Ferry tales

Published On: November 18, 2017 12:45 AM NPT By: Hemant Arjyal

The (Royal) Nepal Airlines aircraft was found 50 nm off track when radar contact was finally established with Shannon

Ferry, in aviation parlance, is a task of delivering an aircraft to a designated location. A new aircraft on its first ferry might mostly carry spares/tools and a few personnel trained for its upkeep. On a day-to-day basis, such flights can be nothing more than “repositioning” of an aircraft due to schedule or maintenance related requirements. For example, if an aircraft is rendered unfit at one location, another airworthy aircraft will be “ferried” as a replacement to carry on with onward flights. Secondly, the disabled one might also need to be ferried to its maintenance base in another location. 

Nepal Airline’s (RA’s) A320s are occasionally ferried from Kuala Lumpur to Seletar in Singapore for maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) works. Before, they used to be sent to Hosur (Tamilnadu), a short hop from Bangalore. Normally such trips are timed after completing the scheduled flight, to the point nearest to the maintenance outpost. Constrained by its fleet size, RA would naturally be compelled to cancel, not just the return but various other flights for few subsequent days, gulping down passenger’s ire, as always. 

Keeping yourself rehydrated invites the urge to pee and doing it while seated will not come easy. 

With basics of ferry explained, this piece is more about the perils of single-engine ferries, that purr along slowly at low altitude over long stretches of open seas. Technological advances in global positional awareness through GPS in addition to real time weather update have made single-engine ferries less uncertain these days. But in spite of all such developments low altitude wind/cloud pattern can still throw up new challenges. But the biggest challenge concerns performance of the engine; ditching it being the only option should it malfunction over waters. Thus, ferry pilots make meticulous preparations before venturing on such missions. They love doing it simply because it involves “real” flying. 

Aspirins before 
At the personal level, it is important to keep warm, avoid being thirsty and hungry while flying for long, as dehydration dampens brain functioning. But keeping rehydrated brings in the urge to pee and doing it while seated will not come easy. It will be more difficult if it is a bottle and not a bag. It is incumbent upon the pilot to do it less messily, especially if it is a new aircraft on its delivery flight. One ferry pilot described the procedure as a combination of yoga move, pulled muscle and wet wipe! In precaution, taking aspirin few days prior to such trip reduces the chances of having blood clots in veins. 

Ferry pilots are advised to wear life jackets all the time. It will be next to impossible to do so only in emergency. The other crucial equipment is the life raft that roped loosely around the pilot’s waist so that it does not get blown away when inflated. A small pack of survival kit should include water, food, “space” blanket, flares, portable communication device and even personal emergency locator beacon (ELT) to help rescue team track. Space blanket is a thin light and heat reflective plastic sheet that we often see rescued persons at accident/disaster sites covered with. 

Aircrafts on long, nonstop missions over oceans are deliberately over-laden with fuel. Besides the wing tanks, additional fuel can be had in attachable wingtip tanks and even more in “bladder” tanks that occupies most of the small cabin space. Normally flying over-laden is forbidden, but special permits are granted for long ferry missions. With the aircraft filled, life support equipments stowed and double checked, all that the pilot needs is a good night’s rest. The state of en route weather next morning will have the final say, whether it is a “Go” or “No go”. 

Constant vigilance 
Once in the air it will be critical to monitor fuel consumption constantly along with various other engine parameters. As judicious use of fuel will be crucial, a slow/steady economic flying at low power setting and low revolution is said to be far better than high speed which depletes fuel faster. One can never be sure about surprises that are in store until the moment wheels rub against the tarmac at the other end.

Flying long hours without doing much and with the constant drone of the machine becomes monotonously boring. To keep engaged ferry pilots often talk to others pilots on 123.45MHz, the worldwide air-to-air frequency. In fact, this is said to be the biggest charm while flying over the vast expanse of the Pacific.

One Australian ferry pilot has earned fame for having done over 300 Pacific crossings on single-engine ferries in 37 years of his career. But Ray Clamback (67) had to ditch over waters on two occasions. In the first instance he was barely floating on life vest for ten hours. The raft could not be retrieved because the aircraft was upside down and sinking fast. The first leg to Hilo (Hawaii) from the US west coast involves a marathon hop of nearly 2200 nm in about 13-15 hours. 

It is true that big aircraft ferries hardly have any element of excitement. But, RA/B727 (9N-ABN) while being ferried from the US in 1979 had navigation aid breakdown one hour into the flight and this was further complicated by the failure of HF radio as well. For the second leg of the ferry (Gander to Shannon) an American licensed navigator was hired along with appropriate navigation equipment. But a problem in the Astro navigation equipment rendered it unserviceable. The flight crews were then forced to try using rudimentary help from way off non-directional beacons (NDB) of southern Iceland and Ireland. As the result the aircraft was found 50 nm off track when the radar contact was finally made with Shannon. It was an unexpected but an eventful ferry flight for which the Nepali flying crews deserve to be belatedly thanked for their acumen. 


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