How to ‘Fry’ to China

There has to be a mistake. I paw through the packing materials but come up empty handed. The tiny Jeppesen trip kit in my hand, as thick as my ring finger, is it: all the published routes, ATC procedures, and instrument approaches for the most populous nation on earth. About the same number of pages as the state of Florida. 

I open the single en route chart and find the airway that would take me from my port of entry, Guangzhou (Canton), to my destination, Chengdu. Though the zigzag strip is minuscule, about six inches, compared to the rest of the chart, it encompasses over 800 nautical miles. Widely spaced NDBs define it, and I am once again grateful for GPS. There is little of distinction on the chart to tell me what I'd be flying over, though the MORA's indicate it won't be flat. Airports are scattered sparsely, the distance between them greater than the range of most light aircraft. What I see in my trip kit doesn't square with what I believe is the level of Chinese aviation activity, but there it is.

In mid-January in Kissimmee, Florida, I pick up my ride for this trip: a Lake Turbo Renegade 270. They aren't swift, have an unconventional appearance, and possess flying qualities that, well, take some getting used to. But besides the obvious advantage of being able to land on the water more than once, they have a characteristic that has endeared them to me: they are stone reliable. This is my seventh delivery to the Far East; there have been several to Europe, and a couple to South America. In well over 1000 hours of very demanding flying, there has been one cranky alternator and a dead mag. That's it, besides some minor avionics flaws. I like the blown Lycoming inside the cowling. It's probably the most friendly turbocharged engine in the business.

This Renegade is equipped the way I think they all should be: audio panel, navcoms, glide slope, marker beacons, ADF, transponder and GPS. An autopilot would be nice for the long trip, but this airplane won't be spending its life doing hard IFR. The new owner has chosen his avionics wisely, squeezing the most utility out of fewest pounds of useful load.

There are a few days delay in Kissimmee, waiting for the people's Insurance Company to get our coverage straightened out. Eyeing the weather to the north, I am silently grateful to the leisurely underwriters, but eventually everything is ready, and I have to leave. So, on a foggy, dark morning, we launch for the run up the eastern seaboard to Bangor.

As usual, the crew at Telford Aviation is ready, and by Friday afternoon the Renegade is reconfigured for ferrying. In the back where the rear seats once rode is a 132 gallon welded aluminum tank. With the internal fuel, it will provide about seventeen hours endurance. Atop it are the disassembled seats, the HF radio required for long-range communications, and a niche for my overnight bag. In the copilot's seat, the raft and a survival pack are strapped down; perched thereon is my own Garmin GPS 100 for backup. Within reach around the cockpit are duct tape, a tool kit, the food bag, a hand-held transceiver, the pilot's operating handbook, my camera bag, the relief bottle, wet weather gear (Lakes can leak in heavy rain) and piles of charts. Stowed but out of reach are customs forms, spare parts, two cases of oil and a couple of filters. An oil and filter change en route is standard operating procedure for this trip, as 125 hours of flying will elapse before arrival in Chengdu.

This amount of time aloft naturally raises two questions.

The first, "Why go east instead of west?" is pretty straightforward. The Renegade won't carry enough fuel to go west to Hawaii; getting avgas at Midway is a real trick if you decided to come down from Dutch Harbor or Cold Bay; you can't carry enough fuel to go against the winds from the west end of the Aleutians -- if you can get the fuel; and things are still too unsettled to go through Siberia. That leaves going east.

The second, "Why not crate it and ship it?" is less easily settled. It comes down to convenience. Disassembly, crating, shipping and reassembly could take months, time when revenue could be coming in, or the new owner could be having fun. By ferrying, the plane can be ready for work or play the next day after arrival, about three weeks after final payment is made. Most new owners feel a sense of confidence, too, knowing their plane could safely and reliably make such a journey. It' s likely the Renegade won't fly as much in the next year as it has on the ferry flight.

Monday dawns gray with a risk of icing. Incoming light aircraft are clean, however, so I launch for St. John's, Newfoundland. The tailwinds are brisk and soon my Renegade has made its permanent exit from US airspace. We soar across the ice-choked channels of the Maritimes and over the rocky coast of Newfoundland till, near the early winter sunset, we turn downwind for runway 29. The dark of night is rising over the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It is cold and waiting for us.

Now comes the familiar routine at St. John's: customs, weather, flight planning, refueling, hangar the aircraft against the cold and wind. The departure window is only a few hours away, and it is almost painful to have so many old friends to visit when there is so little rest to be had. I am torn between the desire to socialize with my long-time acquaintances and the need for sleep. It is a delicate balance.

Sleep loses. By the time I am done with my necessary rounds, it is fruitless to even go the nearby hotel for a needed shower and nap. I secure a couch in the line shack. In the briefest of times my watch is chirping me awake. I struggle from sleep, make a last call at the toilet, and crunch through the snow to the hangar.

The airplane is warm and waiting. I do my final loading, checking that everything is secure, then carefully preflight. Special attention is paid to fuel and oil levels, caps and cowling security. The makeshift HF antenna is inspected; it's not showing any signs of wear. Charts are readied, and the keys are pulled out of my pocket and hung on the DG knob. It's time to get into the survival suit.

As so many things in aviation, the suit is a compromise. Many years ago, I started with the standard dense foam super buoyant wet suit, normally worn from the waist down when crossing. It was hot, bulky and would require wrestling to don the upper half before a ditching. Next, I tried a pirated Luftwaffe fighter pilot dry suit with high tech thermal underwear. It worked well for a while, but what was cut for a 26 year old fighter pilot eventually kind of shrank, and became uncomfortable for a 40 year old ferry pilot. Besides, the diagonally cut zipper from shoulder to hip made relief operations not only difficult, but downright risky in turbulence. Finally, I found a loose fitting, lightweight Gore-tex suit with a generous vertical zipper that runs all the way to the crotch. During takeoff, climb-out and descent for landing over water the zipper's all the way up to seal my neck -- just in case. At cruise, it's unzipped for comfort. Underneath I wear thick thermal underwear over my regular clothes if flying over the near-freezing North Atlantic; the suit alone if over warmer waters.

Once into the suit I pull on a vest full of survival gear, including a floating ELT. Over the top of the whole thing I fasten a life jacket, since the suit alone has little buoyancy.

I notify the night crew, and they open the hangar doors, spilling the warm air into the sharply cold night. This is why it costs $75 for a short stay. I climb into the cockpit, they hook up the tug and tow me out. We wave good-bye, and they scurry to close the hangar and get the heaters going again. The engine starts without complaint, and we taxi across the snow-swept ramp to the runway.

It has been a long night, but Santa Maria is approaching, and in minutes I'll be on the ground, well ahead of the 2000 UTC deadline for cheap landings. After that, the Portuguese Airports and Navigation Service gets another $250 for their efforts. It makes the early morning departure from St. John's worthwhile. I spend a day there, then continue east, each flight punctuated by the caprices that keep the job interesting or frustrating. At Faro, Portugal, the cleaning staff is all over the met office as I try to get a briefing. At Palma, Spain, there are beautiful women in the General Aviation staff who meet each plane and make sure you get through the formalities and on the way to the hotel in a painless amount of time. At Malta, Air Malta mechanic Joe Mamo, in love with light airplanes, helps me diagnose a heater problem. I stay an extra day in Luxor, Egypt, waiting for an over flight clearance from the recalcitrant Saudis; I am rescued by a commercial handling service in Jeddah. Over flying the Saudi desert, I again wonder at the perfect edifices, round stone circles with a cairn in the middle and triangles of rock to the sides, that appear frequently along the route between Wehj and Gassim.

At Muscat, Oman, I change the oil. Though it is January, the ramp is sweltering and humid. As usual, the oil filter is stuck, so a Filipino Omani Air Services mechanic loans me a huge screwdriver. He winces, but says nothing as I pound the tool into the filter and wrench it from the mount. A Canadian Twin Otter passes me in the dawn on his way to Bombay, which I will over fly en route to Madras. We work out our own separation and tell Bombay control about it later. In beautiful Phuket, Thailand, Thai Airways presents me with a $600 bill for handling and airways fees. Things change, it was one time much less.

The routine on the ground is pretty much the same all over, with minor variations from place to place. Customs. Immigration. Landing fees. Book a weather briefing. File the flight plan. Get a cab to the hotel. Send a fax to my brother, who relays it to Lake and to the owner. Order room service. Shower and shave. Eat dinner. Try to get BBC or VOA on the short-wave to keep up with world events. Sometimes, I call my children; as I am widowed, it's important for them to hear my voice, know things are okay. Go to bed. Try to sleep. Get up before dawn, get a cab to the airport, pay the handling agent, see customs and immigration again, then take off into the dawn. My passport is full of stamps, but my memories are of airports, cabs and hotels. Sightseeing costs money; delays cost customers.

I depart Phuket for Manila, but the winds won't let it work, so I divert to Brunei, a pleasant, friendly and safe place. Its only flaw is the world's highest gas price: $12.50 per gallon. I cannot bring myself to pay it; it seems morally repugnant. So I call airports in bordering Malaysia and manage to find some drums of fuel I can buy. They work out to $5 per gallon. I am ecstatic. It is a true bargain.

Thus refueled, Manila is the next stop. The worst part is the customs agent. At Manila, they are allowed to set their own prices. Accompanied by a typed bill, mine is set at $350. Receiving it, he disappears into the night, never to be seen again. My handling agents hustle the refuelers and get me to the nearby hotel. It will be a short night.

Another dawn departure. Manila loses interest in me early, and instructs me to contact Hong Kong at the Flight Information Region (FIR) boundary. I tune in the appropriate frequency about 45 minutes early. As expected, they're busy. At the boundary, I attempt contact, but only achieve it when about 80 miles out. No matter, they know I'm coming. I'm cleared through to the entry point for the Gaungzhou FIR, and that's just about our last contact.

I find myself becoming decidedly nervous at this point. Will my clearance be accepted by the Chinese? Will I be able to successfully interpret ATC directives? Will I be able to do the mental gymnastics necessary to work with altitudes and flight levels in meters? Are they familiar with handling light aircraft?

I near the boundary, adjust my altitude to maintain 3000 meters, and contact Guangzhou. My clearance comes through in ICAO standard form, just like it should. I speak slowly and distinctly; the Chinese controller does the same. What a relief -- it's going to work.

To this point I've been on top, clear blue skies above and paper-white clouds below. Entering their tops on descent, however, I enter a world of shades of gray. Even the colors are muted. I begin to wish I'd brought black and white film.

The approach is standard, but despite relatively good surface observations, it is late when I see the approach lights. I land, depart the runway, and am picked up by the "Follow me" truck, which leads me to a parking position between a Boeing 737 and 767. They are not the lone American-made aircraft. In fact, hearts in Seattle and Everett, where Boeings are built, would swell with pride at the sight of this enormous ramp, which is practically filled with them

What happens next is normal. Crowds start to gather. I finish my paperwork, clean up the cockpit, and pop the canopy. Excited chatter starts. I pull off my survival suit; people begin to point and nod. Soon, an emboldened observer will come forward, clear his throat, and attempt communication. I am fortunate that English is the international language of aviation, and often feel that I am the handicapped one while the locals make the effort to bridge the language gap.

"What . . . type. . . aircraft. . . this?"; "How . . . fast . . . it . . . fry?"; "You . . . come . . . from . . . where?" Each answer is translated to the waiting onlookers; it is followed by nods, acknowledgments and more questions. Soon, however, they all realize they have to go back to work, and the crowd disperses. I am left alone on this huge, busy apron.

My contact has not shown up. I've gone through all the post flight chores, reorganized the cockpit, put away charts, and emptied the relief bottle. Nearly a half hour passes. I decide to do the thing that almost always gets attention at a large airport. I collect my bags, lock the plane, and start walking towards the terminal building.

And get no response whatsoever. I know that a Caucasian lugging bags across a ramp must not be a normal sight, but there seems that since there's no procedure for handling it, nothing should be done. I walk through customs, my visa is inspected. The customs officer waves me through, and I emerge into the arrival hall. After about thirty confused minutes, my interpreter shows up, and I am welcomed to the People's Republic of China.

Three days are spent in Guangzhou. A flight plan must be filed 48 hours in advance, and we can't file it until customs clears the plane, which takes 24 hours. Each day we cram an hour of work into six, and sight see the rest of the time. I am introduced to real Chinese cuisine, which includes blackened chicken, which looks roughly like a barnyard fowl caught in a firebomb attack. The head is displayed prominently on the platter, an appropriately terrified look on its face; eating it is optional.

The final leg of the flight, from Guangzhou to Chengdu, is at hand. Captain Liang, a 767 captain from China Southwest Airlines who will be my navigator, arrives in a tack sharp uniform, complete with four stripes and cap. I am in a flight suit that, after three weeks on the road, looks like it just crawled out of a dirty laundry bag. The Odd Couple boards the Renegade. It starts wearily. Captain Liang takes over the radios, and the rest of the way I'll fly without understanding a single word from ATC.

We fly the standard departure and get on top at 3000 meters. The winds are not kind; at one point our ground speed drops to 65 knots. ATC demands that we land and refuel; Captain Liang queries me about the situation and negotiates with them. They relent, and we continue to Chengdu.

Far in advance I monitor the ATIS, which has an English version. The weather is acceptable, with about four miles visibility and 1500 overcast reported. My plan becomes to shoot the ILS at the civilian airport, then break off for a VFR flight to the military airfield where the Renegade will be based, about ten miles away. I explain this to Captain Liang, to whom I think this is clear. We pass the locator at the outer marker, and I begin to turn outbound. He signals his disapproval, and points to a piece of paper in his lap. It has a line with a point on it labeled "300." "Go here!" he commands, and thus begins the Wackiest Instrument Approach Ever.

I get the idea that "300" is a frequency, so I dial in the ADF and track towards it. "Runway heading same. Descend 800 meters." I get the idea, and ask for the QNE, the altimeter setting. He gets it from the controller and informs me it is 1003 millibars. I set the altimeter, check the chart for the equivalent altitude in feet and begin descending. We are solid IFR. At 800 meters we should break out. We do not.

We cross the beacon and I turn outbound. A racetrack procedure turn will be as good as any, I decide, so after a minute I turn and intercept the bearing inbound. Captain Liang is continuously consulting with someone on the radio. "Descend 500 meters!" he announces; that will put us three or four hundred feet above the ground. Rooftops, roads and fields appear through the streaking clouds. I'm starting to sweat. I have no idea if we're on the right inbound bearing, what the MDA is, or how long we should track inbound. Captain Liang appears interested, but calm. We cross the beacon and continue. I start timing. A couple of minutes pass as we strain to see an airfield. There are hills around here somewhere. I can't stand it any longer, and announce a missed approach. Captain Liang looks disappointed but understanding, and continues to chat with the controllers.

We repeat the procedure, and as we cross the ADF again, he announces "Altimeter 753." 753! impossible! I do some mental gymnastics and know it's not the QFE, the altimeter setting to read zero at field elevation. "753 WHAT?!" He smiles and says "753 millimeters."

Up to this point I have been fairly calm, but now burst out, "WHY THE HELL ARE WE USING MILLIMETERS?!?!?" I ignore the 753, leave the altimeter as it is (we didn't hit anything last time) and bore inbound, carefully staying on the track. Captain Liang consults with the controller, writes something on his "approach plate", then reaches up and changes the frequency on the ADF to 516. I am momentarily stunned, figuring he has tuned in some commercial broadcast station. "Fly here!" he commands, and points to the new bearing. I turn hesitantly. We are low over the trees and visibility is less than a mile. "Runway!", Captain Liang shouts. I strain to see through the mist, and there it is, the approach end of a runway. I sidle over to the centerline, line up and land. There are no approach lights. The far end of the runway is invisible. In fact, nearly everything but a nearby row of trees is invisible. It is only after taxiing for nearly a mile I see hangars, and a taxiway.

We taxi to an intersection where we are waved to a stop. The flight has taken just over eight hours. A young woman presents both Captain Liang and I with flowers; she ducks out of the way and we are surrounded by men in somber overcoats and dark suits. They are dignitaries who have come for the arrival. Having been duly greeted, we start up and are guided past rows of single-engine fighters draped in fitted canvas covers; the rows disappear into the fog. They drip silently in the gray mist. We stop in front of a hangar full of blue painted practice air-to-air missiles and pull the plane inside.

Talk is muted but the excitement and satisfaction is tangible as a small crowd gathers around the red and white Renegade. Getting it here has been much more than a three-week ferry flight. It has been the entire lives of several of these people for over two years. The presence of the Renegade in the hangar is the fulfillment of a dream requiring incredible patience and devotion which I could not imagine.

In the evening, I pull the ferry tank and gather my equipment. At the quiet, nearly deserted hotel I pack my bags and watch MTV; it is the only English-language programming available. I go to bed near midnight, but wake up a couple of hours later half frozen. At night, they turn off the heat and hot water. By morning I've got a miserable cold. Later in the day, at my last meal with my hosts, I am offered dog's tongue as a potential cure. The taste is interesting.

Finally I am crammed aboard a packed 737 for the flight to Hong Kong. It hurtles down the runway and launches into the gray sky. Minutes later, we burst into clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. For the entire three hour flight, the immense country below is invisible.

I think back on the thin packet of Jepp charts. What we see and know of China is so little, and the rest is so well hidden. There can be no experts, only those who claim to know a little more than the rest of us.

Mike Abdo