Ferry flying is a lucrative but high-risk industry. Elite pilots
deliver small planes across oceans and continents –
distances these aircraft were not designed to fly.
Flying alone across the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny, single-
engine plane at low altitudes, sometimes in extreme
weather conditions, is not for the faint-hearted. Things can
and do go wrong.
The ferry flying industry is a close-knit band of aviators,
some of whom have carried out hundreds and even
thousands of flights, delivering newly sold or repaired small
planes to remote destinations.
My father was a ferry pilot. As a child my life was
dominated by aviation – school holidays were for planes
My earliest memories are of lining up my stuffed toys and
dolls in the cockpit of a small Cessna aircraft. As my father
built up his flying hours, there would be afternoon trips to
France – my tiny bicycle stowed away in the back. A cycle
ride along the beaches of Le Touquet would be my reward
for enduring the occasional bumpy flight without complaint.
Later, as a teenager, I loved listening to stories of his flying
adventures. Yet I was aware those gripping tales of flights
over war-torn countries or in icy conditions across the
Atlantic Ocean were censored to protect me from worrying
about his safety.
In 1999 my father was killed when the aircraft he was
delivering crashed over the mountains in Canada.
After he died I had little to do with light aircraft or aviation.
The airfields where I had spent so many childhood summers
became a faded memory, associated with loss.
However, as the years passed I found myself increasingly
wondering about his life as a ferry pilot and what drove his
passion for it. I wanted to discover more about this largely
hidden part of aviation.
All over the UK, planes are being repaired and sold. Fixing
and restoring a plane can take months, even years.
Then it needs ferrying to their new owners – wherever in the
world they may be.
“Whatever plane you’re in you have to find a way of making
it fly that distance, which many small planes ordinarily
would not,” says pilot Julian Storey, 43.
These are aircraft that might typically fly 200-400 miles at
a time (320-645km). But the shortest stretch of water you
cross on an Atlantic crossing is 700 miles.
Because most small light aircraft are unpressurised, it’s not
advisable to fly above 10,000ft. This makes them more
susceptible to extreme weather conditions as they have less
leeway able to cruise above stormy clouds and ice caps.
Airliners, by contrast, can fly at higher altitudes of about
In a massive hangar full of planes and helicopters at Biggin
Hill airport, Kent, Storey shows me a Britten-Norman
Islander light aircraft that’s being restored. It’s being
“slowly transformed from something that looked like it
really shouldn’t fly again to something quite smart – it’s like
the Land Rover of the sky”, Storey says.
He hopes to deliver it to its new owners once the
restoration is complete and the plane is sold. About 18
months ago he took two of the same model from Scotland to
Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
“This is real flying,” says. “If I’m in the mood for adventure
it will be absolutely right.”
Before take-off, the Islander will have to be equipped with
ferry tanks containing barrels of fuel needed for the journey.
It’s a slow aircraft that doesn’t have the sort of high-tech
equipment to deal with icing and the weather you might
expect in larger or more up-to-date aircraft. “So you are
very much using your judgement, skill, experience to pitch
yourself against nature and hopefully survive,” Storey says.
This is what I always worried about, especially when my
father was flying over the sea.
I knew he carried specialist survival equipment – a
precaution all ferry pilots take to prepare for the possibility
of ditching in the ocean.
“The main thing that is going to kill you in the ocean is
hypothermia,” says pilot Dave Henderson, 60, who has
made almost 100 trans-Atlantic crossings in light aircraft.
“If you do end up in the water, the important thing is to get
into your life raft but also I have a thick neoprene survival
suit, which completely encloses the body and you’ve
probably got a few hours survival in that.”
He knows of other ferry pilots who have landed in the sea
and survived, but admits it’s not something he cares to
At an airshow in Sywell , Northamptonshire, I find him
carrying out safety checks in the cockpit of a twin-engine
Piper Aerostar aeroplane. It belongs to a client who wants
the six-seater taken to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
This delivery will cost the owner about $20,000 (£13,000).
Henderson has packed the survival gear in the Piper
Aerostar, all the safety checks are complete and the aircraft
is ready for pilot Joe Drury to fly it to Florida, a trip likely to
take about four days.
The plan is to fly to Wick Airport, Caithness, fuel up, and
then fly to Reykjavik in Iceland. After spending the night in
Iceland, the next leg of the journey is to Greenland – either
to Narsarsuaq in the south or further north to Kulusuk,
depending on the weather – then on to Bangor, Maine, and
down the US east coast.
Reykjavik and Narsarsuaq are places I remember hearing
about from my father as he prepared for his trips.
Narsarsuaq is also known as one of the world’s most
dangerous airports – landing requires approach to the
runway through a fjord, surrounded by mountains and
The route is the North Atlantic air ferry route. It was
discovered by pilots during World War Two to transport
aircraft from North America to Europe to support combat
Ferrying a plane across the Atlantic is the ultimate test for
both pilot and plane. But it is not only trans-Atlantic ferry
flights which are challenging.
Former army officer turned ferry pilot Robin Durie has
experienced partial engine failure during a flight over the
Sahara desert, been involved in two separate incidents in
which his co-pilots fell unconscious at high altitude, and on
another occasion was forced to dodge small arms fire
during take-off in the Middle East.
“Every trip does have an element of adventure about it,” he
says. “You need to be a pilot that can take on all aspects of
“I just love flying and I suppose the difference between ferry
flying and a routine commercial airline job is that you
physically do fly these aeroplanes, it is real stick and
rudder stuff and that has huge appeal.”
Durie is married to Sarah and they have a baby son,
Thomas. Fatherhood has influenced his decision to cut
back on some of the more risky flights. All the ferry pilots I
spoke to know of friends and colleagues who have died on
And all agree ferry flying is not a career for mavericks or
displays of bravado.
Staying safe has little to do with luck. “It’s all about
judgement – it’s making the right decisions. Is the weather
right? Is the headwind too strong? Do you have the fuel to
outfly the headwind?” insists Storey.
After meeting these pilots, I’m reminded about how my life
was enriched by aviation and by my father’s passion for
flying. I’m glad he got the opportunity to do what he loved –
being a ferry pilot.
More from the Magazine
In 2013 a passenger managed to land a plane at
Humberside Airport after its pilot fell ill. How difficult is it to
bring an aircraft safely down without training?
How hard is it to land a plane? (October 2013)
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Ferry flying is a lucrative but high-risk industry. Elite pilots