Flying Around the World: Rules to Live By

We have talked about the easy stuff – how to actually fly the airplane around the world, over or through twenty-some countries. You’ve probably thought about that stuff. Now, let me tell you about some of the things you haven’t thought about. We learned these things the hard way. You don’t need to. Listen up. Every one of these lessons has a story in support of it. Some I will tell. Others I will not. At least not until you buy me a beer.

1. Always know how to get back to your airplane.

Like many of these rules, this one seems self-evident, but if you are not careful you will find yourself unable find to the airplane you left on the ramp yesterday. If you could ever get to the ramp, your airplane will likely be pretty much where you left it – but getting to the ramp is not so easy. You will have to find your way through a maze of unfamiliar security, with multiple checkpoints at every turn. You will be wandering through unfamiliar terminals … if you can even find the proper terminal…and you won’t be allowed to wander. Wandering is frowned upon. Without local handling, you will not likely pass through the checkpoints. In Luxor Egypt, we waited probably 45 minutes, essentially lost in the terminal, until we and our handling agent could find each other. We had to call our man in Cairo and have him contact the handling agent in Egypt and through multiple relays, we finally found each other and began working our way through the labyrinth of security that eventually led us to our airplane, where we discovered that the tower did not have our flight plan.

2. Always have the phone number of your handler(s).

See above. Do not attempt a trip like this without cell service in each country or you will be lost, completely at sea.

 

3. Refuel upon arrival if at all possible. It will take much longer than you think.

See my earlier post about the challenge of fuel planning and acquisition. We waited for perhaps two hours on the ramp at Nagpur – where the temperature in the shade was recorded as 113F – for the two drums of fuel we had pre-ordered to be delivered to the airplane. Then we had to pump it with a hand pump, and the assistance of our local agents, into the airplane and drain the last few gallons into a tin bucket and thence into the airplane. In Egypt, at the Sixth of October airport, we attempted to depart on what we discovered was a religious holiday and the only driver of the only bowser was taking the day off. Our departure was delayed several hours while someone on our behalf persuaded him to travel to the airport, start the relic of a truck, and fuel our airplane – at an additional charge. Meanwhile, we had to continue to update our flight plan to reflect the delayed departure, each update requiring a trip to the airport office where the flight plan was entered manually by an officer. When all was counted, our fuel cost roughly $22 a gallon – and we were compelled to tanker full fuel because our next stop, Luxor, did not offer avgas and the subsequent leg toAmman, Jordan, required a long detour around the Sinai to avoid the hazard of shoulder-fired missiles. Think I’m kidding? Here’s the the NOTAM.

 

4. If you can’t be a real pilot, at least look like one.

Adam and I were advised, with emphasis, by those we knew who had gone before to wear a pilot uniform south and east of the Mediterranean. Adam could pass for a senior Delta captain. I am an obvious impostor – how many airline captains or corporate pilots have you ever seen with a bushy grey beard and a long ponytail? We each referred to our white shirt, epaulets, captain’s bar (the great thing about playing dress-up … we both get to be captains) and crew badges as our “pilot costume.” And yet these costumes were magical. Time after time in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, India, and on eastward we were confronted by an officious security official or a nineteen-year-old kid with an AK-47 and with a flash of our gold bars and a wave of our crew badge we were waived through. (Our pilot attire, including the captain’s bars, was purchased from Amazon and our crew badges were issued by the National Business Aviation Association, of which Adam and I are both members, in the name of Great Circle Flyers, the company Adam created solely for this trip. I am convinced that the badge could have said “Donald Duck Airlines” and would have worked equally well. It was a symbol, as were the gold bars.

The effect is comical, but the symbol is powerful. I better understood the symbol’s power when I experienced the dearth of general aviation, of personal aviation, in these countries. In Egypt or India or Jordan or the UAE there is very little general aviation as we know it. General aviation, in our parlance, includes corporate aviation and other forms of non-commercial Part 91 flying, and corporate flying certainly exists east of Suez, but personal transportation in light airplanes is so rare as to be unrecognizable by the authorities – and suspect in many of these countries. There is the expense, which puts personal flying beyond the reach of the average man. And the military dictatorships that rule most of these countries discourage personal aviation, perceiving it as a form of individual freedom antithetic to dictatorial rule. (They are not wrong. The freedom to fly an airplane is not so important as a free press, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to travel, freedom of speech, the right of habeas corpus, and the other fundamental freedoms that we take for granted and which undermine totalitarian rule – but it is a personal freedom that erodes the authority of dictators.)

So, were we to arrive in our Bonanza dressed as casually as we might on a trip to the beach we would be curious if not unwelcome. The people on whom we depend, who could bar our progress, need to see us as something they understand – a pilot – and the only pilots they know are professional pilots in uniform. No matter how incongruous our personal appearance nor how modest our airplane, the pilot costume places us in a category easily understood by the ramp workers, the military, the security officials, the air traffic control personnel, the taxi drivers and the hotel clerks. It works.

5. Get yourself a corporate stamp. Make it impressive.

Similar deal to the uniform. It seems in this part of the world, that unless you are really, really rich, you need to represent something larger than yourself. The idea that an ordinary guy can fly around in his own airplane is just incomprehensible and even offensive. Everyone works for someone or some thing. Or should. And if you represent a company, a corporate seal makes it official in some way that is still respected – even expected – in this part of the world. We are venturing deep into cultural stereotyping here and making assumptions I certainly don’t have the experience or the background to make – but it was my impression that ceremony, the trappings of status, and official-appearing paperwork were important to establish ourselves as legitimate – even if they were largely fake. Go to Staples and get an impressive seal with some nice artwork. Some grape leaves would be nice.

6. Don’t try this with someone whom you don’t want to see at dinner. And breakfast.

Sounds like a rule for dating, doesn’t it? Sort of is. You are going to spend a lot of time with anyone sharing a small airplane for tens of thousands of miles and several months. You are going to be hot, tired, cold, bored, scared, confused, embarrassed, frustrated, and thrilled – sometimes all at the same time. You are going to have to trust your companion not to get you into trouble, not to embarrass you, not to kill you, and not to encourage anyone else to kill you. You are going to spend most of your time worrying about flying – the weather, the regulations, the airplane, the fuel. But you are also going to spend a lot of time together and if you cannot sustain a conversation about something other than airplanes you are going to get pretty weary of each other. (Unless you are uninterested in anything else, in which case, you and I would not be a match.) Our conversations over dinner and breakfast were seldom limited to flying and were often unrelated to flying. We talked about the paradox of negative interest rates, about why some nations prosper and others fail, about whether a culture can be changed by law and regulation, about the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, about the cultural provincialism that could leave a wonder of the ancient world like Petra unknown in the west until the 19th century. Of course, there was talk of the day’s flight or the one to follow, but anyone who can fly around the world without something to say about the world beyond the glare shield would be a poor dinner companion.

 

7. Cash is King.

Seems odd in today’s world, where we pay for a three dollar cup of coffee with a credit card, where there is talk of eliminating all paper bills and most of the coins, where I can charge your credit card with an Ipad app, that in most of the places we traveled cash was king on the airport. Local handlers, security officials, fuelers all preferred and many insisted on cash – U.S. dollars – preferably crisp new ones, not tattered or worn or stained. Appearance mattered and I don’t really know why, whether it was fear of counterfeit or some other reason, but we learned early at the Sixth of October airport outside Cairo that a perfectly legitimate U.S. bill could be rejected as unsuitable because of a minor nick or tear. Large bills were preferred, but change was seldom if ever offered. So the amount was effectively rounded up, often to the next hundred dollars. A fuel bill of $417 dollars would demand $500 in large bills. That’s a substantial tip.

 

8. If you have to ask what it costs, you can’t afford it.

If you want to know what the voyage of 5831R cost, you will have to ask Adam. I never did and never will. It would embarrass both of us. I can tell you that at times we were probably carrying enough cash for a good-sized drug deal (see above) and probably violating the customs laws of several countries. And how exactly does one calculate the cost of a flight around the world? Certainly the cost of fuel, the cost of permits and handling, the wear and tear on the airplane, the cost of food and lodging and taxis and the occasional tourist excursion. But do we include the years of training to master the flying skills? Do we include the recurrent training, the seminars and specialized training? Do we include the purchase of a suitable airplane and the up-fitting of it to make it more suitable – the engine upgrade, the turbonormalizer installation, the TKS anti-icing purchase and installation, the monstrous tiptanks purchase and installation and regulatory compliance, the life vests and life raft and the training to put them to use should it be necessary? The HF radio installation? The international chart and approach chart subscriptions? The satellite service and international mobile phone service? Someone once said that there are only two reasons to own an airplane: “1. I want one,” and “2. I can afford it.” To which I add that number 2 is optional. Or at least routinely violated, by me among others. In the case of a flight around the world, I’m afraid number 2 is not optional. In the end, we owe an accounting to, at most, our spouse and our children.

 

9. Don’t assume your flight plan went where you intended it to go.

Here in the U.S. we file a flight plan with Flight Service, either by phoning an 800 number and reading it to a briefer or online through familiar flight planning services such as Fltplan.com or Foreflight or 1800wxbrief.com. In Greece or Abu Dhabi or India it is far from certain that a single action will route your flight plan to the various agencies along your route. Far more responsibility rests with you, the pilot. Several times we took every precaution only to finally make our way to our airplane – see number 1 above – only to call Clearance or the Tower and discover that they had no inkling of our flight plan. We were always filing IFR, so a VFR departure was not an option. Untangling the missing flight plan sometimes took an hour or more and included phone calls to our handlers in Cairo. Generally, once we were underway, the ATC service was professional, although we spent hours without radar coverage, an unfamiliar experience for U.S. trained pilots and we spent occasional hours without radio contact with ATC, notably over the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar, and parts of Thailand.

 

10. Try to keep your engine running. It saves time.

We will talk later about our departure on the rainy morning of 17 June from Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur. Just trust me, it’s better with the engine running and doing engine things.

 

11. Pretty much everything is different wherever you go. But angle of attack never changes.

Travel around the world in an airplane and the scenery – most everything, really, constantly changes. That’s why we do it. The language is different; the landscape is different; the currency is different; the regulations are different; the weather is different; the water is different, the food is different, the culture is different. But angle of attack and the eternal verities – lift, thrust, weight and drag – never change and respect no boundaries. Let yourself become too distracted by all the former and the latter will reassert themselves with a vengeance. As Gordon Baxter, the late, beloved author of Flying Magazine’s long-running “Bax Seat” column, once famously wrote, and I paraphrase, “Instrument flying is a sin punishable by God.”

 

12. If you are both going to sleep in the airplane, try not to do it at the same time.

You will sleep in the airplane. You will be more weary than you foresee. You will be tired most of the time and you will be exhausted some of the time. Even if you are flying solo, you will sleep in the airplane. Accept it. Maintain your autopilot meticulously. Have a strategy for staying awake when you must be awake, make the most of those moments when you must close your eyes, and, if you are flying with a partner, be honest when you need to hand off duties for a few minutes. Don’t pretend to be alert when you are not. Two pilots both pretending to be alert and awake is a ticket to that moment when you awake only to find to your horror the rest of your crew asleep. Or the moment when you both awake to the sound of a 300-knot wind because you have accidentally kicked off the autopilot with your knee and you are now in the final moments of a death spiral. Colorful term, that.

 

13. Try to get the fuel right. It’s tricky.

My one persistent fear was that we would miscalculate our fuel load on one of these long, eight and ten-hour legs over water or rugged terrain or inhospitable polities. It is easier to do than one might imagine for a host of reasons. The problem was so interesting and my concern so everpresent that I wrote an entire article about the difficulty of getting the fuel right. See: “Gas-O-line.

 

14. Pay whatever is necessary to have cell service wherever you go.

I have no problem imaging how this flight could be done without GPS, although GNSS (the generic term for a global satellite navigation system) certainly simplifies the navigation. I have no idea how one did this flight – or could do it now – without mobile phone service in every country. Maintaining contact with a handling service, ordering fuel, filing flight plans, booking hotels, finding one’s way around a strange city, obtaining permits, contacting local handlers, maintaining contact with your flying partner, rousting him or her out for breakfast, locating and contacting maintenance facilities for routine oil changes or parts, or unplanned maintenance problems, conferring with your mechanic back home when you find a bit of shiny metal in your turbine wheel, calling your bank in the U.S. when you accidentally feed your credit card into an unrelated ATM machine on a street corner in Chiang Mai … hey, it could happen …. or asking your friends at home for help when you learn that a tree fell on your house while you were in Amman, Jordan. And making that call to your homeowner’s insurance underwriter. Yeah, that could happen, too. That worldwide service is going to cost. But just build it into the tab. You could do this trip without mobile phone service. You could also ride a bicycle around the world. Both have been done and will be done again. But not by me.

15. Don’t stay in a hotel unless the internet service is fast, free, and consistent. (Why do the expensive hotels nickel and dime you for internet service?)

There is internet service and there is hotel internet service. Just because a hotel advertises wireless internet service, do not assume that it will be adequate to your needs. You will be dependent on the internet for filing flight plans, for briefing the weather, for making hotel reservations, for keeping records, for communicating with anyone and everyone who cares what you are doing, for researching the Aeronautical Information Publications of each country. Basically for doing your job. And if you hope to communicate with your friends, families, and colleagues back home, video calling is wonderful. And if you are a seeker of publicity, which neither of us were then or now, you will need to generate it in social media. I dare say that, apart from those too-few hours spent sleeping, most of our time in our hotel room was spent on the internet – and we were not updating our Facebook page. We were hard at work. Sketchy, intermittent, or slow internet service is a vexation and a non-trivial problem. I don’t recall that we ever really complained about the food or the beds or even the weather – but we were frequently frustrated by inadequate internet service. And we wondered why Trip Advisor, which seems to have permeated the world, does not rate the wireless internet service of hotels. (I can think of some reasons, but yet it would be helpful.)

And why do middling chain hotels, with modest rates, generally offer pretty good free internet service while the posh hotels – you know who you are – nickel and dime travelers with daily charges for internet service. It’s not so much the ten or fifteen bucks every day as the need to constantly reconnect and go through a registration process every time you need to log on and work. If you don’t care about the money, you will care about the time. And it is faintly insulting, particularly for a hotel that fancies itself a business hotel.

 

16. Always wear sunscreen. You think you won’t need it. You will.

Obviously weather, season, and locale dependent, but the nature of flying your own airplane around the world will inevitably leave you exposed to the sun even when you don’t anticipate it. Any route around the world will take you around or through the equator where it is always hot and quite likely into a hemisphere where it is summer. And the limited freedom one has in many of these airports can leave you shipwrecked on an exposed ramp in the blistering sun of Luxor, Egypt, or Nagpur, India, in temperatures well above one hundred Fahrenheit and with no shade to be found. Watch the guys working the ramps in India: they are all wearing long-sleeve shirts in the most oppressive heat. The sun rains melanoma.

 

17. No politics at the airport

I have a standard rule, as absolute at my home airport as anywhere else, that politics have no place at the airport. No one’s mind is ever changed. Class, social, and economic schisms develop. Some people are made to feel unwelcome. Nothing good ever comes of it. At your own airport, the result is likely to be limited to hard feelings. And the consequences are usually limited to unhappiness and perhaps a bit of fun spoiled. In certain parts of the world, some of which you will unavoidably traverse on a circumnavigation, discussing politics at the airport can get you a taste of military justice in a country where habeas corpus is unknown.

 

18. Don’t try to go drink for drink with a guy who outweighs you by a hundred pounds.

Enough said.

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