A tale of two oceans told by global airman

By Adam Hunt


For our June meeting Flight Captain Mike Shaw invited global flier Al Hepburn from Flight 178 Pembroke, to come down to Ottawa and tell us about his experiences in the 2010 Air Journey Around the World flight.

This was Hepburn’s third presentation to Flight 8 and each one seems to grow in its scope. His first was on flying to Florida, the second on flying to the UK and this one around the world. Flight members are not sure what he will do to top this one!

The company that organizes these big trips, Air Journey of Florida, tapped into Hepburn’s considerable long range flying experience. It is a testament to how much in demand Hepburn’s international flying skills are that we had to move our traditional Flight 8 meeting date to a week earlier in the month as he had just returned from a flight to Paris a few days before and was soon off on another trip in a SOCATA TBM 700 to Dubai, with the paying customer’s goal of flying to China and on to Oshkosh via Alaska.

This particular Air Journey flight was quite ambitious. It aimed to take four aircraft around the world. The participating aircraft were a Cessna 560 Citation Excel, a Pilatus PC-12/45, a SOCATA TBM 850 and the only piston-engine aircraft on the trip, a Piper PA-46-350P Malibu Mirage. Nine customer crew members started the trip and seven finished it. The flight covered 27 countries over 72 days.

Hepburn didn’t do the whole trip, instead he was hired on to guide the group through a few parts of the route that made use of his particular expertise. Air Journey had him fill the role of Journey Director for the Quebec to Paris segment and also the Nagoya, Japan to Seattle legs and appointed him Flight Planner for the Paris to Egypt portion.

It was the trans Atlantic and Bering Strait legs that Hepburn briefed us on, perhaps the most challenging flying and certainly the most challenging bureaucratically.

Hepburn has now been across the North Atlantic nine times and, as he noted, taking a group of capable aircraft like this across in the summer is not usually a big challenge, but the summer of 2010 featured something new - Eyjafjallajokul.

The Eyjafjallajokul volcano in Iceland erupted and this greatly impacted flying at all altitudes over the North Atlantic. Not only did the restricted areas for volcanic ash have to be avoided, but the ash cloud caused changes in the North Atlantic Track System (NATS), forcing the airline traffic further north or further south and thus limited airspace that could be used by non-airline traffic.

Hepburn explained the NATS in some detail. The tracks are set daily to make use of the prevailing winds and run from the west of Europe to the east coast of North America, using the airspace from FL285 to FL390. Because the system is set up for aircraft that can fly the whole North Atlantic without stopping it does not accommodate traffic that has to stop for fuel in Greenland and Iceland, since climbing and descending though the tracks is not allowed.

Compounding the flight planning problems even more were the diverse capabilities of the aircraft involved. The highest performance aircraft, the Citation, does not have transoceanic range and can only fly over top of NATS airspace under ideal conditions, but if forced to fly lower than the tracks’ FL285 the aircraft burns a lot more jet fuel.

Other factors that complicated flight planning included no avgas at many northern airports and the fact that some of the aircraft on the trip required longer and paved runways.

On May 12, 2010 the aircraft departed Quebec City for Kuujjuaq, Quebec in good weather. Hepburn prefers using Kuujjuaq when possible, because it is often warmer than Iqaluit, has avgas, although in barrels and pilots have to provide their own pump, and because it allows more latitude options in crossing to Greenland. In Kuujjuaq the crews stayed at the Kuujjuaq Co-operative, which was not quite up to the normal level of accommodation they were used to, having stayed at the Chateau Frontenac previously.

The leg from Kuujjuaq to Kangerlussuaq (Sondie), Greenland went without incident and they even made it in under the 1700 hour curfew. Avgas for the Mirage was available, but at a cost of US$20 per gallon or about Cdn$5 per litre.

Next was the leg to Iceland and this meant dodging ash and the NATS tracks. Reykjavik was listed as closed that day. Fortunately the ash was to the east and the tracks were far south that day allowing a clear flight to Akureyri, Iceland. They flew the 67th parallel and then direct the RE NDB and direct Akureyri for a total of 796 nm flown.

On the way into Iceland ATC passed along the latest ash NOTAM, which consisted of a string of 20 latitudes and longitudes. Plotting all of these on the chart in flight was a challenge but ATC kept them clear of the area regardless.

The TBM 850 pilot accepted the ILS approach into Akureyri, which sounded good until they realized it was a five degree glidepath and not the more usual three degree. Hepburn pointed out that five degrees is very steep. Everyone recovered safely, but with cold and windy weather in Akureyri there was no incentive to stay more than one night, so on May 15 they headed for Inverness, Scotland and some rest time. They had considered going to Bergen, Norway, but unusually the weather looked much better in Scotland.

Getting to Inverness required some altitude and track deviations as far north as the Faroes, to avoid the ash restrictions, but after an initial clearance at FL190 the turbine aircraft were all cleared to FL310, with the Citation happily up at FL390.

Once on the ground in Inverness the weather was positively summer-like, which isn’t always the case there. The group stayed at Bunchrew House, a chateau near Inverness, for two nights and did some touring on the ground, including seeing relics from the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the obligatory whiskey mill tour.

The ash threat closed Inverness Airport for the two days of rest time, even though no ash was seen in the town. On May 18, they departed for Paris, Pontoise Airport - a distance of 635 nm. Other than a cabin pressurization glitch that fixed itself, the flight went smoothly.

With the group in Paris and 3,484 nm flown since Quebec City, including 1,130 nm overwater, Hepburn was finished his job for now and headed home via airline, to catch up with them later on for the serious next water crossing.

Almost two months later on July 13, Hepburn rejoined the group at Nagoya, Japan to help get them to North America. Enthusiasm was waning, the group were now very tired and just wanted to get home. Some of the crew members had already gone home and now Air Journey’s boss was doing so, too, leaving Hepburn to shepherd the four aircraft. Prior to this flight Hepburn had never flown the Pacific, although he had flown in Russian airspace once before in 2008.

Prior to the flight he assessed that the greatest challenges would probably be the distances and the weather around the Sea of Okhotsk, but the event proved that the greatest obstacle was Russian bureaucracy. On Russia’s east coast there are only a few airports that have English language capabilities. Using the rest requires hiring a Russian navigator to fly along and make the system work. The route to be flown, north across the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula and on towards Alaska would take them right through the route of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 when it was shot down on Sept. 1, 1983, a sobering thought as Hepburn pointed out.

Avgas limitations for the Malibu Mirage dictated the route via Obihiro on Hokkaido, Japan and then to Magadan and Anadyr in Russia, with 400 litres of avgas at each Russian airport available though prior arrangement.

The group was scheduled to leave on Saturday, July 17, but Anadyr was closed on weekends and Magadan would be open on Sunday by special arrangement, although Petropavlovsk was open 24 hours a day. Things got complicated even before leaving the ground as both Japan and Russia require permits for international flights in advance. These had been taken care of by a German company, Flight Services International.

Departing any major airport in Japan also requires a departure slot reservation, even when there is no traffic. These were organized by the Japanese handler, JAS. Even further complicating things is the requirement for visas for Russia, which have fixed dates based on hotel reservations. Based on all these considerations the flight was planned to depart for New Chitose, Japan on Saturday, July 17 and then to proceed to Magadan on July 18. The group spent some tourist time in Nagoya and saw the Nagoya Castle built in 1612 and the Toyota Museum.

In a hurry to get home the two faster and longer-ranged aircraft decided to proceed directly to New Chitose on Sunday, make a fuel stop at Petropavlovsk and then straight to Anchorage.

The departure slots were limiting and despite being ready to go hours in advance the 1430 slot time had to be adhered to. As is normal, the Russian permits arrived at the very last minute, allowing the departure from Japan.

As Hepburn explained, flying in Russia is different from anywhere else. First of all everything is metric, flight levels are in metres, airspeeds assigned in km/h, distances in km and windspeeds in m/s. Fortunately the Garmin GPS systems they used can easily be configured to display metric instead of imperial measures. Language was anticipated to be a barrier and so Hepburn was ready with a list of useful Russian phrases but it turned out that the Russian controllers spoke better English than Japanese ATC did and the frequencies were generally quiet as well.

The overnight stay in Magadan was austere. Hepburn noted, “The only prosperous-looking building in town was the Russian Orthodox Church; most vehicles are time-expired imports from Japan. The hotel (a 50-minute drive from the airport) looked promising, but the rooms were dismal. No sheets on the bed.”

The next overnight stop, dictated by fuelling delays for the Malibu, was much better. Anadyr airport and the town are separated by a strait of water. The crews caught the last ferry at 1800 and the hotel proved much better, including a good restaurant which had working internet.

The plan was to catch the first morning ferry at 0800 hours, but the hotel had failed to secure the requested taxi and so they literally missed the boat. This was rectified by trolling the docks until they found a landing craft captain who spoke a little English and was willing to transport them across for only double the normal ferry price.

Departing Anadyr was not that easy, however. The Russian customs officials were concerned that the filed flight plans showed Nome, Alaska, while the permits showed Anchorage. New flight plans were completed and the customs officials went to go and make enquiries, which took four hours. While waiting, the Citation, which should have been in the US by then showed up. They had been unable to get their permits changed and so had spent two nights in Petropavlovsk. Finally they got a very late start for Anchorage, but saved a whole day, due to the International Date Line.

Finally in Anchorage the crews stayed in a hotel right on Lake Hood, the world’s busiest water airport. For a break they went Beaver float flying with a local air service. Due to favourable tailwinds they were able to make the 1293-nm flight to Seattle non-stop on July 22.

Overall, the Pacific segment involved 3,830 nm, of which 750 nm was overwater flying. The trip ended with dinner in the restaurant at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle.