Air Tractors are great airplanes, but they are working birds that take a lot of stress from their pilots. Most Air Tractor wings are hour-limited, and many of the airplanes require inspection and service at certain time intervals. The Air Tractor 401B is a special breed. Having originally been manufactured with a radial engine, the 401B’s turbine conversion requires special care. I got a call that Buttercup, the Air Tractor 401B that I had ferried times before, needed to go to Texas for service. When I flew the plane down to Belize a few years back, we had installed a hopper fuel system. It is very beneficial to do this, and gave us a few options for getting it back to Texas. It was actually much cheaper to fly it to Lane Aviation in Houston than it was to have mechanics travel and do the work in Belize, and I was more than up for the mission.
After reviewing the options, I decided our most cost efficient solution was to ferry it directly across the Gulf of Mexico to Houston. Realistically, we could get 350-380 gallons of avgas in the hopper, giving me about 10 hours total of fuel with the wing tanks. With headwinds predicted, it looked like a 7-hour flight to Houston, giving me 3 hours of reserve fuel which was plenty acceptable. Finding a good weather window to take a VFR airplane over any body of water can be challenging. As a backup, I carried my Dynon D-1 backup attitude indicator to mount to the windshield as a backup attitude indicator should I lose visual reference. Although the skies may be clear, the ocean can often create a haze layer that blends the sky to the water.
I was up before first light to get ready. Arley and Carol got up early to have an early Belizean breakfast, and Carol also gave me a sandwich for the journey. I took off out of Spanish Lookout and headed over to MZBZ, Goldson airport in Belize City, to clear customs before heading north. Although the skies were completely clear the entire way, a small patch of fog about 3 miles wide was covering the Goldson airport. After holding for about 30 minutes, I decided to divert to the Belize City municipal airport to wait out the weather. About 30 minutes after I landed, the weather cleared and I made the short 5-minute flight to Belize City to clear customs.
If anyone has cleared customs in Belize, they know what it takes to get approval. There are usually about 5 stamps required to be obtained for any entry or exit, even for Belizean airplanes. I was miraculously able do to this in about 15 minutes, a new record for me. After filing my VFR flight plan, I called the fuel truck over and personally filled up the hopper to the highest point I could get it without it spilling over. I then taxied out and took off on my journey north. I brought a bungee cord to use as my autopilot, which actually worked fairly well. However, there is nothing that can really be done to make an Air Tractor a complete hands off airplane in straight and level flight.
It’s about 200 miles over the Yucatan to the Gulf of Mexico, which gave me plenty of time to get a good handle of my fuel burn and ensure that the hopper fuel system was working. After the first uneventful 2 hours, I coasted out over the blue water on my way north. Forecasts and satellite imagery showed mostly clear over the Gulf, although there were some scattered rain clouds dropping water between 100-200 miles off the cost of Texas. I had a Delorme so that Arley could track me and text me, and we stayed in communication. Although it was the gulf, it was horribly cold. The Air Tractor does not have heat, and cold air around 40-45 degrees F was circulating around the plane. After some time, I could barely feel my feet. I did bring gloves and a jacket, but as soon as I was under an overcast layer it got very cold. I made sure to bring a ski parka for the next one!
As I got about 200 miles off the coast of Houston, I started having communication trouble. Even low level, VHF communication is fairly reliable over the Gulf. I was in communication from about 300 miles to 200 miles, but then things got silent. Then I saw the alternator light come on. Over the water with 2 hours to go, this was not a good feeling. I started texting Arley and pulling out paperwork for the airplane to go over the POH and the Walters STC. The Walters STC’s turbine uses an electronic management system called TSLM for many functions, and I went through the POH to determine what I would lose in the event of a complete alternator failure. As I was looking down, I noticed that the TX button was flashing on the radio. I had a stuck mic that was draining the alternator. I then immediately turned off the radio and the alternator came back on. I was relieved, but then realized that I had a problem with communication. Luckily, I had a handheld radio as a backup. I couldn’t get any of the oceanic sectors with it, but was able to maintain radio contact once coming into the Houston area.
I had filed to Hobby Airport in order to clear customs. When I got close, I found out they were landing on Runway 4, which featured a gusty tailwind. Considering I still had a good amount of fuel in the hopper, I didn’t want to land with a gusty tailwind. Also, I only had about 3 Air Tractor landings in the previous 8 months, so I was careful with what conditions I landed in. Although I had landed with a load before, it’s really not something I want to be doing with a tailwind in an airplane I didn’t have a lot of recent experience in. I held south of the airport in a holding pattern until they were able to give me 13R, and then I landed uneventfully and cleared customs.
It was a short flight over to Lane Aviation. It had been a very long day, nearly 9 hours of flying. From the day I met the exceptional people at Air Tractor, I wanted to impress them. However, as fate would have it, I have yet to get a good landing in front of them as my audience – in both Air Tractors and my Super Cub! My wheel landing-turned 3 point was safe but humbling, but after 9 hours of flying I should have been proud of myself for even being able to land. The moral of the story is, we all have our off days. As a good friend and ag pilot once said, he has had “bounces in the 802 that you could drive a truck under.” I did redeem myself in front of my audience landing back in Belize when I greased it with a strong crosswind, and they got the good one on video!
After Lane took a look at the wiring, it turns out that there was a short in the wire going from the stick that was causing the stuck mic. A few weeks later, the wing AD was complied with and I flew the plane back to Belize uneventfully over the gulf with no issues. It was a different experience for sure flying an ag plane over the ocean, and something I will be doing again in the near future!