Adventure Flying Guide – The Airplane

Adventure Flying Guide – The Airplane

Aircraft Equipment

You can take on an adventure flight in pretty much any aircraft, although the capabilities of your chosen mount will go a long way in determining the kind of flying that you can do. There are a few items of aircraft equipment in particular that I have found to be very useful in terms of adding capability to an aircraft for adventurous flights.

Fuel totaliser

A fuel totaliser uses a flow transducer on your fuel line to the engine, to tell you exactly how much fuel has been sent to the engine; of course, you generally also receive a real-time read-out of fuel flow as part of this as well. You should always be able to know exactly how much fuel is on board when you depart; therefore, by subtracting the fuel used so far you can obtain a very accurate idea of how much fuel is remaining. Most modern installations will do this for you, and can even predict how much fuel you’ll have left on arrival at your destination, based on current speed and distance to run.

Autopilot

An autopilot is not an essential. Having hand-flown a 16.5 hour flight after mine failed, however, I am of the firm opinion that one makes life much more enjoyable! Even a single-axis wing leveler will relieve most of your workload in the cruise and allow you more time to relax and plan for upcoming sections of the flight such as reviewing IFR approach plates; not to mention snacking.

IFR GPS

Much like an autopilot, an IFR GPS is not entirely essential for most aviation, but it does make life much easier. Many countries have begun to decommission their ground-based navigation aids such as VORs, in favour of GPS navigation; this means that without an IFR GPS, the selection of routes that you’ll be able to fly is becoming more limited. The same is true for instrument approaches; those with ground-based nav-aids are slowly being phased out, but GPS approaches are (in most countries) being added at a great rate. Having an IFR approved GPS, especially if it can be used to fly approaches, will greatly increase your flexibility.

Avidyne IFD540, approved for en-route and approach GPS and capable of displaying weather and traffic

USB Charging Ports

A proper aviation spec USB charging port unit (usually the unit will have 2 or more ports) is, in aviation terms, fairly inexpensive. The modern cockpit, particularly when flying long distance, will usually have a number of electronic items that need to remain powered. One can use rechargeable battery packs, but a neater solution is to have panel mounted power, with the added advantage that you don’t then need to recharge battery packs on overnight stops.

In my cockpit my phone, tablets (primary and a spare), camera, Garmin InReach, and hand-held radio can all be charged from the panel.

Bluetooth Audio

This is not a capability-enhancer, but it does greatly improve quality of life! On long flights, especially when out of radio communication, having the option to listen to music, podcasts, audiobooks and the like can help the time pass much more quickly, and also keep you alert and awake. A headset or audio panel with the option to connect through Bluetooth is a great addition to your equipment. More advanced panels such as the PMA450B in N9953H will even allow the pilot and copilot to listen to different things, through two separate Bluetooth connections. No more fighting with your partner about what to listen to!

HF radio

The vast majority of flights can be done without the use of HF radio. Even routes that nominally call for HF (such as the crossing of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand) do not seem to have this requirement enforced in practice. However, as of 2021 there remain routes that do mandate carriage and use of HF; one of these is the flight between Hawaii and the mainland of the USA. ATC will perform an HF radio check when you’re 100 miles out from departure, and if contact cannot be made, clearance to continue will not be given. The consequences of just flying onwards anyway are unknown; as is the practicality of returning to land when one still has almost 20 hours of fuel on board and is heavily overweight.

Add photos: HF installation. Antenna, tuner, control head.

HF radio installations can be either permanent or temporary. A permanent installation can be very expensive, and a temporary installation is by far the most common given the very few and far between occasions where HF is required. Unless you perform a flight around the world, there’s a good chance you’ll never need one. Installations will generally consist of three parts; a control head in the cockpit, an antenna tuner (installed behind the rear bulkhead in my C182), and an antenna. The wavelength of HF radio means that a very long antenna is required; in my installation it runs from just behind the rear window to the top of the tail fin, and then out to one wingtip.

If you need an HF installation, I have found that a good option is to reach out to a ferry pilot who carries out flights such as Pacific crossings, and ask them for advice about how to go about it. You might even find that they’ll lend you some equipment! Avionics shops in Australia may also be a good place to get advice, as HF is used a little more in the outback than it is elsewhere in the world.

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).

Fuel Placards

Whatever fuel type your aircraft uses, I strongly recommend having the filling points clearly labelled (placarded) with the relevant fuel type. Not only does this help to prevent mis-fueling, but some fuelers have a strict policy that they will not fill an aircraft unless the fuel type is clearly shown at the filling point. I have run into this issue in Spain and Australia in particular. Labelling the filling points clearly with the appropriate stickers before you set out will help to mitigate this issue.

Add photo: placarded filler port

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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 equipped.com.

“…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, http://www.equipped.com/ditchingmyths.htm

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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