Unesco World Heritage Site Petra, Jordan. El Dier ("The Monastery".
Duxford, UK. June 22, 2018. N944JK (RV-9A) and G-GRDV (RV-6) have now both flown around the world; proof that tiny experimental aircraft are capable of very long distance flight. Fuel efficiency was often 26 mpg at 150 mph. All credit goes to Richard van Grunsven and Ken Kruger for designing these remarkably efficient traveling machines.
Photo Credit: David Whitworth, Duxford Diary
Ed Neffinger prepares to fly from Duxford to Goodwood in a spitfire. Ed assisted me with flight planning and weather analysis on my around the world flight. Thank you Ed.
The aircraft is now stripped of the heavy auxiliary fuel tanks, survival equipment, spare parts, tools, and HF radio. Svelte May flies again like an RV!
Countries visited: 19 (26: overflown)
Total great circle distance traveled: 23,196 nm, 42959 km
Distance flying over the world's oceans: 14,200 nm
AVGAS used: 1225 gallons
Flight Hours: 177
Total pilot flight hours after the trip was completed: 524
Aviation World Records
N944JK established four national and world records for "speed over a recognized course". The aviation records are ratified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale/World Sports Federation and National Aeronautics Association.
Oakland, CA to Oshkosh, WI, class C1b, 245 km/hr over 2,875 km (non-stop)
Hilo, HI to Oakland, CA, class C1b, 225 km/hr over 3,772 km (non-stop)
FAI Circumnavigation Award - Eastbound
May is now recorded in the "Earthrounders" database which registers planes and crew who have flown around the world in light aircraft. N944JK is the only experimental aircraft to fly around the world in 2018.
2000 nautical miles to go!
Night flight at 12,500 ft over the eastern Pacific Ocean. I took advantage of the stronger tail winds at higher altitudes but endured temperatures well below freezing. The walls of my cockpit are only 0.040" thick aluminum sheet with no thermal insulation. I am shivering and reminiscent of my passage over the Greenland ice cap. No twinkling stars or lights from aircraft above or ships below can be seen. It is a sensory deprived experience. Every 30 minutes or so the blood red moon occasionally is visible through stratified clouds. My hope of seeing the familiar lights of San Francisco are dashed as the fog bank extends hundreds of miles off the coast. San Francisco radio, my reassuring link to the outside world, is now booming in to my headset as I approach the North American continent. ETA: 3:30 am, California time.
The longest over water route in the world is the stretch between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. If you run in to trouble, there are no alternate landing locations unless you return to Hawaii or fortuitously land on an aircraft carrier. The flight planning, weather conditions, and readiness of the aircraft and pilot need to be perfect.
I chose to wait, prepare the aircraft, and monitor the forecasts closely for an ideal weather window. According to Air Services Hawaii (ASH), it is common for ferry pilots to wait up to a month before attempting this route. Thursday (August 30) looked like the best day to attempt the flight and the weather forecast predicted 70% tail winds at 10,000 ft. On Saturday, hurricane Miriam would sweep in from the northeast, disrupting the favorable winds at altitude and block my path towards the California.
Thursday morning, after the required agriculture inspection was completed, ASH helped me to load 127 gallons of fuel in to the 5 tanks on board the aircraft. There was barely any room for me to fit inside the cockpit as I was surrounded by fuel tanks. It was impossible to see over to the right of the aircraft as the tanks touched the top of the canopy.
On take-off, the airplane accelerated extremely slowly and used 6000 ft of runway (normally 500 ft) before the plane lifted and cleared ground effect. I fought headwinds for 1000 nm and carefully monitored my fuel supply. At the half-way point, the fickle winds changed direction and favorably pushed me towards the fog shrouded California coast. Darkness descended around 9 pm over the Pacific. I flew on for the next 6.5 hours until landing at 3:30 am in Concord, California. The 17 hour journey from Hilo to Oakland/Concord was very exhausting, especially since I had only a few hours of sleep the previous night. Later on I learned that other pilots, tracking my progress across the Pacific that night, did not get much sleep either. Thanks for your support!
After landing, I taxied back to my rented hanger, crawled out of the plane, and kissed the ground. This was truly a trip of a lifetime that I will never forget.
Thanks for the "Welcome Home" banner Pete W!
I was facing a formidable line of westerly moving tropical storms that would eventually develop in to multiple hurricanes.
"May" located in Hilo - Hurricane Number 1 would approach in about 3 days ...
The winds aloft forecast for the Hawaii/California passage does not look favorable for the next three weeks.
Due to concerns of potential damage to the plane from hurricane Hector and Lane at Hilo, I relocated "May" to the island of Maui. Thanks to the Van's Airforce community (Ed, Scott, Eric, and Brad) I was able to secure a hanger at Kahului Airport (PHOG). I decided to fly home commercially, rest and prepare for the final leg of the trip. When I return to Hawaii around August 21, I will complete work on the aircraft, fly back to Hilo, and wait for the right moment to fly the 2000+nm to California.
August 21 - I learned that Hurricane Hector dumped nearly 52 inches (132 cm) of rain on Hilo. To provide a perspective, the distance from the ground to the propeller spinner is about 52 inches. Hilo was littered with debris from the recent flooding. It was the right decision to relocate the plane to Maui.
Moments after arrival at Hilo, BIg Island, Hawaii. Air Services Hawaii welcomes me with a lei and a Kona Longboard beer. Mahalo Tommy B!
RV-9A ready to fly non-stop to California.
I flew with "Blue Hawaiian" helicopters on a volcano tour over the Big Island. It felt great to relax and let someone else be the captain.
Banyan Drive, known as the "Hilo Walk of Fame", is lined with trees planted by celebrities and adventurers, including pilot Amelia Earhart.
Historic photos of aviation in Hawaii.
Sunday afternoon entertainment.
Lava destroyed homes in the Vacationland, Hawaii area. I heard from local sources that none of these homes were insured and FEMA provided no post disaster assistance. Many people are still living out of their cars, months after their homes were destroyed.
Dramatic Hilo coastline.
Crossing the windy strait between the Big Island and Maui. I repositioned "May" to a hanger in Maui due to hurricane Lane and Hector approaching Hilo.
A summary of the 2018 Hawaii hurricane season
My route through the ITCZ.
The Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ, is a belt of low pressure which circles the Earth generally near the equator where the trade winds of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres come together. The area receives the highest amount of heat energy from the sun, which causes moisture to condense quickly in to clouds. The rising air in the ITCZ cause frequent thunderstorms and heavy rainfall. Circular typhoons often form along with the highest recorded winds on the planet.
For months I had been dreading the flight through the ITCZ. Like mariners facing an unpredictable passage around Cape Horn, pilots face the ITCZ with trepidation as the weather is nearly always stormy. Unlike a jet, which can fly above the weather, "May" would fly from 8,000 to 12,000 ft down in the clouds and unforgiving turbulence. To maximize my chance of success, I decided to fly through the ITCZ only during the daylight hours, so that I could see and avoid the worst of the weather.
Reviewing the satellite weather charts from Christmas Island the night before the flight, suggested that flying just to the left of the 1100 nautical mile direct line path to Hawaii would avoid most of the weather. Like previous legs of the around the world flight, my friend Ed Neffinger assisted with weather interpretation and route planning.
On the morning of departure, my anxiety level was elevated. I knew that the aircraft was prepared for the flight and I just needed to trust my experience and training.
I diverted left of the gps track to avoid the worst of the weather.
The experimental HF antenna attached to the wing tip is used to communicate position reports back to San Francisco radio.
I threaded my way through the towering CB's, like a giant three dimensional slalom course.
The magnificent Kilauea volcano was visible 100 miles from Hawaii. Steam rose 25,000 feet in to the atmosphere due to the torrent of magma pouring in the ocean.
I passed through the ITCZ unscathed and landed at Hilo prior to the arrival of hurricane Hector.
I departed Pago Pago at the crack of dawn. My destination was Hilo, Hawaii, 2235 nautical miles away across the Intertropical Convergence Zone, an area of very unstable air and convective activity around the equator. I was carrying a massive amount of fuel and expected very low climb performance on take-off. "May" lifted off at 75 knots. I leveled her at ten feet over the runway to build speed, and climbed slowly over the cobalt blue water along the coastline, and passed by the scenic Pago Pago harbor. Eventually, I climbed high enough to clear the terrain over the island and headed north towards Hawaii.
En-route to Hilo, the head winds were stronger than expected. My calculations showed that I would arrive in Hilo short of fuel, so I decided to divert to Christmas Island.
Now my challenge was to contact Christmas Island to open the airport after hours. All means of communication were used: my handlers from G.A.S.E. (Eddie and Ahmed), San Francisco radio (transoceanic communications), e-mails to all known airport staff at Christmas Island, and commercial aircraft overhead on the guard frequency. For many hours, all attempts to contact Christmas Island failed. It looked like I would approach the island three hours after dark, with no open airport, no lights, and in marginal VFR conditions. Not an ideal situation. I was thinking - stay calm and work the problem. My plan "B" was to orbit the island at 1500 ft to wake up the airport staff to turn on the lights for landing (RNAV approach aided by geo-referenced charts and synthetic vision). Currently, there is no pilot controlled lighting at Christmas Island. The procedure for night operations is to start up the airport generator ten minutes before aircraft arrival to provide power for the runway lighting.
300 nm south-west of Christmas Island
The last transmission from a Hawaiian airline crew to N944JK on the guard frequency was:
Hawaiian airlines: "San Francisco radio is unable to reach Christmas Island to turn on the landing lights. (pause)... How many souls on board?"
Hawaiian airlines: "Good luck to you Sir."
100 nm south-west of Christmas Island:
To my great relief, G.A.S.E. was able to reach Christmas Island by phone. In the dark at 9000 ft, I finally heard the welcome radio call, "N944JK, ... Christmas Island" over the static of my VHF radio. I approached the island from the west and descended down through the rain, following instrument procedures to land at dimly lit Cassidy International. After landing, I gratefully thanked the airport manager and ground staff for turning on the lights and opening the airport.
My original route was to fly directly from Pago Pago to Hilo. My fuel diversion to Christmas Island is shown in the map on the upper right.
Christmas Island from space.
Photo credit: The Living Moon
The existing Cassidy International terminal building. A new terminal building is under construction as of July 2018.
Photo Credit: ZOXEXIVO.com
Christmas Island, Kiribati: The world's largest atoll is very remote, situated at the mid point between Australia and the United States and just 2 degrees north latitude.
In the 1950's the British dropped multiple nuclear bombs above the island which produced high amounts of radioactive fallout. . Many additional nuclear tests were carried out in the surrounding waters. Grapple tests.
Britain's first nuclear test explosion at Christmas Island took place on 15th May 1957
Photo Credit: http://www.janeresture.com/christmas_bombs/
An interesting video about the nuclear tests detonated above the island.
Christmas Island in 2018. Low radiation levels?
An interesting article about life on Christmas Island - www.salon.com/2008/08/31/christmas_island/
The spartan Captain Cook hotel, my base for the next few days, was a bit rundown. The hotel, however, did have it's advantages: it was close to Cassidy international, it had a stocked bar, friendly staff, and it had a relatively nice beach. Visitors could either select between a cinder block hotel room or grass roofed "bure" closer to the beach. Water service was shut off between 11pm and 6 am, so forget a late night shower. My cinder block room featured a rusting, incredibly loud air conditioner, which sounded like a bulldozer tearing itself apart. In order to get some sleep, I wore my Bose noise cancellation headset to bed to drown out the racket.
Inside the main dining area, photographs of fly fisherman proudly holding up giant Trevally adorn the walls of the communal dining area. Christmas island is famous for it's world-class bonefish and trevally fishing. Both sport fish are off limits for eating to preserve the stock. Catch and release only - fly fishing is taken very seriously here!
I spent the next two days driving around the island and withdrawing cash (in increments) from the only functioning ATM on the island. The landing/parking fees and fuel all needed to be paid in Australian dollars. The only fuel supplier (Kiribati OIL) cached 1000 liters of AVGAS, recently shipped from Australia. I was truly fortunate to obtain fuel as I heard of one RTW pilot stuck on the island for months awaiting fuel.
Typical landing and parking fees at Cassidy International. Flying around the world in a small plane is not cheap!
Communications with the outside world
Cell/Internet communications on the island is still in it's infancy, with spotty, slow links. Sending video was out of the question, but text and small photos could be shared back home. The Garmin Inreach seemed to have trouble sending and receiving texts with Christmas Island positioned only a few degrees above the equator.
I definitely will return someday to Christmas Island to fish for torpedo-fast bonefish and wily giant trevally (GT). The video below captures the excitement of fly fishing for 100 lb GT.
After two days of relaxing and strolling around scenic Port Vila, I headed to the airport at 5:30am. The very professional airport manager arranged customs, fee payment, and fueling for me very quickly. I was given permission to startup the engine and obtained my clearance. I gave a thumbs up to my new friends as I taxied between the tightly spaced aircraft to the run-up area. The airport was quickly coming to life and I was fortunate to be one of the first aircraft granted permission to take-off. At 9000 ft and 50 miles off the coast of Vanuatu, I diverted south in a giant arc to avoid another volcanic plume which had drifted south-east from Vanuatu.
During trip planning, I was warned of the $3000 landing/parking fees at Nadi, Fiji, so I bypassed the island and continued east between cloud layers towards American Samoa. I was disappointed to not see the many tropical Fijian islands below me. I crossed over Bligh Water, made famous when cannibalistic local Fijian tribes chased Captain Bligh through this passage in 1789.
Fuel consumption notes. Approaching overcast Viti Levu, Fiji.
The sun drops quickly down toward the horizon near the equator. Explanation. On approach to Pago Pago, I requested ATC to switch on the airport landing lights. To my horror, my landing/taxi lighting illuminated hundreds of frogs crawling over the 10,000 ft runway. I worried about a frog prop strike and reduced braking. It was a miracle I did not run over any as they panicked and hopped out of the way of my rapidly slowing aircraft.
Welcome to American Samoa.
Remote Pago Pago, American Samoa. Precipitation on Rainmaker mountain in the background exceeds 200 inches (5 m) a year.
The 10,000 ft runway at NSTU, Pago Pago, American Samoa.
Photo credit: Pinterest
Upon landing at Pago Pago, I was informed my reserved AVGAS was not available. I needed to scramble to find an alternative fuel source unless I wanted to remain in surprisingly expensive American Samoa for months awaiting fuel shipped from overseas. The only other fuel supplier in American Samoa sold me 110 gallons of questionable AVGAS for $31/gallon. I was in a predicament, felt ripped-off, and my budget was completely blown.
Due to the uncooperative nature of the primary fueler, we were not allowed to use their pump located at the airport. With the extraordinary assistance of Prichard Airport Services , 110 gallons of AVGAS was slowly siphoned in to the aircraft tanks using a fork lift, Baja fuel filter, and 1" vinyl tube bought that afternoon at Ace Hardware. The three hour messy ordeal required re-priming fuel multiple times without the use of a manual fuel transfer pump. I opted to not to use auto fuel as it had not been tested with my engine and fuel delivery system. One can only take such setbacks in stride and consider them part of the adventure.
Photo credit: Prichard Airport Services
Solomon Islands to Port Vila, Vanuatu. Hard IFR departure, rain, and overcast skies for the entire flight. Starburst fruit chews and bottled water sustained me until touch down at Port Vila.
The flight off the west coast of Vanuatu required a diversion around the Ambae volcanic plume. The grey-brown colored plume was visible at my flight level and extended well off the coast line. I did not take chances with ash clogging the air filter and engine.
My destination, Port Vila airport (NVVV), has a single runway and very compact terminal area. Because of the limited parking area, flight schedules are tightly controlled and ground staff constantly choreograph aircraft movement. Many operators based at Port Vila fly to Tanna Island for overnight volcano tours. At the end of each day, the terminal area is packed with planes both on the pavement and grass overflow areas. May was tucked way in a corner, adjacent to the operations office and out of harms way.
The ground staff and pilots at Port Vila were the most enthusiastic I experienced on my trip. May received considerable attention and photos, and I was asked many questions regarding the trip and modifications to the RV-9A for long range flying. The last known experimental aircraft to land in Vanuatu (Luganville, Espiritu Santo) was B-KOO, Hank Cheng's RV-8, on his around the world trip in 2016.
Photo credit: Red – Vanuatu
Beautiful Port Vila harbor, Vanuatu.
Mt. Yasur on the island of Tanna is one of the most accessible volcanoes in the world. Brave hikers can experience an active volcano from the crater rim and occasionally dodge lava bombs. I did not have time to see the volcano, but will return to Vanuatu someday for this incredible experience.
After crossing the bone-dry outback of Australia, N944JK heads north-east across the Coral sea to Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands).
Most RTW pilots on the classic central pacific route fly from Australia to New Caledonia or Norfok Island, then on to Nadi (Fiji), Pago Pago (American Samoa ), Kiribati (Christmas) (Kiribati), Hilo (Hawaii), Santa Barbara or Monterey ( California).
Graphic credit: omniatlas.com
Waypoints are used for navigation and position reporting.
I wanted to experience flying over the area hotly contested between the Japanese and American airmen during the early part of WWII and possibly see a few war artifacts remaining on the ground.
Approaching the Solomon islands from the south-west, I encountered layers of clouds which obscured the 9000 ft peaks of Guadalcanal.
This photo was taken after a bumpy descent through a rainstorm and landing on the mist obscured, shortened runway of Henderson Field. 42 years after watching "Black Sheep Squadron" on TV as a youngster, and subsequently reading about military operations in the area, I finally visited the Solomon Islands. The 100% humidity and swarming mosquitoes were the first to greet me. My handler showed up much later at the nearly abandoned airport.
A perfect sunset after landing at historic Henderson field. This airport is really off the beaten path and very few general aviation pilots ever visit.
Henderson field, 1942. American war planes of the "Cactus" air force are dispersed around the frequently bombed air strip.
I can't imagine the hardship these tough marines encountered while fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal.
Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine
During WWII, the US military produced a series of posters and comics as part of a propaganda campaign against Malaria.
After 48 hours of swatting mosquitoes, I abandoned the island.
My IFR departure from Henderson field was at pilot discretion. I climbed up out over Iron Bottom sound in to the thick clouds and turned left over the island of Guadalcanal. No Mitsubishi A6M "zeros" challenged me to a dog fight as I headed south-east toward Vanuatu.
A tribute to VMF 214, Blacksheep squadron.
My route across the northern territory of Australia. I flew past many enormous cattle stations (up to 4 million square acres) spread out across the desolate outback.
To maintain a aircraft communications across the outback, air traffic control requires pilots to blindly broadcast position reports on shared multi-frequency repeaters located near the cattle stations.
Perfect weather, moderate winter temperatures, and substantial tail winds at 10,000 ft over the outback of Australia. One could not ask for better flying conditions.
The vast outback of Australia. Jon Johanson, (a famous Australian aviator and a mentor) who flew around the world three times in his experimental RV4 (east, west, polar) reminded me to not underestimate the outback. If you are forced down, you may never be found if your ELT and PLB are destroyed in the crash. He equated the risk to that of the north Atlantic crossing. My plane carried extra water and survival equipment for polar, desert, and marine environments.
Tennant Creek. I finally visited an authentic outback town in the northern territory of Australia.