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Six Islands in a Single-Engine, Part 1: Planning to Fly the South Pacific

Where: Australia
August 27, 2014 at 12:31 PM | by | ()

It's the stuff of headlines, when a pilot ventures away from familiar runways to embark on an epic aviation adventure in a single-engine aircraft, and it's exactly what Jaunted contributor Joe Corrigan is doing. Follow along over the next several days, as Joe shares trials, triumphs, and terrific images from flying to remote corners of the South Pacific.

Island Hopping in a Single-Engine, The Series:

1. Flight Planning
2. The Point of No Return
3. On Island Time
4. Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

It is often a dream of private aviators to not only slip the surly bonds of gravity, but also those of their home country and try flying abroad. As my good friend/flight instructor Nick Pech and I readied my Cirrus SR20 for what we simply dubbed "The Pacific Trip," the complex preparations smoothed the way for what would be pure bliss, under our own power over the clouds.

Passports? Affirm. Over two weeks, our routing would take us from Bankstown Airport in Sydney, to Australia's Gold Coast, and then out over open water over to Lord Howe Island, continuing on to Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and then back to Australia, entering at Cairns.

Aside from pure fun, the trip did have the purpose of building up my instrument flight time for my Command Instrument Rating (CIR). There is a minimum requirement for a CIR of 40 hours under instruction, so this is a very direct way of getting that while challenging us with new locations, unfamiliar airports, and procedures unique to these exotic destinations.

Many travelers, pilots or not, take for granted the ease of seamlessly flying between countries. For this very specialized trip, every detail was down to us; some of the considerations we had to contend with in the preparations were:

Mechanical check up

Before undertaking a trip like this it is advisable to have a LAME/AI (engineer) do a once-over on the machine. This gives them the chance to find any potential problems we may have missed, and which may flare up during the trip. Also worth noting is that the plane should be flown for a few hours locally to make sure all is running well after any work is done.

Flight Planning

One of the most important aspects of the trip itself is the planning aspect. Most pilots will advise spending the same amount of time on the ground, planning a flight, as actually being up in the air for it. Flight planning is something of a balancing act, where one must balance the aircraft's endurance, range, takeoff and landing performance with other factors like weather, fuel availability, and whether an airport has Customs clearance facilities, rudimentary as they may be.

In our case, the Cirrus SR20 has a nominal range of about 700 Nautical miles with fuel reserves on top of that, so our first challenge was to find a routing that allowed us to keep our flights under those 700nm, while still having fuel (Avgas) availability at each stop.

Safety Equipment

Whenever taking an aeroplane over water, or any remote area for that matter, it is imperative to pack the right gear. If a situation goes south, having the right stuff could prove the difference between making it home or not. Thus, on the back seat of the aeroplane we had 3 bright red “grab” bags, meaning they'd be the first three bags we would grab should an evacuation prove necessary.

Our survival bags contained:
· A 4-person covered life raft
· An emergency medical and utility kit with medical supplies, fire starters, torches and other survival necessities.
· A ration bag with 5 litres of water, food rations for several days, a locator beacon, locator strobe, and a 406MhZ ELT (Emergency Location Transmitter).

On top of all this, the aircraft has its own built-in ELT and lifejackets under each seat (with a whistle and a light for attracting attention - you know the spiel). We also carried an Inmarsat satellite phone—our lifeline to the outside world—in a waterproof case. To top it all off, the survival kit was stocked with cigars and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.


Permission to fly into foreign airspace is something the average air traveler will never have to negotiate, but it is a huge factor when piloting one's own aeroplane. To get that permission, we needed overflight permits to operate within that country's airspace as well as landing permits to land at the planned airports. These permits tend to have a validity of 72 hours after the estimated arrival time to take into account any delays possibly experienced en route, such as weather. We were also very proactive and made contact with customs at each destination, so that they'd know when to expect us. Those officials could literally be out tending their gardens instead of sitting in the office all day.

Weather and Points of No Return

Being aware of and preparing for weather is just good airmanship, and a skill which could mean the difference between our being safely on the ground, or bobbing up and down in the middle of the Pacific in our life raft, taking turns on the satellite phone and that bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue.

The key things we look for in weather are:
· Wind: What direction, how strong, gusts at airports, and direction and speed for what we refer to as "winds aloft." Winds aloft, or the wind we will encounter whilst airborne at our planned cruise altitude, will effect the range of our aeroplane.
· Cloud: Do we have enough cloud base clearance to get out into or out of the airports along our route, and are those clouds going to pose a threat to the aeroplane?
· Visibility: Do we have enough visibility to safely takeoff and land?
· Icing: Where is the freezing level and are we going to be encountering visible moisture?

When we fly an extended leg between two points over a remote area, we have to take into account a "Point of No Return" or PNR. This is the point at which, once passed, the aircraft is no longer able to return to the point of origin and must be committed to the destination ahead.

Part 2:

Next up, we’ll get in the air proper, and share what it was like to leave the Australian mainland, how we had a run-in with weather and faced the "Point of No Return" dilemma, and all about the trials of communication with air traffic control whilst being more than 250 Nautical miles from land.

[Photos: Joe Corrigan; iPad screenshots of ForeFlight]

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