"May" returns to Airventure after flying around the world.
Many thanks to Charlie Becker (EAA - Director of Communities) for the prime location across from Fightertown and next to 500 RV experimental aircraft.
I was thrilled to finally meet DIck VanGrunsven, founder of Van's Aircraft and Ken Kruger, designer of the RV-9A.
Earthrounders at Airventure
Four Earthrounders showed up to hear Robert DeLaurentis's Pole-to-Pole presentation at the EAA museum. New Earthrounder, Norman Surplus, just completed an incredible 9 year flight around the world in his MT03 autogyro.
Other known Earthrounders at Oshkosh 2019:
Brian and Sylvia Foster - (RTW 2017 in a RV10)
Juan-Peter Schulze (RTW 2017 in a Cessna 210)
Matt Guthmiller (RTW 2014 in a Bonanza)
This extraordinary, turbine-powered Wilga was a crowd favorite at the Mojave Experimental Fly-In (Southern California) in April 2019. Both "Draco" and "May" received awards at this unique event located at the home of Voyager and Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites.
June 1, 2018 - 1500 nm World Record attempt, Class C1b. Crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains en route to Oshkosh, WI. This was the first leg of my around the world trip.
June 22, 2018 - Duxford, England. Both N944JK (RV-9A) and G-GRDV (RV-6 in the background) are Earthrounders.
The 22 gallon ferry tank Installed behind the pilot's seat in N944JK extends flight endurance to 1200 nm. Additional bladder tanks from Turtle-Pak of Australia further increase the range to 2750 nm.
Photo Credit: David Whitworth, Duxford Diary
Ed Neffinger (call sign "Discharge") 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.
9 years to build. 2 years to test. 2 months to fly around the world.
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
Longest Leg: Hilo, Hawaii to Oakland, CA in 16.5 hours.
AVGAS used: 1225 gallons
Flight Hours: 177
Total pilot flight hours after the trip was completed: 524
"May" is officially a member of the "Earthrounders" community!
I would like to thank the following companies and individuals for sponsorship and assistance during my flight around the world.
MCW Associates, Aircraft Spruce, Ameriprise Financial, Classic Aero Designs, Odyssey Batteries, MFJ, Dynon Avionics, and Garmin for funding, equipment, and technical support.
General Aviation Support Egypt for their extraordinary help to obtain permits, arrange handling, and flight watch. Their network of agents around the planet is an invaluable resource for RTW pilots. Thank you Eddie and Ahmed!
The Hawaiian Airlines crew who relayed messages back to San Francisco radio during my fuel diversion at Christmas island. I owe you guys a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch.
The pilots from Vans Airforce who quickly arranged for a hanger at PHOG as hurricane Hector rapidly approached Hawaii. Without their help my plane would likely been destroyed on the ramp in Hilo.
The Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1581, who helped me to repair my plane in Trento, Italy.
The many RTW enthusiasts who provided encouragement and tracked me over the vast Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans.
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.
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 picked my way through ITCZ, seeking the safest path and avoiding the clouds around me that exceeded 40,000 ft.
About 200 miles off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, in-cockpit traffic and weather data suddenly appeared 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 in the ITCZ
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 ice-cold Kona Longboard beer!
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.
500 nm south-west of Christmas Island
My challenge was to now contact Christmas Island tower/operations to open the airport for an after hours landing. They have a reputation being extremely difficult to contact, either by phone, e-mail, or text.
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 runway lights, and landing in marginal VFR conditions. 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 an instrument landing. The procedure for night operations is to start up the airport generator ten minutes before aircraft arrival to provide power for the runway lighting. I would happily accept smudge pots or flashlights guiding me in for a landing at decidedly dark Christmas Island. As of 2018, there is no pilot controlled lighting at 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."
Gulp! I 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 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 Captain Cook hotel, my base for the next few days, was a bit rundown. The hotel did have it's advantages: it was close to Cassidy international airport, it had a stocked bar, friendly staff, wi-fi (extra charge), and a nice beach. Guests could request either a cinder block hotel room or grass roofed "bure" closer to the beach. Water service was shut off between 11pm and 6 am and cleaning (of the showers) appeared to have been discontinued about 5 years ago. My cinder block room featured a rusting, incredibly loud air conditioner, which sounded like a bulldozer tearing itself apart. To get some sleep, I wore my Bose aviation noise cancellation headset to bed to drown out the racket. The staff is trying to keep the place running with limited resources.
Don't take the picture Mister.
Tracking down the "fuel boss"
I spent the next two days trying to arrange delivery of aviation fuel and withdrawing Australian dollars from the only operational ATM on the island. There was a rumor that AVGAS might be available, but no one knew for sure. The airport manager drove me to the fuel supplier (Kiribati OIL), where they pointed to a new pallet containing 1000 liters of "fresh" AVGAS and 6000 liters of expired AVGAS in rusting barrels. The staff would not sell me any fuel until authorization was made with the "fuel boss". I was asked to come back in the morning as the "boss" was out fishing.
The next day, I arranged for 400 liters of "fresh" gas to be delivered to the airport and made payment with Australian dollars. In retrospect, I was truly fortunate as I heard of one RTW pilot stuck on the island for months waiting for the next AVGAS shipment.
The landing/parking fees were still undetermined until the day before departure. The final bill was substantial, and I felt that I was paying for the salaries of the entire airport staff including management, ground support, customs, and 10 firefighters. Still, turning on the airport lights for my late night arrival was worth every penny.
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.
Christmas island is famous for it's world-class bone fish 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!
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.
Viti Levu is the largest of the islands comprising the South Pacific nation of Fiji.
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 as I approached the equator. Explanation. The sudden transition from daylight to darkness caught me by surprise. As I approached American Samoa, the control tower at Pago Pago switched on the airport landing lights to the 10,000 ft runway. In the last 200 ft before touchdown, "May's" landing lights lit up the runway, which appeared to be moving. Thousands of frogs were madly hopping out of the way as I prepared for touch down. Somehow, I avoided dicing or running over hopping frogs as I landed and taxied up to the main terminal building.
Historical Note: Pago Pago and NASA
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.
The risk of flying around the world in a small plane
On 23 July 2014, Babar Suleman and son Haris departed from this runway on a rainy, moonless night. Within moments of take-off, they crashed their heavily loaded Beechcraft Bonanza in to the ocean off Pago Pago. My handler was on duty that night and witnessed the crash. He was still understandably, very upset by the experience and he implored me to not take off at night. I listened to his advice and departed early the following morning.
Suleman accident report:
Photo credit: Pinterest
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.