Atlantic Crossing?Part II


You may remember last month we left off in a brand-new TBM 850 halfway between Scotland and Iceland at Flight Level 280 with both a master caution and a master warning light flashing and a horn blaring. That we were a long way from any land much less any runway required no emphasis. A fuel boost pump had fallen off-line for the third time. If there was ever a time to contemplate the twin versus single argument, this was it.

Yet the TBM is so solid of a machine and the ferry pilot in the right seat, Margrit Waltz, so experienced, that I really didn't feel in any jeopardy. There is a backup boost pump and that big PT-6 will run on an engine-driven pump alone, so the event seemed more like a nuisance than anything else. Sure enough, we never heard another peep out of the engine or its accessories again. The event is a reminder that delivery flights by Socata are considered endurance flights under factory control before the new owner takes title, even if he or she makes the trip in her new airplane. Still, I can't deny a tightening of my insides.

Iceland looms on the Garmin 1000 and then appeares in person; flat, white with a snow blanket and welcome. I am late spotting the airport and then I have a hard time getting slowed down to what seems like unrealistically slow approach speeds for an airplane that has been loafing along at 310 knots true. Leveling off to bleed speed and to accommodate the landing flaps extension speed of 122 knots, I end up so high that the tower inquires as to whether we were going around. We don't, but I do use up more runway than I should have. It is 10,056 feet long.

And so to Iceland. At the FBO, South Air, Margrit makes a phone call to Socata in Florida and gets a return call from France, reassuring us about the fuel pump lights as just "setting adjustments." It is a Sunday, so Iceland is it for the day. You can get fuel in Greenland on a Sunday, but it will cost you. The Northern Light Inn and the adjacent Blue Lagoon are next on the agenda. We cover the airplane's various inlets, secure the prop and ride in a van to the hotel. Iceland appears to be composed of mostly volcanic rock, dark brown in color and coarse in its landscape. The van driver announces that the moon rover unit was tested in Iceland on this basalt before it went to the actual moon. I can see why. The Blue Lagoon is a large geothermal pool in the middle of nowhere. Its waters originate thousands of feet below the surface and are cooled so that tourists can soak in the three- to four-foot-deep pool. The outside temperatures aren't bad -- about 33° Fahrenheit -- but everybody is limiting their exposure to heads only. I have purchased the largest available bathing suit but it is more Speedo than gentleman's trunks, so I am careful to stay pretty much submerged so as not to frighten the tour busfuls of Korean teenagers. I enjoy excellent halibut at the Inn, watch the television for a while, listening to the cadences of the Icelandic language (derived from Old Norse), which sounds pretty guttural.

Next morning we start early. We're looking at a long day with headwinds reaching 110 knots on the nose. We depart on a heading of 291 degrees towards Narsarsuaq on the southwestern tip of Greenland, just 789 nautical miles to the west. We climb right back to FL 280 as crisply as before; the airplane will climb at rates of over a thousand feet per minute out of FL 270.

We settle in. Despite the ferocious headwinds, the Iceland to Greenland segment should be less than three hours. Occasionally the flat, dull, gray sheen of the North Atlantic is visible; the sun is just coming up to speed over my left shoulder, but mostly we're above cloud cover. For all I can tell we could be going from Syracuse to Grand Rapids, except for the huge Garmin display that reminds me that we're over water -- cold water at that. Margrit has flown everything everywhere and she regales me with stories, some of which are hilarious, but off the record. She tells me that she gave up single-engine ocean crossings when she turned 40 and that being marooned in Goose Bay for her 50th birthday (when a Cessna 421 bound for Europe had a bad engine) persuaded her to stick to turbine airplanes. Our groundspeed has deteriorated to 218 knots.

As the big arrowhead shape of Greenland makes its way onto our map, Margrit calls Sondrestrom radio for an update on the Narsarsuaq weather. You want to make a decision about where you're landing early in this part of the world. The airport is still VFR and we are encouraged. I note that Kulusuk and its gravel runway is the nearest field and it is only a scant 195 nautical miles to our north-northwest. Soon the undercast shreds and the actual sights come into range and they are remarkable. Icebergs can be easily seen floating just east of the island -- the largest island in the world. (I am not certain as to what you have to do to be called a continent around here.) The mountainous terrain and blowing snow are easy to see as the weather clears. Even at FL 280 you can see tendrils of wind-whipped snow and are reminded of the treacherous nature of Greenland flying. During World War II this route was the trail taken by most American airplanes heading to fight in Europe.

** Approach to Greenland.**

We start our descent towards peaks and valleys and soon the fjords of western Greenland are obvious. I have not ever seen a landscape like this. The Rockies in winter are majestic, but there are no fjords and no icebergs. The peaks seem to be swaddled in snow and the sense of wind and cold is unmistakable. We are soon heading towards Runway 25 at Narsarsuaq, hoping to outrun a Mustang coming from the states that is heading to Runway 07.

As I maneuver for the runway, easily visible as a dark scar on a snowy flat surface, I can see minor icebergs floating just to our right. My landings are getting somewhat better and we taxi towards the, well, terminal building. A long two-story structure is set maybe 200 yards from a WWII-style hangar. It is cold and there is ice on the tarmac. Margrit greets the Mustang crew; she knows the Austrians importing the Mustang. I scurry into the warm building.

About 100 people live in Narsarsuaq. This is the famous WWII field called Bluie West One. Read Ernest Gann for more. In Fate Is the Hunter he describes being briefed for the approach to Bluie West One when approaching from Goose Bay, Canada, in a DC-3 overloaded with steel girders for construction of the airport. "There are three fjords. You will notice that all three look exactly alike … . But only one is the correct fjord that leads to the field. The others are dead ends and you are advised to stay out of them unless you have learned how to back up an airplane." Descents over the ocean were often made down to 100 feet in airplanes wearing considerable coats of ice before the fjord selection process began. In today's GPS world this kind of airmanship (and luck) is hard to comprehend. At the peak of the war 4,000 personnel were based here. Tug boats were stationed in the freezing river to tow icebergs out of the approach path to Runway 07.

There is no school, no hospital and no doctor in Narsarsuaq. Margrit, of course, knows everybody. We exchange information with the eastbound Mustang crew, take on 680 liters of jet-A with Prist. The building feels like a hundred other FBOs you've been in. It gives off a well-worn, friendly sense. It takes some concentration and a glance out the window to refresh your memory that you are standing in a very unusual, forbidding and historic place. I have two cups of delicious coffee. I often enjoy coffee while flying our Cheyenne, but you don't eat or drink on a ferry flight when you are delivering a $3 million-plus airplane to its new owner.

We head out. Airspace is uncontrolled below 19,000 feet and we are cleared only to 18,000. This is not good. "Down" here we're burning 61 gallons an hour and only doing 272 knots true airspeed. We've got 50 knots of headwind now, but we don't know what we'll encounter at FL 280, if we ever get there.

Gander International Airport is keeping the now departed Mustang down low, too. Margrit tells me that if he can't get up to the flight levels, his fuel burn down low will make Iceland impossible and a return to Greenland likely. After several pleadings we are cleared to Flight Level 280, where the winds pick up in the wrong direction, but the increased speed of the airplane and the decreased fuel burn of the engine make it a reasonable trade off. Our true airspeed clocks in at 301, and our groundspeed is 238. We're burning 58 gph up here. We've gained 18 knots over the water and are burning three gallons less per hour.

On the frequency I can hear several private jets making their way from Europe to the United States. I write down their call numbers but find most of them to be blocked on when I finally get home and look them up. Slowly the North American continent shows up on the Garmin -- soon we'll be feet dry. Goose Bay is another airfield with mythical status, its presence today largely due solely to its vital role in the war. We bounce into headwinds of 100 knots on the descent and are cleared for the visual to 26. The wind at the airport is 220 degrees at 32 gusts to 42 knots. I hold significant crab until we're over the numbers and then I am surprised at the relatively smooth touchdown and true tracking once we're on the ground. I look over and notice Margrit has her hands on the wheel as well. We agree that this is the best landing so far, but we're not sure who did it. Let's call it a collaborative affair.

Goose Bay looks desolate. There are some Twin Otters and a few Canadian regional jets. It is just above freezing and that wind is fierce. I am very glad to enjoy the Dove bar in the FBOs freezer (another of Margrit's favorite treats on this route). As we take off I apply full left wing down and Margrit reminds me that the TBM has such excellent roll control because of the spoilers that come up on the wing. Take off, despite these winds, is easy.

Now comes the prosaic part. After crossing the North Atlantic, flying across Canada, although it is wild, seems like nothing too special. I have to remind myself that Goose Bay is well north of Gander and that I have just been in Labrador for the first time in my life, a fact I resolve to tell my wife, Cathy, and Labrador retriever, Corbett. At 280 the winds become punishing and our groundspeed sinks below 200 knots. I ask Margrit about the slowest she's ever been in a TBM. "89 knots," she says. "I just landed and got a hotel and waited for the next day. It was over 200 knots of headwind." On the other hand, she reports a maximum groundspeed of 450 knots. I have a hard time contemplating a single-engine six-seat airplane traveling over the earth's surface at 450 knots, so I just sit there, looking out the side window at the slowly passing Canadian wilderness.

We're bound for Quebec City, where we land VFR without commotion and head for a nearby hotel. At dinner Margrit tells me of the time she was ferrying a small airplane across Alaska to the Far East. She called the Colonel in charge of Cold Bay, Alaska, for a weather report and was told it was fogged in. When she asked as to when conditions would get better, she was told, "Little lady, we have 230 days of fog a year and this is our third day." She retreated via Nome, tankered some fuel to a gravel strip way up north and never did meet the condescending officer. Tired of flying, I gratefully hit the hay. We've done about nine hours of flying today. I'm not sure how Lindbergh did it.

We're up early the next day. Wilkes-Barre is Margrit's home base and it is where she lands to clear customs when ferrying TBMs to Socata's base in North Perry, Florida. The weather there is terrible. Ice, severe turbulence and minimum visibility and ceiling in blowing snow are predicted. In the hotel van, I ask presciently, "Why don't you do this leg?" It will prove to be a good call.

We take off at dawn, pick up some ice and break out on top to a greeting from the rising sun. The trip to KAVP will only be a couple of hours, but as soon as we're turned over to Boston Center it becomes clear that this may be the most challenging leg of the whole crossing. Commercial jets are complaining vociferously about the chop. We soon descend into weather that is as bad as advertised. On the ILS to minimums the Caravan ahead of us reports "severe turbulence." I am tasked to spot the runway, so I sit up very straight as it gets darker and darker and darker. When I see the ground it seems closer than 200 feet. When I see two lights I think they mark the runway's threshold and I call the field in sight. Margrit looks up just as I realize they are not lights on or near an airport. I can feel her dismay in my airmanship. Who wants to share a cockpit with such a moron? Just then we both spot the runway. It is like a night landing in snow and slush.

We taxi to customs. Hi, hi, all around. It is also clear that there will be no takeoff into the god-awful weather. Since I need to get back to work, I start trying to arrange commercial transportation home to Tampa. A US Airways flight leaves in 30 minutes but the counter agent has no mercy; even though I have successfully bought a ticket online, I have missed the 30 minute check-in rule by one minute. The snow accelerates. Though it is only 8 a.m., I am in for a long trip home. And so it comes to pass that this journey, that started so magnificently in Tarbes, France, will end up with a snowy drive to Philadelphia in a cheap rental car and a Southwest flight home.

But I can say I crossed the Atlantic in a single-engine airplane; a magnificent, brand-new, fast, efficient, beautifully equipped one, to be sure. The log entries would look like this:

LFBT (Tarbes)-EGPF (Glasgow) 4:00 EGPF-BIKF (Keflavik) 2:58 BIKF-BGBW (Narsarsuaq) 2:50 BGBW-CYYR (Goose Bay) 2:50 CYYR-CYQB (Quebec) 2:57 CYQB-KAVP (Wilkes-Barre) 2:00

In many ways this adventure has little in common with Lindbergh's achievement. The equipment -- turbine engine, GPS, airports with gas, and good radios -- made crossing more like a sunny Saturday flight in clear air. Our trip took less flight time, but it did take four days to complete. Not to ignore the Spirit of St. Louis flight, Socata got a waiver in 1994 for an overgross takeoff in a TBM 700 with additional ferry tanks. They made the trip from Teterboro to Le Bourget near Paris in 10 hours and 55 minutes, a third of the time it took the lone eagle.

The take home lessons? I learned, finally and viscerally, how very far it is from New York to France. I learned that the winds in winter over the North Atlantic can be prodigious, dishearteningly so; that there are ferry pilots out there on this route right now, freezing when on the ground and sweating out fuel consumption in the air; that flexibility and patience are important skills for an ocean crossing; and that amazing things are possible in a single-engine general aviation turboprop. The North Atlantic has not changed much since 1927, but the equipment flying over it certainly has. Even so, it can still be said that any pilot contemplating crossing an inhospitable ocean will do well to trust in God and Pratt & Whitney.

Also read these related stories:

Atlantic Crossing in a Single-Engine Turboprop

TBM 850 Still Fast With Glass