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Pacific Rescue

A ferry pilot ditches in the middle of nowhere

The hunt is over. After months of searching for your perfect airplane you have finally found it.

The hunt is over. After months of searching for your perfect airplane you have finally found it. In your quest, you have searched the world. You conscientiously scoured the Internet. You verified prices with AOPA's Vref service, and every new issue of Trade-A-Plane became your literary obsession.

But now the bad news: Your perfect airplane, the one with the tailored avionics, low-time engine, modified wing tanks, perfect paint job, and great interior, is sitting in South Africa.

Now what? You wisely invest some of your funds, and some of your vacation time, and visit the airplane. After personally inspecting the logbooks and arranging an independent prepurchase inspection, you strike a deal.

But how do you get your dream bird home?

You could have the airplane disassembled, packed into a container, and shipped. Or you could pay to have it flown home, in one piece.

Enter the ferry pilot. It's one of the disciplines of flying we know least about. It's a flying profession for true adventurers. And it's a world where men and women pilots lead sometimes-precarious, exciting lifestyles and fly more for the travel and the experience than the money.

Steve Hall, president of Wings of Eagles in Tampa, is a veteran. Over the past 40 years he and his company have ferried more than 4,000 aircraft to every corner of the globe. "Ferry piloting is the last of the Wild West in the flying business," Hall says.

With GPS navigation available to all, however, finding your way internationally is no longer the challenge it once was. GPS and the minimum requirements of Part 91 have opened up the business to a lot of inexperienced operators, says another veteran ferry pilot, Don Ratliff. President and chief pilot of American King Air Ferries Inc. in Sarasota, Florida, Ratliff is still flying long-haul ferry trips at age 72. A consequence of inexperienced operators? Insurance rates have skyrocketed.

"The weak U.S. dollar has made airplanes more affordable, and foreign countries are buying," says Ratliff.

"America is the world's biggest airplane store and the ferry business is good again. However, our customers are paying about two and one-half percent of the hull value in ferry insurance," he adds.

Most individual buyers want their airplanes delivered and ready to fly as soon as possible after they make the purchase. Although shipping by container costs between 30 and 50 percent less, the new owners mostly prefer to have the airplane ferried by a professional pilot with route experience.

There is inherent risk in all flying, but considerably more in ferry piloting. Things can, and do, go wrong.

Three take off

Two Australian pilots, Ray Clamback and Lyn Gray, who set out to cross the Pacific on October 2, 2004, found that out. Their flight began in Santa Barbara, as a flight of three, on a beautiful California morning. Clamback and Gray were each flying almost-new Cessna 182s. The third and faster aircraft, a Cessna Caravan also bound for Australia, soon overtook them on the first and longest leg, the 2,060-nm trip to Hilo, on Hawaii's big island.

Clamback, at age 69, is a very experienced ferry pilot. He has made more than 250 ferry crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and he is a partner in a respected Sydney-based flight-training and aircraft-delivery business. Gray, a Sydney schoolteacher, is an accomplished flight instructor, but younger and with less experience. She had ferried aircraft before on the long run across the Pacific.

They would keep each other in sight. The trip to Australia is more than 6,000 nm and can take anywhere from three to six days depending on the aircraft being flown. Their flight plan called for stops for refueling and rest in Hilo, remote Christmas Island, Pago Pago in American Samoa, and New Caledonia, and a last, final stretch to Australia.

The first leg went without a hitch. All three airplanes arrived safely in Hilo and the crews rested there.

On the morning of October 4 the three aircraft departed with both 182s launching an hour in advance of the Caravan. It was another calm Pacific day, and they settled in for their 1,060-nm trip to the atoll of Christmas Island, one of the Line Islands in the mid-Pacific Republic of Kiribati. Capt. Cook discovered the islet on December 24, 1877, spent Christmas there, and named it accordingly. Apart from British A-bomb tests in 1957, not much has happened there. A small settlement now caters to migratory birds, ferry pilots, and passionate bone-fisherman who come for the near-perfect conditions. However, the runway lights and the nondirectional radio beacon there, operated by generator, are notoriously unreliable.

About 650 miles south of Hawaii came the first sign of trouble. Now a flight of two, the Cessna 182s flying in tandem suddenly had a speed differential. "Have you reduced power?" Gray inquired of her boss and flying partner. "No, my engine is running rough," Clamback calmly replied. At his reduced groundspeed, now indicating 92 knots, they estimated they were four and a half hours from Christmas Island.

Clamback made a quick check, and found he had plenty of fuel, but now a warning light indicated low oil pressure. Then came fading power and the inevitable loss of altitude. Clamback was about to ditch in a very remote part of a very large ocean. Gray followed him down on his descent. At about 1,500 feet above the waves, the engine stopped. The aircraft hit the water and flipped onto its back.

It has been estimated that a fixed-gear airplane coming to a sudden stop in such a ditching can pull up to negative 5 Gs. Now upside-down in deep water, the cabin quickly flooded. On impact either a door had opened or a windscreen had shattered, and the aircraft was sinking fast. Clamback pushed out his uninflated raft and scrambled out wearing his life jacket.

His last view of the sinking airplane was its oil-stained underbelly as it disappeared into the deep blue ocean. He was drifting in a 6-foot swell. His raft was well out of reach by then. He was alone, floating like a cork in a swimming pool, buoyed only by his life jacket.

Gray too was alone. Scared and circling overhead at 500 feet, she quickly recorded the GPS coordinates of the crash site while she frantically searched for Clamback in the ocean below. She had seen him exit the airplane, but then lost sight of him.

Their position: north latitude 08 degrees 50 minutes 80 seconds; west longitude 156 degrees 35 minutes 38 seconds.

To the rescue

Forty miles ahead, the faster Caravan had monitored the last transmission in disbelief. Using ARINC HF (high frequency) radio, the Caravan contacted San Francisco Radio in Oakland, California, and relayed the downed aircraft's position. In turn, the information was transmitted to District 14 Command Center in Honolulu and the U.S. Coast Guard at Barbers Point on Oahu, Hawaii.

In the water, Clamback took stock of his situation. Being close to the equator, at least the water was warm. Although the winds were light he was drifting away from the crash site. He knew he'd be in the water for some hours so it was important to conserve his energy.

He tried not to think about sharks. The afternoon sun mercilessly beat down on him, burning his face and arms as he found it necessary to hold his arms above water level to stabilize his life jacket in the undulating swells. This was not his first encounter in the Pacific. Five years previously he and a fellow pilot had ditched two and a half hours east of Hawaii when ferrying a Piper Archer. He was saved by the extraordinary efforts of U.S. Coast Guard sailors, and he had every confidence they would find him again. He figured it would take the Coast Guard three and a half hours to reach him. Could he hold out?

Above him, Gray continued to circle, knowing her presence would give Clamback hope, but she still had to make it to Christmas Island, and hopefully before dark. It was impossible for her to see him. Clamback had drifted from the point of impact.

At Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point it was Cmdr. Bill Adickes and his crew of seven who received the assignment. It was nearly three hours before the droning orange-and-white Lockheed C-130 Hercules arrived on the scene. It made contact with the circling 182 and instructed Gray to climb to 1,500 feet so it could safely begin the search at an initial altitude of 500 feet.

With the Coast Guard on the scene, Gray departed for Christmas Island, arriving safely at dusk. Adickes had been briefed that they were looking for a downed pilot in a life raft. He set up the search pattern, sometimes ranging as far as 30 miles from the crash coordinates, scanning by radar and the naked eye for signs of the raft. He and his crew dropped a data-marker buoy and studied the drift and debris pattern. But still no success.

"Why can't we locate the raft?" he wondered. Flying at less than 300 feet off the water, with the ramp down and the crew frantically scanning the ocean below, he was fast running out of daylight — and ideas. Almost three hours had passed since arriving on-site, but inexorably they methodically continued their search.

Nagging questions remained: "What if he went down with the airplane?" and "What if he escaped the airplane without a raft?" There was not much wind or drift. Adickes made the fateful decision to return to the crash site and search again in closer vicinity. Thanks to the remarkable skill of his radar operator and a fleeting glimpse of a waving arm, they located Clamback clinging to life in the setting sun. "In my entire flying career, finding Ray Clamback was one of just three miracles I have witnessed in locating survivors against extraordinary odds," Adickes says.

Clamback had been in the water for six and a half hours.

The Lockheed's crew marked the spot and, in a wide, sweeping turn, reversed direction while the big airplane dropped Clamback a raft. The first drop was too far away for him to reach, given his dissipated strength, so a second attempt was made.

With a lot of effort Clamback managed to reel in the raft, and on his fourth attempt, struggled aboard. He lay on the floor of the raft, cold and exhausted, as darkness descended. The Lockheed dropped flares to mark the raft's position and, in consideration of its fuel reserves, made for home. A second Lockheed C-130, commanded by Lt. Robert Bickerstaff and his crew, was launched from Hawaii, arriving for on-site relief, in what was to become a 13-hour mission. Unlike the first rescue aircraft, Bickerstaff's airplane was equipped with infrared cameras.

Soon his crew was able to confirm that Clamback was in the raft and had located something to drink. "One of the keys to a successful rescue is making sure we have around-the-clock visual reference of the survivor," says Bickerstaff. All through the night Bickerstaff and his copilot, Lt. Jody Popp, flew wide circles around the tiny raft. As they had to fly low at their maximum endurance airspeed, most of this was done by hand-flying the Lockheed without any visual horizon. Furthermore, they eventually had to shut down engines one and four and climb to 5,000 feet to conserve fuel. To give Clamback comfort and assurance of their continued presence, they switched on every light so he could clearly see them above, through now-deteriorating weather conditions.

Ships at sea

Two hundred and fifty miles southwest of the downed aircraft's position, 49-year-old Capt. Hans Wijntjes looked contentedly down from the bridge of the P&O Nedlloyd Los Angeles (now part of the Maersk Line).

His disciplined Dutch officers and Filipino-speaking crew were making good time as they steered the 41,000-ton containership on a direct course for Melbourne, Australia. When the distress call came, there was never a second thought. They reversed course and headed northeast. By Pacific Ocean standards they were close to the crash site. They could be there by 3 a.m. local time.

The circling Coast Guard aircraft gave the ship's crewmembers updated position reports as they closed on their target. The crewmembers prepared. It would be dark when they arrived, so marine flood- and searchlights were rigged and mounted. This was going to be a real test of seamanship. The swells were too large to put a smaller boat in the water so this 670-foot-long juggernaut was going to try to locate a 6-foot inflatable raft in the dark and pull alongside it.

Starting about midnight, the circling Lockheed began to experience heavy rain showers. Below, Clamback was drenched, but he had located some silver-space blankets and was wrapped tight and was waiting anxiously. The first signs of rescue came around 2:40 a.m. when the aircraft started to drop flares. Worried that, because of poor visibility, a flare would hit the raft, and to better position it for rescue, Bickerstaff and his crew dropped four corner flares "boxing in" the survivor.

Aboard Los Angeles, extra lookouts were posted and the searchlights manned. The vessel's pilot door was opened and a 6-foot ladder lowered to the water line. The weather improved and about four miles out the flares now became visible. At two miles, Wijntjes, now in command of the rescue, put his 30 years of seagoing experience to full use. He ordered dead slow ahead, the searchlights found their mark, and the giant container ship slid alongside the tiny raft, no more than 2 feet away from the weak but very lucky Ray Clamback. Clamback, exhausted from his ordeal, was unable to climb aboard. Crewmembers attached a rescue harness and hoisted him into the ship through the pilot's door.

The raft was put aboard for later return to the Coast Guard, and the circling Lockheed departed for its home base in Hawaii. It had been a textbook rescue.


Every day and night the vigilance of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard ensures the protection and safety of lives, and often, as seen here, not only American lives. Their remarkable skill, courage, and determination often go unrecognized. As a flying job, in either fixed wing or helicopters, the Coast Guard is a noble and rewarding career choice.

As for ferry piloting, that too is a career for a select few. For Ray Clamback it continues. After 11 days at sea he arrived in Melbourne to a hero's welcome. He was soon back plying his trade and doing what he loves most, delivering airplanes to foreign lands, over wide oceans.

For his co-worker and fellow ferry pilot, Lyn Gray, she too would soon get wet. In mid-June 2006, ferrying a twin-engine Piper Seminole along the same route, with a young female pilot as company, she too was forced to ditch in the Pacific, this time 535 nm northeast of Hawaii. Again the U.S. Coast Guard was there to assist, laying down smoke flares to mark the centerline of a watery runway. Luckily, the Maltese container ship Virginius was standing by to snatch both women from the sea before the Seminole disappeared beneath the waves.

Patrick J. Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Indian Wells, California, is a 1,500-hour private pilot. A freelance writer, he owns a 1993 Beechcraft F33A Bonanza.

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