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Atlantic Crossing

By Gerd Wengler

Ever since I started flying 20 years ago, my dream had been to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Working in real estate, I know that the first three rules are “location, location, location.”

For a flight of more than 7,000 nautical miles or 50 hours spanning two continents the first three rules are “preparation, preparation, preparation.” The most difficult part of the preparations taking actually a couple of years was to convince my wife Dorothy to come along.

Her condition was that we fly to Ireland (a destination we both wanted to visit), have a vacation there, and fly directly back to Canada. That done and agreed to, it took a year of sometimes intense preparations to get ready for our trip-of-a-lifetime across the Atlantic. I soon found out that this was not a trivial undertaking.

Two big decisions with far reaching consequences had to be made: Which way to go and when. There are basically three ways to cross the Atlantic by small airplane. The southern route from St. John’s, Nfld., via the Azores Islands to Portugal; the middle route from Goose Bay, Nfld., via the southern tip of Greenland to Iceland and from there direct or via the Faroer Islands to Scotland; and the northern route all the way to Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Baffin Island, then via two stop-overs in Greenland (west and east coast) to Iceland and on to Europe.

The southern route, even though having the most favourable weather conditions, is not viable unless your airplane has a range of close to 2,000 NM. On the middle route via Narsarsuaq, Greenland, the two trans-oceanic legs are 675 NM each long, which is in the range of most light airplanes; however, you need an HF radio and to fulfill Transport Canada trans-oceanic fuel requirements (normal IFR reserves, i.e. destination, approach, missed, alternate and approach, plus 45 minutes, plus 10 per cent of the total) you again need extra fuel.

With extra fuel tanks in the cabin, you loose your normal Certificate of Airworthiness unless there is an appropriate STC available for your airplane. You must then apply for a Ferry Permit, which has many restrictions, the most important being that you normally cannot take passengers along. You must also apply for prior permission to land in foreign countries (Iceland enforces this).

Therefore, I decided early on to fly the northern route. It is 650 NM longer than the middle route, but the longest individual legs are only about 475 NM long. Most light airplanes (C-182 and up) have a maximum no-wind/reserve range of about 1,000 NM. That means that it is possible to fly to destination and back in case the weather turns unexpectedly bad.

On the northern route HF radio is not required (TC AIM COM 6.7.1). The biggest disadvantage of the northern route is that you have to fly over the icecap in Greenland, which is more than 10,000 feet high. The lowest flight levels available are often FL140 or FL150 (14,000 or 15,000 feet.).

That brings me to the third in our traveling party, our trusty beast of burden, a Cessna 182T Turbo Skylane, C-FDOW, build in 2001. The operational ceiling of our airplane is 20,000 feet and we have built-in oxygen as well as a hot prop for getting out of the worst unforeseen in-flight icing.

Both for flying in the northern parts of Canada as well as in Greenland airspace, an ADF is legally required (refer to TC AIM 3.16.10 and CAR 605.18). I didn’t have one, so one had to be installed. Other than that, FDOW didn’t need any modifications. IFR approved GPS is an absolute must; we had three GPS receivers on board.

Speaking of IFR: As per CAR 602.19, pilots attempting trans-oceanic flight must hold an instrument rating. Even though an IFR flight plan is only required above 5,500 feet across the Atlantic, NavCanada will not issue an oceanic VFR clearance when leaving Canada. In addition, it is extremely unlikely for any airplane to stay in VMC during the whole trans-Atlantic flight. Therefore, it’s mandatory that both, pilot and airplane are certified and current IFR.

One year before our trip and during a period of several months, I daily checked and printed the significant weather charts along the route. I found out that the best (warmest) weather is during July and August. Freezing levels are always higher than 5,000 feet, usually even higher than 10,000 feet. North of 60 degrees, there is no predominate wind direction. Highs and lows determine which way the wind is blowing.

I found out that the weather can be pretty bad for a day or two; however, it is also frequently the case that there is a stationary high over Greenland which sometimes stays two weeks at a time.

In summary, I decided that if we were very conservative with the weather, especially regarding icing and headwind conditions, and were prepared to wait out bad weather for as long as it takes, this Atlantic crossing would not present a much higher risk than any other flying in a light airplane.

For the airplane to be “fit” I had an annual inspection performed by Leggat Aviation in Buttonville before the trip, where we went through all systems with a fine comb. I then flew more than 10 hours to find any snags that might have been introduced during the annual.

A big hurdle to overcome was getting insurance. Initially, all insurance companies declined to insure the airplane. However, after many phone calls, letters and explanations (perhaps my recent ATPL helped), Global Insurance finally agreed to insure FDOW. But that was not all: During the course of the preparations, I found out that Denmark (Greenland and the Faroer Islands are part of Denmark) requires approximately $14 million (!) in liability insurance.

In addition, the European Union countries require war and terrorism liability insurance. Both provisions, I was told, are simply not available in Canada. But, as before, countless calls and pleadings later, I had both of these added to my insurance policy. For a price of course: Dorothy and I could have flown to Ireland and back commercially twice for the price of the extra insurance alone.

The next problem was the availability of 100LL av gas. Three months before our planned arrival in Iqaluit I found out that av gas which is only sold in 205 litre drums would not be available all summer. I was also not allowed to buy any of the 20 or so remaining drums.

It is really a disgrace that one of our provincial/territorial capitals had no fuel for general aviation aircraft available! To the help came a group of a few pilots by the name of “Polar Pilots” (http://webhosts.nunanet.com/~pnagle/) who share the ownership of a beautifully maintained C-172 in Iqaluit.

They bought three drums for us, which was more than enough for filling up FDOW on the way to Ireland and back. One of the two airports in Greenland also ran short of av gas but had an unplanned delivery for a group of 20 airplanes from France to Oshkosh. They had enough fuel left over for us.

A big part of the preparation was survival issues. We purchased a good life raft and a floatable automatic ELT (EPIRB); we rented a satellite phone. A friend of mine from the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians gave us two survival suits. I purchased and organized all necessary survival items, which are mandatory both in northern Canada and Greenland, including a snow saw for building igloos and a stove.

The required food rations (4,000 calories), was added in form of Rice Krispy squares. My aviation doctor (Dr. Birenbaum in Buttonville, Ont.) prepared an emergency travel kit for us. Dorothy and I rehearsed the ditching procedures many times. I collected as many trip reports on the Internet as possible.

And finally, I studied all relevant Jeppesen IFR approach plates. Some of the approaches, I could have flown without looking at them, I was so familiar with them.

All but one airport in Greenland have NDB approaches only without GPS overlays. Most are quite challenging because the airports are usually in fjords so the final approaches are in-between mountains.

The fact that we have moving map Jeppesen approach plates displayed on a Garmin MX20 added to the confidence to be able to perform IFR approaches in marginal VFR weather. It is definitively not recommended to fly any of the Greenland approaches in low IMC conditions.

At last, the big day of our departure arrived. We decided to leave for Iqaluit on a Saturday and stay there on Sunday. The landing fee of all airports in Greenland increases from about $75 to $800 (US) outside normal hours and on Sundays. Therefore, to avoid any “get-there-itis” it was decided to fly to Greenland very early on Monday morning.

We were at our home airport Burlington, Ont., (CZBA) at 5 a.m. The temperature was already 31 C. We had planned a departure for 6 a.m., which was lucky since a big line of thunderstorms was looming in the west. We made it out OK – half an hour later we would have been stuck on the ground waiting out the weather.

The first leg (440 NM, three hours) was to Chibougamau, Que., (CYMT). Many forest fires burned in the area. A fleet of waterbombers and Skymaster air controllers is stationed there. After a quick turn-around it was off to Kuujjuaq, Que., (CYVP; 540 NM, 3.5 hours).

This is a busy hub for air services throughout northern Quebec, Labrador and southern Nunavut. Kuujjuaq was founded as Fort Chimo by the Hudson Bay Company in 1831. It is situated at the Northern extent of the tree line. After fuelling we left to reach the first day’s destination Iqaluit (CYFB; 350 NM, 2.5 hours). This was the first time we saw icebergs from the air.

The landscape became progressively more barren with snowfields and not a sign of any human impact. The whole day was basically flying in VFR conditions.

We arrived in Iqaluit on Baffin Island at about 4 p.m., landing on the 8,600-foot long runway. Even though the Inuit had been living for thousands of years in the area, Iqaluit came to prominence only after the American Army Air Force constructed a small airfield at the end of the Frobisher Bay to refuel airplanes being ferried from North America to Europe. During the Cold War the airfield was moved and enlarged to its present state. In 1999, Iqaluit became the capital of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut.

Patrick Nagle, one of the Polar Pilots, greeted us. He had offered to park FDOW in their hangar, which is big enough for two or three small airplanes. The plan, weather permitting, was to do a sightseeing flight to the spectacular Auyuittuq National Park, about two hours north of Iqaluit. However, a low overcast was expected all of the next day, so we stayed in Iqaluit.

Patrick and his partner Susan showed us around and we spent a very interesting day there. Everything is relatively expensive, but our hotel, the restaurants and bars and the museum are first class.

On Sunday we had ample time to fill FDOW’s tanks from the drums stored in the Polar Pilots’ hangar. Dorothy operated the hand pump whereas I as the Captain of the ship had the much more responsible task to direct the hose into the funnel. In addition I removed the cowls and made sure that no leaks were visible and all hoses and electrical wiring were still firmly attached.

On Monday morning, we were at the hangar at 4 a.m. in bright daylight, as it never gets dark in Iqaluit during the summer. Now it was time to don the survival suits for the first time. We had drysuits (as opposed to immersion suits), which are not uncomfortable at all.

You slip in and climb in the plane; once sitting you take off the upper part and peel it back over the backrest of your seat. The weather forecast was good with just a few low layers of clouds. We received our oceanic IFR clearance. For all flights across the Atlantic it is required to give a position report in regular intervals. The coordinates of these reporting points must be included on the flight plan together with their estimated time en route.

The first leg (490 NM, four hours) would be to Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF) in Greenland. Sondre Stromfjord is a preferred stopover since it is much more inland than the other airports and therefore much less prone to fog. It also has the only civilian control tower and LOC/DME approach in that part of the world. The flight was absolutely beautiful.

The first hour was still over Baffin Island followed by the crossing of the Davis Straight. Here we contacted Arctic Radio with our first position report. We generally flew at FL110 or FL120 (11,000 or 12,000 feet) and we always had VHF radio contact to ground stations. I was fully prepared to have an overflying airliner relay our reports but that was never necessary.

It is important to know exactly how to do position reports since they are basically a long string of numbers and letters which are transmitted and read back.

A yellow follow-me car waited for us once we had taxied off the runway. We were given a ride to the FBO while the airplane was being fuelled ($2.50/litre). As it is with all major airports in Europe, you are required to pay a pretty hefty handling fee; however, you will get a very good service for that fee.

The handler at the FBO filed the flight plan for the next leg and gave us printouts of the weather. There would be high clouds for the first half of our Greenland crossing and blue skies thereafter.

The icecap in Greenland is up to 13,000 feet high. For our flight from Sondre Stromfjord to Kulusuk (BGKK; 350 NM, 2.5 hours) the icecap is generally 10,000 feet high and the lowest flight level is usually FL130 (13,000 feet) but can be much higher depending on weather and traffic.

Here is a word of caution: We found all clouds over the Atlantic or Greenland to have ice in them; in fact at one time we collected ice at -18 C. For airplanes not being able to get on top of clouds (which generally requires a turbo charged or turbine engine) an icecap crossing is not recommended if there are any lower clouds at all. Just wait it out or, if you have enough fuel, go around the southern tip of Greenland.

The flight over the icecap was breathtaking. Enormous mountains are poking through the ice on the eastern side of Greenland. When we first saw them we thought it would be just 10 minutes or so to reach them; they are so big, however, that it took us another hour to finally fly over and through them.

There were lots of mammoth icebergs and large areas of ice gravel on the ocean. Kulusuk is the only airport on Greenland’s 1,000 km long east coast and we were quite excited when we finally saw it. It’s a big gravel strip on the side of a mountain cliff. Again the airport personnel were very helpful in filing our flight plan and giving us the latest weather, which was VFR first and marginal VFR into Iceland.

This third leg of the day for us to Reykjavik (BIRK; 410 NM, three hours) is almost entirely over water. After leaving the unbelievable rugged coast of Greenland we settled comfortably on top of a solid undercast. We arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, at 8 p.m., because of loosing four hours due to the time change. The airport hotel, the famous Hotel Loftleidir, is situated right across from the FBO. Unfortunately, everything is very expensive in Iceland. My usual after-landing-beer (ALB) had a record price tag attached to it, $14 per pint.

The last day of our journey would be to Ireland. The shortest way is with one stop on the Faroer Islands. This small group of islands roughly half way between Iceland and Scotland is notorious for its bad weather. It is not recommended for a fuel stop if the airplane does not have the range to return to either Iceland or Scotland because the weather can change so quickly.

Plan B would have been to fly direct from eastern Iceland to Scotland, a distance of 450 NM, requiring one more fuel stop. But we were lucky with the weather again since the forecast for the Faroer Islands called for high broken clouds and good visibility all day.

The flight from Reykjavik to Vagar, one of the numerous islands of the Faroer Islands, (EKVG; 430 NM, 3.5 hours) exposed us to the striking ruggedness of Iceland before we finally made landfall again on Vagar. From there we had a relatively long leg of 530 NM or four hours, half of which was over the North Atlantic.

It was delightful to hear the heavy Scottish accent of the controllers once we were handed off to Scottish Control. We were almost there! We had to descend through a broken cloud cover and finally spotted the typical Irish countryside.

Ireland is called the Emerald Isle for a reason: Everything appears in wonderful shades of green. Our airport of choice, Weston (EIWT) is just a few miles outside of Dublin. It is the general aviation airport for the Dublin region. Landing and parking fees are very moderate ($20 per day) compared to Dublin International ($50 per hour!).

We secured FDOW for her long rest while we toured the countryside for 11 days. The last thing we organized was for FDOW to receive a well-earned oil change.

We had a most enjoyable time in Ireland during which I tried to increase the output of the Guinness brewery as much as possible. On our return we found FDOW well rested and packed up for our return flight. The weather gods were good to us again and we reached Reykjavik about eight hours after we had left Dublin.

The weather at the Faroer Islands was very good again. During this stop in Iceland we had some time to look around in Reykjavik. It is being called the hippest town in Europe and I can certainly attest to this.

The forecast for our final crossing of the Atlantic and the Greenland icecap called for clouds from a few thousand feet up to tops of 18,000 feet. A very strong low was situated south of our route between Iceland and Greenland that would provide us with a good tailwind.

After departure early next morning and initial climb we decided to climb all the way to FL200 (20,000 feet) to be on top of the clouds and therefore out of any icing conditions. We picked up some ice on the way up but I was not too worried because of the freezing level over the ocean of more than 10,000 feet. We could have always descended below the freezing level.

Once at FL200 we were in blue skies as advertised. We had indeed a strong tailwind. After careful consideration and fuel calculation we decided that it would be safe to skip the fuelstop in Kulusuk on the east coast of Greenland and head directly to the west coast, Sondre Stromfjord.

The distance for that leg was 740 NM, which we traversed in five hours. I flew at a very low power setting so that we still had more than two hours reserves upon landing. En route we asked permission and were granted to speak directly to an airplane that flew above FL600 (60,000 feet). It was a U-2; the pilot sounded really different because U-2 pilots have to wear space suits.

We performed a vectored LOC/DME approach through the cloud deck into Sondre Stromfjord. It certainly increases your concentration knowing that you descend into a fjord with steep mountains on both sides.

The last leg of the day and of the Atlantic crossing was beautiful over the sea and than over Baffin Island. It felt good to be back in Canada and to leave the ocean behind. We arrived in Iqaluit at 3 p.m. After having cleared customs and having secured FDOW in the Polar Pilots’ hangar for the night, it was off to the hotel were I had the customary ALB, which tasted as good as never before.

The flight back to Burlington was uneventful and long (10 hours). Only at the very end some excitement was added. I had already seen on my satellite weather radar that a very big thunderstorm (tops of more than 50,000 feet) loomed over the Toronto area. I kept a 50 NM wide berth around it.

This was the exact moment when the Air France Airbus skidded over the end of the runway at the Pearson International Airport. We heard the closing of the runway followed by a lot of airliners diverting to their alternates.

We approached Burlington from the west without getting a drop of rain or even feeling a bump in the air. However, those last 15 minutes were the most tense moments of the whole 50 hour flight.

We quickly taxied into our hangar and that was the end of our great cross-Atlantic adventure. Everything had worked as planned and there were no unforeseen circumstances.

The long hours of preparation had made this possible. We were especially thankful of our mode of transportation, our Cessna Skylane, which performed absolutely flawlessly.

For further information contact the author Gerd Wengler at gwengler@parkprop.com.