Flying the North Atlantic

By Adam Hunt


Al Hepburn  

Back in March, last year, COPA Flight 8 had Al Hepburn from Pembroke take us all on a virtual trip to Florida. Given the time of year that presentation went over very well and so Flight 8 Captain Mike Shaw decided to invite Hepburn back in January to brief us on a bigger adventure - flying the North Atlantic.

The topic must have fired the imaginations of many flight members as the upper lounge of the Ottawa Flying club was packed that winter evening.

Flying across the north Atlantic is a fairly technical subject these days in aviation and Hepburn has made the crossing eight times as part of his 5,000 hours of flying experience on singles and twins. He has owned two Piper PA-30 Twin Comanches over 30 years and also has a Murphy Elite on amphib floats for fun. His most recent Atlantic crossing in August 2009 came about under odd circumstances - he wasn't intending to go on the trip in the first place. As part of his work with Air Journeys, Hepburn's role had originally been that of briefer for a Cirrus SR-22G3 that was being relocated from Panama to Switzerland.

The aircraft's owner, a 43 year old French women named Camila was moving the aircraft as part of her husband's career move. She had engaged a contract ferry pilot to make the crossing with her, but he got her as far as Hepburn's pre-departure briefing in Pembroke and decided not to complete the trip. That left Camila stuck and so, due to his experience on the route, her briefer became her ferry pilot, with blessings from Hepburn's wife, Carloyn.

The subsequent trip provided a good lesson in North Atlantic trip planning and the flexibility needed for its execution. First off there was a large low sitting in northern Quebec near Kuujjuaq and another in the Greenland-Iceland gap. Negotiating both would take some planning and also some waiting.

The weather dictates the route and so they took off and headed for La Grande Riviere, Quebec. The forecast did not pan out and this required a diversion to Moosonee, Ontario instead.

The IFR approach into Moosonee required letting down through cloud - something the IFR rated Camila had never done before. In Central America clouds are generally thunderstorms and even IFR pilots stay out of them. The weather picked up through Quebec enough to make Kuujjuaq a viable destination and they were off for an overnight stay. Kuujjuaq is north of the imaginary line that marks the "northern limit of pumped avgas," but Hepburn was prepared with a hose to siphon the whole drum they had to purchase. A longer hose would have eliminated the need to transfer the last amount by bucket though!

Flying into Greenland requires local expertise and one thing Hepburn was well aware of is that they close all the airports at 5 p.m. sharp, and charge $900US to reopen them. You don't want to be late and you better factor in the two hour time difference from Quebec.

They departed with an IFR flight plan for the capital of the newly independent Greenland, Nuuk. Despite a faulty GPS fuel computer showing insufficient gas once past the point-of-no-return, they reprogrammed the GPS and landed at Nuuk 25 minutes before the airport closed and with enough fuel.

While waiting for the weather en route to Iceland to clear they spent a day touring and even made a flight up the spectacular coast line to Ilulissat the next day. There they did a cruise of the fiords to watch glaciers giving birth to icebergs, which Hepburn described as "one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen in my life." At that latitude north of the Arctic Circle the sun doesn't set at all in August.

The next day, with the low clearing out, they set helm for Reykjavik, Iceland, with the only incident en route, a rough-running engine due to insufficient leaning in the climb to 15,000 feet. One ease-out of the mixture knob fixed that problem.

Iceland's capital was busy with a large gay pride parade in progress when they arrived, but they fit in a day's touring including Gullfoss, to see the original "Geysir," the hotspring after which all others are named.

The next day it was on to Scotland to deal with Eurocontrol beyond the famous fix at RATSU. The leg went smoothly and at RATSU they passed into uncontrolled airspace, since controlled airspace is based at FL245. Once making the Scottish coast they cancelled IFR and proceeded VFR along the rugged terrain, where Hepburn had learned to fly in 1968, and finally landed at Prestwick.

Next was the final leg to Lausanne, Switzerland. The leg was easy to fly, but the flight planning was torturous, so it was a good thing that Hepburn knew the ropes and managed to get a flight plan officially validated and filed through the Brussels Central Flight Management Unit computer system. Finally they were off across Europe, most of the way in uncontrolled airspace. At touch-down in Lausanne they had covered 4,050 nm in 26 hours and 19 minutes of flying.

Camila was impressed enough with the trip that she wrote several articles on it that were published in Panamanian magazines.

Hepburn's slide show and talk provided much more detail than related here and was received warmly by the capacity Flight 8 crowd in attendance. Once again Flight 8 would like to thank Al Hepburn and his wife, Carloyn, for coming all the way down from Pembroke to the Ottawa Flying Club to speak to us.