Atlantic Crossing in a Single-Engine Turboprop

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Lindbergh did it alone in 33 hours, though that was eastbound. I did it 81 years later westbound, in a brand-new turboprop airplane, guided by an experienced transoceanic ferry pilot. It took four days. The experience was remarkable in very many ways; some were impressive technical aspects, others were extraordinary observations that are best categorized as personal.

I am not the first to experience a rookie's view of a serious ferry flight. Others have done it, written about it, celebrated and dissected it. I was under no illusion that I could have managed the trip alone, or even could have completed a leg alone in an emergency.

First the trip facts. The airplane was a spanking new Socata TBM 850, serial number 482. The Hobbs showed 2.4 hours of test flying. The avionics were Garmin 1000; huge, clear displays. The adult supervision was provided by Margrit Waltz, an American citizen living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who grew up in Germany and has been flying airplanes over inhospitable stretches of land and sea for over 25 years. She frequently accompanies new TBM owners on their delivery flight from Tarbes, France, to their home bases in the United States.

This was a dream of mine -- to fly across the Atlantic in a general aviation airplane -- and to have a TBM to do it in was a gift from Michel de Villiers, Philippe de Segovia and Nicolas Chabbert of Socata.

We will concern ourselves mostly with the actual flight, this remarkable airplane and the airports that providently dot the path from Europe to the United States. We'll also talk a little about the sights, sounds, smells and temperatures encountered during a crossing.

I sit comfortably at the hotel L'Aragon in Tarbes waiting for Margrit to arrive from Toulouse in a rented car. The weather is clear and cool this Saturday morning and I am excited about the first leg to Scotland. Margrit has flown commercially from Philadelphia to Toulouse.

After excited introductions we drive a few short kilometers to the Socata plant and pull up next to the beautiful airplane wearing 226RA on her tail. We stow our luggage and are careful to place the dry immerseable survival suits in red bags (that Margrit has lugged from the States) on top for easy access. This seems like a surreal concept.

After a thorough preflight and instructions as to how to close the huge entry door while protecting my fingers, we settle into the cockpit, Margrit in the left seat for our first leg. As we taxi out, the Pyrenees, which form a barricade between France and Spain, are visible in the distance.

We're cleared to take off at 1329 Zulu and are soon instructed to climb to Flight Level 280. At 6,000 feet we push the "baro" button on the Garmin 1000 to set 29.92 inches in the box, which seems awfully low (its 18,000 feet in the U.S.), but that's where the "flight levels" start in France. In this part of the world English is spoken clearly by the controllers and Margrit. I am just sitting there, stunned, watching without understanding much of what is going on, like a spectator at a hockey game.

Soon Bordeaux and Cognac slide by and then the cloud cover becomes visible; we will not see ground again until close to landing in Glasgow. At FL 280 we're doing 302 knots true and making 246 over the ground. Headwinds will feature prominently on this trip and this is about as mild as they will get. I'm dislocated sitting on the right side, fumbling for the switches on the comm radios, but by now I am doing the communicating and even manage a "bon jour" at the end of each frequency read back.

Our route of flight curves slightly westward out over the English Channel and up the east cost of Ireland, over Dublin, and then curves back eastward towards Scotland. The airways are designated with "U" and "P" and they pop up magically on the Garmin. Somehow, the avionics appear to speak French as well as English. The total trip will be 867 nautical miles and it should take about three hours and 20 minutes. Over Dublin three things happen: the sun starts to go down, we are cleared to descend, and it gets very dark and bumpy in the clouds as we penetrate a significant front draped across England. The TBM feels very stout. There is no wallowing in the chop. The airplane seems crisp and sturdy. A tour of the plant in Tarbes gives a hint as to why, for Socata is part of EADS and it builds parts of airplanes for other big name manufacturers. They build most of the fuselage for Dassault's Falcon 7X jet and most of the nose of the Airbus 380, that huge monster of a jumbo. So high quality, sturdy construction is not just limited to the TBM, though that is the only "complete" airplane manufactured by Socata in Tarbes.

Whether it is jet lag from the commercial trip to France or the newness of the airplane, I feel sort of disconnected, grateful that a professional is doing the flying. It is rough, wet and ragged on the descent.

Margrit is looking forward to seeing friends at Glasgow; she's through here often and has her mind set on the cappuccino at Signature Flight Support. Glasgow approach announces that an airplane is disabled on the runway and that there will be a hold. The only runway at Glasgow is 5/23 and apparently an Easy Jet has blown a tire on landing and has come to a stop on the runway. This is all highly reminiscent of the usual check ride scenario where you are asked to do a single-engine go-around because of a "truck on the runway." I, for one, can't believe this turn of events. This story is usually told in a simulator and we are not in one. We are 3,500 feet up at night, in chop, in and out of cloud, and ready to be there.

Rather than the published hold, we're given a series of headings that form an informal hold and wait. Margrit brings the power back and we orbit at 130 knots. Even though we've been in the air over three and a half hours, we've still got plenty of gas. Margrit reassures me that Prestwick is only 10 minutes away, but that the fuel deal is better at Glasgow. I get the Prestwick weather, just in case. It is: wind 250/20 knots, 5 km vis. 700 broken, 1,600 overcast, temp 14, dew point 12. Margrit calls unicom and talks to Mark at Signature. He fills us in and estimates that it will take 20-30 minutes to clear the runway. We leave comm two tuned to Signature and soon learn that a tug has been dispatched to tow the jetliner off the runway. A few minutes later, the approach controller on comm one tells us that a tug has been dispatched. "We know," I reply.

Finally Mark announces that the airplane is moving and a car must drive the runway to look for debris. He says the delay should be only a "wee bit" longer. That's right, we're in Scotland. We're soon cleared for the ILS while I hear other airline traffic being directed into holding patterns.

We land in the dark rain, surrounded by the bright approach and runway lights. On taxi in, I can see several vehicles clustered around the tugged jet. Despite the four hours of flight time and the holding at low altitude where turbine engines burn more fuel, we've still got just over 60 gallons of jet-A left, good for another hour and 15 minutes.

We're met by a van, a friendly hello, warm exchanges between Margrit and the line guys and tumble into the FBO, eager for that cappuccino. The weather is best described as raw. Hotel arrangements are made, we check tomorrow's weather at Keflavik and the winds aloft over the ocean, and make plans for having the FBO file our flight plan in the morning. We have 228 gallons of fuel "uplifted" and the total bill comes to £738. To my amazement, Margrit starts her planning by looking at the equivalent of the Weather Channel to get the big picture, then consults NavCanada for the depiction of the North (and I do mean north) Atlantic and its winter winds. This is the end of October, after all.

The Holiday Inn Glasgow has a festive array of champagne buckets on the floor of the hotel entrance. These turn out to be strategically placed to catch the leaks in the roof. Margrit heads for a well-earned rest and I eat in the hotel dinner room. There's lamb and meatballs and a vat of "haggis," which I sample in the spirit of adventure. It tastes like Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, not too bad at all. Back in the room I Google haggis and find it is made of lamb liver, lung and oatmeal, all of which is boiled in a sheep stomach -- with nutmeg.

Next day is a Sunday, therefore we're only going as far as Iceland. Greenland isn't closed exactly on Sunday, but there is a hefty charge for refueling on the only day off there. We depart just after 10 a.m. local with me in the left seat. We climb smartly to FL 280 where the airplane does 300 kts true while indicating 192. It is -45° C outside. In the "850" mode we're running things conservatively at 106.1 percent torque and burning only 57 gallons per hour. Margrit likes to keep the interturbine temperatures below 800 degrees and this power setting keeps us cool at 768. We could easily get another 20 knots out of her, but so what?

We settle into talk about turbines, family, flying and life. The TBM has such extraordinary power that most flights will be flown in the high 20s. Lower, the airplane is slower and burns more fuel. I finally start to apprehend some of what is going on. Our ancient Cheyenne works much like the TBM. I, too, worry about ITT on our engines. The similarities begin to make their way to that part of the brain assigned for understanding.

At FL 280 our pressurization is working great, our cabin rests at 8,500 feet, a psi of 6.0. It is very comfortable in the airplane and we can see the Island of Lewis and the Outer Hebrides go by to our left. We're heading 320 degrees and there is surprisingly little magnetic variation at these latitudes. (This is true for the entire trip.) When I say we can "see" the islands, I mean this both figuratively and literally. We can sometimes see land mass, but most of the time we're looking at the big Garmin and its colorful moving map.

Soon we're "coasting out" over northern Scotland. After that we pass the Faroe Islands. I am not particularly anxious about being in a single-engine airplane over the ocean. Everything seems cozy and normal. The airplane is so magnificent, what's the worry? I have a couple of PT-6s on our Cheyenne and I know them to be remarkably reliable, so I am not concerned. The TBM has a great big PT-6 that makes enormous power. Though the engines are very reliable, owners like me are always concerned with the accessories that cling to the engines like barnacles; fuel control units, starter generators, even props and their governors.

I settle in, watch the headwinds pick up speed, listen to Margrit's amazing stories experienced all over the world. There is an undercast and under it is ocean to be sure, but this seems like any other flight. Except for the magnificence of the machine and the curiousness of the geography, about which I've read but never witnessed.

Right then, a loud noise, a warning horn. Right before me the master warning light blinks. Margrit sits up very straight in the right seat. The panel says, "fuel press." There are two fuel boost pumps on all airplanes that I know of for each PT-6. It appears that we have lost one. Margrit resets the fuel boost pump to "auto" and the light goes out. Fuel pressure reads an acceptable 13.6 psi. I sigh -- just to open up a few alveoli.

Just for good measure we note that EKVG, Vagar, on the Faroe Islands, is 146 nautical miles away. That I am not a good swimmer crosses my mind dimly. We discuss the dilemma. The primary boost pump that presents fuel to the engine-driven pump may have fallen off-line because of a low pressure and the backup may have taken up the slack. This agrees with the observation that the light goes out after resetting the boost pump. We'll call France when we get to Iceland, we decide.

And then another warning. We reset. The Pilot's Information manual comes out and we do what it tells us to do. I stir a little restlessly in the new leather seat. Can't all PT-6s function without any boost pump? I know that you can continue in our Cheyenne without any boost pump and that the engine is known to carry on with the engine-driven pump alone. We talk about this. Until the master warning and master caution lights come on, accompanied by blaring horn. "Now, we have a problem," says Margrit.

That you are reading this account signals a happy conclusion. I'll tell you about it all next month. For Margrit, it is just another day at the office.

Also read these related stories:

Atlantic Crossing -- Part II

TBM 850 Still Fast With Glass