Here’s How A Pilot Flew A Little Cessna 172 Over 18 Hours Nonstop From California To Hawaii

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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.

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A Cessna 172SP at George’s Aviation similar to the one delivered.

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.

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. 

Tank1
Screenshot: George Hanzawa

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.

Fuel1
Screenshot: George Hanzawa

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.

New Route
Flight Aware

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!

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36 Responses

    1. For me it’s not even the engine, it’s being stuck in that space for 18 hours straight. I’ve done a 36-hour road trip once, but at least I got to get out and stretch when needed. Here? Nope. It’s just you and a big tank of fuel. And you have to be careful about what you eat, unless you want to contort yourself to use that bucket.

      It isn’t said how much our pilot here was paid, but I hope it was some decent change!

      1. And to think that the Spirit of St Louis took something like 33 and a half hours to cross the Atlantic though it was a bespoke plane that was state of the art specifically designed for such an endeavor whereas this humble lil’ ol’ Cessna wasn’t per se. As for what was accomplished with the Spirit of St Louis, arguably it’s more amazing that just a few years later “Wrong-Way” Corrigan flew some 28 hours from New York to Ireland in a janky old plane that had already been grounded more than once for not being air-worthy…

        1. Thanks for mentioning ‘That’s my story-and I’m sticking to it!’ Corrigan. An ornery cuss who repeatedly couldn’t get permission to try to fly across the Atlantic, so he maneuvered a situation where he was supposed to be proving he could make a cross-country flight from the east coast to the west. Instead, he went east, and made it to Ireland. To his dying day-literally even on his deathbed-he maintained that he had taken a wrong turn. That, folks, is perseverance!

          The History Guy on yt has a short video about him. A good chuckle and a real piece of Americana well worth 10ish min of your life

          [I promise I won’t spam this on any more Aerotopian articles for a year or so]

            1. Ha, yeah, “Wrong-Way” Corrigan was the inspiration for the character of “Wrong-Way” Feldman played by Hans Conried (who provided the voices for some characters, including Snidely Whiplash, in the oeuvre of the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows) in not one but *two* episodes of Gilligan’s Island which is probably how most younger (!) people learned about Corrigan. Older generations were already familiar with Corrigan; heck, the ticker tape parade for Corrigan upon his return from Ireland was larger than the one held for the pilot of the Spirit of St Louis!

    1. I also did an 8 hour drive without stopping. It wasn’t painful while driving since my truck is comfortable and has enough room to stretch out and move around. However, the prolonged sitting aggravated my back and I spend the next 4 days barely able to stand. Since then, I have made a point to stop to walk for a few minutes every 2-3 hours. For me at least, sitting in one position for hours is as draining and injurious as moderately difficult physical exercise. Eighteen hours in that Cessna is nuts.

      Also, just looking at the photo of the pilot’s seat is aggravating my claustrophobia. Even if I could physically tolerate sitting in that seat for hours, there is no way I could handle it mentally.

    1. This 172 is new enough it likely had an autopilot.

      But even without an autopilot once an airplane is trimmed for level flight it is pretty stable, so you can take your hands off the yoke for a bit and be fine.

  1. 18 hours non-stop in that plane would be rough with no room to even stretch a bit thanks to the ferry tank. Imagine making an 18 hour drive in a Miata without even being allowed to get out to stretch your legs at gas stations.

    I hope the man was well compensated for that trip. He deserves something like hazard pay on top of his standard fee.

  2. The technical feat of adding ferry tanks to boost the range is pretty impressive. It’s similar in concept to the photos I’ve seen of 717 aircraft who’ve had their interiors filled with supplemental fuel tanks for delivery flights to Hawaii (the 717 is a common sight on “island hopping” routes, but it lacks the legs to get there in the first place).

    I don’t know much about general aviation flight planning, so I’m comparing it to what’s done in the commercial realm, and I can’t stop thinking about ETOPS (originally: Extended Twinjet Operations, later simply: Extended Operations, or comically: Engines Turn or Passengers Swim). ETOPS rules require routes to be selected that allow for the aircraft to divert to a suitable airport to land in the event of an in-flight emergency. The diversion requirements are defined by time aloft (e.g., planning a route such that you’re never more than, say, 60 or 90 minutes away from a suitable airport), and the times have steadily increased over the years with improvements in engine reliability (though a rigorous maintenance schedule must be kept up to keep commercial airplanes “ETOPS qualified”). The Cessna 172, of course, has only one engine, so it makes me wonder what flight planning was involved in the event of an emergency. It looks like he took a straight shot over, and that’s a LOT of lonely open water!

  3. I think 4 hours is my longest leg I’ve flown, the bladder, back, and knees don’t seem to be too happy even at that. I’ve read plenty of stories about ferry pilots and adventurers crossing oceans in small Cessnas, Beech etc… as interesting as there stories are I don’t think I’d be cut out for that sort of flying.

  4. Hey good to hear a shout out to Juan Browne! Juan is a local to me and we’ve worked events together. A great person, commercial pilot, local pilot who flys over and reports on local happenings. A fire, a flood, a flight of interest, and Juan is all over it. Juan also takes off for off-road motorcycle adventures.

  5. Wow I’m from there and my dad was a military pilot who had a Cessna, he never tried that. He did have a bigger twin engine that he flew further when I was pretty young, I’d have to ask him about it. I remember we flew to the Nut Tree in Vacaville CA one time. they had awesome cookies.

  6. I love how this article outlines the incredible feats that have to go into planning and flying these routes, and this guy is like “I don’t know what the big deal is, I do this *all the time*.
    Fantastic article, Mercedes.

  7. For those old enough, this was literally the plot of a Magnum p.i. (the good one, not the pointless reboot) episode. A good one where Magnum ends up helping a former fighter pilot without realizing said pilot came to his rescue during the war.

    Except here, doesn’t seem to be organized crime putting lead bars in the seats to increase the weight and throw off the pilot’s fuel range calculations…

    1. “this was literally the plot of a Magnum p.i. (the good one, not the pointless reboot”

      I remember the end of the OG as kid, but being an extra on the new one was fun when I lived in Hawaii. Perdita Weeks and Stephen Hill are as nice human beings as you can imagine. The cast and crew are all just….nice.

      Which, sadly, is more than I can say for other performers and casts of other productions I was on set for.

      Anyway, these types of planes can be more cost efficient to island hop, if you pack light (and are not prone to air sickness.) They also are great for photographers, pro or hobbyist (like my wife). They are slower, and you can actually see stuff. Like breaching whales. We went to Maui and Molokai for vacations this way when we lived on Oahu. It cost us a little less the same as a ticket on Hawaiian, and we were more limited in your luggage weight, but the luggage is not an extra fee. And some of them have shuttles that pick you up at your house, so you don’t have to deal with HNL parking fees. We felt it was worth it. The views alone justified the slower flight.

      Perhaps the owner of this plane intends to use it for that purpose, and the cost of transport is a write off as a business expense?

      1. “Perhaps the owner of this plane intends to use it for that purpose, and the cost of transport is a write off as a business expense?”

        Looks like the buyer does sightseeing trips, charters, rentals, and “learn to fly” training sessions. This plane in particular looks like it’s on their “available to rent” website.

  8. I wonder what a cargo plane or shipping container would have cost?

    If I remember right these are designed to have the wings/tail removed. Better than I mis-judged the fuel or the engine goes NOPE!

  9. This article (great writing, Mercedes!) instantly reminded me of Charles Lindbergh and his flight in 1927. His decisions during design and construction of The Spirit of St. Louis were completely different from the other aviators attempting the flight. He chose the most reliable engine available, but kept the plane single engine because he knew that multiple engines reduced the chances of success, because a failure of any one engine would sabotage the trip. He chose a high wing monoplane for its inherent stability (the center of lift is above the center of gravity). His fight was 33 hours and he indeed did fall asleep for some short periods but the plane kept flying.
    This guy made a great flight, though he probably channels Lindbergh every time he takes off on one of these ferry flights!

    1. I think the longest I have driven between stops was around 7 hours. My joints all let me know how bad an idea that was, and I was able to have my seat in whatever comfortable position I wanted.
      18 hours and your seat has to stay in the only position the extra fuel tank allows? I’d feel like dying, I think.

      1. The pilot must be able to get into deep meditation for hours. Or wait maybe he can reach a semi-conscious hibernation state like some mammals with the only thing moving are his eyelids and lungs very slowly.

    2. Yup. I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t blink at a 16-18 hour driving day, but stopping every couple hours even if it’s just a quick bathroom break is the key. When I’ve skimped on stops and gone 4-6 hours at a stretch without getting out and stretching my legs, it’s noticeably painful.

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