BY GARY A. WARNER THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
There was the time west of Hawaii when the cockpit filled with leaking caustic prop-jet fuel, soaking his sneakers so bad that he had to fly several hours in his blistering bare feet. Or when the engine started to cough on his tiny single-engine plane 500 miles from Pago Pago and a watery crash landing was a distinct possibility. Or the afternoon a Soviet helicopter bristling with missiles tailed him across the Bering Sea. Or his favorite tale, about the day he met his future wife on a hardscrabble airstrip outside of Nome, Alaska. Like a lot of pilots on the back side of their 50s, Mike Magnell can spin hours of stories about his long flying career. But unlike rocking-chair flight captains, Magnell has saved the most adventurous chapter for last.
After flying parts of three decades for Western and Delta airlines, the Laguna Hills man now makes a living as one of a handful of pilots-for-hire who ferry small planes across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
“Mike is our go-to guy,” said Don Stanton of Select Air Group in Parkville, Mo., “He can fly just about any aircraft and is always ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Instead of cruising at 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet, Magnell now hops around the world, making pit stops in distant spots like Christmas Island, New Caledonia, Senegal and Namibia along the way.
It’s a return to his younger days as an Alaska bush pilot, flying small planes at low speeds over long distances to unfamiliar airports that are sometimes little more than a strip cut in a forest.
“That bush pilot background really shines through,” said Perry Taylor, an Australian ferry service operator who has worked with Magnell. “I am wary of airline pilots, Brylcreem boys, that have not had bush experience. Mike has vast experience.”
AFFECTION FOR THE AIR
Magnell, 59, is as lean and lanky as photos from his college days, the only marks of passing time the wrinkles around his eyes from decades of squinting out of cockpits. He’s a quiet guy unless you get him onto the subject of flying, which sets off tale-filled monologues about Alaska, Siberia or the South Pacific.
“I always wanted to fly,” Magnell said. “I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t want to fly.”
Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1946, Magnell moved with his family to Bellflower when he was 5. Growing up in Long Beach and Los Alamitos, he was enthralled by the jet fighters that flew in and out of what was then called the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station.
After graduating from Western High School in Anaheim, Magnell earned a fistful of pilot’s licenses and certifications. When he graduated from Cal State Long Beach, he wanted to fly off aircraft carriers.
“I was accepted by the Navy – I was going to become an officer and gentleman,” Magnell said. “But it was 1970 and Nixon was starting to wind things down in Vietnam. They wanted me to wait 11 months to start training. That’s a long time for a kid. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to fly.”
Magnell instead sent out 500 resumés to airlines, aircraft manufacturers, major corporations – anybody he could think of who could use a pilot.
“I was getting nothing,” Magnell said. “Then one day a guy calls from Teller Air Service in a little Eskimo village in Alaska. He’s looking for someone to fly for his air taxi service.”
It was fun for the young guy, bumping around the vast interior of Alaska in a Helio Courier, a tiny plane designed for flying in and out of short, tough airstrips.
“It was one of the safest airplanes to fly because it flew so slow that you wouldn’t get smashed up if it crashed,” Magnell recalled.
Magnell loved the seat-of-your-pants flying. Making friends at dirt airstrips. Fighting the freezing cold or clouds of mosquitoes. One day, Magnell touched down at a small dirt airfield near Nome. While waiting for his passengers, he met a young woman named Iris.
“Her dad owned an air taxi service and I flew for the competition,” Magnell said. “I found any reason I could to get over there after that. We were married six months later.”
In 1976, Magnell was hired by Western Airlines and after heavy jet training, moved to Orange County. Iris got a job with Air Cal as a ticket agent. The couple built a home in Laguna Hills, giving it the look of an Alaskan lodge. Over the years, they’ve filled it with scrimshaw, Inuit spears, a dog sled, and other far north artifacts.
“I knew Iris would be homesick, so I tried to make the place as much like home as possible,” Magnell said. “One of her grandmothers was Eskimo, so a lot of the stuff is from her and her family.”
Magnell enjoyed flying for Western, which had a reputation as a fun, freewheeling place to work. Then the airline fell victim to the industry’s merger mania in 1986.
“Delta sucked us up, and life got miserable,” Magnell said. “They loved military pilots, and I wasn’t one of that crowd. After that, I couldn’t wait to get out.”
When he took a severance package in 1997, the couple lived on his pension and Iris’ salary as a ticket agent at John Wayne Airport for American Airlines, the airline giant that bought up Air Cal in 1986.
“I was kind of sick of flying,” Magnell said. “I don’t think I got in a cockpit for a while.”
By chance, Magnell saw an ad for a Helio Courier in Laredo, Texas. It turned out to be the same plane he had used at the start of his career. He bought the plane, refurbished it and flew with Iris on a nostalgic trip to Alaska. It reignited his passion for flying. He began buying and sometimes selling small aircraft as a side business.
In March 2002, Magnell saw an advertisement for a 1979 vintage Cessna Turbo 210N once owned by folk singer John Denver. The deal was too good to pass up.
The only problem was the plane was in Australia. After exploring a number of options, Magnell realized the cheapest way to get the single-engine propeller plane home was to go down under and fly the 7,500 miles back home himself.
“I couldn’t get any insurance,” Magnell said. “If I crashed it, I would have had to eat the entire price, if I survived.”
Whatever reservations Iris harbored, she mostly kept them to herself. She knew her husband was a methodical planner and flier.
“It’s a lot of water between there and here,” she said. “But Mike said he knew he could do it. And so I knew he could do it.”
Magnell picked up the plane in Boort, an outback town about 150 miles north of Melbourne. He flew it to Sydney, where he hired legendary ferry pilot Ray Clamback, a veteran of 200 small-plane trips over the Pacific, to install an auxiliary fuel tank.
Waiting for the work to be done, Magnell and Clamback did a lot of “hangar flying,” telling tales of epic flights and death-defying mishaps. Clamback told of crashing off Hawaii at night and floating for 10 hours until he was picked up by a Yugoslav freighter. Magnell recounted a flight from his bush pilot days over the Bering Sea when a Soviet helicopter tailed him, ready to shoot if he crossed over the invisible border in the ocean.
Magnell skipped across the Pacific, flying from Australia to New Caledonia, then on to Samoa, Christmas Island and Hawaii before finally touching down in Santa Barbara. The last leg is more than 2,300 miles.
“That’s the longest distance over water between two points of land that you’ll find,” Magnell said.
It was a long, noisy and exhausting marathon. But Magnell was captivated by the deep aqua-blue water, the coral atolls, and especially the friendly locals in places like Christmas Island who helped him hand-pump his fuel. It was an adventure that he wanted to repeat.
“You feel truly blessed to be a pilot when you are flying like that,” Magnell said.
Soon after, Magnell decided to join the small fraternity of long-distance ferry pilots. Since then, he’s flown an American floatplane to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to be used by a resort to pick up clients. A light plane in South Africa went to the Caribbean island of Bonaire with stops in Senegal and Brazil. He’s had recent inquiries from Poland and Japan. In between are shorter shuttles of planes from California to Mexico or Denver to Los Angeles.
With global positioning systems, long-range radio and autopilot, flying a small plane across the ocean isn’t exactly like it was in Charles Lindbergh’s day. But it’s still dangerous business.
Clamback suffered a serious crash in 2004, landing upside down in a Cessna 182 off Hawaii and enduring several hours bobbing in his lifejacket until rescued by the Coast Guard.
“He couldn’t have picked a better place for it to happen,” Magnell said. “The Coast Guard patrols that area and he had one of his pilots, a lady named Lyn Gray, who was able to fly over him for four hours.”
Gray, reached by telephone in Australia, said it started much worse than it finished.
“I never saw Ray after he went in,” she said. “I could see the plane. The Coast Guard found him by the reflection of the aluminum strip on his lifejacket. It was a very happy outcome, but it easily could have gone differently.”
What Magnell, Gray and other pilots fear is going down in the trans-Pacific “dead spot.” From five degrees south of the equator off Hawaii to a few hundred miles off the coast of Australia, rescue is anything but certain.
“Every one of those countries in that part of the world would try to help you, but the resources just aren’t there,” Gray said. “They might try to divert a ship to you. But you could be in the water for days.”
Magnell hasn’t had to ditch, but he’s had his close calls. Like the time far from Pago Pago in American Samoa when the single engine on the Cirrus he was flying started to sputter.
“For a couple of hours, I’m thinking, ‘Come on, come on, come on,’ ” Magnell said. “It wasn’t hard to stay awake.”
Another time he was flying a Cessna Caravan turboprop to the Whitsunday Islands in Australia and used a collapsible auxiliary tank to hold the fuel.
“It ran on jet fuel, which is different than piston fuel,” Magnell said. “The extra tank sprung a slow leak and it was sloshing around the floor. It’s really caustic stuff and it got in my sneakers and started to burn my feet. I had to take off my shoes and fly barefoot, never putting my feet on the floor.”
Most flights are far more routine. Clients find Magnell, usually by word of mouth or from his Web site. Hiring a ferry pilot is preferred to shipping a small plane by boat because it takes less time and doesn’t involve dismantling the aircraft, which can damage its structural integrity.
After he has a client’s plane checked out at Torrance Airport, it’s usually modified with a Turtle-pac, a 238-gallon collapsible auxiliary nylon tank. Magnell will then make short test flights to familiarize himself with the plane and spot any possible problems.
Magnell is paid up to $1,000 per day plus expenses for his longest flights, less for shorter hauls. He’s usually flying no more than five or six days on a delivery, although wait times can extend stays by weeks.
“Normally I do an island a day on the trips to Australia,” Magnell said.
Although Magnell and Clamback are competitors, they sometimes send each other business when the other is too busy.
“Mike’s a great guy,” said Lyn Gray, the pilot who flies for Clamback. “He really prepares. You have to.”
With the dollar so weak, most of his business these days is taking planes from the U.S. to foreign buyers.
“But it will swing around the other way when the dollar comes back,” Magnell said.
Magnell relies on a network of fellow pilots for advice when he’s flying to a new airfield. But he makes a point to build his own friendships wherever he goes.
“Make a friend in a lot of places and you have a friend for life,” he said. “Some people think it is just a business and you can treat people poorly as long as you pay them. I make friends. It’s the way I am. But on a practical level, they’re more likely to help you if you have a problem.”
Iris has become used to the sudden trips that can take her husband away for days, or like a recent trip to Africa, weeks.
“I grew up in a pilot’s family,” she said. “My dad would take off at the beginning of the day. It could be snowing or raining. Sometimes he would have to set down overnight and not be able to let us know. So I’m used to it. Mike’s a good pilot. He’ll come home.”
CONTACT THE WRITER: Warner
can be reached at (7 1 4) 796-777 1 or
ALASKA NATIVE: Mike and Iris Magnell built a home in Laguna Hills, giving it the look of an Alaskan lodge. “I knew Iris would be homesick, so I tried to make the place as much like home as possible.”
Magnell checks the oil on a plane’s engine at Torrance Airport in August. Magnell now makes a living as one of a handful of pilots-for-hire who ferry small planes across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
COLLECTION: Mike and Iris Magnell display Alaskan artifacts on the walls of their home.