Global tourists take King Air around the world

 - April 16, 2008, 10:43 AM

As corporate pilots Tom and Pam Clements climbed the stone steps at the forbidding Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, it seemed incredible that they were being paid to go on this “vacation.” Though the Clements had paid the incremental cost of accompanying their passengers on various sightseeing tours, the husband and wife team had still turned a small profit flying their passengers on a three-month, eastbound journey from Scottsdale, Ariz., nearly around the world to Honolulu in a King Air. The trip, a culmination of more than 18 months of planning, began less than a month after September 11.

Neither pilot was a stranger to the King Air. An instructor pilot for Beechcraft in the 1970s, Tom logged thousands of hours in various King Air models, including time spent ferrying aircraft across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and he later started a flight-training company specializing in King Air instruction, which he recently sold to the Scottsdale branch of SimCom. Pam had flown King Airs for a Phoenix-area bank, then worked several years as a demonstration pilot for AlliedSignal, frequently flying King Airs and other aircraft to South America and Europe.

Late in 1999, the couple, who had spent far more time apart than together since their marriage in 1989, made the decision only to accept contracts on which they could fly together. It was not long after they had made this decision when local businessman Pat Gallagher approached them with an offer of a lifetime–to fly him and his wife on a leisurely tour of the world in his 1976 King Air 200.

“Pat had been dreaming of flying around the world in his own airplane for a long time,” Pam said. “When he met us he saw that, with our combined experience, we were a perfect match for flying his King Air around the world.” Hiring the Clements also allowed Gallagher to save money: “Two pilots, one hotel room,” Pam said.

This Air Still King
The Clements admit that the King Air is the “smallest aircraft that you’d want to take around the world.” But since Pam and Tom had more than 20,000 hr of combined King Air time and several trips between them to international destinations, they knew that the aircraft could make the journey, especially with the leisurely time allotment.

The Clements began managing the Gallaghers’ King Air in spring 2000, scheduling charter flights while attacking the daunting task of planning for the circumnavigation. “We had to manage the aircraft with the maintenance schedules in mind,” Pam said. “We couldn’t afford for the aircraft to be down on a major inspection while in Australia, for example.”

Installation of the new avionics–including dual Garmin GNS 530 navcom units, Garmin GTX 327 transponders, a Garmin GMA 340 audio panel, Goodrich Skywatch TCAS, Goodrich WX-500 Stormscope, Shadin ADC 2000 fuel and air-data computer, Avidyne 850 multifunctional display (MFD), Sandel SN3308 EFIS HSI and dual RMIs–took nearly two months to complete. An HF radio was also added for communication over water, but was not integrated into the panel and became a source of irritation for the pilots.

“The difference between a panel-mounted HF radio and an externally mounted one was $50,000,” Tom said. “So the owners decided on the external HF, and mounted it behind the copilot. To use it, you had to pull it forward and around, which was a pain.” The externally mounted HF also filled the Clements’ headsets with 1920s-vintage static for long stretches. Although integrated HF radios often contain a selection call feature that reduces static by discriminating transmissions based on a musical code that identifies the aircraft, the Clements’ external HF radio passed through all static, all transmissions and all of the selection call musical tones that are normally not heard by pilots using an integrated HF radio.

Even with the literal headache caused by the HF addition, both pilots agreed that updating the avionics made the flight easier and safer.

“GPS has changed the world,” Tom said. “For us little guys flying over the ocean, we can now know our exact location, fuel consumption, groundspeed and so much more. And the GPS navigation was invaluable when going into some of the remote places where ILS approaches are unheard of.”

Tom recalled a string of isolated airports in the Pacific islands where landing at night required a “black-hole approach. All you see is a string of lights outlining the runway. It’s easy to misjudge altitudes in trying to make the runway look like others you’ve flown into. You have to really rely on your instruments, especially your GPS, in these non-radar environments.”

Getting Paid To Go on Vacation

During the three-month trip, the Clements became more than corporate pilots–they were traveling companions. The Gallaghers had determined the itinerary based on the King Air’s approximately 1,700-nm range, given its seven-hour fuel load and 250-kt cruise speed at 28,000 ft. After adjusting their destinations accordingly, they reserved accommodations through American Express Travel Services and booked tours with Abercrombie & Kent.

Tom and Pam, meanwhile, in addition to standard flight fees, had negotiated a per diem rate to be paid in advance. This allowed the Clements to decide whether to stay in the same hotels as the Gallaghers, who reserved two rooms at each locale to facilitate the bookings, or to split off if another hotel was more economical or closer to destinations.

“After we got the itinerary from Pat, I called Universal Weather & Aviation to determine whether we could get the same level of accommodations at a better price,” Pam said. “There were a few cases where we canceled our room, then rebooked it under Universal and got a better rate at the same hotel.” Other times the Clements elected to stay at an entirely different hotel.

The Gallaghers also invited the Clements to join them on tours for only the incremental cost of adding two more people. The Clements took advantage of this offer to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, tour New Zealand by helicopter and visit temples in India, among others. “One of our best tour guides was in Istanbul, Turkey,” Pam said. “He was a Muslim and helped to educate us on his religion. He reassured us that the events of September 11 had absolutely nothing to do with what most Muslims believe.”

Can You Handle This?
At many of the airports at which the Clements landed, the King Air was parked in the middle of a ramp surrounded by airliners. Even corporate aircraft were scarce. “In most places general aviation is treated as an unwanted stepchild,” said Tom. “You need handlers to help manage the maze of bureaucracy at these places.”

The Clements chose Universal Weather & Aviation’s UVglobal Network as the handling company for the entire trip. From the Gallaghers’ itinerary, Universal recommended airports and coordinated landing fees, overnight permits, fuel and customs checkouts. Universal also coordinated rental/courtesy cars. “In most places, cabbies simply don’t know how to get to the general aviation side of the airfield,” Pam said. “We coordinated with Universal to have cars available, usually one for the Gallaghers, who would leave for the hotel right away, and one that Tom and I used after we took care of the airplane.”

The political savvy of the handlers in the UVglobal Network allowed the Clements to make special requests, such as arranging for a landing in Agra, India, where the joint-use facility requires a long advance notice and permission to land; and in Bangkok, where stays longer than five days are not usually permitted due to a lack of ramp space. Universal assigned a team working around the clock to service the Clements’ needs. Often Tom and Pam talked to the same familiar voices, members of the “yellow” team, throughout their trip. Divided into three shifts that together covered the flight 24/7 for three months, yellow team members filed flight plans and faxed weather information to the Clements’ hotel before each flight.

“Obtaining weather information in various places around the globe can be difficult,” Tom said. “Many times, unless you speak the language, you would not be able to get a weather briefing. With Universal, not only was the weather information in English, it was in the standard weather reporting format that we are used to.”

Weathering Well
The night before a flight, Universal representatives faxed a preliminary weather data packet to the Clements’ hotel. Before the pilots left the hotel in the morning, they’d receive a second fax with the flight plan and updated weather information. “The only time this procedure did not work was when we were in Bangkok and typhoon Ling Ling was over Vietnam,” Pam said. “For some reason the weather information never showed up, but we used our GSM phone to call Universal and obtain the weather.”

The only other breakdown in communications occurred in Malaysia, which Pam termed “our worst fuel stop.” Though Universal had coordinated with handlers around the world to accept the UVglobal credit card for fuel and other expenses, the handlers in Malaysia claimed they didn’t know that the Clements were coming and did not accept the UVglobal card.

“They insisted that we had to pay in Malaysian currency,” Pam said. “Of course there was a place to exchange American dollars for Malaysian dollars inside the terminal, but I’m sure the exchange rate was quite a bit lower than it should have been.” The only other place that wouldn’t accept the UVglobal card was on Christmas Island in Kiribati. It was also the only place where the GSM cellphone wouldn’t work.

With the trip set to begin on October 3, the Gallaghers and Clements met soon after September 11 to determine whether to go forward. “Each one of us had veto power at any time,” said Pam. “Anyone who didn’t feel comfortable could have canceled the flight.”

Traversing the Middle East
“You can’t fly around the world without going through the Middle East,” Tom said. “And if you land in Israel, you cannot land in any Arab country. So we had to make some tough decisions.”

The foursome decided to make a slight change in their route to avoid Jordan and to make only a fuel stop in Egypt instead of their planned layover. To keep the rest of the schedule on track, they added layovers in France and Italy.

“In retrospect, we probably didn’t need to make those changes, but there was no way of knowing at the time,” Pam said. “Until we went to Turkey and found the climate of that Muslim-dominated country very amicable toward us, we still weren’t sure that we were going on.”

“When we left Izmir, Turkey, and flew to India via Cairo, Pat called that running the gauntlet,” Tom said. “There was no turning back after crossing Saudi Arabia.” The Clements recalled that stretch of flying as very tense. “We could hear the war going on around us,” Pam said. “There was a lot of activity on the radio. We had to give our permit numbers to air traffic control before they’d let us into Karachi [Pakistan] airspace.”

The King Air, while meticulously maintained the year before the flight, did give the Clements a few problems while on the trip. After flying through heavy rain and turbulence, a compass compensator failed in flight, blowing the fuse for the gyro, confusing the Stormscope and rendering the autopilot unusable.

Equipment Troubles
“We lost the MFD where weather and radar information were badly needed, and this caused us to stay in Alice Springs [Australia] for an extended stay to wait out the weather,” Pam said. “When the weather cleared, we flew on to Sydney, where we stayed for an unplanned six days while a new gyro was flown in. After the compensator blew the second gyro, we figured out the problem and had to bypass the compensator, causing us to fly manually throughout Australia for 10 days without our backup compass until we could have it replaced in New Zealand.”

The Clements had to do more hand-flying as a “three-dollar switch” in the autopilot control failed during the longest day of flying, from Tahiti to Hawaii. Fortunately, the control was fixed in Honolulu while ferry tanks were added in preparation for the flight home. None of the original crew–the Clements or their passengers–would be around to ferry the aircraft home, however, as they completed their circumnavigation by airline from Hawaii to the mainland.

Tom jokes that if he had to do it again, he’d get a bigger, faster airplane, with an integrated HF. But both he and Pam agreed that it was the experience of a lifetime, and one that taught them “not to be scared of the world.” As Tom said, “The bulk of the world is made up of good people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”