Ferry flight services is not a ‘one-off’ activity of transferring an aircraft from Point A to B. Rather ferry flying is a unique flight service that brings together a wide and rather complex range of operational functions and expertise. Patrick Ryan shines a spotlight on this aerial work sector...Back to Articles
In this article, Patrick Ryan highlights what makes ferry flying a unique and standalone business sector of aerial work aviation.
If you ever wondered what ferry flying is, it is basically the effort of transporting or moving aircraft under their own power. Specifically, ferry flying is the flying of aircraft to deliver new or pre-owned aircraft to customers or the next owner, moving from one base of operations to another or relaying for maintenance, repair, or to conduct a special operation.
Depending on the condition or airworthiness of an aircraft, most ferry flights are conducted without passengers and are non-passenger revenue-making events. Ferry flights are typically flown by dedicated pilots (‘ferry pilots’), owner of the aircraft, or both in some cases.
When it comes to dedicated ferry pilots, it is more than just a loose network of freelance pilots but a standalone business sector. This business sector consists of many small and large aviation firms focused on managing the many complex physical and bureaucratic hurdles or actions associated with ferrying an aircraft.
So, what is this sector of aviation, and what can you expect if you ever want to ferry an aircraft and need the services of a ferry-flight company?
Before going into what ferry flight services provide today, it is interesting to see how this sector began and to explore its legacy.
The concept of ferrying aircraft under their own power began in World War II. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the idea of ferrying aircraft as a service was non-existent because of early aircraft technological limitations, the tyranny of distance, and the lack of demand for such services.
However, with the outbreak of World War II and the loss of much military kit on the continent, the need for Allied forces to purchase replacement gear, i.e. aircraft from the United States, became critical.
Initially, aircraft were flown to airports in north-eastern Canada, partially disassembled before being loaded on ship for transportation to the UK, where they were unloaded and re-assembled.
This process could take several weeks, not counting repairing any damage to the aircraft incurred in the shipment.
In addition, German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic Ocean were a constant menace to shipping routes, making it very dangerous for merchant shipping with the loss of much strategic war material.
With this, allied forces focused on ferrying aircraft that had the flight range to cross the Atlantic region vs. shipping, i.e., the beginning of organised ferry-flight operations. Some of the noteworthy organisations that led the way for the ferry flight business sector were the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), Atlantic Ferry Organization (Atfero), RAF Ferry Command, and Air Transport Command.
Another interesting legacy was the development of organised ferry routes between North America and combat theatres referred to as the "North Atlantic air ferry routes,” i.e., the forefather of the North Atlantic Tracks (NAT-OTS) and many other international air traffic routes.
Ferry Flights & Aircraft
Today, the Ferry Flight service sector has gone beyond moving military aircraft on a wartime footing to supporting the needs of a quickly expanded post-war civil aviation industry. Stakeholders from recreational aircraft owners, to business jet operators, to the major airlines of the world routinely rely on the need to move aircraft outside of their primary use or intent, i.e., ‘ferrying.’
Types of Ferry Flights
In the ferry flight service sector, ferrying is just not ferrying but can be broken up into specific types of operations that each have their unique intent and requirements. Some of these are:
Delivery Flights: A delivery flight refers to the actual handing to another an aircraft to complete a transaction. In most cases, it is the delivery of a new aircraft from the manufacturer like a Diamond DA-42 assembled in Austria to its customer in Singapore, or the physical transfer of a Gulfstream III from one private owner to another.
Positioning Flights: A positioning flight moves any plane from one point to another for an operational purpose other than to accomplish its primary task and is not a transaction, e.g. the aircraft needs to be relocated for repairs or maintenance, or it could be because the flight ended at a different airfield from the location its next scheduled route begins.
Airlines and air charter companies routinely use these types of flights to minimise disruptions in their schedules.
Aircraft Repossession (‘Repo’) Flights: On the unpleasant side of the ferry-flying business, aircraft repossession flights consist of collecting and delivering an aircraft far away with a backlog of unpaid bills back to its title owner. Repo flights usually require coordination with local courts and authorities and obtaining a repossession order.
As you can imagine, this is not a standard ferry flight service but a specialised service that is required occasionally.
Types of Aircraft Ferried
No matter the type of ferry flight, the ferry-flight service sector can fly any aircraft, from a light Piper J-3 Cub to a heavy Airbus A380. The spectrum of aircraft that have or can be transported are:
Outside of just transporting an aircraft, the ferry-flight service sector also offers additional services to its clients that relate to some aspect or reason for the ferry, e.g. purchasing an aircraft, helping to navigate government registration to the disposition of an airplane.
In general, these services can be divided into either technical, administrative, or ferry support.
Gerald Hintermayr, CEO of Aircraft & More with his customers before personally flying their Diamond DA42 to Japan
On the mechanical side of helping clients, the ferry-flight sector can support the many technical needs of taking delivery or moving an aircraft.
Many aircraft mechanical unknowns are associated with the reasons for ferrying an aircraft or conducting a ferry that requires special attention, e.g. purchasing a pre-owned, unseen aircraft and ensuring it can conduct an oceanic flight. Here are some of the services which are provided:
Ferry Modifications: Sometimes an aircraft can’t meet the demands of an international ferry flight. When this happens, ferry modifications are required to equip an aircraft to meet unique needs for ferrying over long distances or in non-controlled airspace.
The types of ferry modifications routinely conducted are installing range-extending fuel tanks, HF radios, and even anti-icing fluid delivery systems. Besides installing these systems, ferry-flying services will prepare over-weight certificates, weight and balance certificates, and insurance cover to ensure their clients are compliant.
Pre-buy Aircraft Inspection: An aircraft pre-buy inspection refers to the process by which a qualified entity or inspector examines an aircraft during a potential sale or transaction.
During this process, ferry-flight service providers (using experienced and certified inspectors) aim to identify any pre-existing damage, potential maintenance issues, Airworthiness Directives, and so on to protect the buyer’s interests.
Aircraft Acceptance/Demonstration/Test-flights: Beyond the pre-buy inspection of an aircraft, it is important to ensure that an aircraft is fully operational and is not going to present any serious maintenance issues after (or even during) the ferry flight.
Ferry-flight service providers can conduct maintenance test-flights to determine how the aircraft handles and detect any abnormalities that could only be discovered during a test flight.
When it comes to the paperwork associated with ferrying, ferry flight firms can support the processing (or obtain) the appropriate documentation that ensures the client, the ferry pilot, and the aircraft legally conform. The primary administrative services such firms provide are:
Permits: In some cases, an aircraft is non-airworthy for many reasons but is safe to be ferried from its present location to another (e.g. repair facility). In this case, a permit is required.
Ferry-flight service providers can obtain authorisation from the appropriate National Airworthiness Authorities before conducting a ‘One Hop’ flight.
Aircraft Customs Clearance: With all international travel, “clearing Customs" for both an individual and an aircraft is no different. Many ferry flight firms partner with expert customs agents worldwide to ensure that their clients can get customs clearance support when they import or export any type and category of aircraft.
Registration: Along with supporting a client’s need to inspect and move an aircraft, ferry firms can support the requirement to register the platform. Ferry firms will coordinate with the appropriate National Aviation Authority for a registration certificate.
A unique registration service some ferry firms provide for non-US citizens who want to obtain an American (N) registration for the aircraft (which requires the owner to be a US citizen) is to establish a US Trust.
The US trust only fulfills the US citizen’s requirement while the aircraft owner (trustee or beneficiary) takes legal, financial, and operational responsibility from anywhere in the world.
Besides supporting a ferry flight client’s technical and administrative needs, if a customer wants to directly ferry their aircraft versus having a trained ferry pilot take control, many firms will support them in this effort as if the owner was a professional ferry pilot. Here are three types of services you’ll see advertised:
Flight Planning: For international flights from any location to any destination, ferry-light firms will provide flight-planning services, plus organise overflight permissions and landing permits, detailed weather briefings, fuel releases, crew hotel and transportation services, and crew visa documentation.
Additional services these firms can support or provide an aircraft own are:
Safety Pilot: If an owner requires a co-pilot or extra insurance to ensure the ferry flight proceeds smoothly, ferry-flight firms will provide an experience ferry pilot to assist the client. The safety pilot is not there to hold the owner’s hands but to help if asked.
En-Route Flight Instruction: In line with the safety-pilot service, if a client just purchased a new aircraft and wants to leverage the cross-country time to learn more, some ferry firms will dispatch an experienced instructor ferry pilot to highlight the new aircraft’s best piloting techniques, it's handling, and limitations.
As you can see, ferry flying is just not a ‘one-off’ freelance pilot flying an airplane ‘alone and unafraid’ and halfway around the world to his or her final destination, but rather it is a specialised business sector in the aviation and Aerial Work community. This business sector mitigates many of the technical and bureaucratic hurdles associated with transporting an aircraft under its own power.
The ferry-flight service sector prides itself on extensive experience in domestic and international aircraft ferry operations. It ferries not only small piston aircraft but jets, turboprops, and aircraft of all sizes and types.
Separate from ferrying aircraft, many of the leading firms in this sector also provide services that directly relate to the reason for ferrying an aircraft, e.g. transfer of ownership, positioning of aircraft, or repossession. These services could include anything from pre-purchase inspections, acceptance flights, registration, to routine flight planning and monitoring.
Now you know, without committed specialists and firms dedicated to the task of moving aircraft around the world safely and effectively, the aviation community could not function and metaphorically speaking would be ‘”parked in the Hangar” forever.