference we seemed suspended in space, unmoving against the night sky. The San Francisco VOR faded out at 120 miles, leaving us with no means of navigation except the D/R headings we hoped would bring us within range of the radio beacon on Ocean Station November, a U.S. Coast Guard ship permanently anchored halfway between San Francisco and Honolulu. I tapped the compass to reassure myself it was still working.”

The ferry pilots were usually paid a lump sum for the job of getting the airplane to its destination. That money was also what paid for hotels, fuel and other expenses incurred along the way, so it was in the pilot’s interest to do the job as quickly as possible and to find the cheapest fuel.

“The one thing we couldn’t be stingy with was fuel. It was our biggest expense–at least half of everything else combined. Yet the cost of fuel was rising fast, much faster than normal inflation. OPEC and the Arab fuel embargo had seen to that. Fuel in the continental U.S. was still the cheapest you could find anywhere in the free world. But at $1.50 a gallon it was still twice what it was before the embargo, and that was when it was available.

“Even without the embargo, flying the extra distance to Pago Pago paid for itself because here, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean–where one might reasonably assume logistics increased the price of everything several-fold–fuel cost a ridiculously low 52 cents a gallon. This alone made Pago Pago more desirable than any other island, but an even greater incentive was that the meter on the fuel pump was so far out of calibration, it registered [only about half] what was actually pumped into the aircraft.”

Air Vagabonds’ well told tales provide rare insight into the lonely sea and sky where ferry pilots make their hard-earned living. Anyone who vaults oceans at the helm of
a business jet today will gain a renewed appreciation for how
much trickier the process can be for the low-and-slow contingent.