From Dubai to Seattle, via China

By Adam Hunt


COPA Flight 178 Pembroke’s Al Hepburn has become Flight 8’s most popular speaker; he has addressed Flight 8 four times now, since March 2009 and his talks always attract a big crowd.

This meeting was no exception as the upper lounge at the Ottawa Flying Club was full to hear Hepburn describe his recent flight from Dubai to Seattle, via China.

Some background is in order to explain how Hepburn ended up flying across China by light aircraft. He is retired but works on occasion for Air Journey as a trip director, helping to shepherd groups of light planes on tours across the Atlantic to Europe and beyond. The company also provides “concierge” support services for individual owners undertaking long flights.

In this case Wei Chen, a pilot and Chinese citizen who lives in the USA, wanted to become the first Chinese citizen to circumnavigate the earth, with a stop in his home town of Changsha.

For the trip Chen traded in his Piper Saratoga piston single for a more capable Socata TBM 700 single engine turboprop, but, being a relatively low time pilot enlisted the help of Air Journey for the planning, permits, visas, route knowledge and thousands of other factors that such an ambitious trip entails.

Air Journey recommended that Hepburn accompany Chen on the trip to act as navigator, trip planner and co-pilot. With several Air Journey long trips behind him, Hepburn knew most of what to expect on this expedition.

As Hepburn explained, in Asia general aviation is a rarity. They often park you at the main airline terminal, with handling fees to match. Permits for everything are almost always required and weather information can be slim to none.

In Russia flying is done at metric flight levels. In China single engine aircraft require special permission to even enter the country. Trips like this are not a fun holiday. With all the potential delays, time zone changes, tight schedules and weather pressures, as Hepburn puts it “flying round the world is physiologically demanding”.

To make matters more challenging Chen had brought a banner, to have his photo taken with at all the ports of call, started his own website about the trip and organized media events at many of the planned destinations.

Hepburn was to accompany Chen from Quebec City all the way to Paris and then rejoin him in Dubai for the legs through India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and onto Hong Kong. Initially Hepburn had planned to not fly though China since he did not want to work with non-English ATC, and instead intended to stay in Hong Kong for 10 days where his wife Carolyn could join him, but events didn’t work out that way.

He was to pick up the trip again to fly through Russia, over the Bering Strait to Alaska, down the Canadian west coast and finally to Seattle, Washington, where Hepburn’s involvement would end. Chen’s plans were then to fly the TBM 700 onto Oshkosh in time for AirVenture, completing the trip on his own.

The Atlantic crossing started on May 27, 2011 and involved five hours flying time from Quebec City to Nuuk, Greenland via Schefferville and Kuujjuaq. After an overnight stay in Nuuk the next stop was Reykjavík, Iceland, including a visit to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. The next day it was onto Hepburn’s original homeland of Scotland where they visited Dundee, St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

The flight continued to England, including trips to Bornemouth and Salisbury, where Chen was keen to see Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. France was next, where a visit to the Palace of Versailles impressed even the hard-to-impress Hepburn. In Paris there was a reception for Chen staged by the People’s Republic of China’s mission. Following that, Hepburn headed home for a break. He would catch up with Chen later in Dubai on June 20.

To make matters even more interesting from this point in the adventure Hepburn offered to email out frequent real-time updates during the trip and offered to add me to his mailing list. I suggested that I post his diary entries on the Flight 8 Blog as they came in and he agreed that would be a good idea.

The progressively posted entries added a feel for the trip as it unfolded with its ups and downs in almost real time. The reports, starting with Hepburn’s departure for Dubai on June 20, remain on the Flight 8 blog at . They are an interesting read all by themselves.

Hepburn’s time in Dubai included a bus tour of the city with a desert 4X4 safari where his vehicle got a flat tire and the obligatory camel ride, not to mention a barbecue with belly dancing. Hepburn noted that the recession has been hard on the once-booming Dubai and his five-star hotel room was only $53 per night.

Chen invited a friend of his named Sam, to join the flight and they departed for Muscat, Oman on June 23. Flight planning was complicated by the fact that Chen had no charts, but Hepburn had year-old ones, plus the TBM had an up-to-date GPS database.

After Muscat the next destination was Agra, India. En route the TBM’s PT-6 engine showed a high oil temperature reading, which was a concern, especially over water.

Arriving at Agra close to airport closing time the crew were ready with a PDF chart of the ILS approach but were cleared for the VOR/DME, an approach for which they had no chart. Since the weather was good they requested the visual approach and completed that instead.

Arriving on a Friday evening in Agra allowed Hepburn to experience the worst motor vehicle traffic he had ever seen anywhere on earth. On top of that the passenger they had brought along was not on the requisite permits which was not acceptable in India and nothing could be solved until the appropriate offices opened on Monday, leaving them parked for the weekend.

The PT-6 engine was ground tested and seemed to be performing acceptably. At least the weekend off gave the three travellers a chance to see the Taj Mahal.

After the permit problem was rectified it was onto Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). The PT-6 was again showing erratic high oil temperature indications, but it seemed to be an indication problem. After one night in Kolkata next was a flight over Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) to Thailand and the capital, Bangkok, where another media extravaganza awaited.

The mandatory handling fees at Bangkok airport were an amazing $3,500! However this was not the highest handling fee that Chen paid.

In Bangkok, Chen discovered that his banner was not welcome and getting photographs of it was a challenge. By this point in the trip, with all the flying, time zone changes and media events, everyone was very tired. Sam departed to be replaced on the TBM by a People’s Daily female reporter and a cameraman.

At the next stop in Vientiane, Laos, the crew noticed that the ground-handling company had sent the same handler from Bangkok out by airline to deal with their arrival. Hepburn didn’t ask what the handling fee in Vientiane was.

The next day it was onto Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where they saw a puppet show, made a photo-op trip to an orphanage and did a tour of part of the Mekong Delta.

The busy city of Hong Kong was next, the gateway to China itself. Here they were parked at an actual dedicated general aviation terminal, but in Hong Kong GA means Boeing Business Jets and Gulfstream G-Vs, all dwarfing the tiny TBM 700.

In Hong Kong, Hepburn’s wife Carolyn joined them and they toured the island, Aberdeen Harbour and visited the Botanical Gardens. Chen assured Hepburn that they would only be going to airports that offered English ATC and convinced him to continue on the flight and not stay in Hong Kong.

On July 7, they departed for Chen’s hometown of Changsha, the capital city of Hunan, in south-central China. The TBM was full of media people. Hepburn was not surprised to find out on their arrival that Chen had a U.S. public relations team for his arrival, flown in by airline.

On July 10, they flew onto Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province, for more media events. To get into Beijing it was necessary to be on the ground before 0900 hours and that meant leaving the hotel before 0200 hours local time.

Even though English was actually available, Chen conducted all the radio conversations in China in Chinese, which left Hepburn out of the proceedings. On arrival Air Traffic Control reported the visibility as three kilometres, but Hepburn doubted it was even one kilometre. The highly polluted Beijing air seems to be the subject of some propaganda, or at least denial.

During the time in the capital, in between the media events, they were able to visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Upon leaving Beijing, they were presented with a $6,500 handling fee, the highest on the trip.

For that much money you would think that the service would be outstanding, but they were subject to a three-hour delay because an Airbus A320 was parked on the painted yellow taxiway line on the ramp, between the TBM’s parking space and the departure runway. There was lots of room to taxi around the A320, but deviating from yellow lines is not permitted in China. Eventually the A320 was towed to another place and the flight to Harbin commenced.

Once in Harbin the crew was able to visit the famous Siberian Tiger Park.

Harbin was the last Chinese stop and from there it was onto Russia. Hepburn had travelled through Russia before and so its pitfalls and legendary bureaucracy held few surprises. The stops were Khabarovsk, Magadan and Anadyr.

The intention was to land at the island airport in Anadyr in time to catch the last ferryboat to town, but the schedule had been changed and they, literally, missed the boat. This resulted in a stay at the small airport hotel instead, where they were at least able to buy some groceries for supper.

The trip back to North America started on July 19, with a leg from Anadyr to Anchorage, Alaska. The flight over the Bering Strait went smoothly and they ended the day in a hotel right on Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base.

During the stay there the crew went for a floatplane sightseeing tour in a Cessna 206 and landed on a melt-water lake to visit a glacier.

On the way south on July 20, to Juneau in the TBM they detoured to overfly Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America. They also flew by Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.

With favourable winds they were able to comfortably make a non-stop leg from Juneau directly to Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, where Hepburn completed his part of the voyage and headed home to Pembroke, Ontario by airline.

In answering Flight 8’s members’ questions after his presentation Hepburn admitted that trips like this are not vacations, but done to prove something. In this case, Chen did achieve his goal and became the first Chinese citizen to fly around the world, with help from Hepburn and Air Journey.