Adventure Flying Guide – The Airplane

Adventure Flying Guide – The Airplane

Fuel types

Light GA aircraft can use various types of fuel; overwhelmingly falling into the categories of AVGAS, MOGAS, and Jet-A/Diesel. In the US/Canada, Northern Europe, and Australasia, AVGAS is usually fairly obtainable. Outside of these areas it can be a challenge; always possible, but often very expensive and sometimes has to be shipped there for you in advance. If your aircraft can also burn MOGAS (car gas/petrol) then this expands your options; but you need to ensure that you can source the required octane, without ethanol in it, and also that the airport will permit you to bring it onto the property. This is not always assured! In Egypt, it took a fair amount of discussion by Ahmed from GASE followed by sending every transparent 20-liter fuel can through the x-ray machine to get our MOGAS into the airport.

If you have an engine that burns Jet-A/Diesel, then you’re usually in great shape. Almost all airports have jet fuel available, and if they don’t, you can usually use road diesel in its place. Be aware that some airports won’t have a small nozzle that will fit in the small filler ports of some Jet-A converted aircraft, so be sure to have a solution (such as a very big filter-funnel).

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Fuel capacity

The amount of fuel that you can carry directly impacts on the flexibility of your trip. You always need to have enough fuel in reserve in case you can’t reach your primary destination, if possible (in some situations, such as Hawaii to California, this might not be practical). In particularly remote areas then your only viable alternate might be the airport that you departed from, necessitating enough fuel to fly there, back again, and still have a reserve.

Fuel capacity can be extended in a few ways. You can fit additional tanks, such as the tip tanks available for many Cessnas and Beech aircraft, or the auxiliary wing tanks for Maules. This is an expensive option, and only makes sense on an owned aircraft that you plan to use for many adventures. If you need the additional fuel because you have a stop with no fuel available, then flexible fuel cans such as those from Airframes Alaska are a great option.

Ferry Tanks

Finally, if you need a seriously large amount of fuel, a ferry tank installation is the way to go; this can double or triple your fuel capacity but you’ll give up cabin space, and need to think very carefully about your take off weights! It’s also very expensive to get a properly engineered and certified installation.

The two main types of ferry tank are flexible tanks (generally the Turtle-Pac), and rigid aluminium tanks. Each has pluses and minuses. My only experience has been with the Turtle-Pac. There are a number of reasons that I chose this option:

  • Light weight.
  • Easy to install and remove.
  • When not in use, takes up almost no space.
  • No need to worry about tank venting; the tank simply shrinks as fuel is used up.

An aluminium tank is arguably tougher and more durable, and won’t degrade over time. I’ve found the Turtle-Pac to be very well built, however, and if properly cared for it will last a very long time.

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Reliability and popularity

Some aircraft are iconic. The Cessna 172 and 182 for example, are known all around the world. They’re simple, reliable, and it’s rare to find a mechanic that hasn’t had a fair amount of experience working on one; we even found a mechanic who knew Cessnas in the Sudan! If you have mechanical problems when you’re far away from home, you’re far more likely to find someone who can help you out if you’re flying a common and well-known aircraft type.

We found a Cessna mechanic in Khartoum, Sudan

I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t set off around the world in something unique and exotic; but if you have a choice of aircraft, this is something well worth considering.

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Get to know your aircraft mechanically

Any time you’re heading off the beaten track, at the bare minimum you should be fully familiar with all the owner/pilot-allowed maintenance for your aircraft, and proficient at doing all of it. Tasks such as changing a tire/inner tube, changing the oil and filter, and servicing the spark plugs are typical ones allowed on American-registered aircraft. Knowing how to change bulbs is also key, although if you’ve switched over to LEDs this is unlikely to be an issue! The best way to learn about these is to try and work alongside your mechanic while he’s carrying out these tasks, so make sure you have a friendly mechanic.

Any experience that you can gain beyond this is always helpful. Learn about how your aircraft systems all work, and even though you may not be legally allowed to perform more invasive work on the aircraft, you stand a good chance of diagnosing problems and guiding any mechanic that you may have to bring in to tackle a problem when you’re away from home. Issues that I have run into when off on adventures include a failed starter motor, failed artificial horizon, snapped electrical lines, failed alternators, a dry-rotted and leaking fuel line in the wing, a blocked fuel sump drain, and even a failed cylinder leading to an engine overhaul.

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Get to know your aircraft’s true performance

The more adventurous your plans, the more important this is. If you’re just heading off for a camping trip around the US south west, for example, then you can keep your flying to paved airports with long runways, and don’t need to worry so much about performance figures. However, as soon as you start to operate into un-paved strips in more challenging locations, or make flights closer to the limits of your aircraft’s range with limited diversion options, understanding exactly how it performs is key.

In Alaska, we met a man who invited us to fly in to his short one-way-in, one-way-out dirt strip with a bend in the middle, and stay overnight at his camp. We could only accept the invitation because we had a thorough understanding that the 182’s performance would allow it, and that I was comfortable enough flying to the limit of its performance.

Kako airstrip, Alaska – muddy and winding!

Similarly, when setting out to fly from Hawaii to California on the round-the-world flight, I didn’t want to be flying the aircraft at full fuel load for the first time. How would it perform, 20% over the official maximum weight, and what would the fuel burn and performance be when so heavy? To gain familiarity and knowledge I therefore flew a few test flights at gradually heavier weights, culminating in a test flight of the same distance as the Hawaii to California leg but over land, to fully understand how the aircraft handled. Thus, when launching out of Hawaii on my flight to California, I’d have more mental capacity available for things like figuring out the HF communications.

Add photo: full ferry tank.

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High wing, or low wing?

It really doesn’t matter much. Advantages of a high wing include shade from the sun, and shelter from the rain; both of which have been hugely useful to me on my various trips.

People often say that a low wing is easier to escape from in a ditching situation, but the statistics of real-world ditchings do not support that, and even show the opposite; see the link and quote below from a ditching study on

“…in the subgroup that involved fatalities, high wing airplanes were noticeably underepresented: Although they were involved in 49 percent of all the ditchings, they represent only 27 percent of the fatalities. On the other hand, low wing airplanes represent 41 percent of the total ditchings, but accounted for 68 percent of the fatalities.”

Paul Bertorelli,

Another advantage of a high-wing is the great view for sight-seeing and photography; after all, we usually go on these adventures to enjoy the views!

High wing or low wing, just go have fun.

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