Q and A
Q & A
How did you stay awake and alert?
With the exception of the all-night Pacific flight, I never had any issues with staying awake. By keeping my energy levels constant, and eating a small amount every hour and drinking 2–3 litres of water per flight, I always felt good. What was amazing was I rarely felt tired on arriving, with typical flying days of eight hours. I’d spend a couple of hours going through customs and immigration, check in to the hotel, have a shower then start exploring the town.
What did you eat?
In the plane: nuts, muesli bars, apples when available and dried fruit when not. On the ground I always tried to eat the local food. I made a point of rarely eating hotel food. Most days, breakfast was an espresso in my room with a muesli bar (and answering emails . . .), while for dinner I walked the streets in search of something interesting.
How did you go to the bathroom?
Carefully. Think hospital bed procedures. Never drink from the red bottle.
How did you prepare for the trip?
I knew I needed to lose some weight. I was on the wrong side of a tenth of a tonne, but rather than ‘go on a diet’ for a few years before the trip I slowly changed my habits: ate a little less, exercised a bit, did simple things like a hundred sit-ups and fifty-two push-ups a day to improve core strength. I managed to lose 25 kilograms this way. I was 88 kilo-grams when I left, 80 kilograms when I got home and hover around 83 kilograms today. I did the fundamentals: ate smaller amounts more often, didn’t eat bread (ouch) or pasta, and drank plenty of water. I started drinking a litre of water before breakfast and 2–3 litres through the rest of the day; this really seemed to help. In Scotland I became hooked on porridge, and perfected it when I was with Caroline in Ireland. Porridge still starts my day, every day. Mentally, I was pretty focused on getting the plane and equipment ready. I trialled longer and longer flights in the plane to make sure the systems were working and that my body and mind were up to trip.
How did you manage fuel?
Getting fuel was one of the tiring parts of the trip. Not awful – just dull. I tried to use petrol whenever I could, as avgas often wasn’t available or it was four to eight times the price of car fuel. That adds up! Getting petrol meant taking flexible jerry cans to a local petrol station. This, of course, involved driving there in a crew van or taxi and then transport-ing 160–180 litres of fuel in wobbly containers. Upon returning to the airport, I’d sometimes have to take the jerry cans through security, including X-ray machines, before returning to the plane. On average the whole task took about three hours – much longer than a truck pulling up and fuelling in, say, ten minutes tops.
Did you have to take wads of cash?
I took about US$2000 with me, hoping that cards would work in most places, which they did. Generally the handling agents and fuel companies either had the facilities to accept credit cards, or they would get me into terminals with ATMs so I could pay them in cash. I mainly used my Amex for hotels, but a Qantas Cash debit Mastercard for all fuel and handling charges, to help deal with multiple currencies and to keep the transactions all in one place.
What is involved in getting permission to each country?
Each country required permission to fly into their airspace, and permission to land at specific airports as a minimum. Sometimes there was the equivalent of a carnet as well, and a few times I was asked to pay a duty on the fuel left in the plane upon arrival! This was all dealt with easiest when there was a ground-handling agent, which was really essential in countries where English wasn’t the native language. I used White Rose Aviation from early on, and talked to Mike there about my proposed route. He advised where it was a) not a problem, b) difficult, but hey I love a challenge, c) Danger, Will Robinson, don’t go there. Mike has a network of agents in each country, and in turn those agents have ground handlers at the airports. Sometimes they are one and the same. Simply – this journey would have been almost impossi-ble without Mike’s role.
Did you have to pay any bribes?
Not one. It was never asked or even hinted at.
How long did it take to plan for the trip?
From its inception I spent ten years, but the first several years were for general research. What route did Qantas Imperial fly? Where did they refuel during the day and then stay the night? What hotels did they stay at? How did they get to the hotels? It all started with an Excel spread-sheet, working out the distances between places. Then I factored in where there were political issues, and what alternatives I had. These distances then started dictating the mission capabilities needed in the plane. Originally I thought I’d modify the first Searey I had, but it became clear that was going to be a total rebuild, and would still be a much older version of the plane, and then I sold it anyway. The last year was fine-tuning the plan, and I spent seven months working with White Rose. I think the minimum you’d want to allow is three months for trans-Asia and the Middle East. A few weeks is okay for trans-Atlantic, as it’s a well-trodden route.
Why didn’t you have an autopilot?
I was tossing up between having an autopilot because it would be good for long stretches, and not having one so I had to stay focused while fly-ing the plane. I think for the Searey on this trip it was the right choice to go without one, as I was solo and very worried I would become too relaxed and fall asleep with autopilot on. However, having since flown a few bigger planes with autopilots, I’ve realised just how wonderful and much safer it is to have one . . . so the next plane will have an autopilot.
How did you navigate?
I am in awe of the early aviators, especially Francis Chichester, who flew a Gipsy Moth halfway across the world and found Norfolk and Lord Howe islands using celestial navigation. I still have the sextant I bought when I was fifteen while living in the UK. I left it at home and used two iPads, a few different apps and the GPS built into the plane. The MGL EFIS has a database of airports worldwide, but I only had visual terrain in certain areas. I relied a lot on the iPad for positional awareness using the following apps, depending on where I was: AvPlan, Jeppesen IFR, RocketRoute and ForeFlight. If I was leaving today, AvPlan could now get me all the way around VFR; at the time, no one app could do that. In terms of weather, the MeteoEarth Pro app was an amazing tool that was incredibly consistent in forecasting accurately, which built my confidence and planning capabilities.
How did you take seven months off work?
I think the key here was that I didn’t leave with seven months in mind but three months, to get to London. Then I decided to continue to New York, and that would take just another month. Then another month . . . and, well, it just kept going!
How did you deal with maintenance on the plane?
I had a roll of silver gaffer tape, but I never used it! I was able to do oil changes, spark plug changes and the like myself. I planned a major service in London, and had the annual done in Florida. I carried spares – like oil, filters, a carby kit, tyre tubes, nuts, bolts, prop tape, glue, a multimeter, even sandpaper – with me for running repairs. I did have to do a consistent amount along the way.
Would you do it all again?
I don’t need to do the same trip again now that it’s done, but if I went back in time, yes, I’d do it again.
How many hours did you fly at night?
Around twenty-five hours all up. There were two overnight flights, both departing late at night, but I got to enjoy the sunrise from the air, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan (seven hours in the dark), and Attu to Japan (fourteen hours in the dark). Other landings were generally an hour after dark, which is particularly easy at international airports with giant and immaculately lit runways.
How much did the whole trip cost?
I still haven’t added it up! But I was pretty careful along the way, stay-ing in crew or basic hotels, walking a lot (which I enjoy), eating street food and small meals. I worked hard on the fuel because that saved thousands upon thousands. Putting aside the plane cost, it’s some-where north of A$60,000 but under A$90,000. Given you could spend that on a first-class cruise, I think it’s pretty amazing for such an incredible life experience.
Do you think you should have been IFR-rated?
Yes. I wouldn’t recommend people try this trip VFR, now that I’ve almost not lived through it. I’ll be working on getting that rating next year.
Did you always sleep in the plane?
Only a few times. It really wasn’t very comfortable, and when I was at airports overnight, they wouldn’t have let me even if I wanted to.
Were you required to land at certain airports?
In nearly every country I had to clear customs and immigration upon arrival, so that meant choosing airports that had these services available. Depending on the country, I was either then free to fly where I wanted (like in the US, Australia, Canada, Europe) or rigidly controlled and generally had to follow IFR airways.
Didn’t you get lonely?
Not really. There was too much happening, and it was all so exciting. I missed my family, but I was also sharing the trip with them, so when I sat down in each place to write up my travels and post some photos, I did it as if I was sitting at the dinner table, telling them the story. My lowest moment was in New York, which, given there were more people there than almost anywhere else, is kind of strange.
Where is the Southern Sun now?
Ah ha! You can see where she is at anytime using the satellite tracking map at www.southernsun.voyage/where.
What was the finding of your master’s thesis?
I often hear the remark that ‘going to the cinema is expensive in Australia’, but I don’t think that’s true compared to other options for a night out. My research looked at the price in different countries of attending the cinema, the quality of the cinemas, and what the minimum and average wages were – so I could evaluate how long someone needs to work to see a movie. What I found is that Australia has some of the most comfortable cinemas in the world, with the personal area per patron at the higher end, and our affordability is one of the best, with the average Australian having to work only thirty minutes to buy a ticket. This is the same length of time as in the US but nearly half that in most European countries. In contrast, in Asia and the Middle East it can take up to twelve hours of work to afford a ticket. Given that the average movie ticket in Australia costs less than a pizza, yet the memory of a great movie lasts a lifetime, I think going to the cinema is great value, not to mention a wonderful way to escape from the world for a couple of hours. But, hey, I could be a tad biased!
How do movies get delivered to cinemas now that they aren’t on film reels?
The films come on a hard drive. It’s a huge file, between 80GB and 150GB – for context, a Blu-ray file is around 4–5GB – which means uncompressed, really high quality. It’s an encoded file, and we are separately emailed a digital key that unlocks it between certain dates and hours so we can screen it. Quite impressive, really.
How did Tarantino end up at your theatre?
Ha! Yes, that really was a career highlight. While I was on the trip we got word that The Hateful Eight was being filmed and would come out on 70mm, and we decided that it would be great to screen it that way. Only problem? We didn’t have a 70mm projector – all cinemas are now digital, and film projectors, much like steam engines, are relics of the past. So we scoured the country and even overseas for one in good condition. In the end, we found a machine in the garage of Brian Davis, a former projectionist at the Sun, who lives 150 metres from the cinema! We restored it, and Rob Murphy (who directed the Southern Sun film) made a short film about searching for the projector, finding it, restoring and installing it. Someone in LA showed Quentin that film, and next thing we know he ‘drops in’ with Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson to visit the theatre, share a bottle of red wine, and do an introduction and Q&A in the cinema. That happened only two months after I got home, so it was a pretty surreal moment, when I was already still floating up on cloud nine.
You did a lot of research during your trip. What was the most bizarre thing you discovered?
That more people die each year from taking selfies than from shark attacks!
Have you flown much since your return? Any more big trips planned?
- Ham Kebb
Yes, I'm still flying Southern Sun, mainly to visit regional towns for after dinner talks and film screenings with Q&A's.The next adventure will be to fly around Australia promoting the film and book, visiting outback and coastal towns.
I noticed from the photos that the plane carried an N rego. Now that the Southern Sun is in Australia, does it need to be changed to comply with local regulatory requirements? Also, did you manage to avoid getting slugged for roaming charges while obtaining necessary updates for weather, etc , or did you rely on wi-fi a much as possible? For instance my Telstra chip didn't pick up a provider in Greenland while on a recent trip, so I had to improvise, e.g. by slinking around to the public library in Nuuk for service. - Chris Trench
The plane is flying with USA rego in Australia under the permission of CASA, I also have a US licence to do so.
I had to rely on wifi in most places, which was often dial up speed!
Is your DVD available in local shops? - Elaine Medhurst
Not in stores, but it’s available at the Sun Theatre Yarraville and Bairnsdale, otherwise, online at our website or on ebay.
You may not be able to answer this in a public forum, but what gross weight were you able to take off at given the amount of fuel you were carrying? Is your aircraft the turbo charged version or the 100hp version? - John McGill
Southern Sun was tested and plated for 842kg, so 192kg above the standard gross, but only go above 750kg when needed.She has the 914 turbo 115hp engine and a variable pitch propellor.
Did you read "The Sky beyond" by Sir Gordon Taylor...Catalina flights across the Pacific an account of Sir Gordon's pioneering trans-ocean flights in the 1930s and 1940s etc and "Flying Doctor" by Clyde Fenton...flew a Gypsy Moth from Darwin to China and back in 1930's against the DCA directive...? - Dennis Quinlan
I haven't read either, but aware of their stories, so must add to my reading list!
Do you do 3 legs of a circuit before a water landing? How do you know wind direction without a windsock? - Paul Schluter
Ah, very good questions!
Yes, we do fly 3 legs if a circuit, in fact usually a precautionary pass of the area first, to check for water depth and debris... and power lines. Picking wind direction is a bit of an art form, but there are many signs to look for - smoke, anchored boats pointing one way if on a lake, flags, spotting yachts sailing. The best if waves on the water, always perpendicular to the wind direction, and the windward end of a lake will have a wind shadow, with waves running into the shore at the leeward end. I must say growing up sailing really helps with all of above. That's visual cues, then there's the final check, which is to fly an orbit, and compare the airspeed with ground speed, the heading with the minimum ground speed will be the wind direction.
Hope that all makes sense!
I see you've been to Russia and doing some flying in a Seabear amphibian. Are you planning another adventure in one of those ? - Brent Taylor
I think I’d say I’m at the pondering stage, rather than planning...
Happy New Year, Michael
The map appears to show your trip bypassing Russia. Is that the case - and if so - what was the reason? - David Boots
Hi David, the reasons are quite long and complicated but very well covered in both the film and the book!
Michael, what a wonderful trip. I am an Ultralight pilot too based in Dubaï, Your navigation map shows that some parts of your trip are pretty long. I mean, airport to airport, like Heraklion to Tel Aviv, or Aqaba to Rhiad, are more than 5 hours fly. How did you manage that about fuel and so on? Thank you. - Frantz Jardel
Lot’s of extra fuel tanks, with a range of 12 hours built in, and up to 21 hours with extra bladders - all explained in great detail in the book!
How were you (as an Aussie) able to register your plane as a US bird? - Mac Simpson
The plane was registered in the US upon delivery by the factory, which it still is, and Michael has a US pilots licence as well.
Being amphibious would you prefer to keep Southern Sun in a hanger at an airport or a boat house with a boat ramp? - Paul Schlüter
A waterfront boat house would be nice!