A young man approached me at an airport in England recently, we talked a bit while we were kicking the tires – tyres as they say in England – of the airplane I was picking up. He said he’d hate to see the old airplane leave but he understood, the market in Europe prefers newer single-engine airplanes over piston twins, plastic fuselages over welded steel tubes. We talked about the planned ferry flight that would take the 50-year old Piper Aztec “home” to the US and the young man pulled up a picture on his phone, saying since I knew a bit about Atlantic ferry flights that he wanted my opinion.
The man is a pilot and mechanic, in truth he didn’t need my opinion, he knew very well. The picture he showed me was this. He said he’d personally taken the picture in the cockpit of a Piper Matrix that had just landed from an Atlantic ferry flight, not something he had obtained secondhand. The Piper Matrix had departed from Canada and crossed the Atlantic directly, without ferry tanking or HF radio. When the airplane landed, the fuel gauges looked like this:
I looked up the flight path and the aircraft’s registration online a few days later. The aircraft registration shows up in the “testimonials” section on the website of a well known con artist / wannabe ferry pilot, a pilot who has previously crashed an aircraft in Greenland due to fuel starvation.
Most pilots who fly long-range flights have run into situations where they landed with less fuel than they were happy with. Weather, diversions, ATC delays, mechanical issues, or other situations beyond your control are the reason you carry plenty of fuel reserve. Sadly, good pilots have lost their lives due to exceedingly adverse and unexpected conditions. That was not the case for this Piper Matrix, the pilot knowingly or ignorantly planned a flight well beyond the safe range of the airplane just to save a few bucks. Had he run into any issues at all, he would have become another fuel exhaustion ferry flight accident. Had he been ramp checked, there would have been violations and fines. Had there been an accident the insurance company would have put up a fight not to pay out.
When you hire a ferry pilot, check their references. Don’t rely on “testimonials” on some website, ask previous customers and people who are familiar with ferry flying. I will be happy to provide references from previous customers and other pilots. If you don’t hire me, please hire another reputable ferry pilot.
What fun would we be if we can’t poke fun at ourselves? This picture was taken as I wrestled into my immersion during a recent Atlantic ferry flight. I don’t know what I was thinking or saying, it couldn’t be nearly as bad as the look on my face in this picture suggests.
What was I thinking or saying? Feel free to write in your best guess in the comments :)
I almost wrote “how NOT to export an airplane”. That sounds too condescending but it’s hard to overstate the importance of doing everything correctly when exporting an airplane. I’ve seen too many buyers run into problems because they relied on bad advice from a seller or inexperienced pilot. It’s not fun when I have to go retrieve an airplane that was left stranded in the middle of nowhere because another pilot flew without valid registration, failed a ramp check somewhere or things of that nature. Those types of problems can cost the new owner a lot of money.
So if you’ll bear with me and forgive the “do this don’t do that” tone, here are some of the most common questions or issues regarding aircraft export. If I’ve overlooked anything or you have any corrections / additions please let me know:
Where to close the sale?
You can “close” the sale of the airplane either in the country of origin or in the destination country. Both are perfectly acceptable as long as you are aware of the implications for the ferry flight. If you close the sale in the country of origin, the buyer legally owns the airplane from that point on and will be responsible for the airplane, registration, airworthiness, etc. If you close the sale in the destination country, the seller is responsible for all of those things until the airplane is delivered. In General Aviation, the seller usually wants to close the sale in the country of origin, they simply don’t want the responsibility of the ferry flight or the (perceived) risk of flying their airplane to a foreign country.
The important consideration here is when you “close” the sale, for a US registered airplane, the aircraft’s existing registration (in name of the seller) becomes invalid and the airplane must then be re-registered by the buyer.
Additionally, you should always use a reputable escrow service to exchange funds for clear title to the airplane. Any other arrangement such as paying the seller directly or releasing funds (other than any agreed upon advance) without filing the FAA title at the same time leave the buyer open to significant risk.
Aircraft registration for the ferry flight:
If you “close” the sale in the destination country the aircraft registration remains valid (assuming the seller has the airplane registered properly) in name of the seller for the duration of the ferry flight. For longer trips in General Aviation aircraft it is not common for the seller to agree to this.
If you “close” the sale in the country of origin, the airplane must be re-registered in name of the buyer prior to commencing the ferry flight. This is probably the area where most problems occur. Nowadays the FAA is more strict about requiring that sellers return their registration certificate to the FAA but I have seen buyers run into problems because they simply flew the airplane with the previous owner’s registration certificate in the airplane, only to realize that it was no longer valid when they got ramp checked or passed through Customs.
Aircraft registration in the country of origin or destination country?
If the buyer closes the sale in the country of origin, he or she must then decide to register the airplane in the country of origin or in the destination country. Most countries’ civil aviation authorities will readily issue a registration for an airplane that is being imported but you if you go that route, you will also need a provisional airworthiness certificate from the importing country – airworthiness and registration must be from the same country. This is typically more complicated for a used airplane. Depending on the requirements of the importing country, it may be quite expensive to get a provisional airworthiness certificate as the civil aviation authorities may require that the airplane is inspected by someone licensed in that country. There are also TSA security procedures that must be complied with for operation of some foreign registered aircraft in the USA.
If you wish to register the airplane in the country of origin for the duration of the ferry flight, the buyer must follow the correct procedure for that country. For a US registered airplane, the only legal and correct procedure for a foreign person or entity to register an airplane is via a “trust” (there are some exceptions if the airplane is intended to be physically based and operated in the USA).
This is also an area where many problems occur. The trust is fairly easy and inexpensive to create and is a fully legal structure. Using a trust allows operation on US registration indefinitely. However, other “solutions” such as setting up a Delaware corporation to be the registered owner or asking a seller not to file the FAA paperwork until the airplane arrives at it’s destination are not legal and DO NOT protect the buyer. Alternatively you can use an intermediary to export the airplane but only if the intermediary is in fact the legal owner of the airplane.
Export Certificate of Airworthiness:
Most countries require an Export CofA for aircraft being imported. There are a multitude of bi-lateral agreements that govern this subject but the basic idea is that the Export CofA states 2 things: 1) the airplane is currently airworthy in the exporting country and 2) the airplane meets any additional requirements of the importing country.
If you plan to keep operating the airplane on US registration, an Export CofA is typically not required but it is still a good idea to check if your airplane meets the additional requirements of the importing country because you must meet the “operating requirements” of the countries you fly in. So if you fly in Europe where most countries still require DME for IFR operations, you must have a DME in the airplane if you plan to fly IFR, even if you fly on N-registration.
The “additional requirements” of the importing country can vary from trivial to very expensive. For example, most countries outside North America require an altimeter in millibars. More expensive issues could exist around validation of STCs. If your airplane has been modified in accordance with any STCs (supplemental type certificates) it is important to verify that those STCs have been validated in the importing country. Maintenance requirements may also be more stringent in the importing country: for example, some countries mandate engine overhauls in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations of time in service as well as calendar time. The US FAA does not mandate those overhaul periods (for privately operated aircraft).
US Customs export:
US Customs export is mostly a formality but it is a requirement by law. Exporting an airplane is a bit unique in that the airplane is both the mode of transportation and the commodity being exported (if flown, not if containerized, in that case it is just a commodity being exported). What’s important here is that “import” and “export” for Customs purposes are typically determined by physical base of operations, not by country of registration. The export formalities can be handled by a licensed customs broker.
Depending on the destination and route of flight, there are likely to be operational requirements for the ferry flight above and beyond those of the exporting country. For example, requirements for survival gear, emergency equipment, pilot’s licensing and fuel reserve are more stringent during the ferry flight than during operations in the continental USA. It’s important to be sure your ferry pilot observes all the requirements. For example, a pilot who flies directly from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq in an airplane that doesn’t meet the Transport Canada equipment and fuel reserve requirements would be at risk of violations, fines, invalidate the aircraft’s insurance, etc.
If you have any questions regarding aircraft export or ferry flight feel free to contact me. This is not meant to be an exhaustive, step-by-step guide but only a summary of the most common issues based on my own experience as a ferry pilot.
I won’t speculate about the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8. For the sake of the families I hope there is a resolution soon. What I do know is that MH370 will re-write the book on air traffic control, tracking airplanes and possibly piloting airplanes. Aviation as we know it, typically 2 pilots, physically inside an airplane, using mostly voice communications to an air traffic controller, will be history one day. MH370 will likely make that demise come sooner rather than later.
Outside looking in, it must be baffling to the general public that a large airliner can just disappear off the face of the planet, especially in today’s wired world where we can reach just about anybody anytime at the touch of a touchscreen. In reality, airplanes over oceans and in remote areas can easily disappear because there is no continuous, real-time tracking in most remote or oceanic areas (the North Atlantic being the exception). There is no civilian radar beyond a couple hundred miles off shore so air traffic controllers rely on periodic position reports, either by voice communication or satellite data link. Position reports are made at pre-determined points such as every 10 degrees of longitude, every hour, or at specified navigation fixes. If a plane for some reason deviates or changes course, nobody on the ground would know until the pilots or the airplane’s data link reported the new course. Many sophisticated military surveillance systems exist around the world but those are looking for threats, not tracking any and every civilian airplane.
There are many systems to make sure pilots and controllers can stay in touch at all times: VHF and HF radio, SELCAL, data links, radar, and various emergency systems. However, in today’s aircraft most of these systems depend to some extent on the pilot’s interaction with them.
Certain accidents in the history of aviation were a catalyst for industry-wide changes: the crash of ValuJet 592 led the FAA to overhaul how it certifies new airlines, Air Florida flight 90 led to more stringent de-icing procedures and a new emphasis on CRM (cockpit resource management). More recently the crash of Colgan Air 3407 compelled the FAA to change experience and certification requirements for airline pilots.
I’m sure the Malasia Airlines MH370 tragedy will have a similar if not greater impact on aviation. MH370 will greatly accelerate the implementation of real-time satellite data links, implementation of communication and navigation systems that are independent of pilot action, and possibly in the future remotely piloted aircraft. If you look at the military use of drones, airline pilots could soon be sitting in a secure ground location, “flying” their airplanes through remote data entry and monitoring – with automation or supervisors overriding any problematic inputs. Autopilots have long been able to do the physical work anyway.
I imagine most of us would be reluctant to fly in the back of a remotely-controlled airliner, those pilots in their sharp uniforms smiling at the gate always gave us that confidence, that they would be there if all else failed. Now we may not be so sure. If MH370 in the end proves that the pilots can be compromised, may willfully cause a tragedy, or can be overtaken even in the post 9-11 era, pilots may soon go the way of telegraph operators – replaced by technology.
I know the counter-argument would be that technology can be compromised as well. If a datalink to a remotely controlled airliner was compromised we’d have the same problem. However, that has never happened yet. On the other hand hijackings have happened and pilot suicides are largely believed to have caused the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 and SilkAir flight 185. If there is a knee-jerk reaction we only make it by looking back, not looking forward.
None of this are new ideas. I submit that the greatest obstacle has not been cost or technological challenge but rather a psychological reluctance on our part. A reluctance that may be about to change.