How Do Airlines Deliver Airplanes Long Distances? (Ask Cranky)

Ask Cranky

It’s been awhile since I’ve done an Ask Cranky post, so I figured we were long overdue. Here’s a question that I imagine a lot of people are curious about.

If you ever have the time, can you please write a blog about how airplanes get from factory to their new owners hub? I found via Google a blog that addresses things like 747 and A340 type planes getting delivered but what about somehting not as long range like a 737? If SAA wants a 737 how does it get from Seattle to Jo’burg?

Believe it or not, a 737 isn’t that big of a deal. The original version didn’t have much range, but today 737s can fly far. They can fly even further when they don’t have a full load of passengers, as is usually the case on delivery flights. I actually had an invite to go on a delivery flight for RwandAir last year and I was so sad that I couldn’t make it. Fortunately, David Parker Brown over at took the trip and put together a 4m19s video on the adventure which involved stops in Iceland and Turkey:

In general, crossing the Atlantic isn’t a big deal for aircraft deliveries. There are airports that you can use to hopscotch across the north. St John’s in Canada (which actually has scheduled A319 service to London because it’s so far east) is only 1,600 miles from Keflavik in Iceland (and Greenland is there in an emergency). Goose Bay is 100 miles closer if they need the range. And Keflavik is only 840 miles from Glasgow. So even small Ask Crankyairplanes can generally make these hops on delivery flights.

The mighty Pacific, however, is a whole different story. There is a lot of unfriendly territory between Alaska and many Asian countries, so aircraft will sometimes just go the long way around through Europe in a delivery. But one of the more difficult places to deliver an aircraft to is actually . . . Hawai’i. Sounds strange, but there is absolutely nothing that could be remotely used for a landing (unless you’re Capt. Sully and First Officer Skiles) between the west coast of the mainland US and Hawai’i. San Francisco to Hilo is probably the shortest route and that’s over 2,300 miles. It’s no problem for a current generation 737, but what about those interisland aircraft that hop around all day?

When Hawaiian decided to replace its DC-9s with 717s, it had to figure out a way to get them to Hawai’i. The range on the 717 isn’t quite enough so they had to get creative. Here’s a photo of a couple of fuel tanks installed in the passenger cabin for the long flight over. That did the trick.

Long story short, there’s always a way to make it happen whether it means going the long way around to make a bunch of stops or installing extra fuel tanks to get some extra range. Hopefully I’ll be invited on another delivery flight one of these days so I can give you a view of this up close and personal.

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33 comments on “How Do Airlines Deliver Airplanes Long Distances? (Ask Cranky)

  1. What about the planes that Island Air flies in HI? The Dash-8 has a range of about 1000 miles and the SAAB 340B is also about 1000 miles. I would not think there would be room to put a big tank in the passenger cabin.

    1. Barry,

      I can’t speak to the SAAB or the Dash, but I’ve seen Cessna Caravans that get ferried out to Hawaii. Basically, in those planes, they strap in three 150 gal fuel tanks in the back and send them on their merry way. They’d do it single pilot too, which is a long way IMHO for one guy to try and stay awake.

    2. As Dan says, they can put enough fuel in those things. Remember, those airplanes sip fuel compared to the bigger jets so they don’t need as much fuel to go as far. It may take a really long time, but they can do it.

  2. How feasible is it for small aircraft, to take the engines and wings off the main fuselage, send the aircraft by ship, and then reassemble at the destination ?

    1. David – I’m sure they could take the aircraft apart and put it back together but it’s probably easier and better to just strap on some fuel tanks and go.

    2. Some of the smaller aircraft are small enough, and the ships large enough that they’d probably be able just to secure the plane to the top..

      The concern though is the wings still will generate lift from the wind. So you’d have to prop the spoilers up, or make sure its really well secured.

      1. Plus, a few weeks in humid, salty air probably isn’t the best thing. I know that planes use very little ferrous metal, and that they are well protected etc, but I don’t think that’s a good idea if you can help it.

    3. For light aircraft it is actually fair common to just take the wings off, and put the entire aircraft into a freight container for shipment. That’s the way most light aircraft get from the USA to Australia. The cargo container seal up pretty well, and you would probably be surprised at how little time it takes at sea, so the salt air really isn’t a big issue.

      If you were willing to pay for it, you can probably stuff a fairly large airplane into a AN-124 once you take the wings off. That’s a fairly common way to ship fairly large helicopters long distances.

  3. Ferrying the props over for Island Air must have been a real interesting experience then with their slow speeds and limited range, especially that leased Saab 340.

  4. Reminds me a little of a storyline they had a couple years ago on Ice Pilots. They had to install a similar fuel tanks (except I don’t think they were true tanks, if I remember correctly they were more like bladders) on a pair of their CL-215’s to transport them from the Northwest Territories of Cananda to Turkey. And, for the reasons you mentioned, I believe, they went over the Atlantic instead of the Pacific.

    1. izzzalot – I saw those episodes and they were bladders. Their longest stretch was from Eastern Canada to the Azores and they had to wear survival suits on that leg in case they had to ditch in the Atlantic since they had to fly them in winter to get them to Turkey to be ready for fire season (they were fire fighting aircraft). Brave souls even for a TV show to make that journey in those little planes.

    2. izzzalot – That one on Ice Pilots was a very special case because it wasn’t a normal commercial aircraft. Those airplanes had no anti-icing systems so they couldn’t fly north since it was during the winter and the weather would have been an issue. They were also real pigs that had very little fuel capacity. I remember watching that and thinking the pilots were insane for wanting to fly that.

      But they did go south and it’s only 1,200 miles from St Johns to the Azores, so that worked out well. The distances are much shorter in the Atlantic.

  5. @Barry, David, and XJT – I would think the Island Air props would have either gone over via ship or via 747F. It would probably be the most economical way to do it. The flight time, even if they had the range, would probably mean they would have to carry 2 crews with the associated weight/fuel penalty.

    1. nope … they just put fuel tanks inside the cabin … usually more than enough to get where they need to go

  6. When you think of small planes somewhere like Hawaii which is in the middle of a vast ocean, you almost think of an airplane in a box with some assembly required printed on the outside. Just like building a model plane when we were kids…

  7. Perhaps a bit off-topic for your usual fare, but a fun post. Thanks, CF. I must say that of all the AV blogs I try to follow, yours is the best-written of the lot and i t makes the reading so much easier. Thanks for paying attention to those small details; command of the English language is a bit rare in the blogosphere. Regards, C.

  8. I worked for the launch customer for the Shorts SD3-30 and ATR-42. Extra tanks were added to the Shorts. The flights went from Belfast to Iceland, Gander, Bangor and then on to NY. Weather sometimes required lengthy stops in Scotland or Iceland. The ATRs went from Touluse to Iceland, Gander and then Bangor. Another operator took the route via Canary Island then Miami then on to ORD. An Australian operator flew theirs east across Africa, across Indian Ocean. This was before civil GPS. So they had to add Loran to update the INS. As for light planes, think of the cost and work of disassembly and shipping it. The plane has to be assembled, flight tested for certification, then taken apart, shipped, then reassembled by an certified mechanic and flight tested again. Each step offers an opportunity for an error. There would also be warranty impact. Light aircraft often cross the Atlantic on delivery flights to Africa and Far East. I met a pilot in Columbus OH, on a delivery flight of a Beech 1900 to Pakistan.

  9. I believe Inter-Island Airways (now Hawaiian Airlines) original Sikorsky seaplanes were disassembled and shipped to Hawaii, but that would have been in the late 1920s. Hawaiian did a DC-3 formation delivery flight from California to Honolulu to help establish the safety of using a plane that couldn’t land in the water for inter-island travel.

    The in-cabin fuel tanks shown in the 717 were the exact same tanks used for the DC-9s. Since the DC-9s left the fleet as the 717s arrived, they’d fly a DC-9 from Honolulu to the California desert, then truck the tanks to Long Beach to install them in the next 717. The 717s were delivered by Boeing with a full normal interior, but instead of flying the planes out of LGB, they were just moved over to an FBO, where the seats would be moved around to make room for the tanks. The DC-9-51 required 10 tanks to make the journey to California, but the 717 only needed 4 to get to Hawaii. The other 6 were taken to LAX and loaded in the belly of a DC-10 to fly back to Honolulu for the next trip.

    1. I’m surprised by the truckin of the tanks. I figured they’d stop at LAX get rid of six tanks, fly to LGB get rid of four more tanks then drop the DC-9 in the desert. I’m kinda surprised that the bean counters didn’t rework that. Or perhaps they did.

  10. There’s a lot more that the FAA will allow when there are no passengers on board. I know one solution is they’ll issue a temporary ferry permit that allows you go 10% over the certified MGTOW in fuel.

    Then there are the ferry tanks that CF mentioned. Most aircraft I’m aware of have approved temporary aux fuel tanks availabe.

    And as far as crossing the ATL, well the organization I do work for sends Hawkber Beech B200s across all the time. If a B200 can make it, almost anything can…

  11. I dont think you will find Airbus delivering any A340-600 any more. As far as I know, they have dropped them from their production.

    I did a number of flights in Thai Airlines A340-600.Slow and crowded.

    1. Jim – That shuttle carrier (which is awesome) Is a modified 747. It would be very expensive to modify something to carry the aircraft that way and it would likely require a different configuration for every aircraft. It’s way cheaper and probably safer to just add fuel tanks.

  12. I served on a Continental Connection carrier panel years ago, and I remember when Cape Air got the contract to serve the Guam hub. They had to get the ATR42s over there, so they removed all the interior fixtures and added several fuel bladders. They’d hop from CA to HNL and then on to another island before arriving in Guam. The interiors were shipped via cargo ship in advance and were waiting to be re-installed on site. Pretty crazy. One of the planes had a mechanical and diverted to a small airstrip on a remote island. It took a week to get the part in, and the pilots basically slept on the floor of the head of the village. What an adventure!

  13. There was a show a few years ago where some pilots had to get 2 DC 3’s over to the Philippines, they went OAK-ITO, but had a turn back first day. So slow that they would talk to commercial pilots on the way over, and then to them when they were deadheading back.

  14. Man, this is exactly what I was looking for. I was trying to figure out how they got those 717’s to Hawaii! Great info, learned something new!

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