Here I sit, in Tahiti's worst snowstorm ever, on a freakily chilly morning. The weather seems to be scaring the deity-fearing locals, and I'm very keen to leave before I'm sacrificed. I want to return to the more usual Pacific climate - this time tomorrow I should be waking up in a hotel overlooking a pristine beach in Rarotonga. It's only a few hundred miles of water and the occasional island, so it should be plain-sailing, right?
The sun's peeking over the horizon as the engines start up, and I soon call for pushback.
It's just me on board - the tail might say UPS, but don't be confused with the name, they are initials of a close relative, a somewhat dodgy fellow but I forgive him for that! I begin my taxi with trepidation. The agent who greeted me this morning with the keys to the aircraft says not to worry about the lack of a working compass, or the fact the GPS if blue-tacked to the dash. He also warns not to look in the log book...
I taxi to the runway on a taxiway sodden with water. Any rejected takeoff will be risky, I think.
The runway has snowy slush lying in puddles on the sides.
The owners of those boats will definitely NOT be going for a ride today!
I turn round at the end of the long runway. I've been told by the agent that the engines were upgraded a few months ago for more powerful units and that I shouldn't go above 100% N1 in case they 'complain'. I ask what in case of emergency? He replies the engines are 20% more powerful than standard jumbo engines, they can do anything you ask of them.
The runway stretches ahead of me. I advance the throttles to 90% N1 and the speed picks up quickly. There's cargo on board apparently, but it seems light and the plane sprightly.
I lift off next to the other 747 my cousin owns. That one had a hard-landing and the engines are also being upgraded.
Even at 90% N1 I can climb out sharp - I might buy some of these engines!
The morning is creeping above the snow clouds.
Goodbye Tahiti, you weird and wonderful island (in FSX at least!)
I crest the clouds to this wonderful sight. I've had to change direction and backtrack and am now heading west. I hope to intersect a group of islands ominously labelled 'Here Be Dragons' on the GPS but I'm hoping that's a joke name. From there I can head south-west to Rarotonga and the other Cook Islands.
The airspeed indicator stops and resets at zero. Odd, the pitot heat is on. No worries, still have a GPS for my groundspeed, I can work off that.
Out of curiosity I look at the log book and in shock I read the last ten reports. Seven engine failures??? Turns out engine 4 is constantly peaky. Like now. BEEP BEEP STALL - I drop the logbook in surprise and it knocks the GPS on to the floor, cracking the screen and shutting it down.
At 33,00ft I've stalled, and I twist as I power the left three engines up to full. The air is thin and I drop a lot of height. Unfortunately I was rather concentrating on rescuing the plane to take many pictures, but here's one!
The plane enters a spin and above the clouds with the GPS and logbook flying around the cabin I don't know which way is north or south or the way to safety.
I slip out my seat - guess this gives you a feel of the calamity!
The engines eventually respond and I level off only at 5,000ft and climb back up on my remaining three engines. My course indicator in the cockpit is cracked as well so I restick the GPS over the top and turn it on. Only a blue screen. I think I'm still approximately on course, so I'll continue in this direction, keeping an eye out for any islands. I know the Pacific fairly well having run an AirHauler company out of Tahiti, so should be able to name any islands I come across.
Thankfully the plane seems structurally sound, but any odd creak will have to be investigated.
The view is still fantastic as I head back to check on the cargo. Turns out the bear skins and cooking magazines are safe, but the whisky appears broken. Shame, I could do with some!
The only problem now then apart from the loss of engine 4, is where on earth am I? Three hours into this flight and I start to worry - I should have intersected the Cook Islands by now! I have almost full fuel so I decide to just carry on in a straight line - this is a lightweight jumbo on three engines, it's impossible to not reach land again unless I fly in circles...
The sky grows darker, still lost. Depending I set off at dawn, I'm now hoping I'm not going to end up in Antarctica!
I doze off, autopilot carrying me onwards to oblivion, somewhere.
I wake to see land! But that's definitely not Antarctica, not Australia or New Zealand, it's too large to be anywhere Pacific... is this Alaska???
I descend and I spy a runway... this is good news! Also good news is the airspeed indicator is back! The lethargic pitot hear finally kicked in fully. My fuel is running seriously low though, it says 14lbsx100 on the EICAS... better not need a go-around.
The runways look thankfully hard and longish... I don't want to have to trust the brakes on this thing but I'm going for this runway for fear of running out of fuel if I tried the other approaches.
The runway looks shorter and shorter, but those lights are welcoming. I lower full flaps and gear and slow down.
A hard landing later I touchdown more or less successfully. This time the GPS stayed stuck to the dash!
I turn off and park.
A lone janitor walks up to me and asks what the hell I'm doing. I ask him where I am.
'Kodiak. You see that massive sign on your tailfin there? Read it out as one word.'
I thank him and he tells me to get lost. I quip to myself that at least the bearskins came back to their home, and ring Mutley up on the mobile.
'Hi Joe, I'm a little off course... I'm in Kodiak, Alaska.' After a string of expletives the more coherent and less fruity tones of Mutley return: 'you have four days to complete your assignment - if you don't do it, you're out. For ever.'
Knowing this was a compliment from the boss, I stammer a 'thank you' and wonder how I might get to Rarotonga, with the baton. 'Any chance of a loan from the Bank of Mutley?'
'No, SOMEBODY spent it all on recovering a pink seaplane from the middle of the Pacific. You're on your own.'
----END OF DAY 1----
'Hi Sharon, you wouldn't happen to be able to pick me up? I'm in Kodiak, Alaska.'
'Sure thing honey, do you mind a bit of retro?'
'Anything that doesn't cost me!'
'Great, but I'm going to Juneau, and you're doing the flying.'
'Is that wise?'
'Definitely not, but when have you done anything wise?'
She rolls up in this, a pristine Douglas C124 Globemaster 2. Long range, two floors, ample room for baggage.
We struggle to get airborne though, and I notice Sharon blushes when I point this out. I ask her where she's going and for how long.
'Oh, two days in Juneau, then back to Anchorage.'
'And how much room is left in the back of this plane?'
'I had to leave some bags behind if that's what you mean...'
I sigh and head north-east, tracking the coast to my left.
Soon we're at 20,000ft and cruising nicely, the meaty propeller engines sipping from the equally enormous fuel tank.
I don't like the look of those mountains... especially since we're cruising and they aren't!
We intersect Glacier National Park, and I know if I follow the water I'll be led to Juneau.
Airport in sight, we'll circle to land.
A tight twist in this big bird, dropping the wheels as well.
'Honey that was smooth... do you wanna go fetch the remainder of my bags?'
'Sorry Sharon, I've got to reach Rarotonga in three days now or Mutley'll fire me...'
I offload her baggage and flee to my next aircraft, a sparkling Pan-Am B737-200Advanced. This is my own sweetheart of a plane, longingly left in a rusty old shed at Juneau, for if I ever need fast air transport or a sightseeing tour of the Pacific Northwest.
I taxi to the runway, admiring, the handiwork of the grass-cutter!
I love this aircraft.
Leaving Juneau, I'll be circling round and heading to Salt Lake City, hoping for passage south.
Hard climb above the mountains.
I cross Canada, Washington state, and Montana before sighting the Great Salt Lake. I'm parched, and that water ain't going to help!
I had planned on landing at KSLC and hitching commercial flights somewhere, but I've been diverted into Ogden. No worries, I know a chap there with some nighty aircraft. I ring him up and he says he has a DeHavilland Heron that needs relocating KTEX. My blood freezes - Telluride is beautiful, yes, but toxic to pilots - an airport at 9000ft surrounded on three sides by mountains even higher! But I have to get the baton back to Rarotonga in time, so I stomach my breakfast and agree. I'm positive there'll be a Piaggio on the apron: my brother-in-law goes skiing around this time, and he won't mind me popping to Denver for a plane-shopping daytrip. Hopefully his credit card will stretch to something fast!
Heading to landing, KOGD.
And there's my next plane!
The Heron is a cute but quaint four-engine passenger prop from earlier days of flight, and this appears to be an original. All works, and I take off, turning sharply to the southeast and onwards to Telluride.
I have to get over this ridge first!
I reach a cruising altitude of 12,000ft soon, and trim the plane to continue rising slowly. The land rises quicker though - the Rockies are immensely impressive and simply vast.
The lush forests turn to desert, and the occasional canyon creeps in.
Including this behemoth of natural chasms!
After another hour of everchanging scenery I reach the Telluride box canyon - three sides tower above me.
Airport in sight.
Descending over verdant cliffs, the wind mercifully light.
I've got the last few hours of this day left, so I ran inside the small terminal and phoned my brother-in-law.
'It's urgent - can I fly your Piaggio to Denver?'
'Only if you take me... why?'
'I need to get to the South Pacific... and I have no fund.'
'I'll buy you a plane from the second-hand market at Denver then. Conside it 30 years of presents I've missed.'
The pushmipullyou plane is an odd bird to looks at, but just what the doctor ordered - fast, nimble, and comfortable.
Rotation, nose pointing at mountains.
I need to turn northeast but there's mountains in the way...
I brave it out and try to climb above them.
I clear the peaks, just, and readjust for Denver.
The haze merges world into heaven.
Descending now into Denver... I use the reverse-thrust liberally to slow myself down.
On approach to gargantuan Denver International. Cleared 16R.
Wee bit wonky on approach but I adjust laterally in time, don't worry!
A soft landing and I pull off the runway. The sun is just beginning to set, I'm exhausted having travelled from Kodiak, Alaska, four planes ago, and I'm still a long way to go. There's two full days of sun before I'm fired, and I hope for some luck and inspiration to carry me to Rarotonga in time...
My brother-in-law waves the customs officials away and we saunter over to the most expensive carboot sale. I spy Pipers, Cessnas, Beechcrafts, all sorts of GA and light airliners. However I need something faster... a lone MiG29 looms its ugly head over us but my brother-in-law shakes his head. I ask if we could steal it and fly away, but he pulls me round the side of the aircraft, hidden from view from the staff working the sale.
'See that 767, Fed-Ex?'
'The door's been wide open all the time we've been here. I counted two people walking on with briefcases and two people walking off a minutes ago with no briefcases. The pilots didn't lock the door and the wind's opened it. The documents are there, the aircraft is fuelled, it's fast and long-distance... it's a sign, no?'
You're telling me to steal a Boeing 767 and fly it south?'
'Maybe not south - follow the flightplan inside as much as possible, then you can sneak out the destination airport and continue. I'll distract the salesmen and the ground staff and you wander over and take a look, okay?'
'And if the flight is transatlantic?'
'Declare and emergency and stop in the Caribbean or New York or something.'
'Okay... I'll give it a go. Do you think there'll be coffee on board?'
So, I sneak over. And guess what, my brother-in-law was right! Bingo, free flight to... Atlanta. But there's flights from there across the Caribbean to South America, and from there I can get to Easter Island... I can then hop over Tahiti (the cursed place) to Rarotonga... it's a lot to do in two days, so it's all systems go!
Engines starting up. I read the documents very carefully - I have to pass off as two experienced Fed-Ex pilots and employees that have done this trip before in this exact plane many times previous. No messing up or I'll be in trouble.
I'm cleared for takeoff and it's smooth.
I follow ATC to the letter and gaze longingly at the fuel tank - if only it was full! The radio could 'break' and I would be free to fly under the radar to a small airfield somewhere in Chile - sell the 767 for silence and a small propellor plane to Easter Island, and I'm sorted. But that is far too risky, even for me. I'll go to Atlanta.
The night sky falls and I feel sleepy again.
Touchdown, taxi and park. I sneak out the back and over the fence, making my way to the nearest bank to beg for a credit card.
I return to the airport with a new card and queue in the line for tickets. The lady in front of me glances at me, then double-takes.
'You look like that Fed-Ex Plane Robber!'
'No ma'am, that can't be me. I'm a pilot, yes, but I fly Airbus A340s, and that plane was a Boeing 767. Big difference.'
'One of those faces I guess…'
I reach the desk. 'Next flight to South America, please.'
'That'd be a TAM flight to Brasilia, they're boarding in ten minutes if you hurry.'
Take-off is smooth, baton in the overhead compartment. I feel bad using commercial flights but I must get there in time!
----END OF DAY TWO----
Another three hours later a stewardess comes into the cabin and asks me if it was me that could fly A340s. Those words aren't great words to hear so I stand up quietly and follow her. 'The problem is sir, is that the pilots have got food poisoning… they had fish…'
'That's right, I remember now, I had the lasagna. I'll get the plane down.'
The GPS directs me to Brasilia (so good to have one that works!).
I lower the gear and flaps 15nm out.
There's the city.
Cleared to land.
And taxied to the TAM stand. The crew cheer and as I step off the aircraft with baton in hand the manager of TAM greets me. He thanks me and reimburses the flight! That gives me some money to rent an aircraft…
Like this Ilyushin Il-18! Rented for a few hundred dollars, it works like a gem!
Take-off is quick. From Brasilia I'm flying south-ish to Rio de Janiero, refuelling, then following the coast to Uruguay. From there I can cross the River Plate and that should set me up for Buenos Aires.
Beautiful blue lagoon.
Twisting at the last second.
I refuel and cross the airport, turning onto the other runway.
Rio is fantastic, wish I could have stayed, but it's getting late!
Lagao dos Patos beckons, a huge inland lake in the south of Brasilia.
Crossing the River Plate, and nearly at Ezeiza Intl, Buenos Aires.
Touchdown is smooth!
A while ago I worked for DHL in California, and they rang me up to congratulate me on landing the airliner safely. They also asked if I could fly an A300B4+ to Easter Island… at last, the right direction! I quickly ring up an old friend and ask him if he can find an aircraft to get me to Rarotonga. He suggests a Nimrod, and I say great!
First things first, get there.
It's a grim day out there.
The B4+ is much more powerful, capable of shortfield operations in hot-and-high airports - regularly found in South America.
Cruising now at 50,000ft.
Descending trying to find Easter Island.
It peeks through the mist.
There's the Nimrod.
I line up, and the engines take me away.
The sun sets.
That's Rarotonga, minutely silhouetted against the sea.
I touch down safe.
----END OF DAY THREE----
The clock on the dash strikes midnight. I sigh with relief, I'm finally here! I might just go to sleep…
I park, next to a jetliner and… Concorde? How odd! I stick the baton in the air intake for the next person, confident that nobody's flying that plane any time soon.
Ten aircraft used, far too many! But I'm here on time. Now onwards with ATWC!
----END OF DAY FOUR----