It takes a bit of luck.
Flying over the Atlantic Ocean with a single engine plane. Navigating across Africa without electricity. A bit of ingenuity mixed in when things go awry far from home.
Being an international ferry pilot is not for the faint of heart. Some good fortune is required. So is a whole lot of quick thinking, skill and a thirst for adventure.
For 1980 Coon Rapids graduate Kerry McCauley, it has been a life of thrills crisscrossing the world in some of the most harrowing situations imaginable, producing a treasure trove of stories to tell. Those gripping tales are brought to life in his new memoir “Ferry Pilot: Nine Lives Over the North Atlantic,” which quickly became the No. 1 new release in Amazon’s aviation category.
“You learn a lot of self-sufficiency when you’re by yourself,” McCauley said. “When you’re hours and hours from land over the ocean, if you have a problem, you have to figure it out yourself. It’s, ‘All right, I have to figure it out or I’m gonna die. So I better figure it out!’
“Someone says, ‘There’s this plane in St. Paul and take it to Singapore and get it done, doesn’t matter how you do it.’ Ferry pilot is the most amazing job you can think of.”
McCauley’s path to adventure began a long time ago.
During high school, he competed in pole vault – displaying an early love of heights – and extreme snow sports. At 17, he enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard. Once there, the quest for altitude took off.
“I’ve always been interested in flying,” McCauley said. “My uncle was a Navy carrier pilot; first I was an Army crew chief in the Minnesota National Guard in 1979 flying helicopters, then I started flying lessons. I just kind of went from there. I stayed in the Army for 12 years. My first job was flying skydivers.
“I heard about this job flying small planes and thought, ‘Wow, flying and world travel, that’s exactly for me. That’s the dream job.’ I always wanted to travel, so when I got enough hours flying planes I got that job as a ferry pilot. That was the most amazing adventure you can imagine. Egypt, Singapore, wherever – I started in 1990 and I’m still going.”
McCauley’s time in the Army helped equip him with the self-sufficiency skills he has required throughout his career. Unlike traditional commercial aircraft, the planes flown by ferry pilots are usually smaller and therefore must brave lower altitudes, vastly increasing the danger level.
“Ferry Pilot” highlights a few of the many journeys that have needed calm amidst the storm.
“I lost my entire electrical system at night over the Sahara, so I had to fly eight hours by flashlight,” McCauley said. “That was pretty exciting. Another time I lost my fuel system over the middle of the Atlantic on my way to Paris; I had to pressurize my fuel system by blowing into it, hyperventilating into a fuel tank at 15,000 feet. I was struck by lightning in the middle of the Atlantic. ... In a single engine plane, if one of the 1,000 small parts of the engine quits, you’re in the ocean. If you’re lucky enough to get out of the plane into a raft, the ocean is so cold and the rafts are pretty small, you’re still probably dead.
“It feels romantic at the start, and then you actually get to the ocean and it’s like, ‘Oh, geez, I don’t know if I have the guts to do this.’ There’s a lot of guys that quit. … (But) I’ve pretty much been like this my whole life. Psychologists label it Type T – thrill seeker. Even when presented with some impossibly dangerous, crazy situations, I just always figured I’d be OK.”
McCauley’s adventures are also on display on the Discovery Channel TV show “Dangerous Flights” that ran from 2012-14, which is still airing on Quest TV. The show follows six pilots delivering small, used aircraft to remote locations across the world. In one episode McCauley was even able to fly alongside his daughter, also a pilot.
“That was a lot of fun, an amazing experience,” McCauley said. “The Discovery Channel thought it’d make a great show and it did. There’s not a lot of experienced ferry pilots out there, and I was able to be one of the major characters. They put cameras all over the airplane and filmed us doing our real job. That was pretty amazing. Trying to act natural being a reality TV person was a lot harder than you’d think. There were some real live emergencies and close calls, and dealing with that on TV was kind of interesting.”
After retelling stories of his adventures around the campfire, friends encouraged him to write a book. Eventually, “Ferry Pilot” became a reality.
“About 10 years ago is when I decided to start it,” McCauley said. “At first it was just to get the stories down for friends and families and it developed into a full-fledged book.”
That book has turned into an instant hit.
“As I was writing it I thought it was really good, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it was going to be as popular as it is,” McCauley said. “There are not a lot of experienced ferry pilots. I’ve had the fortune – or misfortune – of having a lot of close calls and being alive to tell the stories. It makes for a pretty good book.”
McCauley’s dangerous travels have wound down in recent years, having seen and experienced just about everything flying has to offer. But he’ll still take a job if the right one pops up.
“There’s not a whole lot of places I haven’t been to anymore, but if someone offers me a cool airplane or cool destination I haven’t been to I’ll do it,” McCauley said. “It’s a pretty dangerous job and I’ve used up my fair share of luck. It’s a lot of what the book’s about – there have been a lot of close calls over the years. I’ve been very lucky.”
McCauley’s main focus has shifted to his other business, one much more laid back: skydiving. He is owner of Skydive Twin Cities, still taking to the air regularly to share with others something he has now done over 20,000 times.
“Now I’ve got a boring job being a skydiver,” McCauley joked. “Ho hum.”
Ho hum, perhaps.
But definitely pretty lucky.