On July 2, Jon lifted off the runway at Brisbane, on the east coast of Australia. Even with the immense fuel load, the airplane was in the air after a ground roll of about 1100 feet, climbing to 9000' at about 650 ft/min. At altitude, Jon dialed in Nandi on both GPS units, leaned the mixture and watched the ocean go by. Nine hours and thirty five minutes later, Nandi showed up, directly over the spinner.
The next day was a relatively short leg to the fabled island of Pago Pago. After an overnight rest, Jon launched on a really long leg to an insignificant speck formerly known as Christmas Island, now Kiritimati Atoll.
Kiritimati is a coral atoll barely 30 miles across. It sits at the southern end of series of even smaller atolls just north of the equator, about 1700 nautical miles south of Hawaii. There is no airport within several hundred miles in any direction. You simply cannot afford to miss it. Jon had ample time to marvel at the courage of the pioneers who flew these vast distances on celestial navigation and dead reckoning, no doubt praying that when they got there the weather would be good enough to actually see the place. No such worries in NOJ.
"Those Garmin GPS's were agreeing within about a quarter mile. They led me right to the center of the island." Jon marveled. "Garmin are fair dinkum when they say their units will take you anywhere."
To his relief, arrangements made thousands of miles and many weeks away had worked and fuel was waiting for him. He filled the tanks and after a good sleep, launched for Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii. The tiny airplane spun its way through the huge Pacific sky, and the GPS box did its magic with the signals from the satellites overhead.
About four hours from Hawaii, four hours from anywhere, the engine suddenly began to run rough. Scary, but in an odd way, being so far from land made life easier. There was nothing to do but push on; no decisions to make, no places to divert to. Jon double checked the GPS, reviewed his ditching procedures, and flew on. And on. Nothing got worse, but it didn't get better either.
Once again the satellites were correct and Hilo showed up in the right place at the right time. What the satellites didn't mention is that it was July 4, a national holiday in the United States, and when Jon landed, no customs official could be found, in spite of faxes, flight plans and phone calls made before the flight. Jon spent five hours waiting, then decided that a good sleep was more important than bureaucratic niceties. The next day he spent the time waiting for the government to arrive by pulling the cowl and going through a complete 50 hour check. The source of engine roughness was obvious: an exhaust pipe had cracked near the cylinder flange. He was able to get it welded without much problem.
When Customs finally arrived they were quite miffed that Jon had a) exhibited the bad taste to arrive on a holiday, and b) hadn't sat in his airplane until they showed up. Jon was a little testy that they a) hadn't bothered with any of his prior notifications and b) that after fourteen hours in an RV-4 cockpit, they expected him to spend the night in it, as well! Eventually, ruffled feathers were smoothed and after a rather rude welcome to the USA, Jon was on his way to the American mainland.
The leg from Hilo to Santa Barbara was the longest overwater leg of the entire global flight -- even for the airlines, the Pacific passage is the longest trip with no alternate airports in the world. Jon took off with the Hawaiian sunset behind him and turned east, climbing to 13,500 feet and going on oxygen. The winds were almost nil, the sky slowly darkened until it was broken only by starlight. Soon, even that disappeared behind a high haze. The airplane hummed hypnotically as it slipped through pure black, so steadily it seemed to be flying in syrup. Earth and sea and motion and airplane fell away and Jon was just.....there. "It's an odd feeling." he says. " A friend describes it as 'the lights are on, but nobody's home.' You're not asleep, but your body and mind are resting. If anything went wrong, you'd be on it in a flash...but meanwhile, you sort of.... expand. You know where you are, but you're in a much bigger place than just your body...."
Almost fifteen hours after takeoff, the sky brightened as he flew back into daylight and the California coast appeared. Santa Barbara was covered in a fog so thick that even an instrument approach was impossible. Instead, Jon continued over the coastal hills and landed in Santa Ynez. Two hours the clouds burned away and allowed him to fly back. TV cameras and local RV builders, who had been waiting since early morning, stood applauding as the prop fell through and stopped. Jon grinned. Forty nine and a half flying hours from Australia, he was among friends and a mere half-continent away from Oshkosh. Nothing could stop him now.
Now that you’ve had some time to think about the enormity of that, maybe you've dragged the dusty atlas off the bookshelf and contemplated the first portion of Jon’s flight from Australia to California. It's a long, long, way and almost all of it over that blue stuff. For Jon, once the wheels rolled in Santa Barbara, the adventure changed a bit. Now he was in the USA, with airports under every bush (at least by recent standards), fuel available everywhere and friends and fellow RV pilots within a few minutes flying of wherever he happened to be. Fat city!
Since he was about three weeks early for Oshkosh, Jon spent the time doing a bit of sight seeing. Before he left California, he flew to Santa Paula for a look around that fascinating reservoir of aviation history and knowledge. Here he met Klaus Savier, who donated one of his Lightspeed electronic ignitions to Jon's cause. Jon installed it promptly and was impressed.
"I already had an electronic ignition in place of one mag, and at altitude it had improved fuel economy about 10% over what I was able to get with a mag. Klaus' system was even better. It idled slower and I thought I was getting another percentage point or two in fuel economy. Later, I had lots of time out over the Atlantic and was able to pinpoint about an improvement of almost 1/2 gallon an hour. It's a good system."
From California, it was north to Oregon to visit Van's Aircraft and look around the factory a bit. The next few days were spent in rest, a few talks to EAA chapters, and some local flying...including trying out the rest of Van's fleet.
"I was pretty well convinced that there wasn't another airplane on earth that flew as well as the RV-4, but Van wrecked all that when he let me fly his personal RV-3. It's light and simple, just the kind of airplane you'd think Van would have, and in the air it is just lovely. Now I want of those, too..."
After his stay in the Northwest, Jon headed for Oshkosh with stops in Leadville, CO ("The highest peak in Australia is lower than the Leadville airport. I had to land there.") and Missouri.
Finally, opening day rolled around, and the EAA management, by now well aware of Jon's undertaking, had arranged a special arrival. Members of Australia's SAAA had chartered a Qantas 747 to Oshkosh, and Qantas had supplied their most spectacular aircraft, "Wanula Dreaming". Painted from nose to tail in colorful Aboriginal designs, the noise of its landing was almost drowned out by the sound of cameras recording the touchdown. As close in trail as prudence would permit came a small green and white RV-4. The PA announcer pointed out that both aircraft had flown from Australia... and that, as a special surprise, Jon's wife and three children were aboard the 747.
You can imagine Jon’s surprise...when he left Australia, he was single and had no children! Actually, when the doors of the big airplane opened, it was his brother Leigh that came out of the crowd to greet him. For the rest of the show, the brothers could be seen roaming the far fields of aircraft parking, checking it all out. Occasionally they would stop in at Van's booth for a bit of rest and then they'd be off, "Trying to find that wife and kids for Jon." Leigh explained. "There's so many people here we ought to be able find a family running about loose somewhere.
"During the show, EAA director Dean Hall had arranged for Jon to have the use of the EAA's maintenance hangar to perform the mandatory 100 hour checks required under Australian regulations. A cooperative Australian LAME (you can find anything at Oshkosh!) had agreed to do the work, and while he and Jon were pulling the cowl, there was a sudden commotion on the far side of the hangar. A volunteer working on an EAA airplane had suffered a sudden heart attack... but had the good sense to do it in the presence of a trained nurse with plenty of experience dealing with emergencies in strange places. Jon was able to revive the victim and keep him stable until paramedics arrived. "Extremely quick they were, too." Jon says, giving them most of the credit for the victim's subsequent recovery.
After all the drama was over, Jon set off for Bangor, Maine. The original plan had been to start the Atlantic crossing in St. John's, Newfoundland, but Jon had heard several stories about the expense and bureaucratic red tape of flying from there. He decided that his limited budget couldn't stand the gaff. Even though the trip to the Azores would be four hours from St. John's, he decided to leave from Bangor. Once again the weather gods smiled. After a short period of IFR, the skies cleared and he found he had a 10 knot tailwind. Careful records kept on this leg proved the efficiency of his airplane. True airspeed at 11,000' was 143 knots, running at 18" mp and 2200 rpm. Fuel burn was a miserly 22 liters/hour... about 5.6 US gallons. That works out to about 28 mpg. All in all the trip to the Azores was completely ordinary, if that is the word for a night Atlantic crossing in a single engined airplane.
From the Azores Jon flew a short hop - 7:12 - to Madrid, where he stayed with friends for a few days. He then flew to the famous Battle of Britain airfield, Biggin Hill and rolled his wheels on the ground made famous by Stanford Tuck, Douglas Bader and many others of "The Few". England may seem a bit out of the way if you are trying to get from Spain to Australia, but Jon had a reason. In 1976, another Australian, Clive Canning, had set a record, flying his T-18 from London to Melbourne in 96 hours and 8 minutes flying time. Jon figured he could better that, and if Clive’s record had to fall, best it should go to another Australian.
On August 20, he left London's Shoreham airport, non-stop to Heriklon, Crete. He crossed France on top of a layer of smog so thick that he didn't see the ground until it poked through the haze from below -- the Alps. Jon pulled the nose up, and turned on the oxygen as the RV-4 climbed easily to 15,000'. Eleven hours and 18 minutes after leaving a blazingly hot England, he landed in even hotter Crete. Crete was one of the few places where the aviation world had provided no contacts, so Jon was not expecting a big welcome -- and was rather looking forward to a couple days without any hoopla. As it turned out, he could have used a friendly face. His clearance to cross Egypt and Saudi Arabia, tentative when he left England, hadn't arrived. Three days later, he still didn't have his clearance and he had changed hotels three times, looking for a place that was quiet enough to sleep. He could feel himself wearing thin, so he took matters into his own hands, via his cellular phone... and called Saudi Arabia while sitting under the wing of his airplane. He was startled to receive a call back 30 minutes later, clearing him to Dubai. Within an hour he was over the Mediterranean at 9500'. Egyptian ATC pestered him constantly, requiring him to check in every few minutes, and he was relieved to enter Saudi airspace where he was required to make only two calls: entering and leaving. Finally he landed in the United Arab Emirates, fifteen hours out of Crete. Fellow Australian Gary Pohlner ushered him through the minimal formalities and put him to bed... and it became obvious just how difficult the last few days had been when Jon slept for almost thirteen uninterrupted hours.
August 26 was a clear morning in Dubai, and Jon, now rested and ready to go, filed for Madras, India. He landed without incident 13 hours later, but the leg was not easy. After making it two thirds of the way around the globe without serious weather, Jon found himself bumping around at 11,500' trying to stay clear of embedded CBs. He logged over an hour of serious IMC, and consequently didn't get to see much of the Indian subcontinent.
Getting out of India proved to be a much greater challenge than getting in. The Indians have perfected the art of bureaucracy -- it took Jon seven hours, visits to four or five different offices, and two trips from the airport into Madras to file his flight plan to Singapore. Helpful Indian pilots shepherded him through the maze. "One of them told me to fly for 100 hours in India, you have to spend at least 500 hours on paperwork. I wouldn't have believed it before, but I do now!"
The Bay of Bengal between India and Singapore was the leg that Jon had been most concerned about during his pre-trip planning. The concern was fully justified -- he spent four hours slamming around in the clouds and turbulence. Even with GPS and the autopilot it was difficult to stay on track in the swirling conditions and pounding rain. Even though the leg was shorter than many -- slightly less than eleven hours -- it was the most tiring of the trip so far. Jon was relieved to find Singapore sunny and dry. After landing his first act was to call his parents on the cell phone. Standing by the tail with the phone to his ear, he suddenly noticed a puddle widening around his feet. Fuel!!? No. Water. Quite a bit of water. A small part of the Bengal Monsoon, forced into the aft fuselage during the flight, was slowly draining out around the tailspring and spreading across the ramp.
From Singapore, Jon could almost smell Australia and home. Launching at 2 am so he could arrive in daylight, he headed for Darwin. He knew the welcome mat was out when he was met far off the northern Australian coast by a flight of Aussie homebuilts. Two RV-4s, an RV-6 and a LongEze joined him over the sea and together they made a triumphant formation pass down the runway before landing. Again on Australian asphalt, Jon taxied through a water arch thrown up in greeting by the airport fire crew and straight into the hands of the waiting media. It was his first taste of things to come....three hours later, still in his flight suit, he had to call a halt to the interviews and questions and get some rest. He still had one more leg -- his record attempt required arriving in Melbourne and to get there he had to fly across Australia.
The outback was completely dark after the moon went down. Jon relaxed in the familiar cocoon of his cockpit as the Lycoming spun smoothly, drawing him through the air where the dream had first blossomed, only a couple years before. Soon enough the calm and wonder of it gave way to hectic activity -- news helicopters from three television stations joined up, cameras sticking out of every door and window. Seventy seven hours and 52 minutes out of London Jon blasted down the runway at the Moorabin airport at 190 knots, then arched up and into the pattern. Four thousand seven hundred liters of fuel, one exhaust pipe and three oil changes after he left Brisbane, he was home.
Congratulations had already begun arriving from all over the world. The sponsors were delighted, of course, and so were the politicians who came to have their pictures taken. Television and radio reporters loved the ready-made story, and over the next few weeks, Jon and his stuffed bear Kingsford, who made the trip perched on the big tank in the rear seat, became the most popular guests on Australian TV. All to the good; those of us who fly could have had no better spokesman: a quiet -but no longer ordinary- man, had safely and professionally flown an airplane he built himself in a rented shed around the world.
You'd think that Jon's journey would be enough to last a lifetime, right? Well, the very next year, Jon set out to do it again -- this time the other way around.