The delay caused by the need to build new ferry tanks – to replace the ones that had been crushed when subjected to the 6 psi differential pressure when tested with the original venting system – put the delivery of the Super King Air 200 to its buyer in Malaysia behind schedule. Sabah, the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, had bought the airplane to be used by its chief minister and his staff to both travel to various cities within Borneo, as well as make the occasional trip across the south China Sea to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, and to Singapore, the bustling city-state at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. Both of these destinations were about 900 nm west of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu.
California had been experiencing draught conditions for much of 1977, but as 1978 dawned the rains finally began. Boy, did they begin! The weather pattern suddenly shifted and allowed the wet storms in the Pacific to reach the California coast at last. It was great for the empty lakes and thirsty fields, but bad for our desire to get the 200 safely across the ocean to its new home. The experienced ferry pilot, Nick – not his real name but the one I use here – and I had calculated that we could safely handle an average headwind component on our flight to Hawaii of 30 knots. Now, however, the winds were averaging 50 knots and more! Each day we would check with Oakland Flight Service Station (remember when we actually spoke to briefers?) and receive the depressing news that the winds were still too strong. A week went by, then another. We were not able to take on any further assignments since we had to be ready to depart immediately when the winds finally abated.
After what seemed like an eternity, the briefer indicated that if we departed the next morning the winds would meet our “less than 30 knots average headwind” requirement. Hurray! We rechecked all of our supplies, filed the flight plan – FL280 was our requested altitude – and arranged to have the standard and ferry tanks all filled to capacity early the next morning. We aimed for a 6 a.m. takeoff with a planned en route time of 10 hours.
How would we navigate to Honolulu? This 1977 King Air left the factory with a brand-new, long-range navigation system installed in the pedestal … an early VLF (Very Low Frequency) system that used the Navy’s submarine communication radio waves for aerial navigation. Ever heard of such a thing? It was not IFR-certified – nor would it ever be – had no database and was very prone to losing the signals whenever the plane flew in precipitation. Yet, by typing in the Lat/Long coordinates of Honolulu and being able to see the desired track and distance while on the ramp at Oakland … wow! Will wonders never cease! For “legal” purposes, we were flying based on NDB signals for as long as we could, both outbound from California and inbound to Hawaii – both places had very strong NDBs – as well as simple compass headings based on forecast wind conditions.
Here’s the way Nick really navigated: He followed the jet contrails. I had asked him how he found the way to Hawaii in the 172s he more commonly ferried and that was his answer: Follow the contrails. At night, follow the lights of the overhead jetliners. “But, Nick, what if its cloudy? Then you can’t see the lights or contrails. What then?” I asked. “Oh, it’s never cloudy for very long over the Pacific,” was his somewhat surprising answer. By the way, the 172s and similar airplanes that Nick ferried went VFR, usually in “packs” of three to six airplanes flying in very loose formation, in uncontrolled airspace below 5,000 feet. He told me that he actually preferred flying a 172 or Cherokee to a 310 or Aztec since fuel/range was much more critical in the twins!
We received our IFR clearance, departed, climbed to 28,000 feet with no need for intermediate level-offs, enjoyed having the rising sun at our back and tried not to be bothered too much by the groundspeed readout on the DME. It is depressingly slow. As we accelerated into cruise and switched from our standard fuel to using the ferry fuel, all goes well. Our True Airspeed at our heavy weight and conservative power setting is about 240, but we had not yet seen a ground speed over 200. Damn! This was not looking good!
To be frank, the smart thing to do would have been to tell ATC we needed to return, do a 180 and head back to Oakland. But we didn’t. We were so “chomping at the bit” to head west after our more than two-week delay, we kept delaying that decision. With so much headwind our “point-of-no-return” was way far out there. We could fly a long time westbound, fighting the headwind, since the return flight eastbound would be flown in a much shorter time due to the now tailwind providing a much higher groundspeed. At times, our GS dropped below 160 knots. Golly, an 80-knot headwind! So much for our “less than 30” forecast.
As we neared the half-way point in distance, about five hours after takeoff – still thinking we would soon have to admit defeat and turn around – we hear a U.S. Navy C-130 on the oceanic HF frequency that we were using for ATC communications. He reports that he is at FL270 (just 1,000 feet below us), eastbound to his station in California, at a reporting point near but west of our own position … and he is complaining of the strong headwind that he’s been fighting! “What?! How can that be? But if it’s true, then maybe the average wind forecast is not as messed up as we think it is!”
Sure enough, in the next hour, without penetrating any obvious weather front, the wind does a tremendous shift of nearly 180 degrees and turns into a strong tailwind. Now the calculations indicate we can indeed make Honolulu with a comfortable fuel reserve. Nick and I both breathed sighs of relief and began to think that our decision to press onward perhaps wasn’t the most conservative course of action but at least this time it appeared to be leading to a successful outcome.
I mentioned earlier about the tendency of the VLF navigator to go into DR (Dead Reckoning) mode whenever it saw a cloud. This primitive system was “position tracking” not a “position finding.” When working properly, it knew your track and speed over the ground but it had to know your starting point. In our case that was KOAK. When it went into DR mode, it retained the same track and speed information based on where you were when it lost a navigable signal. When the signal returned, it would become the new starting point from which it continued its position-tracking. All told, I estimate that it was in DR mode for at least three hours. When we finally got line-of-sight reception of a VORTAC on the islands, it was with relief that we realized we were quite close to where the VLF thought we were. As we shut down on the Honolulu ramp, the VLF had a position error of 6 nautical miles. Guess what? We considered that absolutely fantastic! How stunningly amazing is the accuracy of the modern GPS system to us old-timers who flew for so long without it! Our total flight time was 10:41.
The California-Hawaii leg is the longest overwater crossing there is. Our next legs were Honolulu to Majuro, Majuro to Port Moresby, then Port Moresby to Kota Kinabalu. Unlike the leg we had just completed, not only were these upcoming legs a little shorter, but also there were some alternates within range – a comforting thought. In addition, strong headwinds were unlikely.
When we started up the next morning – following a nice dinner, a good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast and a refilling of all the tanks – we encountered a surprise: The right generator would not come on. It had just worked in its starter mode so the unit was not completely shot but no matter what we tried, we had no generator function. Darn! We told ATC to put our departure on indefinite hold because we had a problem and would not be taxiing out at this time.
We shut down, opened the cowling, visually confirm that the starter/generator seemed fine, and made a call to maintenance back at Beechcraft West in Hayward, California. We agreed that the GCU (Generator Control Unit) was the most likely source of the problem.
Four days later, we finally departed Hawaii. “Oh sure!” my friends say. “The generator just happened to fail, forcing you to spend four extra days enjoying the sun and sand on Waikiki!” If that were only true! Instead, with no King Air maintenance at the airport and under the guidance of the pros at Beechcraft West, I spent most of that time stretched out in the narrow King Air aisle, wedged between the ferry tanks, rolling back the carpet and removing the access panel to reach the side-by-side GCUs, swapping them to see if the problem followed – which it did – ordering a rush delivery of a replacement, then installing it when it arrived. (OK, I admit that there was one day at the beach while waiting for the unit to arrive!) Can you guess how hot and stuffy it gets while working for hours in a parked 200 in the heat of Honolulu? I was very happy when that repair was finished!
The next two legs – Honolulu to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, then Majuro to Port Moresby, New Guinea – were respectively about 2,100 and 1,800 nm. The wind was very light so we calculated the total flight time would be about 17 hours. Nick wanted to do this in one day, using Majuro as a lunch and fuel stop, then continuing to New Guinea for the night. With that in mind, we filed for a 4 a.m. local time departure. He showed me an amazing thing after we started up on the ramp at Honolulu. He tuned the ADF receiver to the AM radio station at Majuro and I’ll be darned if the needle didn’t immediately come alive and point right to our destination! We could even hear a bit of the radio show. Nick said that this tremendously long AM range was very common to experience at night but never in daylight. He was certainly correct about that on this leg. The ADF needle lost its hold as soon as the sun came up and did not start pointing correctly again until about 100 miles out.
We landed on the one runway at Majuro, on the atoll with ocean water on both sides. Fueling went quickly and we had a tasty lunch in the small terminal building. We were off again within an hour and enjoyed another uneventful flight to New Guinea.
Ah, New Guinea. Nick had a contact person there who promised that our overflight permit for crossing Indonesia – which we had not yet received – would be “no problem!” with his help. Two days later we were becoming quite certain that there was indeed a problem and that this handling agent was not being very helpful at all in resolving the issue. Finally, we all drove to the Indonesian consulate, our agent told us to wait outside while he entered, and within a few minutes he returned with a big smile and saying “It’s all OK! You are good to go!” He never gave us any paperwork at all, not an overflight permit number. To this day, I don’t know if he really arranged the permit for us or if he just knew we probably would not be asked about it anyway!
We departed early on the following morning for the 1,800 nm leg to our final destination, Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Weather was fine and, for a change, we had lots of islands to view as we crossed a lot of Indonesia instead of just miles and miles of ocean.
We taxied to the Sabah flight department’s hangar to shut down and were met by an enthusiastic crowd of pilots and maintenance personnel. At long last – nearly a month behind schedule – their new BE200 had arrived! The next day Nick got on an airliner to start his return to the states. I, on the other hand, began a four-month stay as I flew the airplane for the State while providing additional flight training and line experience for the two Malaysian pilots who had previously attended King Air 200 Initial Training at the Beechcraft Training Center in Wichita. What an interesting four months it would be! Maybe I should tell you more of those tales sometime. Would you like that?
King Air expert Tom Clements has been flying and instructing in King Airs for over 46 years, and is the author of “The King Air Book.” He is a Gold Seal CFI and has over 23,000 total hours with more than 15,000 in King Airs. For information on ordering his book, contact Tom direct at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tom is actively mentoring the instructors at King Air Academy in Phoenix.
If you have a question you’d like Tom to answer, please send it to Editor Kim Blonigen at email@example.com.