A little over a week ago, a pilot went viral for just doing his job. Tom Lopes took a Cessna 172 G1000 NXi Skyhawk on a ferry flight from California to Hawaii. 18 hours and five minutes later, the little plane was delivered to its owner in Honolulu. But how do you get a small plane to fly for 2,190 nautical miles without stopping and why would you do that in the first place?
On August 20, Tom Lopes boarded a new Cessna 172 G1000 NXi Skyhawk, registration N490NW. Then, at 6:10 AM Pacific Time he departed Merced Regional Airport/Macready Field in Merced, California and flew the little aircraft west. A full 18 hours, five minutes and about 2,190 nautical miles (2,521 miles) later he landed at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii. Lopes delivered the aircraft to its owner, George Hanzawa of George’s Aviation. There, the Cessna is now a part of an operation providing a flight school, tours, rentals, and more.
Lopes’ long journey went viral after people online noticed the Cessna’s planned flight path on flight tracking site Flight Aware. Lopes achieved cruising speeds between roughly 113 and 130 knots (about 130 to 150 mph) and flew between 6,000 and 10,000 feet during the flight. Speeds were reportedly helped with a tailwind adding about 5 knots of ground speed.
I would need a bathroom break!https://t.co/miUoNa3Gae
— Kelly Lepley ✈????????✈️✈️???????????????????? (@kclepley) August 26, 2022
First flown in 1955 and still on sale today, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk has the distinction of being the most popular single-engine aircraft on the planet. These planes are easy to fly with slow landing speeds and forgiving handling characteristics. You can find 172s in the hands of private owners or making up the backbones of flight schools all over. All of my own flight hours are from behind the controls of one built in the 1970s.
But one thing that a standard 172 doesn’t have is the range for a flight like this. A 172 Skyhawk like the one Lopes flew has up to 53 gallons of usable fuel. The 180 HP Lycoming IO-360-L2A under the cowling will burn that fuel in about 638 nautical miles (734 miles) when cruising at 45 percent power at 10,000 feet. This left some scratching their heads over how Lopes managed to do more than triple the distance without ending up in the Pacific.
The answer comes from an interview that Lopes did with aviation YouTuber Juan Browne.
Lopes is a ferry pilot. He’s the kind of person that you call when you need your plane delivered from one destination to another. Lopes has been doing it since 1988, and says that this isn’t even the first time that he’s taken a small plane nonstop over similar distances. Thus, he was a little surprised when his routine job spread around the net.
Lopes’ flight was possible thanks the addition of a fuel tank that gave the aircraft a total of about 210 gallons of fuel. The tank was placed where the rear seat would be and it fills up the cabin. In Hanzawa’s video of the plane’s arrival you could see the tank. It basically takes up any room that Lopes wasn’t using for himself.
And since that big box of fuel impacts the aircraft’s center of gravity, he reportedly couldn’t move it out of the way to give himself a little more seat recline.
Browne explains in his video that there are two ways to get that fuel to the engine. One way would be to plumb the tank to feed the engine directly. Or, the tank could be plumbed to pump fuel into the plane’s existing fuel system. Lopes chose that route, and it appears that the extra tank feeds fuel through a line that goes into the wing root, out through a fairing, and into the wing tank through the tank’s drain.
Planning this took a ton of time, Browne explains. Lopes took three weeks to rig the extra tank. And the fuel system modifications had to get a one-time approval for the flight. It then took more weeks of just waiting for the winds to work in the flight’s favor.
From there, Lopes just had to fly the flight. But it wasn’t as simple as pointing it in the direction of Hawaii then sending it.
Every hour he had to report his position to air traffic control. At that same time he also checked his fuel levels to ensure there’s enough left to complete the flight. In addition to that, he also had to work with his team on the ground to calculate the correct power setting for his fuel burn. As Browne notes, the aircraft flew at 100 percent power for a number of hours before Lopes burned off enough fuel and began pulling back the power.
In other aircraft, Lopes might also have to use a system to top up the engine’s oil. That wasn’t required here as the new engine wasn’t expected to consume a lot of oil. And remember, he’s by himself, so that’s a long 18 hours by himself with that workload.
As for using the bathroom? Well, it’s about as your imagination expected. There are bottles for urination and should things go south, there’s a bucket! Though, considering the cramped space I’m not sure how Lopes would have pulled that off.
Of course, one question is why do this and not have the plane shipped? As Browne explains, operators would rather have someone fly the plane rather than deal with taking the plane apart for shipping then putting it back together again. As AV Buyer magazine writes, the industry for ferry flights was created in part because of how long it took to ship a plane someplace. Taking apart the plane, loading it on a ship, then putting it back together took as long as weeks, not accounting for any damage that may have occurred during shipping. But a plane could be flown to its destination far faster.
In the end, Lopes successfully delivered the aircraft with 25 gallons of fuel to spare. Hanzawa’s company then removed the ferry tank, installed the rear seat, and had a student flying less than 24 hours later. And Lopes didn’t wait long before his next ferry flight. The next weekend, he flew a Cessna 208 Caravan across the Pacific to Thailand.
Hat tip to Nathan B!