Kiribati to Hawaii 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 west 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 west of the gps track to avoid the worst of the weather though the ITCZ. Many of the cloud tops around me exceeded 40,000 ft and demanded great respect and a wide berth.
About 200 miles off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, in-cockpit traffic and weather data started to display on the EFIS (glass panel). This was quite a welcome surprise, and the first ADS-B services received since leaving the continental US nearly two months ago.
The experimental high frequency (HF) antenna attached to the wing tip is used to transmit hourly position reports back to San Francisco radio. I built and tested four antenna prototypes before selecting one that maximized radiated power, low reflected energy, and minimized drag. I installed a used Icom mobile ham radio bought on Craiglist and modified to transmit on aircraft frequencies.
Slalom course around towering CB's
7 hours of terror. The pucker factor was high on this leg of the trip.
Volcanic Navigation Waypoint
This was the strangest navigation waypoint I have ever used while flying. The entire Big Island appeared to be on fire 100 miles out from Hilo. Steam rose 25,000 feet in to the atmosphere due to the torrent of magma pouring in to the Pacific ocean from the Kilauea volcano .
I passed through the ITCZ unscathed but landed at Hilo 72 hours prior to the arrival of Cat 4 hurricane Hector. There was not much time to recover and come up with a new game plan.
Moments after arrival at Hilo, BIg Island, Hawaii. Air Services Hawaii (ASH) welcomes me with a lei and a local Kona Longboard beer. A fellow pilot from my local airport at Concord, CA tracked my flight progress across the ITCZ from Chirstmas Island, called the two FBO's in Hilo, and arranged for the reception. Thanks Tommy B.
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 headwinds 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 marginally visible runway lighting. I would happily accept smudge pots or flashlights guiding me in for a landing at decidedly dark Christmas Island.
As I approached the equator, my HF radio link was weak and I could not hear SF radio on any frequency. A Hawaiian Airlines flight, somewhere in my proximity and overhead at 30,000 ft, was able to relay position reports on my behalf to ATC.
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."
I appreciate their effort to relay messages and started to work out plan "B" details as I flew on in the darkness.
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.
Photo credit: The Living Moon
The existing Cassidy International terminal building. A new terminal building was under construction during my visit in 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 trying to arrange delivery of AVGAS and withdrawing Australian dollars from the only operational ATM on the island. The only fuel supplier (Kiribati OIL) recently cached 1000 liters of AVGAS, shipped from Australia. I was truly fortunate to obtain fuel as I heard of one RTW pilot stuck on the island for months waiting for the next shipment of fuel. The landing/parking fees and fuel all needed to be paid in Australian dollars.
Typical landing and parking fees at Cassidy International. Getting stuck on Kiribati for an extended time period would cost a fortune.
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.
One of the main tourist activities on this massive atoll is 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 enjoying scenic Port Vila, I headed to the airport the next morning at 5:30am. The very capable airport manager arranged customs, fee payment, and fueling surprisingly quickly. Around me, the pilots and ground crew were laughing nervously as I started up 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. I back-taxied and zoom climbed away from the airport. 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.
While planning for this trip, 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.
Lycoming engine leaned to 5 gph. Approaching overcast Viti Levu, Fiji en-route to American Samoa.
Magic hour. 60 nm from American Samoa.
In only a few minutes, the sun dropped below the horizon near the equator. Explanation. I have never experienced such a sudden transition from daylight to darkness. As I approached American Samoa, the control tower at Pago Pago switched on the airport landing lights to the 10,000 ft runway. Just before landing, "May's" landing/taxi lights lit up hundreds of frogs crawling and hopping over the runway. I worried about a frog prop strike as my two bladed propeller only clears the ground by 9 inches. Somehow, I avoided dicing hopping frogs or running over them as I landed and taxied up to the main terminal building.
American Samoa and Pago Pago International Airport had historic significance with the Apollo Program. The astronaut crews of Apollo 10, 12, 13, 14, and 17 were retrieved a few hundred miles from Pago Pago and transported by helicopter to the airport prior to being flown to Honolulu on C-141 Starlifter military aircraft.
"Apollo Splashdowns Near American Samoa". Tavita Herdrich and News Bulletin. Retrieved July 7, 2010.
"Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal – Kevin Steen". Eric M. Jones. Retrieved February 23, 2011.
The 10,000 ft sea level runway at NSTU, Pago Pago, American Samoa.
This is also the runway where Babar Suleman and son, Haris Suleman departed at night in stormy conditions and crashed their Beechcraft Bonanza in to the ocean off Pago Pago. My handler was on duty that night and witnessed the crash. I could tell he was still very upset by the experience and he begged me to not take off at night. I listened to his advice and departed early the next morning.
Suleman accident report:
Photo credit: Pinterest
Back to Basics - Refueling an aircraft using a siphon.
Upon landing at Pago Pago, I was bluntly told my reserved aviation fuel (AVGAS) was no longer available. I was in shock and 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 running low on money.
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. During refueling, the fellow in the yellow safety jersey spit out a mouth of AVGAS while re-priming the siphon.
I opted to not to use auto fuel as it had not been tested with my engine and fuel delivery system.
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 a 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 harm's 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.
Vanuatu is located along the "Ring of Fire". During both the approach and departure from this island nation, I had to avoid volcanic plumes, which pose a flight safety hazard, especially for night flights. ... The ash contaminates fuel and water systems, can jam gears, and make engines flame-out.
Lava bombs and Lighting
Mt. Yasur on the island of Tanna is one of the most accessible volcanoes in the world.
After crossing the bone-dry outback of Australia, N944JK headed north-east across the Coral sea. My next stop would be 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
Navigation waypoints between Cairns, Australia and Henderson Field, Guadalcanal.
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 considerable cloud build-up 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.
Badass marines - I can't imagine the hardship these tough guys 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.
According to the CDC, the Solomon Islands rank "highest" risk for contracting Malaria. After 48 hours of exploring Honiara and swatting mosquitoes continuously, 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 and Pappy Boyington.
A ten hour transcontinental flight broken up by an overnight stay in Tennant Creek.
Along the way I flew past many enormous cattle stations (up to 4 million square acres) spread out across the desolate outback.
Oz air traffic control requires pilots to blindly broadcast position reports on shared multi-frequency repeaters located near the cattle stations. I passed by remote landing strips with proper Australian names like Margaret River Station, Halls Creek, Browns Range, Herbertvale Cattleyards, and Century Mine. All those Nevil Shute books I read in my childhood were coming to life.
Perfect weather, moderate winter temperatures, and one content pilot flying at 9500 ft over the outback of Australia. I rode 40 knot tail winds across the entire Australian continent.
The indomitable 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. A brief stay in an authentic outback town in the northern territory of Australia.
May Koehler admired Australia through books and film. She especially liked the actor Brian Brown in "A town like Alice" and the film "The Man from Snowy River". While May never visited Australia in her lifetime, she finally made it to the land "down under" in spirit. I think she would have loved flying over the outback in a tiny plane.
Bali air traffic control was really "pushing tin". I was given about 30 seconds to take-off, before another 7XX would start it's rumbling roll behind me. I climbed about 500 ft in to the low-level clouds before ATC directed to head south across the Timor sea towards Australia. The clouds eventually dissipated to reveal the most incredibly blue water I have ever seen.
The approach to Broome International airport was visually stunning as brilliant sand beaches and turquoise waters welcome you to Australia.
A view of the strikingly dry outback and clear skies of Western Australia
After landing, I was required to taxi to the foreign aircraft quarantine area of (YBRM) Broome International airport. The friendly immigration/agriculture officer handed me a can of insecticide spray with a faulty valve, which instantly filled the tiny cockpit with floral scented insecticide. The can was quickly tossed outside, still ejecting insecticide at full throttle. I hunkered down inside the cockpit for the next 5 minutes (required to kill insect stowaways) using my shirt as a mask. Given a thumbs up from the officer, I opened the cockpit and gulped in fresh Australian air. A month after the completion of the RTW trip, Australia billed me $200 for the small can of insecticide spray. Note to future RTW pilots arriving in Australia: Bring your own spray!
Zen and the art of aircraft maintenance.
The mechanic seeks perfection through the use of high quality parts, standards, checklists, and attention to detail.
I performed a much needed oil change and meticulous firewall forward inspection in one of the cavernous maintenance hangers at the Broome International Airport. "May's" 400 hr experimental Lycoming YIO-320 engine consumed only about 2 quarts per 65 hours of operation, a remarkably low oil burn rate. I started the trip using Phillips 66 20W-50, then switched to Aeroshell 100W in Italy, and Aeroshell 20W-50 in Australia.
A few aircraft waited to be serviced outside, and I was only given about two hours to complete my work. Since I built the kit plane, I knew every rivet, bolt, and wire in the aircraft. My confidence in the airworthiness of the plane was very high. This would be the last maintenance done before returning to my home airport in Concord, California, 8000 nm away.
Photo Credit: Orbx
Almost immediately after departure from Subang International, Air Traffic Control directed me in to towering (CB) cumulonimbus clouds. I requested an immediate modification of the SID (standard instrument departure) but was denied course changes due to the surrounding jet traffic. Preparing for the worst, I slowed down to 90 knots - VA (maneuvering airspeed) to minimize stress on the aircraft. The plane was carrying 2.5x the normal amount of fuel, with a slight aft center of gravity, as I punched through the wall of cloud. Inside the maelstrom, I was slammed with rain and a moderate up/down drafts until passing through the far side of the cloud. Throughout the flight I had to avoid many formidable CB's over the Strait of Malacca and extending south-east all the way to Bali (1100nm away).
Further south of Singapore, I spotted numerous densely populated islands between Malaysia and Indonesia.
These beautiful rice terraces are located within the interior of Bali.
Lush tropical vegetation in a mountainous valley.
Along the way to the rice terraces, my driver and I spent an hour at a coffee plantation sampling a dozen types of coffee including Bali's infamous Kopi Luwak coffee. Kopi luwak is known as the most expensive coffee in the world. The price for a single cup of kopi luwak coffee runs $ 35 to $80 and a one pound bag of beans costs $100 to $600.
UC Silver factory and museum in Denpasar, Bali.
Mount Batur: an active volcano in Bali.
It was necessary to carefully time my arrival and departure from Bali to avoid damaging volcanic plumes from recently active Mount Agung. Hours after my departure from Bali, Mount Agung blew out another plume which disrupted air traffic. This would be the first of three volcanoes that would impact my flight around the world.
My short cut across the Bay of Bengal. The weather was mostly visual flight rules until I reached Indonesia. I could not help but contemplate the fate of MH370 during the flight.
Departing Mattala, Sri Lanka while climbing to 9000 ft. The monsoon weather is finally behind me as May cruises over the Bay of Bengal at 150 knots.
Underneath me lay the 11,000 ft rugged, black spine of the Bukit Barisan mountain range. My route carried me north of the Toba super volcano which produced the largest known volcanic eruption on earth during the past 2 million years.
After crossing the Malacca straight, I joined the heavy jet traffic on approach to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Malaysia. It felt incredibly satisfying for this low-time IFR pilot to keep ahead of the aircraft and land safely at a busy international airport.
Imagine this view when you open the curtains of your hotel room in the morning! The dome of the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque resembles the top half of a Faberge egg. Capacity: 24,000.
The 140 ft (43m) golden Lord Murugan statue guarding the entrance to the Badu caves in the background. The thieving monkey on the left is looking for his next victim.
Interior of the Badu caves.
My route over India as recorded by Garmin Inreach.
Report: Ahmedabad, India
I woke up in my hotel room in Ahmedabad contemplating - the aircraft that I had built in my garage had transported me halfway around the world to exotic India. Incredible. Thank you Van's aircraft for helping me to fulfill my dream.
The day before departure from India, Dr. Pravin Dave visited my hotel room and provided me with a "fit to fly" document required by customs prior to departure. This was the first time in my life that a doctor paid me a visit at a location convenient to me for a health checkup. I was very grateful for the excellent medical care I received while in India.
Upon reaching the airport, my transit through customs and immigration took only 45 minutes before my handlers dropped me off at the plane for pre-flight inspection. I was quickly given a clearance and taxied to the run-up area past Airbus and Boeing giants. Again, "May" was the smallest aircraft on the entire airport.
Taking off under instruments from Ahmedabad international, I climbed up through the clouds and proceeded south to a way-point directly over Mumbai, a city of nearly 19 million people. My passage over India would take approximately 9 hours flying through monsoon weather. Indian air traffic control provided no weather avoidance services nor was ADS-B (weather or traffic) available. I pressed on, following the assigned IFR route with slight deviations away from the "darker" parts of the sky. Once underway, I had no advanced warning of embedded thunderstorms along my route within the clouds.
While crossing over the expansive Indian subcontinent, it was hard to imagine that the land below supported 1 billion people. Towards the mountainous southern part of India, large areas appeared to be undeveloped.
As I crossed over the southern tip of India, I noted that I had plenty of fuel remaining. I increase my speed to 150 knots over the strait between India and Sri Lanka. It felt satisfying to fly fast again after sluggish performance earlier in the flight to preserve fuel and minimize stress on the heavily loaded aircraft.
Colombo ATC directed me to climb to 11,000 as twilight descended over this beautiful Island. The approach in to Mattela (VCRI) required flying past a 9,000 ft mountain, followed by an instrument descent to a DME ARC and ILS intercept in the darkness. To avoid spatial disorientation, I did not dare to look out the window until the final crossing fix, with the approach lighting guiding me to the long runway. Once again, like at Aqaba, Jordan (OJAQ), they opened an entire international airport for my sole aircraft. It started to rain lightly as I was directed to my parking space.
The airport staff was out in force, with 20 handlers and a ground transportation bus that could have held 75 passengers. There were even a few very beautiful women from Sri Lankan airways waiting to greet me as I entered the airport arrivals lobby at this late hour. Inside the spacious arrival area, a giant Buddha instilled peace and I relaxed immediately. Furthermore, customs took 5 minutes to process my paperwork, a remarkable and welcome difference than that of India.
During the late night 30 minute taxi ride to the resort, I spotted a few wild elephants walking slowly along the side of the nearly empty road. The resort was situated on the south-eastern side of the Sri Lanka, with rough sea conditions, not suitable for swimming during my stay. There were only two guests staying at the beach resort - the benefits of low season travel.
I rested one day at the nearly empty resort before tackling a shortcut across the Bay of Bengal to Subang Jaya, Malaysia. I was fortunate my flight over the bay was largely VFR, as this passage is notorious for especially severe Monsoon conditions.
Main lobby of the Mattala International Airport. It has been called "the world's emptiest international airport" due to its low number of flights despite the large size of the airport.
This beach on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka was struck by a wall of water 10 m (30 ft) high during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The 500 mph tsunami traveled 850 nautical miles across the Bay of Bengal in 1h 45m. My hotel room was about 300 m from the beach.