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Island Hopping to the Land Down Under

The first Q400 across the Pacific.


September 15, 2008
By Joe Sargo

Topics
 crew2
 Left to right: Bill Reed (maintenance engineer with Sunstate Airlines), Michael Bannock
(president of WWAF), and Joe Sargo (Dash 8 pilot and former Q400 technical writer).

“The only time an aircraft has too much fuel onboard is when it is on fire.”

Many pilots are familiar with this quote. It is attributed to Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith, a pilot who wholeheartedly believed this as a pioneer of many long-distance flying records. Arguably, his most notable long-distance accomplishment was in the spring of 1928, when he and three other crew members became the first to fly across the Pacific, from Oakland, Calif. to Brisbane, Queensland. Almost 80 years later, flying the first Dash 8 Q400 across the largest and deepest ocean on the planet, I could not agree more with his assertion.

Sir Charles flew a Fokker Trimotor, which he named the Southern Cross, on his Pacific crossing; our Q400 was just referred to by its Australian registration, VH-QOI.  While the Southern Cross was previously owned by fellow Australian George Hubert Wilkins, our Q400 was just off the line at Downsview, the 189th to be built, serial number 4189. It had just over ten hours on it when Australian-based Sunstate Airlines took acceptance of it at the Bombardier Delivery Centre in Toronto.

Due to the distances between stops being longer than the standard range of either plane, both planes had to have extra fuel tanks installed. The Q400 wing tanks can carry 11,700 pounds of usable fuel. VH-QOI had the 72-passenger seat configuration (it can be configured for up to 78 passengers) rearranged to accommodate six ferry tanks, capable of carrying an additional 6,000 pounds of fuel, allowing for close to 18,000 pounds of jet fuel. The Southern Cross had two additional fuel tanks for a total capacity of 7,790 pounds of aviation fuel.

The Dash 8 400 is powered by two Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) PW 150 turbine engines, capable of more than 5,000 shaft horsepower. The Fokker Trimotor had three Wright J-5 radial engines (the same used on Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of Saint Louis”) rated at 220 hp. But even with extra fuel, these planes still had limited range.

This Dash 8 ferry system was developed by Worldwide Aircraft Ferrying Ltd. (WWAF), which was awarded the contract for delivering 4189 to Brisbane. VH-QOI was flown from its birthplace in Toronto to North Bay, Ont., to have the fuel ferry system installed by Voyageur Airways’ Maintenance and Engineering. The Fokker had its additional tanks installed in California.

On board VH-QOI was Michael Bannock (president of WWAF), and Bill Reed (maintenance engineer with Sunstate Airlines) and myself. We were delivering the plane to Brisbane for Sunstate, which operates several Dash 8s in eastern Australia for Qantas under the QantasLink name.

Serial number 4189 had the latest modifications and QantasLink had it equipped with the latest Dash 8 HF radio and two Universal FMSs. So we had all the electronic equipment required to fly and stay in communication with ATC in non-radar airspace. In comparison, Smith had three radio transmitters and two receivers along with a radio operator and navigator on his Pacific crossing.

On February 4, 2008, a few days after the tenth anniversary of the first flight of the Dash 8 Q400, Michael and I drove to North Bay where we met up with Bill. Bill had flown up from Toronto a couple of days earlier. After loading food supplies and double-checking the extra tanks and plumbing, we taxied to the terminal ramp to get deiced and fueled. We just filled the wings, as our first stop was to be Omaha to clear U.S. customs. We took off at 7:35 pm, and with the swift climb rate of the Q400, reached our requested altitude of FL250 in about 20 minutes. We reached Omaha at about 10 pm, buttoned down 4189 and checked into a hotel, just as more snow started to fall.

 marshall_is
One of the stops on the trip was the Majuro airport in the Marshall Islands, a group of islands formed on the rim of an underwater volcano. 

After a good night’s rest, we got a lift out to the airport FBO, TAC AIR. We arranged for Jet A, and filled up the main and ferry tanks. After deicing a second time in as many days, we took off for the west coast. A high-speed climb of 210 KIAS got us to FL250, and after about an hour we transferred fuel from the tanks in the fuselage to the wings, where it finds its way to the PW 150s. Rough calculations showed that fuel could be put into the wings at 3,600 pounds every hour. Setting the power to 50-per cent torque, just above long-range cruise, gave us a true airspeed (TAS) of 316 knots with a burn rate of 1,900 lbs/hr. Our track took us just north of Denver, and as we came up on the Colorado mountains, the EGPWS showed the highest terrain in our navigation display to be 13,600 feet.  After talking to Denver and Salt Lake Centre, Oakland Centre and approach, we were passed us on to Buchanan Field Tower (KCCR), just north of Oakland. Our big Dash easily handled the 5,000-foot runway, as it can regularly operate from 4,000-foot strips.
We were finally able to walk outside with just a shirt on, which we would be able to do the rest of the trip. The fuel truck met us as soon as we opened the service door. After filling up the main tanks, the truck was repositioned closer to the service door, so the hose could reach all the ferry tanks in the fuselage. Bill and I filled up the six tanks manually. I then went to the FBO office to get the fuel bill, and was told that ATC was on the phone wanting to talk to me. Did I break some sort of FAA rule flying a plane from “down under” into American airspace? No, seems like the ATC computer would not accept the Dash 8 400 designator, “/D”. Maybe it was because the system did not think a 400 could go all the way across the Pacific. The controller told me that he would try again, and let us know when we radioed him for our IFR clearance. Sure enough, when we called for the IFR, it was in the system OK.

We then lifted off into some of the busiest airspace I have ever seen, due no doubt to the perfect VFR flying weather. I do not think departure was expecting us to climb so fast, we were quickly passed on to the next controller, and vectored out over the Pacific, and given FL 250 as our final. Before leaving radar coverage, we called San Francisco radio to get HF frequencies to use beyond the VHF radio range. After getting assigned frequencies (primary and secondary), we tested our new Dash 8 HF set to ensure our position reports would be acknowledged.

As we chased the sun toward Hawaii, an overcast layer formed below us, and we could see a very slow sunset. About three hours from Honolulu, the overcast rose to the height of the windshield. I imagined the QantasLink logo on the tail making it look to another plane passing by as a Kangaroo skimming along the tops of the clouds. Although a torque setting of 43 per cent gave us a true airspeed of 300 knots, we were not able to keep up with the sun. Seven hours and 16 minutes after leaving California, we landed on Honolulu’s 4R at about nine in the evening. Smith and his crew took 27.5 hours. We used 1,843 U.S. gallons of Jet A.

Bradley Pacific greeted us, and gave us each a lei, then drove us to the hotel. The Pro Bowl was taking place in Honolulu that week, so we had to settle for second-rate hotel, with no dining room or lounge. We walked over to a plaza to get some over-the-counter sandwiches and chips. Luckily, they sold beer.

The following morning was almost perfect, 24 degrees C. After breakfast, we got a lift to the FBO, and after topping up all the tanks, we were given taxi clearance for runway 8R. The runway was quite a distance from where we parked, so taxiing took a while. Bill joked that we needed one ferry tank just for the taxi. After takeoff, it was a right climbing turn to continue west to the Marshall Islands, our next stop. The Southern Cross stopped in the Fiji Islands instead. Pearl Harbor was on our right on the way out. I climbed to altitude at 215 KIAS, giving us a TAS of 300 knots. At FL 250, I set power to 42 per cent for a TAS of 300 knots. We used about 2,200 lbs in the first hour, including the climb. At the power setting I had, VH-QOI was using about 1,600 lbs per hour. We still had 15,000 pounds of jet fuel, which meant we should reach our destination with about four hours range. Of course, that was assuming we could get the fuel from the ferry tanks to the wings. Michael and I both kept an eye on the fuel calculations. Bill again started transferring fuel to the main tanks, until they were topped up. We would have to transfer fuel two more times to get all the fuel into the main wing tanks, where the PW 150 can make use of it.

Bill then brought us some food, with his lei around his neck. This part of the journey took us across the International Date Line, which meant we jumped a day, from Thursday to Friday. After a couple more position reports to San Francisco radio, we finally had our destination in sight. The skies were clear for this entire part of the trip. Since we are still outside any radar coverage, ATC gave us a clearance “clear to cruise at FL 250”, which means we are cleared to leave our altitude and make an approach to Majuro.

The Marshall Islands are formed on the rim of an underwater volcano, making for very narrow spots of land. The airport we were headed for is on a very narrow strip of terrain. It almost looked like I was making an approach to an aircraft carrier, only longer and not moving, but water everywhere. The winds kept getting stronger every time the radio operator from Majuro updated it. I finally landed with the wind about 25 knots.
Six and a half hours (the next day) after leaving Hawaii, I taxied up to the in ground pump, as there was no fuel truck. The hose just reached the farthest tank. The Southern Cross flew to Fiji rather than the Marshall Islands, it took almost 35 hours.

After our last refueling, we repositioned 4189 out of the way, and into wind, where Bill buttoned it up for the night. Michael and I went ahead to the hotel in a van. Later we all went for a dip in the warm waters of the Pacific. For dinner, the hotel had roast beef on special, but we all decided that we were nowhere near any cattle, so we went for the catch of the day instead.

The same driver picked us up at 8 am to drive us to the airport. We picked up a few more food supplies, and then readied the Q400 for the final leg of the crossing. On this section of the trip we would cross the equator, and go from winter to summer, and forget about that deicing we did at the beginning of our voyage.

Our final track to Australia would have us pass over Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and then south to Brisbane. Half way to the Solomons, we flew right over an isolated island. No place to land a plane, but it broke up all that vastness of salt water. We still had to make position report on the HF to San Francisco, but eventually were back in radar coverage with Australian ATC.

I set the torque for about 43 per cent for the first part of the trip. But once we determined we had plenty of fuel, and could easily make it through some scattered thunderstorms, I moved the POWER levers to the rating detent, and the torque automatically matched the Maximum Cruise Rating (MCR) determined by the FADEC, taking into account all the temperature and mechanical limitations. With an outside temperature of -13 degrees C, that gave a power setting of 55 per cent. The resulting TAS was 350 knots, or Mach 0.6. The fuel flow to each Pratt and Whitney was 1,040 lbs per hour. As we got closer to Brisbane, and farther from the equator, the temperature cooled to -17C, resulting in a MCR of 58 per cent.

After seven hours in the air, we got a straight-in approach to runway 19. Smith was airborne for 21 hours on his final leg to Brisbane. I taxied VH-QOI to her new home. Not only was customs required, but Australia Quarantine also met us to check and make sure no pests or bugs get into the country. We had some bug spray with us, which Bill sprayed in the fuselage after landing. I then held up the empty can to the Quarantine agent, before opening the door. Bill placed a self-spraying can in the baggage compartment before we left the Marshalls, as there is no access to the aft baggage compartment in the 400. Any unused food that could contain insects was removed in a plastic bag to be burned.

After leaving the latest Dash 8-402 with her new owners, Michael and I checked into a very nice hotel by the river, and were treated to a good steak. The following morning we took a Qantas B767 to Kingsford Smith International Airport in Sydney, and landed just as a new A380 was departing. The return trip to Canada was on an Air Canada B777.
After her Pacific crossing, the Southern Cross completed many other long-distance flights, including an around-the-world flight, and a west-to-east Pacific crossing. It is now housed in a specially-built hanger in Brisbane. We also left VH-QOI in Brisbane, but at the Sunstate hanger for her to be prepared for operational flying.

QantasLink has another 10 Dash 8 400s on order. At the time of this writing, I have since delivered a second 400 to Brisbane, and hope to take a few more Dashes across
the Pacific.