I planned to go on Saturday, December 3, but there were horrendous wind storms in California knocking down trees and power lines and gas stations
. There were AIRMET's (warnings to airmen) for turbulence and high winds Thursday, Friday and running into Saturday, finally being lifted Saturday evening. The weather on the route was generally good - a big high pressure system was dominating the eastern Pacific so the few thunderstorm clusters were lingering on the edges and well off my route. On the National Weather Service (NWS) web site there is actually a Route Forecast I came across (hard to find) for the San Francisco to Honolulu route - exactly what I needed (in reverse of course). For Sunday, December 4, it showed just low clouds below my flight level the whole way, and net headwinds for the entire route at 10,000 feet of just 12 knots. I ran the route through a couple of flight planning websites I use and they concurred with that headwind forecast. How wrong it turned out to be!
I planned to leave at 0600 Maui time (1600z) which meant another morning (my last for this trip) of getting out of the hotel in the dark at 5 am. To get ramp access to transient parking in front of the fire station at Maui, you need to call airport security at 808-872-3875. I had fueled the plane when I arrived by habit so it was ready to go. I finished my pre-flight in the dark and made sure all the panel and position lights worked since I hadn't really done any night flying on this trip and I knew I would arrive in Monterey in the dark
Knowing the flight would take about 13+ hours and given the short days of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, I knew I would either have to land or takeoff in the dark, or takeoff in the evening, fly all night, and land in the morning. All else being equal, I would choose to land in daylight but all was not equal. I chose to take off in the light at dawn and land at night mainly because the plane would be overweight on takeoff. Having done these overweight takeoffs a few times, I knew having a real horizon was helpful in easing the aircraft off the runway and establishing a shallow climb out angle. With most of the fuel burned off, the plane would be light and the landing would be a conventional night landing. I didn't fancy flying all night if unexpected cloud buildups were in the way - more difficult to see and fly around at night.
After some confusion about the flight plan - they didn't have the one I filed for Monterey, just an earlier one filed to Merced - I was off at about 0630 into a nice Pacific dawn direct to intersection CLUTS. I found out later the Monterey flight plan was rejected because the EET info format I used for waypoints was invalid. I haven't reviewed it to figure out why. With the flight plan adjusted to show Monterey as the destination, the next ATC issue came up 20 minutes later as I was completing my climb to 11,000 feet
. Before they would clear me beyond CLUTS they required I establish HF communication with Oakland Center. I told them I would be using my satphone. Honolulu told me that was not acceptable for primary communications. For a short time they actually cancelled my clearance to Monterey and told me I'd have to go back to Hawaii if I didn't use the HF. I explained that was impossible since it would mean landing overweight and the risk of damaging the plane, not to mention violating the operating limitations in the FAA ferry permit. After talking to a Honolulu supervisor (by satphone), he got Oakland to accept me beyond CLUTS even if the HF didn't work. (Thank you!). But to show good faith, I switched on the HF and gave Oakland a call on the primary frequency 8843 kHz they assigned me. To my astonishment, it worked! They heard me and called me right back. Since trying the HF on the flight from Goose Bay to Iceland and having no success (and even interference to the autopilot), I had given up on trying to use it. Now it was working OK, no autopilot interference, and for the next few position reports out beyond CLUTS I used the HF to call them until finally my signal got so weak they couldn't hear me anymore. At that point I switched back to the satphone and used it (and relays) for the remainder of the flight. Any pilot contemplating an oceanic flight like this, be prepared to deal with this HF radio issue.
From there on the flight was a long grind
. The clouds were as forecast below me so I was in clear skies the entire flight. I was making position reports every hour on the hour, as well as at waypoints which are about 400 nm apart. I had anticipated worst case headwinds of about 20 kts, the highest wind speed shown on the winds aloft forecast map anywhere in the east Pacific, in any direction. I was surprised the wind was right on my nose this early. As the flight continued, it became a concern. I was getting 165-170 KTAS airspeed from the plane, but as I continued I watched the groundspeed on the GPS progressively fall from 150 kts to 145 kts to 135 kts. By the time I reached about the halfway point at CORTT (the point of no return), my groundspeed was down to 130 kts. Are you kidding me?? A 40 knot headwind? Where was that on the forecast? The groundspeed continue to fall and got as low at 121 kts. Now my fuel situation became a concern. If this headwind got worst, making Monterey could be in question. I did everything I could to get the most out of the airplane without increasing fuel burn - notching up RPM and power a bit, really into the range where the engine wasn't designed to go. The strong headwinds persisted so I called ATC and alerted them that I potentially had a headwind/range issue. On paper I could still make it at 125 kts groundspeed, but it would be close. ATC responded by giving me a block altitude assignment (FL050 to FL017) so I could look for an altitude with more favorable winds. Unfortunately, this is not too helpful unless you know a better altitude because you can waste a lot of fuel going up and down looking for something better. I descending to 10,000 feet, then 9,000 feet, without much improvement - I was still looking at 120-125 kts groundspeeds. I was now using relays to ATC by way of commercial aircraft and private jets flying overhead at 30,000 to 40,000 feet which, curiously, had minor wind issues, 10 to 15 kts. Those pilots were supportive of my situation, and a few even double checked my fuel burn calculations and confirmed what I thought - that I could still make it OK if the headwinds didn't get worse. Explaining that I was on the last, most challenging, leg of a solo round-the-world flight in a single engine piston aircraft, led to a running conversation with several pilots about my flight. It was pleasure to past the time this way and made what was now becoming a long, grueling flight more enjoyable. As night descended they could see my strobe lights far below as they passed me overhead. One crew of a Falcon private jet based at SEATAC was particularly friendly and interested in my trip. I told them I was headed to Monterey; they were going to San Jose. Since they would arrive well before me, they said they would drive down and meet me. I really didn't expect this to happen late at night, but amazingly, after I landed at Monterey at 11:10 pm, they showed up about 10 minutes later. They even brought me an extra catered meal they had on board and gave me a ride to my hotel near the airport. Pilots - what an excellent community of people! We traded contact info so we could get back in touch in Seattle.
As my flight continued, the strong headwinds continued. I decided I needed all the fuel from the ferry tanks. Normally I would run them down to the point where there was 5 or 10 gallons remaining. Now, to get every drop of usable fuel, I kept running the engine on the ferry tank until the engine actually started to sputter and stop from no fuel. I had my hand on the alternate right wing tank valve so as soon as I heard the engine start to sputter, I could immediately switch to a tank with some fuel, flick on the boost pump, and drive new fuel to the engine. The last thing a pilot wants to hear is the engine sputter this way. Deliberately running the engine out to this point shows how concerned I'd become about fuel.
After draining the ferry tanks and trying (unsuccessfully) to find a better altitude, I realized I had done everything I could do to extend my range so there was nothing for it but to sit back, relax, enjoy the starry night and the on-going conversations with other pilots. I could see Orion, one of the few constellations I can consistently find on my far flung travels, perched in the sky off my starboard side - nice to have a familiar presence along for this flight.
As I passed intersection CUNDU, still 600+ nm to go, the headwinds finally began to ease. I watched the groundspeed slowly creep up from 125 to 130 to 135 kts. I knew then my concerns about fuel were resolved. The moral of this story is: don't trust wind forecasts in these situations. I don't know who forecasts these winds, or what models they use, but I think the NOAA wind models for this area are not much good - and potentially very dangerous. My flight circumstance is just one data point, but still as a PhD engineer that has done a lot of mathematical modelling, there ought to be some statistical wrapper on this data; i.e. the median predicted headwind is 12 knots but there is a 10% probability it could be greater than 40 knots. I started my flight in Maui with 204 gallons; I landed in Monterey with about 25 gallons usable on board - still 1.5 to 2 hours flying time and maybe par for the course with ferry pilots who do these flights for a living. But to me as a conservative pilot it was tight - I definitely needed the second 28 gallon ferry tank I installed in Honolulu. If the headwind forecasts had been reasonably accurate, or given me some indication or probability they could be much stronger than the forecast, I would have waited for a better day. To other pilots contemplating long over-water flights I offer my strongest possible caution about wind forecasts - and under any circumstances, take way more fuel than you think you'll need.
Coming up on the lights of Monterey from the Pacific Ocean was a wonderful sight. It was past 11 pm, the tower had closed at 9 pm, so I clicked on the runway lights with my radio and lined up for runway 10R. After nearly 15 hours in the air, what a joy and relief to feel the wheels touch down back on my home continent. I had now flown across all the longitude meridians and crossed the equator twice. Even though I wasn't home yet, I had completely an round-the-world flight. After a well-deserved rest at the hotel (I was almost too keyed up to sleep), I would fly the plane to Merced the next day for de-tanking. I'll leave it there for few days, rent a car, and visit family and friends in the San Francisco bay.
Originally my plan was to fly straight back to Merced, California where TDL Aero would remove the ferry tanks, reinstall the seats, and return N788W to its original configuration. But I continued to be bothered by the winds aloft forecasts. Generally, the winds over the ocean can't be forecast as accurately as winds over land because there simply are no reporting stations or weather balloons as I understand it. I decided the prudent thing to do was give myself every advantage to make it across which meant going into the closest possible airport. In this case, that is Monterey, California, about 60 nm closer than Merced. Monterey is actually a much larger airport than Merced (Class C airspace) with good FBO facilities and hotels within walking distance.