Editor’s note: This marks the final regular installment of Bill Cox’s remarkable Cross-Country Log column. We at Plane & Pilot have been honored to be associated with Bill for so many years and to have been able to share his adventures with our readers. Blue skies, valued friend.
As a freshman at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks back in the last century, I was allowed a singular elective course. On the first day of class, a distinguished, 60-ish-year-old gentleman stepped up to the lectern and said, “Good morning, students. Welcome to Writing Magazine Articles. I’m Charles Keim. This is always a popular course, and I’m sure many of you have heard it’s an easy A. That’s probably true, and its popularity may also be related to the fact that it’s one of the very few courses here at U of A that can actually generate a little income. To that end, anyone who can sell an article during the term of the course will receive an automatic A.”
With that as my incentive, I hurried back to my dorm, unpacked my trusty Smith Corona (this was long before the advent of personal computers) and hammered out a 1,000-word story on the university rifle team, then sent it off to Alaska Sportsman Magazine. A week later, I received an acceptance letter and a check for $60. It seems our little 1,000-student school in the far north of Alaska consistently placed in the top 10 against 10,000- to 20,000-student universities such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
I showed that check to Professor Keim just before the second class, and he roared with laughter, told me I had my automatic A, congratulated me, and asked me to tell my story to the class.
I went on to take Professor Keim’s second-semester class, Creative Writing 102, and sold two more articles in the process.
That was the beginning of a 50-year career in aviation writing that has resulted in 2,100 articles and 4 million words in several dozen magazines around the world, primarily Plane & Pilot, but also everyone else whose checks were good.
Inevitably, there are always times of financial drought in any freelance business that doesn’t provide a regular paycheck, and I faced this on several occasions. One way I discovered to get around this was by delivering airplanes overseas.
I was scheduled to do a story on how Piper Aircraft delivered its products internationally and had an opportunity to fly a new Piper Seneca across the Atlantic to the 1977 Paris Air show for display at Le Bourget. The trip went well, and somehow, one way or another, I found the airport in Paris and was offered the opportunity to make other ferry flights for Globe Aero in Lakeland, Florida. I became a semi-regular ferry pilot for Globe during the extremely busy general aviation boom of the late ’70s.
I worked for Globe off and on for 20 years, then formed my own company, Bear Air International, out of my home in California. In total, I made 235 international trips between the U.S and points overseas. Globe delivered all over the world, and I got a good introduction to flying single and twin-engine piston turboprops (and even a few jet aircraft) to destinations in Europe, Africa, Australia, the Far East, the Middle East, South America and other locations.
My friends sometimes asked if there were ever any hiccups on these trips. Yes, there were, but fortunately, none over water. There have been about a half dozen, and I won’t bore you or me by explaining them all.
One of the most notable was a Cessna Crusader twin over the west coast of Africa in Gabon, headed for Johannesburg.
Both engines failed almost simultaneously, something that’s never supposed to happen (why else would you have two engines?). I was just coming up on the Congo River at the time, and at first glance, it looked like the river itself was my only flat landing site.
Fortunately, I had another airplane flying with me toward a mutual destination, and the pilot, Tom Willet, was very familiar with that area. Tom knew there was a missionary emergency medical strip very close to our position. Tom pointed it out to me over the radio. I was skeptical because the grass was high and the runway was short, but I didn’t have any other choice. I knew the Congo River was full of crocodiles, so even if I made a perfect ditching, the swim to shore could have been hazardous to my health.
The name of the missionary runway was Tchibanga. The little runway was never designed to accommodate a Cessna twin. Fortunately, the grass, heavy mud and the airplane’s rugged trailing link gear system helped cushion the landing and shorten the rollout. There was no damage to the Crusader. Cessna Gabon sent down another airplane with a mechanic and determined the problem was fuel contamination in the ferry tanks.
The mechanic cleaned everything he could—fuel lines, filters—and put everything back together but warned me that the problem was still there. It was up to me if I wanted to fly back to Libreville, Gabon, because there was probably still plenty of contaminated fuel in the tanks. I flew the Crusader back to Libreville, the shop drained all tanks, and I completed the delivery to Joburg the next day.
Another difficult situation arose in the Pacific island of Majuro, specifically in a 421 that I was delivering back to the U.S. from Subic Bay, Philippines. I was in Majuro, Marshall Islands, launching on the 2,000-mile leg to Honolulu. The runway at Majuro is only slightly narrower than the island itself, a coral atoll. I was departing with a full load of fuel, and the airplane checked out very well. I brought the power up, rotated and, just as I reached for the gear switch, the right engine quit.
Fortunately, I was only about 20 feet above the runway. I chopped the other throttle, slammed the airplane back onto the runway and rolled out pretty much to the end. It turned out that the throttle linkage on the right engine had failed because of corrosion in Subic Bay, and there was nothing wrong with the engine itself. I needed someone who could work on a 421, and I wasn’t qualified for that, so I called a good friend whose real job was flying as a captain for Southwest Airlines on 737s, but he moonlighted ferrying airplanes all over the world. Fred was also an A&P mechanic and was very familiar with 421s. He agreed to fly out to Majuro, repair the throttle linkage and take over the trip.
There have been another half dozen or more of various failures that have been resolved without damage. If you’re a regular reader of Plane and Pilot or some of the other aviation magazines, you may already have read accounts of those incidents.
“That was the beginning of a 50-year career in aviation writing that has resulted in 2,100 articles and 4 million words in several dozen magazines around the world, primarily Plane & Pilot, but also everyone else whose checks were good.”
I’ve also made perhaps two-dozen trips across the Atlantic and Pacific with the owner in the left or right seat. These are pilots who may have the ability to make the trip themselves but not the confidence. They correctly decide to hire someone who has made many crossings and knows when not to go or when to divert. Some people are willing to pay for the co-pilot with experience on the ocean.
I also did some brokering, finding suitable aircraft for overseas clients who lived in Africa, Europe, Australia and other places where there’s not much selection of some models. Frequently, I would determine the best used aircraft for a particular client, refurbish it to their specifications, then deliver it to them in their home country.
Another aspect of aviation journalism I became involved with was the ABC series ABC’s Wide World of Flying. This series ran for approximately seven years in the early ’80s through the early ’90s, and it was great fun and an opportunity to do something different—writing scripts for television, flying formation and learning the tricks of TV production. That series ended in 1991.
In roughly 60 years of flying and making a semblance of a living at it, I never regarded the occupation as any more hazardous than the stereotypical drive to the airport.
It’s now time to pull back, if not totally retire, and spend time on other things. I owe so much to so many people over such a long period of time that I hope they know intuitively how much I appreciate their encouragement.
If anyone wishes to contact me, they can do so by writing to me at [email protected].