Precision Flying Is Key to Being a Ferry Pilot

Abingdon Welch takes a deep breath (and a selfie) at altitude on the California to Hawaii leg ferrying a Cirrus. The high frequency (HF) radio sits on top of the aluminum fuel tank that allows the airplane the range it needs to get to Hawaii (more than 2,000 miles) nonstop. Abingdon Welch

There are pilots who enjoy the long cross-country flight. I’m certainly in that category. I’ve flown my airplane from Florida to Maine to Seattle, San Diego and back, crisscrossing the country more than a dozen times. With that considered, Abingdon Welch has me beat by a long shot.

Welch, currently a regional airline first officer, cut her piloting teeth as a Pacific Ocean ferry pilot. What did she ferry? Imagine delivering light single-engine and piston-twin aircraft from the U.S. to Hawaii, Australia, Malaysia, China and Korea. Her longest flight was behind one engine for 18 hours nonstop over mostly ocean.

There are logistics, both personal and professional, involved to do the job safely. Yes, it does pay off — rather handsomely — if you are well-trained. Most ferry pilots are independent contractors and work for a set fee (day rate or mission rate) plus expenses.

To make a Pacific crossing, your typical light-piston aircraft has to be retrofitted with auxiliary fuel tanks placed in the cabin, right next to the pilot. There are simply no places to put down and fuel up. Smart ferry companies also retrofit systems to allow the pilot to add oil to the engine in flight. Managing those fluids is key to mission success — do it wrong and you’ll swim with the fish.

An oil leak over the Pacific Ocean on an 18-hour nonstop flight can be catastrophic for a single-engine airplane. Abingdon Welch demonstrates how pilots add oil to the engine during flight to prevent just such a tragedy. Abingdon Welch

Precision flying is also a critical skill for ferry pilots. The airplanes are legally overweight on takeoff. Ferry flights need cool mornings and long runways for takeoff, and the pilot must be patient and wait for the airplane to lift off on its own.

“It isn’t uncommon to see only 200 feet per minute in the climb-out,” Welch says. The first thing she does when she levels off is to test each fuel tank by running off it for 10 minutes. Then she calls San Francisco ARINC on the high-frequency radio (also a retrofit, required for position reporting across long distances). About then it is time for breakfast. The catering: lightweight and high-protein nutrition.

How did Welch get involved in such an adventure? She’d been a regional sales coordinator for Cirrus Aircraft and found herself making aircraft deliveries, which gave her a taste for long cross-countries. She enjoyed the satisfaction of handing the keys over to a new owner. But there was a lot more to know before she was ready to be a real ferry pilot. Where did she learn?

“I had a mentor,” she says.

Welch’s mentor is retired Southwest Airlines captain and inspection-authorization mechanic Fred Sorenson, who logged his 42nd year as a Pacific ferry pilot just last month at the company he founded, Flight Contract Services, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“My first ferry was a Cessna 182 — from California to Australia, and I was terrified,” he remembers. It was 1974 and GPS was a fantasy. “Today’s electronics are misleading. We always know where we are, and communication is simplified, but owner-pilots now think they can head out to Hawaii from the mainland without special training,” Sorenson says. Inexperienced and poorly trained ferry pilots give the industry a bad rap. Sorenson combats that by bringing his pilots into the business early and training them well.

Fred Sorensen prepares an airplane to receive internal ferry tanks for a trip across the Pacific. Sorensen has been flying aircraft across great expanses of open ocean for more than 40 years. As the president and founder of Flight Contract Services he now breaks in new ferry pilots, showing them how to make the trip safely by managing risk. Courtesy Fred Sorenson

“Everyone here learns how the ferry tanks are installed — the pilots need to understand the system intimately. Then a pilot will be a copilot with me or one of my captains (they are all instructors too) for a ferry flight,” he explains. Sorenson wants to make sure these pilots have the mechanical aptitude for troubleshooting, both in the air and at remote refueling stations.

He watches the weather with his pilots and gives the go-ahead on the right day for the flight. “I’m consistent backup for them,” he says. Welch, one of his contract pilots, described how she was able to solve a fuel problem in flight with the Delorme InReach tracker, which permits her to text back to base while above the middle of the ocean.

Both Sorenson and Welch agree on what propels them from ferry mission to mission. “This business encompasses it all and asks me to use everything I know in aviation, from maintenance to precision flying to customer relations,” Sorenson says.

How can you get started on a career as a ferry pilot? Your local airport is a great resource. Get to know aircraft owners through the FBO, and find out if there is an aircraft broker, buying and selling aircraft, nearby. He or she may have airplanes that need relocation to new owners. Your local maintenance shop also has a need for ferry pilots, particularly for owners who base their aircraft somewhere else. This is also a great place to learn more about the electro-mechanical side of the airplanes you fly—you’ll need those skills on long delivery flights if the airplane “acts up.”

The Garmin 1000’s worldwide database and accuracy makes knowing where you are the easy part of any long cross-country. In this case we see Welch’s routing north across the continent of Australia and on toward Indonesia. Abingdon Welch

Once you’ve got some significant solo cross-country time in your logbook (at least a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings, as well as 1,000 hours of total time) you’ll be ready for longer gigs and a job with a ferry pilot operation. Becoming a long-distance ferry pilot takes time and patience, but the rewards are clear.

Welch says: “I’ve been to places people don’t even know about, and the flying experience is off the charts. I’ve flown 67 different types of airplanes, and I’m still early in my career.”

Amy Laboda began flying in 1978 and is a flight instructor, with credentials that range from a gyroplane rating to an airline transport pilot certificate.

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