2050 nm. 16.5 hour flight.
Cabin configuration for transpacific flight.
Night flight at 12,500 ft over the eastern Pacific Ocean. I took advantage of the stronger tailwinds 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 losing the battle to stay warm 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 of California. San Francisco radio, my reassuring communications link across the Pacific, is now booming into my headset as I approach the North American continent. ETA: 3:30 am, California time.
John Koehler - journal notes
The longest over-water route in the world is the stretch between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. If you run into 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% tailwinds 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 California.
On the morning of departure, agriculture officials inspected my aircraft and ASH helped me to load 127 gallons (762 lbs) of fuel into the 5 tanks on board the aircraft. Most of the fuel was stored in the cockpit surrounding me on three sides. There was little room to move inside the cockpit, so I would need to perform exercises to avoid DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) during the expected 17 hour flight. Visibility outside the aircraft was blocked to my right as the bulging tanks touched the top of the canopy. This would clearly be the most dangerous flight of my life.
To ensure a successful departure, Hilo International Airport RWY 8 was chosen as it has a 9800 ft long by 150 ft wide runway.
As I started my take-off roll, the airplane accelerated extremely slowly and used over 6000 ft of the runway (normally 500 ft) before the plane lifted and cleared ground effect. The climb rate eventually reached 500 feet per minute all the way up to 10,000 feet. Not a bad climb rate considering that the plane was 20% over gross.
After reaching cruising altitude, I switched to my aft fuel tank (22g, 4 hours), then the bladder tanks #1 (22g ( 4 hours) and #2 (50g (7 hours)), and main tanks (5 hours).
The next challenge was to establish communications with San Francisco radio (controller of the eastern Pacific) on the high frequency radio. Without a positive communications, Hawaiian ATC would not let me leave their airspace and I would be required to return to Hawaii and burn off 15 hours of fuel before landing. Thank god, I finally contacted SF radio about 200 nm off the coast of Hawaii as VHF communications started to fade. The little HF radio bought second hand on Craigslist and connected to an experimental antenna outside the plane was actually working despite the marginal propagation to the west coast of the United States.
For the first 1000 nm, I fought 10 knot headwinds and carefully monitored my fuel supply. At the half-way point, the fickle winds finally 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 extremely exhausting and was compounded by insomnia from the previous night. I learned that other pilots, nervously tracking my progress across the Pacific that night, did not get much sleep either. It was a relief knowing my flight was being tracked by many people in the event of an emergency.
Thanks for the banner Pete W! "May" is safely back home at Buchanan field surrounded by her experimental aircraft friends: a GlassAir II and III , RV8, Volksplane, and a P-40 replica.
The eastern Pacific was impacted by 4 tropical depressions heading directly for the Hawaiian islands. The winds aloft forecast models for the Hawaii/California passage did not look favorable for the next three weeks.
"May" was parked at the vulnerable Hilo International Airport as Hurricane Hector approached the eastern shore of the Big Island of Hawaii. Everyone was scrambling to protect their property and many tourists cut short their vacation and flew back home.
I was really worried that my plane would be clobbered by hurricanes Hector and Lane approaching Hilo. No hangers were available on the Big Island, so I decided to relocate "May" to another island. Ed Neffinger put the word out about my dire situation on the Vans Airforce community web site. After chasing a few leads, I was able to secure a hanger at Kahului Airport (PHOG) for three weeks at no charge. The following Kahului pilots helped me find a hanger: Scott (local pilot), Eric, (owner of Maui Plane Rides), and Brad (an around-the-world enthusiast who offered me his hanger while his plane was being serviced in Oahu). Eric even let me crash on his sofa before my flights to/from California. I was grateful for all of the help I received in Hawaii from these wonderful pilots.
Now that my plane was safe in a hanger, I decided to fly home commercially, rest (by this time in my trip, I was both mentally and physically exhausted) , and prepare for the final leg of the trip.
Returning to Hawaii After A Three Week Break
On August 28, I flew commercially back to Maui on Hawaiian Airlines. I picked a window seat to carefully observe the weather between California to Hawaii. In a few days, I would attempt to fly in the opposite direction in my tiny experimental RV airplane.
Before re-positioning my aircraft back to Hilo, I added an additional 22 gallon bladder fuel tank and plumbing for extra range. The plane could now fly 2750 nm non-stop, sufficient to fly from Hawaii to California with ample reserves. I heard of a recent ferry flight that went down 13 nm short of the islands due to a fuel shortage. They almost made it.
To refresh my instrument skills, I filed IFR for the flight back to Hilo. On final approach to Hilo International, ATC was landing traffic in opposite directions. I faced a Boeing 737 on short final, which felt like an "airplane" version of chicken. The "Do Not Delay" instructions to clear the runway were heeded immediately as I quickly exited the active runway. Who was I to argue? "May" weighs 1% of a loaded 737.
The damage from the hurricanes was still very visible all around Hilo. Hurricane Hector dumped nearly 52 inches (132 cm) of rain and caused major flooding. Creeks overflowed and debris littered the harbor and roads. It was the right decision to relocate the plane to Maui!
A summary of the 2018 Hawaii hurricane season
"May" parked next to the historic "old" Hilo tower and waiting for a weather window to California.
My ground handler in Hawaii, Aircraft Services Hawaii (ASH), is located in the "old" Hilo airport tower building. ASH provided me with fuel, handling, taxi service, snacks, and even helped me to mail home 50 lbs of gear/parts not needed for the Hawaii - California flight. Their carefully guarded pilot's lounge is fully stocked with an incredible collection of snacks and drinks (sodas and craft beer) that would impress even Matt Guthmiller.
"Blue Hawaiian" helicopters offers a new volcano tour over the Big Island. The helicopter ride was a welcome distraction from my worries about the upcoming flight to California.
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 in Hilo.
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 rough, windy strait between the Big Island and Maui.
On my return flight to Hilo, N944JK flew past Kipahulu , the final resting place of Charles Lindbergh, I rocked my wings in respect to the original long distance flyer.