The Liberty Gazette
February 18, 2014Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Peering through the mirth and heavy rain slapping on his windshield the pilot concentrates on the little green light about 25 feet beyond his wingtip and a little white light 25 feet ahead. The lights on the other airplanes bounce around and the pilot works hard to keep them in the same position relative to his; momentarily they disappear. Lightning flashes and sometimes he wishes he were at home enjoying the comforts of his easy chair while reading a book about adventures like this. That thought evaporates as quickly as the lightning flashes – nothing can compare to being here, doing this.
In the 1970’s Australians developed an appetite for small airplanes to efficiently access the Outback. Their manufacturing industry could not fill their needs so they turned to the United States and the aviation capital of the world, Wichita, Kansas.
The problem was delivery across 7,000 miles of Pacific Ocean. A new airplane would be completely disassembled, packed in a container and carried by ship. The journey to the Land Down Under took about three months. When it finally arrived the airplane had to be reassembled and repainted. Some airplanes could not be disassembled and spent months on deck exposed to the rough elements on the high seas. All the while buyers were paying mortgages on their dream machines. They sought a new solution.
A group of Australian and American pilots figured they could fly the airplanes there, saving time and money, forming Southern Cross Aviation. They stripped the planes down to reduce weight and installed auxiliary fuel cells essentially making them flying gas tanks. On November 21, 1976 the group initiated its first delivery flight departing with seven Cessna 172s from Santa Barbara, California, 2,200 miles to Hawaii on the first leg of their journey. The planes weighed so much it took nearly six hours before they could climb above 6,000 feet. Midway across the group ran into heavy storms that lasted for hours and had to descend to mere hundreds of feet above the frothing ocean swells.
There was no GPS; navigation was mostly by deductive reckoning. The group was blown off course and set behind schedule because of the storm and received help from an airliner high above in recalculating their route.
The pilots fought weather and the monotony of a bare horizon, and fatigue. I can only imagine the relief once the first hint of land was spotted, and forcing oneself to stay alert and not succumb to careless relaxation. These planes made their first stop 23 hours after departing Santa Barbara, the pilots having new stories for the guys back home. But first, they spooled down and headed to a long deserved nap.
The rest of the trip consisted of more open water legs from Hilo to Christmas Island, to Pago Pago, Samoa, Norfolk Island and finally Sydney. Five days and 73 hours of flying time from start to finish, this was the first of many such trips. Southern Cross delivered 40 airplanes that first year, and now make somewhere around 150 deliveries per year. From small single engine airplanes to the largest airliners, these are pilots seeking a front seat in the big adventure.