Jon's RV-4 is a stock airplane, built from a Van's Aircraft kit exactly to designer Richard VanGrunsven's plans. It had to be. Australia does not have the equivalent of the US Experimental category, so each amateur built airplane has to be inspected and tested to the same standards as a factory built. No deviations from the plans are permitted.
Once Jon committed to building the airplane, he made steady progress and finished the project in two and half years, just under the average completion time for a Stateside RV-4. Considering Jon's work schedule (now qualified as a midwife, he often filled in at local clinics and delivery rooms. Nursing, catching babies, and flying meant that he often worked 80 hours a week trying to pay for his airplane....over and above the time spent building it) this was very good time.
"Well, I couldn't afford to take too long. I was paying rent on the shed I was working in."
Jon was delighted with the RV-4 and flew it every chance he got. A couple years later, it took him back to southern Australia, where he had decided to take a University degree. The trip across the Australian continent restarted a certain train of thought that had first bubbled to the surface in Cambodia....if the RV-4 could make it across the hugeness of the Australian Outback, just how far could it go? Over the next year, the question continued to intrigue him and he spent many hours deciding just how his airplane could be modified to carry him to the Mecca of every homebuilder, Oshkosh. And if the airplane could take him half way around the planet to Oshkosh, why couldn't it take him all the way around?
The RV-4 is an efficient airframe with good cross country capability, but it was not designed as a world cruiser. When thoughts of distance flying became impossible to ignore, Jon started to look seriously at the modifications that would be required. He realized the limitations of his airplane, but, of all the airplanes he had ever flown, this was the one he wanted as his own, so he decided to use it.
First, there was the matter of fuel. A stock RV-4 holds 32 US gallons, and at an economy cruise setting, might be expected to go 650-700 statute miles. A world flight, especially one across the southern Pacific Ocean, demands ranges in excess of 2000 miles. Jon's solution was several extra tanks. He first converted the stock RV Fiberglas wingtips into fuel tanks, lining them with a vinylester resin that was impervious to fuel, and arranging a simple gravity system that emptied them into the standard leading edge tank. The space between the instruments and the firewall was available, so Jon made a small header tank. These modifications raised the total capacity to about 60 US gallons, still far short of the necessary. The only remaining practical place for fuel was a ferry tank in the back seat. An aluminum tank was duly fabricated and installed.
Further range was gained by fitting an electronic ignition in place of one magneto. The hotter spark and automatic advance gave an immediate ten percent gain in fuel economy. A Sensenich metal prop, designed especially for RV aircraft, was installed. This was essential because there was the possibility of flying for long periods in rain and a wood prop could erode dangerously. Good fortune accompanied necessity and Jon found that this prop was the most efficient he had tried yet.
To communicate, Jon augmented the usual VHF radio with a HF set transmitting through a long trailing antenna, retracted by a fishing reel and feeding through a tube down the right side of the fuselage and out over the wing root. Navigation was handled by GPS.
An external venturi was added as a back up to the engine driven vacuum pump, and if all else failed, Jon would be wearing an specially designed life vest containing a life jacket, raft, ELT, strobe, rations, and dye over his Nomex suit. The original seat was replaced with a fiberglass race car seat, carefully padded to fit Jon's body.
Jon is careful to point out that every one of these modifications, as dictated by common sense and the Australian CAA, was carefully thought out, documented and thoroughly proven in extensive flight tests.
Even though Jon lost 22 pounds while preparing the airplane, it was soon apparent that, with enough fuel to make ocean-spanning legs, survival gear, communication gear and supplies, the gross weight was going to be higher than the recommended 1500 pounds. In the US, where the gross weight of an airplane in the Experimental category is determined by the builder, this would have been no problem. In Australia, it required an approval from the designer. When Jon contacted Dick VanGrunsven, Van was initially tempted to dismiss him as another dreamer.
"There are always a few people who just don't seem to grasp the fundamentals of what makes airplanes fly or perform." Van says. "They want to modify them in completely impractical ways. After I talked with Jon for a while, I realized that he did understand his airplane and his questions were good ones. When I visited Australia, I got a chance to meet him and I was impressed. If anyone was going to do what Jon was proposing to do, he was the one." After reviewing Jonís modifications and qualifications, Van felt comfortable issuing a one time approval for a take-off weight equaling 136% of the recommended gross.
When modifications were complete, the airplane could stay in the air for more eighteen and a half hours. At an economy cruise speed of 140 knots, this provided a still air range sufficient to make the longest legs against headwinds and still have an adequate reserve.
When the airplane was ready, it was time to test the pilot. Jon considered himself the weak link. He trusted the airframe and the engine to go the distance, but could he stay mentally and physically functional during the long hours in the cockpit? There was only one way to find out. On December 20, 1994, he made a 9 hour non-stop circuit of southern Australia and Tasmania, just to warm up. The next step was something really big.
Jon lives in Australia. There was a national fly-in in New Zealand. No homebuilt, had ever flown over the Tasman Sea between the two countries non-stop. So.. the flight from Adelaide to Auckland was accomplished January 29, 1995 in 13 hours and 57 minutes. Weather played a part -- Jon spent a couple of hours working his way through a front off the Australian coast and fought headwinds all the way. His spirits lifted when he was joined by Kiwis James McPhee and Gary Spicer, flying their RVs, off the New Zealand coast and escorted into Auckland. A week later, he returned, flying a slightly shorter trip from Wellington to Melbourne...again, headwinds all the way and groundspeeds down to 87 knots at times.
After the New Zealand trip, Jon knew he could make the Big One. Mentally, he was ready. Physically, he could hack it. He had the right airplane. What he needed was money.
Hoping to find corporate sponsorship, Jon began knocking on doors before his flight to Auckland and had found most of them firmly closed. When he returned to Melbourne from New Zealand, the media had gotten wind of a good story and were out in force when he landed. He ended up in almost every newspaper and local TV station. Some of those stories ended up being rebroadcast nationally.
Armed with videos and clippings, Jon set out on the trail of sponsorship, selling what he had to sell; his record of success, his own determination and space for sponsor's logos on his airplane and his flight suit. He eventually reached a few people who could see the benefit of being associated with a quiet man who could capture the public imagination. Garmin came up with a top of the line GPS unit to augment the one already installed. S-Tec provided a single axis autopilot -- the initial flights had been hand flown, which had taught Jon that an autopilot that could track a heading would be a valuable aid to a fatigued pilot. Goodyear donated a set of tires (which may last forever!) The big coup was getting British Petroleum on board... BP, showing a bit of corporate fortitude, agreed to furnish the fuel or pay it in places where BP was not available.
According to Jon, "That was rough work, selling a dream like mine to hard nosed types who were, understandably enough, concerned with their corporate image. But the thing that really touched me was the small ten and twenty dollar bits that came from so many regular people. I had New Zealand dollars, Australian dollars, and, after Van had returned from Australia and written about my flight in his newsletter, American dollars, too. I'm sure some of those twenties were harder to part with than thousands from big companies..."
Finally, there was no more that could be done. It was time to fill the tanks, point the nose east and see what happened.