St. John's may be remote, but it's a flurry of activity for pilots. Fifteen hundred light planes leave the United States every year for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, sold overseas as America's general aviation fleet continues to decline. The most common delivery is a Cessna 172, a four-passenger, single-engine plane seen at every airport in America, but everything from two-person Cessna 150 trainers to business jets make the crossing.
The cautious ones fly the northern route: Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland, the Faero Islands, Scotland. The over-water legs are short, less than 500 miles. Every year, dozens of private pilots fly single-engine airplanes across the Atlantic to Europe and back. Almost all of them make it.
But the professional ferry pilots fly the southern route straight from St. John's to Shannon or even Amsterdam, Paris, or Frankfurt. It's faster and cheaper, but the route includes 1,700 miles over the cold North Atlantic waters.
The pilots are a friendly bunch. Most carry thick wads of cash wrapped with a rubber band in their shirt pockets. It is an all-cash business. The standard uniform is boots, jeans, flannel shirt, sheepskin-lined denim jacket and a ski hat, even in early summer.
Shortly after arriving, I meet John Egaas from Atlanta. Fifty years old, he has been flying small planes across the Atlantic for fourteen years, three times a month. Four days to make the trip, one day to fly back via commercial airliner, and two days off. Your regular five-day work week. He has never had an engine quit in all those years. Now he is flying a straight-tail Bonanza to Amsterdam. He estimates the flying time as twelve and a half hours with two and a half hours of fuel reserves.
What does he fear most about flying? John answers without hesitation, "Dying! Doesn't everyone?"
Denny Craig learned flying and survival in Vietnam. Now he lives in Southern California and mostly flies the Pacific routes—Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. He mentions he has also made roughly 300 Atlantic crossings in small aircraft. The trip he's on now is to South Africa via the Azores. He started a few days ago in Wichita and will have flown about 10,000 miles when he lands in Johannesburg. The customer wanted to save money by having an auto-pilot and most of the navigation equipment installed in South Africa, so Denny is hand-flying the plane the entire trip with minimum equipment.
What does Denny worry about the most? Airframe icing on the Atlantic run. That's the biggest killer over the Atlantic, especially of younger pilots. The icing forecasts are usually accurate; but when they are not, the alternatives sometimes neck down to zero.
The big jets have equipment to melt the ice as it forms, but small planes do not. Without it, moisture in certain clouds freezes instantly to an airplane flying 150 miles per hour. Out the window, you see a thin white coating on the leading edge of the wing. Seconds later, the coating is half an inch thick. Then an inch. Vibration. The propeller is icing up. Now the ice-laden wings slowly lose lift. Your plane begins to lose altitude. The lucky ones descend into warmer air and the ice breaks up. If you are not so lucky, you continue to lose altitude until there is no more to lose; or the wing simply stalls—shortening the trip down.
Over the Pacific, the pilots fear the wind. The headwinds are unpredictable, which makes long legs like the 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Honolulu a dicey proposition. In 1984, Denny ditched into the ocean 50 miles short of Honolulu when headwinds depleted his fuel reserves.
He knew it was going to be close. When the Honolulu controller told him to fly around an aircraft carrier on training maneuvers he told them to move the carrier. It was night when he went in. Impossible to see the water. He set up a slow, gentle glide when the engine quit. The first whap was hitting the water. The second was the plane flipping over on its back. One gulp of air and he was under water. Somehow he found the door in the blackness and got out. A Navy helicopter picked him up. He says his Vietnam survival vest saved his life. Life jacket, flare gun, pistol, radio all in one. He still wears it.
John Penney, the St. John's Shell aviation manager, knows all the pilots well. Quiet and soft-spoken, he tells a famous story about an Atlantic run. "Woody" Woodward has probably made 250 single-engine crossings over the Atlantic. That's a lot, but not exceptional. What he's known for is his bugle playing.
"Seems Woody usually gets bored about half-way across and, unlike a lot of the younger pilots, doesn't listen to Van Halen on a Walkman. So he plays his bugle over the HF radio to entertain himself.
"One time a while back, Woody was making the crossing with several other pilots, mostly younger and less experienced, when one of the planes developed engine trouble. Just as it started to sputter and sound like it was going to quit, the young pilot radioed Woody for advice. Woody keyed his radio and replied by playing Taps on his bugle."
The young pilot made it to Ireland.
Atlantic icing and Pacific winds. John had a third opinion about the greatest fear the ferry pilots quietly carry inside them. "Silence. You're out over open ocean and the engine quits cold. You're only headed down."
Their stories match any in classic aviation's literature. Why do they do it? The young ones are building flying time to get into the commuters, just like the flight instructor at the local airport. The older ones say they do it for the money, as much as $3,000 net per delivery. I suppose that's as good a reason as any, but if you want to meet the men who flew the airmail in the twenties, set the flying records in the thirties, and flew the Hump over the Himalayas in the forties, go to St. John's.