Magazine

The pilots who risk their lives flying tiny planes over the Atlantic

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Media captionPilot Dave Henderson: "I must admit, it's a bit addictive really"

Ferry flying is a lucrative but high-risk industry. Elite pilots deliver small planes across oceans and continents - distances these aircraft were not designed to fly.

Flying alone across the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny, single-engine plane at low altitudes, sometimes in extreme weather conditions, is not for the faint-hearted. Things can and do go wrong.

The ferry flying industry is a close-knit band of aviators, some of whom have carried out hundreds and even thousands of flights, delivering newly sold or repaired small planes to remote destinations.

My father was a ferry pilot. As a child my life was dominated by aviation - school holidays were for planes and flying.

My earliest memories are of lining up my stuffed toys and dolls in the cockpit of a small Cessna aircraft. As my father built up his flying hours, there would be afternoon trips to France - my tiny bicycle stowed away in the back. A cycle ride along the beaches of Le Touquet would be my reward for enduring the occasional bumpy flight without complaint.

Later, as a teenager, I loved listening to stories of his flying adventures. Yet I was aware those gripping tales of flights over war-torn countries or in icy conditions across the Atlantic Ocean were censored to protect me from worrying about his safety.

In 1999 my father was killed when the aircraft he was delivering crashed over the mountains in Canada.

After he died I had little to do with light aircraft or aviation. The airfields where I had spent so many childhood summers became a faded memory, associated with loss.

However, as the years passed I found myself increasingly wondering about his life as a ferry pilot and what drove his passion for it. I wanted to discover more about this largely hidden part of aviation.

All over the UK, planes are being repaired and sold. Fixing and restoring a plane can take months, even years.

Then it needs ferrying to their new owners - wherever in the world they may be.

"Whatever plane you're in you have to find a way of making it fly that distance, which many small planes ordinarily would not," says pilot Julian Storey, 43.

These are aircraft that might typically fly 200-400 miles at a time (320-645km). But the shortest stretch of water you cross on an Atlantic crossing is 700 miles.

Because most small light aircraft are unpressurised, it's not advisable to fly above 10,000ft. This makes them more susceptible to extreme weather conditions as they have less leeway able to cruise above stormy clouds and ice caps. Airliners, by contrast, can fly at higher altitudes of about 36-40,000ft.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Light aircraft are not designed to be flown at very high altitude

In a massive hangar full of planes and helicopters at Biggin Hill airport, Kent, Storey shows me a Britten-Norman Islander light aircraft that's being restored. It's being "slowly transformed from something that looked like it really shouldn't fly again to something quite smart - it's like the Land Rover of the sky", Storey says.

He hopes to deliver it to its new owners once the restoration is complete and the plane is sold. About 18 months ago he took two of the same model from Scotland to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"This is real flying," says. "If I'm in the mood for adventure it will be absolutely right."

Before take-off, the Islander will have to be equipped with ferry tanks containing barrels of fuel needed for the journey.

It's a slow aircraft that doesn't have the sort of high-tech equipment to deal with icing and the weather you might expect in larger or more up-to-date aircraft. "So you are very much using your judgement, skill, experience to pitch yourself against nature and hopefully survive," Storey says.

This is what I always worried about, especially when my father was flying over the sea.

I knew he carried specialist survival equipment - a precaution all ferry pilots take to prepare for the possibility of ditching in the ocean.

"The main thing that is going to kill you in the ocean is hypothermia," says pilot Dave Henderson, 60, who has made almost 100 trans-Atlantic crossings in light aircraft.

"If you do end up in the water, the important thing is to get into your life raft but also I have a thick neoprene survival suit, which completely encloses the body and you've probably got a few hours survival in that."

He knows of other ferry pilots who have landed in the sea and survived, but admits it's not something he cares to dwell on.

Image caption A Piper Aerostar awaiting ferrying to the US

At an airshow in Sywell , Northamptonshire, I find him carrying out safety checks in the cockpit of a twin-engine Piper Aerostar aeroplane. It belongs to a client who wants the six-seater taken to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This delivery will cost the owner about $20,000 (£13,000). Henderson has packed the survival gear in the Piper Aerostar, all the safety checks are complete and the aircraft is ready for pilot Joe Drury to fly it to Florida, a trip likely to take about four days.

The plan is to fly to Wick Airport, Caithness, fuel up, and then fly to Reykjavik in Iceland. After spending the night in Iceland, the next leg of the journey is to Greenland - either to Narsarsuaq in the south or further north to Kulusuk, depending on the weather - then on to Bangor, Maine, and down the US east coast.

Reykjavik and Narsarsuaq are places I remember hearing about from my father as he prepared for his trips. Narsarsuaq is also known as one of the world's most dangerous airports - landing requires approach to the runway through a fjord, surrounded by mountains and glaciers.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Narsarsuaq airport in Greenland - one of the world's most difficult approaches

The route is the North Atlantic air ferry route. It was discovered by pilots during World War Two to transport aircraft from North America to Europe to support combat operations.

Ferrying a plane across the Atlantic is the ultimate test for both pilot and plane. But it is not only trans-Atlantic ferry flights which are challenging.

Former army officer turned ferry pilot Robin Durie has experienced partial engine failure during a flight over the Sahara desert, been involved in two separate incidents in which his co-pilots fell unconscious at high altitude, and on another occasion was forced to dodge small arms fire during take-off in the Middle East.

"Every trip does have an element of adventure about it," he says. "You need to be a pilot that can take on all aspects of flight.

"I just love flying and I suppose the difference between ferry flying and a routine commercial airline job is that you physically do fly these aeroplanes, it is real stick and rudder stuff and that has huge appeal."

Durie is married to Sarah and they have a baby son, Thomas. Fatherhood has influenced his decision to cut back on some of the more risky flights. All the ferry pilots I spoke to know of friends and colleagues who have died on the job.

And all agree ferry flying is not a career for mavericks or displays of bravado.

Staying safe has little to do with luck. "It's all about judgement - it's making the right decisions. Is the weather right? Is the headwind too strong? Do you have the fuel to outfly the headwind?" insists Storey.

After meeting these pilots, I'm reminded about how my life was enriched by aviation and by my father's passion for flying. I'm glad he got the opportunity to do what he loved - being a ferry pilot.


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