Book Review: The Long Way Home

In early December, 1941 a Pan Am fly boat commanded by Captain Robert Ford and his long way home book covercrew of ten had almost completed their scheduled flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. As the radio operator scanned the airwaves, he caught an AM radio station broadcast with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor—which they had left only three days before.  Shortly thereafter, a Morse Coded message (their only long range form of communication) instructed them to “Implement Plan A” a Top Secret, sealed document all Pan Am captains had carried in the preceding months. Once opened, they realized that their world had changed.  The arrival in Auckland was uneventful, but that would be their home for more than a week, until further instructions were received. Now they learned that it was no longer possible to return along their normal routes. The crew was directed to remove any identifiable markings from the aircraft, maintain radio silence, under no circumstances allow the aircraft to fall into enemy hands, and proceed west to Laguardia, New York.  At the time, the company had no routes established “to the west” until reaching the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa.  They also had no charts, weather, radio frequencies or other information any pilot, GA or airline, would want to undertake such a trip.  They were literally, in uncharted territory!

What follows is an adventure, which I found fascinating on several counts. The story is chronicled in the book, The Long Way Home, Revised Edition, by Ed Dover.  Based on interviews with surviving members of the crew, and illustrated with flight logs and photographs of the aircraft and crew members, it was written in 1999 and revised in 2007. A Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s flying boats from 1942-1948, Dover knows first-hand the technologies and procedures of the day. He transports you back to a time when a combination of dead reckoning, celestial navigation fixes, and drift sights— augmented with a new low-frequency direction finder— were their tools to navigate the 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii.  While not a typical GA aircraft at 82,500 pounds pushed along by four 1,600 horsepower radial engines burning 100 octane avgas, the Boeing 314 flew in the same part of the atmosphere most of us do today.  So as they encountered a cold front on the way to Hawaii, Captain Ford descended to 500 feet to get below the cloud bases.  I found the story to provide enough information for those of us that are pilots to have a good sense of their operating conditions, while still making the narrative read like a mystery novel.  To avoid robbing anyone of the opportunity to enjoy the story themselves, let me just say that when they took off to cross Australia, Indonesia, India, to the middle East and over Africa, it is an adventure!  To give you a clue—before leaving New Zealand they went to the local library and borrowed some atlases to select a route… To help follow the story, I fired up Google Earth and reconstructed the route, for my own “situational awareness.”

long way home route graphicView Boeing Clipper route around the world in Google Maps

I have a personal connection to this story. My great uncle, Captain Gordon George, flew the flying boats for Pan Am in this same time period. His career started as a Navy pilot flying seaplanes before joining the airlines, eventually retiring from the Boeing 707.  As a young pilot, I enjoyed his stories of this period. He described encountering 80 and 100 mile an hour winds enroute across the Pacific, only to have dispatch not believe them. Their credibility improved when the jet stream was “discovered” by the meteorological community, and it was recognized that there are bands of winds that reached those velocities.  I also remember his saying at the time he retired from Pan Am that flying had become little more than “being passed from one air traffic controller to another,” and that in his mind, “that wasn’t really flying”  After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the world that he operated in, and what he meant by the statement.

For a look at the start of true global aviation, in a time that seaplanes were the norm, and a global network of land-based airports was still in the future, I recommend this book.  Aviation, adventure and a war story all wrapped into one. My thanks to Ed Dover for taking the time to research and share this rich journey with us!


Experimental Winds Aloft graphic for Alaska

As pilots, we are very interested in the weather.  An early lesson one gets while learning to fly is not to put total faith in weather forecasts.  I believe it was President Reagan who made famous the phrase– trust, but verify. That certainly applies to forecasts and flying.  For the last year-and-a-half AOPA has been working with our friends at the National Weather Service in Alaska to bringing together groups of seasoned pilots from different parts of Alaska to sit down with forecasters and have a discussion about aviation weather needs, primarily focused on VFR flying.  Questions asked in these sessions typically start with, “What route do you fly to get from Fairbanks to Eagle?” followed by, “Where along that route do you encounter adverse weather?”  A lively discussion regarding the nature of the weather conditions normally follows.

Don Moore manages the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit, located on Sand Lake Road, just south of the Anchorage International Airport, and has led these discussions.  After listening to pilots describe some of the conditions that plagued them, he pulled up an experimental forecast product the weather service is working on, and asked if we thought it might be helpful.  Following a look at the product, heads started to nod around the table.  A few weeks later, an experimental winds aloft forecast was added to the AAWU website, and is available for pilots to use.

sample winds aloft graphic 1

Sample output from the experimental product, showing winds at 6,000 feet for the 12 hour time period. Users can select the altitude, set through time periods, and toggle features on and off.

This product is based on a computer model, but has finer resolution in time and space than current products we are used to seeing.  The arrows indicate the direction of the wind at an altitude selected by the pilot, but the intensity is displayed as a color.  Temperature is also displayed as a contour line, with its own color scheme. The legend at the bottom provides the color codes for each feature.  Several details about this product are worth noting:

1)      The user selects the altitude at the top of the page
2)      The tabs across the top allow you to step through different forecast periods
3)      The + and – symbols on the top left corner of the image allow you to zoom in (only one step, currently)
4)      The + symbol on the upper right edge of the product lets you toggle features on and off (click to expand)
5)      The color patches represent the area forecast for each wind speed, the vectors merely show direction.

Please give this product a try.  You will find this graphic by clicking a link at the bottom of the Winds Aloft page on the AAWU’s website (see yellow arrows, below).

page to find experimental productThis product is still in development.  For now, the National Weather Service would really appreciate receiving pilot reports to help validate this product, as well as their other forecasts.  So when you are headed out to fly, please take a few minutes and file PIREPs enroute, including an estimate of the winds aloft.  Remember– trust, but verify!

Starting a Flying Club? Need help?

During last week’s AOPA Pilot Town Hall meeting at Dupage Airport in Suburban Chicago, I had the great pleasure of meeting with the team from SimpleFlight Radio and Start A Flight Club who formed Ground Effect Advisors — an advisory group aimed at growing the number of flying clubs in concert with AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community.

The group, with support from many industry partners, has put together a scholarship package for a group interested in forming a flying club.  The package includes start up funding, advice, headsets, logoed shirts, and much more.

In talking with Al, Marc, and Todd, I found out that no one from Michigan or Wisconsin has applied for the scholarship.  So, Michigan and Wisconsin pilots interested in starting a flying club — check out the links above and definitely put your name in the hat and get that club started!

FAA Makes Tower Closing Decisions with Dates

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to close 149 federal contract towers beginning April 7 as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan. The agency has made the decision to keep 24 federal contract towers open that had been previously proposed for closure because doing so would have a negative impact on the national interest. An additional 16 federal contract towers under the “cost share” program will remain open because Congressional statute sets aside funds every fiscal year for these towers.

The national interest considerations included to save those 24 towers were: (1) significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security; (2) significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community; (3) significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks; and (4) the extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.


The FAA has released its three-part phase in period for closing federal contract towers. On April 7, 24 contract towers will close (, followed by 46 on April 21 (, and the remaining 79 on May 5 ( The FAA is closing the towers based on activity levels, with the first to close having fewer than 1,000 commercial operations in fiscal year 2012. The second group had fewer than 2,500 commercial operations.

This means the following towers will be closing in the Central Southwest Region:

– Arkansas: Drake Field (FYV in Fayetteville) on April 7 and Texarkana Regional – Webb Field (TVK) on May 5.

– Iowa: Dubuque Regional (DBQ) on April 21.

– Kansas: Hutchinson Municipal (HUT) on May 5, New Century AirCenter (IXD) on April 21 and Johnson County Executive (OJC) on April 7 (both in Olathe), Manhattan Regional (MHK) on May 5, and Philip Billard Municipal (TOP in Topeka) on April 21.

– Louisiana: Shreveport Downtown (DTN) on April 7.

– Missouri: Branson (BBG) and Columbia Regional (COU), both on May 5.

– Nebraska: None.

– New Mexico: Double Eagle II (AEG in Albuquerque) on April 21 and Santa Fe Municipal (SAF) on May 5.

– Oklahoma: Lawton-Fort Sill Regional (LAW) on May 5, University of Oklahoma Westheimer (OUN in Norman) on April 21, Wiley Post (PWA in Oklahoma City) on May 5, and Stillwater Regional (SWO) on April 21.

– Texas:

Closing on April 7:

  • Lone Star Executive (CXO in Conroe)
  • Georgetown Municipal (GTU)
  • Dallas Executive (RBD)
  • Sinson Municipal (SSF) in San Antonio

Closing on April 21:

  • New Braunfels Municipal (BAZ)
  • TSTC Waco (CNW)
  • San Marcos Municipal (HYI)
  • Collin County Regional at McKinney (TKI in Dallas)
  • Victoria Regional (VCT)

Closing on May 5:

  • Brownsville/South Padre Island International (BRO)
  • Easterwood Field (CLL in College Station)
  • Sugar Land Municipal (SGR in Houston)
  • Tyler Pounds Regional (TRY)

For a complete list, visit:

AOPA recommends checking notams often, flying with current charts, and reviewing ASI’s Operations at Nontowered Airports safety advisor (

FedEx donates two 727’s to University Aviation Programs in Alaska

The University of Alaska aviation programs at Anchorage and Fairbanks both offer maintenance training, and have airplanes to work on. But nothing like this…  In late February, FedEx donated two fully functional Boeing 727s that are being retired from their fleet – one to each program.  The aircraft will provide the students (our future mechanics) the opportunity to have hands-on training on a fully functional transport category airplane. These aircraft are part of a larger FedEx program that has distributed over sixty aircraft to schools, airports, museums or other organizations across the nation in the past couple years.  But the exciting part had to do with the arrival of the aircraft at the two Alaskan airports.

Merrill Field Arrival
The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) aviation program is located at Merrill Field, the largest GA airport in Alaska.  It took an exemption from the Municipality of Anchorage to authorize the 727 to land at there, which normally limits aircraft landing weight to 12,500 pounds.  The delivery also had to occur during the winter while the ground was frozen to accommodate the landing weight without damaging the runway.  Quite a crowd was on hand to watch the much-stripped-down aircraft make two practice approaches and then put the wheels down “on the numbers” (see the photo).  Observers indicated that the aircraft was down to taxi speed by the time it reached the control tower which according to Google Earth is about 2,100 feet, using just over half of the 4,000 runway.  (News video of the landing).

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, "on the numbers."  Photo courtesy of UAA

Note the touchdown marks of the 727, “on the numbers.” (Photo courtesy of UAA)

Fairbanks International Airport Arrival
Fairbanks was a different story.  Fairbanks International Airport, where the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) aviation program is located, does it all—from the Russian Antonov An-225 freighter, to a Supercub on floats, the airport has runways that support jumbo jets, corporate, air taxi and general aviation with two paved runways, a gravel runway used by ski planes in the winter and a float pond.  The university recently acquired a hangar on the general aviation side of the airport, which provided the space to be able to accommodate the 727.  While the landing itself was not as exciting, given the 11,000 foot air carrier runway, it was the first time any jet that I am aware of was marshaled into the gate by a polar bear (See photo).  The Nanook is the mascot of UAF. No ordinary bear, this one is also a multi-talented UAF employee named Ted E. Bear, who had the credentials to perform this task. (OK, that is just the name he uses when in character.)

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF's Todd Paris).

Nanook directing the FedEx 727 into the gate at Fairbanks International Airport. (Photo courtesy of UAF’s Todd Paris).

Two records were set in Fairbanks: It was the first time any jet was marshaled by a polar bear, and the first time a FedEx jet had taxied up to a passenger jet bridge, according to David Sutton, FedEx Managing Director of Aircraft Acquisition.  The aircraft was subsequently towed across the airport, along the ski-strip to its current location on the GA side of the field.  I still do a brief double take when I drive onto the GA side of the airport, and look up to see a FedEx 727 pointed at me!

Benefits to the students
Other than having a big, shiny jet liner parked at the school, how will this help the program? The aircraft will provide hands-on training for the students on systems associated with transport category aircraft.  This is much better than only learning through computer-based training materials, according to UAF program coordinator Kevin Alexander.  Both UAA and UAF’s program have lacked large aircraft experience in the past.  UAA’s maintenance track is headed up by Paul Herrick, who indicated that their graduates have a 100 percent placement.  “They are all over the state and in high demand,” he said.

How did this happen?

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

Dee Hanson receiving a small token of appreciation from Kevin Alexander at an Alaska Aviation Coordination Council meeting. Signed by the students in the UAF aviation maintenance program.

We should realize this didn’t just happen.  The ball started rolling with Nicolas Yale, Senior Manager Northwest Region, FedEx Express, who serves on the UAA Aviation Advisory Board.  Dee Hanson, Executive Director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, who also serves on the board, spoke up and asked if they didn’t have two aircraft available, so that both UAA and UAF programs could take advantage of this opportunity.  To thank her for her role in this effort, UAF presented Dee with a framed copy of a photo of the FedEx aircraft arriving in Fairbanks signed by the most important stakeholders of all—the students in the aviation technology program.  A big thank you to FedEx, and all the players that made this investment in our students, and the future of aviation!


Colorado Pilots Association Seeks Scholarship Applicants!

The Colorado Pilots Association (CPA) is accepting applications for its annual scholarship program, which awards one more $2,000 scholarships to Colorado high school graduates interested in pursuing an aviation related career.  Applications are due May 15, 2013.

The program is designed to recognize and assist high school graduates who have demonstrated ability and dedication and who have a strong interest in pursuing an aviation related career. The program is funded primarily from donations by individual CPA members and revenues derived from the organization’s nationally recognized Mountain Flying Ground School.

Four Participating Academic Institutions. The scholarships will be awarded in support of ground training and academics at one of four public academic institutions with aviation based programs in the State of Colorado; Metropolitan State University of Denver, Aims Community College, Colorado Northwestern Community College, and Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Funds will be applied towards tuition in an aviation-related program, not including flight training, and will be paid directly to the educational institution.Eligibility is limited to students planning to enroll as full time students at one of the four institutions and is further limited to United States citizens who are full-time Colorado residents.

Basis of Award. The selection of scholarship recipients will be based on academic accomplishment, work experience, community and school related activities, a personal application statement, and interview by the scholarship committee.

Applications. Application must be submitted on the attached application form, postmarked no later than May 15, 2013, and submitted to:

Colorado Pilots Association Scholarship Committee

P.O. Box 200911

Denver, CO 80220-0911

Contact: Walt Barbo, Scholarship Committee, 303-367-0670, [email protected]

Web site: