Michael Magnell has become pretty good at predicting where his next flight may take him each time he gets a call to deliver a newly purchased airplane to a foreign buyer.
Not just because he’s done it about 200 times. The trick, he said, is to keep tabs on currency exchange rates. Then, follow the money.
For a while, Australia was the hot spot. Then Brazil caught fire, and Magnell found himself flying a lot of airplanes to South America.
People buy different kinds of airplanes, but get this: A top export item has been the good old single-engine, six-seat, normally aspirated Cessna 210.
Occasionally Magnell delivers a turbo Centurion, if the destination is mountainous as with a recent Mexico trip. But mostly it’s your basic Cessna 210.
What’s up with that?
“There’s not enough of them, it’s crazy,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a great flying airplane, with a great CG.”
Spoken from the vantage point of a true export pilot, that part about the center of gravity. It’s not that a comparable airplane like a Beechcraft Bonanza isn’t also “great,” he said. But when faced with the unusual loadings—overloadings, to call them what they are—required to carry all that fuel necessary for long overwater flight legs, a Bonanza can get into an aft-center-of-gravity problem “real easy.”
From Alaska bush pilot to airline pilot, to rusty pilot—temporarily—and now, import/export pilot, Magnell, of Laguna Hills, California, a Cessna 180 owner and enthusiastic 50-year AOPA member, has lived a life in aviation that most pilots can only dream about.
AOPA and the FAA both recognized Magnell’s continuing aviation adventure in July when AOPA President Mark Baker presented Magnell with his 50-year membership pin at the AOPA campus during EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Magnell also received a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from Valerie G. Palazzolo, national manager of the FAA Safety Team.
Receiving the two honors at one of aviation’s crowning annual gatherings made the occasion one of the best days of his life, Magnell said. He added that his devotion to AOPA derives from both the personal service he has received when he has sought assistance with his international flying, and from AOPA’s national advocacy efforts on behalf of general aviation pilots.
“If we didn’t have AOPA, we’d have user fees, I guarantee,” he said, urging that the association’s decades-long effort to resist a user-fee funded aviation system remain a top priority.
Professional export pilots—also called ferry pilots—are an exotic subset of the pilot population, a fact not lost on a newspaper that profiled Magnell’s aeronautical exploits for a 2006 article.
In it he explained how a phone call from an Alaskan village launched him into flying for pay in—of all things—a Helio Courier, perfect for dropping into short, rough strips in remote areas. (“If it had claws, it could land on a fencepost,” says Helio Aircraft of its workhorse bush plane.) He also met his future wife there.
A job flying for Western Airlines brought him back to California, where he grew up. A decade into his airline career, Western was absorbed into Delta Airlines, where Magnell continued to fly until 1997, when he decided it was time for a break.
He described how he became reunited with the same Helio Courier he had flown in Alaska by checking out an ad for a Courier for sale in Texas.
In 2002 he decided to buy a Cessna 210 from an owner in Australia, and to go get it himself. After the long trip with a veteran export pilot, Magnell knew what kind of flying he wanted to do from then on.
Aside from all those Cessna 210s, he has ferried everything from Cessna 172s to a Boeing 737, a project that sent him back for some simulator training before setting out. That airplane was bound for Kabul, Afghanistan, where he spent time in 2007 preparing Russian pilots to become 737 co-pilots.
If the Boeing was the largest airplane he exported, the trickiest, he said, was a turboprop-taildragger kitplane: He had been tipped off that the machine required extra careful handling if he ever needed to do a go-around in it (he did, and it did).
Such experiences are one reason why he urges pilots of modest experience to think long and hard before giving in to temptation to plunge unprepared into the obscure but glamorous ferry flying scene, with its unpredictable extremes and unknowns.
“It helps to be a very experienced pilot before you start doing that,” he said.
For the right pilot, however, Magnell found it a perfect way to celebrate a return to the cockpit, or cockpits, that awaited.
“I’m doing the flying l like the best,” he said. “I get an email or a phone call, and I don’t know where I’m going. It’s always exciting, and possibly something I’ve never flown.”
Or maybe another Cessna 210.