Luxembourg to Fargo with Tom Thomason

From fellow pilot, Tom Thomason: I’ve wanted to fly myself cross the North Atlantic for more than 20 years (or more) and the opportunity finally showed up this year.  A good buddy of mine (Joe Casey) mentioned that he would be ferrying several aircraft across the North Atlantic from Saudi Arabia.  That sounded like a great time, so I casually mentioned that if he wanted some company on the trip, I would love to go (Joe might suggest that I begged and bugged him for two months but that is a different story).

Joe relented and let me know that if I could get myself to Luxembourg, we could meet there.  The Saudi Arabian visa process is nuts so we decided LUX would be the best meeting place. The ferry pilot business is about flexibility and schedules can move forward and back with little to no notice. So, I gave myself several days in Luxembourg to recover from jet lag and see a new place I had never been.  I highly recommend visiting Luxembourg. It is a small pleasant vibrant country. The people speak French, German, and English so getting around is no problem.  Imagine a place which has the style and beauty of France and the efficiency of Germany.  Now back to the real story…

Joe and I met up the night before our trip across the North Atlantic. He briefed me on what to expect and how we would manage the flight. The mission we decided on was to accomplish 3 things:

1) Have a great flight and deliver the almost new King Air 200GT to Fargo, ND.

2) Teach me some of the “ins and outs” of flying in European airspace (I had heard war stories of terrible controllers and the impossibility of getting your flight plan filed…more on this later).

3) Learn the management of the Pratt and Whitney PT-6 engine.  By all the hangar tales I had heard this was only to be done by the most brilliant of corporate or airline pilots and the proletariat are not to even suggest they could ever learn the inner workings of such a magical piece of equipment. In the end it was, 1) Check the batteries for sufficient charge, 2) Hit the starter switch, 3) Add fuel and wait for the PT6 to spin up and stabilize. Always ready for a hot start that would require immediately shutting off the fuel to the engine.  Compared to any piston I have ever been around, this was easy.

I went to bed that night hardly able to sleep.  With the excitement of flying a King Air and the North Atlantic on my mind, now that was amazing.

Tom as we depart the Ibis Hotel

Tom as we depart the Ibis Hotel

At 7am we were in the hotel bus on our way to the general aviation terminal in LUX. Now it gets interesting!  The hotel driver had to go back in to get his passport to just drive us into the airport. I found out why when we arrived at the gate controlling automobile entry. Two very official women in bright orange european police gear studied our passports for many minutes with phone calls inside the guard house, and multiple questions about our aircraft destination and reason for flying.  We got past that and I thought we were going to the airplane…not so fast.  Now we went through a full, shoes-off, metal out of your pockets screen upon entering the FBO.  To get into your own plane!?!

We finally get to the FBO desk with a lady who gladly handed Joe a bill for 400€ ( about $500) for the privilege of parking the plane overnight, using the pilot briefing room, Internet, and getting a ride out to the aircraft.  Oh yes…that did not include the cost of the fuel.  This kind of high cost greed, waste, and stupidity will kill general aviation in the USA as it has done quite well in Europe. We cannot let that happen!

Finally,  I got to see this lovely lady (N465GT) and was informed by Joe that, “yes!”, I could ride in the left seat and he would guide me through all the checklists, engine starts, and handle the radio work.  Wow!!…now I am having a good time. We get fuel, load our baggage, and climb in.  I do have about 500 hours in twins but essentially no turbine time and never in anything this elegant. Not to worry, Joe gets me through the checklists, engine start, and onto the runway where we are cleared to go.  The acceleration of two PT-6’s is something you have to experience to really understand, but a Shelby Mustang foot to the floor in first gear is not a bad comparison.

We cross the border into Belgium in about 3 minutes. Then we break out on top of the solid undercast of northern Europe in the winter. Just 30 minutes later we are starting to cross the English Channel, something easily discerned by watching the Sperry Proline-21 all-glass triple display that spread itself out before me. Halfway across the English Channel the skies clear and we can see the coast of England as well as the channel itself. It stays clear all the way to Wick, Scotland (EGPC) our first fuel stop.  I had never seen the snow covered highlands of Scotland or the rugged coast and ancient castles, but here they were displaying themselves in full glory of a cool crisp morning.

The eastern coast of Scotland near Wick

The eastern coast of Scotland near Wick

We landed at Wick (EGPC) to be met by some of the nicest people you could imagine, tea and crumpets (no kidding), and then we were off for Keflavik, Iceland.

Checking weather at Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland

Checking weather at Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland

Now we could see the angry seas of the North Atlantic and going down there would not be a good thing.

We did have our life rafts and immersion suits. Previously, Joe had me try on the immersion suit in the back of the King Air, and it is not easy to accomplish. If you are In a small aircraft, these must be on up to your waist prior to even thinking of taking off.  There is no way to get it on without a lot of room to move around.

Tom in his new threads...

After about 2 hours of flying over the ocean making mandatory position calls, the Island of Iceland with its country side of thermal activity and snow covered volcanic peaks appeared through the right windshield. A crystalline sculpture to behold that only nature can reveal to us, I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to see such a sight.

A clear day in Iceland...

Landing at Keflavik, Iceland (BIKF), a previous US air force base that was turned over to the Icelandic government, was easy with the winds down the runway and the sky perfectly clear. We checked the weather for our next destination which was to be Iqaluit, Canada.  However, going there was not in the cards.  The wind was blowing 30-45 KTS with driving snow, ice crystals, and VERY poor ceilings and visibility stopped that plan.

Now that old ferry pilot’s mantra of being flexible kicked in and it was off to Kangerlassuag, Greenland (BGSF – for any WWII buffs this was Bluie West 8 in WWII and sits at the end of a fiord).  Seeing the ice cap of Greenland is just indescribable…miles of solid white flat ice that wrinkles up and falls off the edge of the coast into the ocean along a wildly mountainous jagged coast.  We landed with clear skies and a light breeze down the runway.

A clear day in Greenland...

A clear day in Greenland…

On short approach to Kangerlussuag, Greenland

On short approach to Kangerlussuag, Greenland

The FBO was spartan but they were very nice and helped us secure the aircraft, obtain weather, and file our flight plan for the next day.  Then it was off to the local (only) hotel. It was handy, as the airport lobby enters into the hotel lobby which the leads to the cafeteria and finally the only restaurant in town.  Thinking we should not miss out on the opportunity to dine in fine surroundings we chose the restaurant over the cafeteria. We had a wonderful waiter who seated us at a linen covered table. We both ordered the “melodie of Greenlandic meats”, musk ox and  reindeer steaks with a side of mushroom purée in baked whole tomato and twice baked potato…a very fancy dinner for the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately it had no suggested wine pairing on the menu so we had to just wing it.

Reindeer and Musk Ox...absolutely!

Reindeer and Musk Ox…absolutely!

Greenland is known for the intensity and variability of the northern lights.  To see them requires a clear night and it is better if there is a no moon.  What great luck that we had!!  It was a perfectly clear night with no moon.  We were treated to a sky of stars that were intermittently hidden by a constantly changing curtain of pink and green that would hide Orion and the Pleiades, then slowly separate to reveal those night travelers again.  We went out several times to watch that ever changing show, until the cold would drive us back inside to warm up.

Next morning we were up early, but could not leave before 8am as the airport was closed until then.  It is common in many foreign lands to have to add to your flight planning the additional variable of considering airports that are closed from early evening until the next morning.

Customs stamped our passports…how cool to have a passport stamp from Greenland…I bet few people have that one! We got a ride to N465GT which was parked a mile away on the other side of the airport from the FBO, this is an old US Air Force base so everything about it was huge.

We called tower to get clearance for engine start and received that as well as our clearance into Iqaluit.  We fired up the PT6’s and were soon flying down a beautiful fjord at a 1000 ft AGL to admire this rugged land.  We were cleared to FL280 and turned west to Iqaluit.  Upon reaching FL280 our easy sightseeing trip started to become quite interesting, and would remain so for many more hours.

Greenland let us know that Icelandic center wanted to talk to us.  Changing frequencies we were to hear this report: “Iqaluit airport will be closed for the next six hours, N465GT what are your intentions?

Here in the US , a closed airport is an inconvenience.  In that part of the world it can deadly.  We immediately had them re check the weather in Goose Bay and it had not changed: IFR with 500 ft ceilings and 1 mile visibility in blowing snow.  Now I really got the message that Joe had been saying about always carrying as much fuel as the tanks will hold. Fuel equals time in the air and that equals options and that is a good thing.

So we let Icelandic center know that we would divert to Goose bay. The only other airport of entry that we could reach, and would they please let CanPass (the system of reporting to Canadian customs) know of our diversion.

Turning south we flew down the Davis Straight. It was covered in pack ice and looked very forbidding.  It was nice to do this trip in a capable airplane like a King Air.

The sheet of ice on Baffin Bay

The sheet of ice on Baffin Bay

Goose Bay CYYR is a common stepping off place for north Atlantic flights and even though the weather was cold, blowing snow with low ceilings this place was busy.  The ramp had lots of aircraft of all sizes and nationalities.

The FBO (Irving) was maybe the friendliest I have ever used.  Coffee in china cups, exquisite pastries, fireplace, and photos on the wall of Harrison Ford and John Travolta and other famous people when they traveled here.

The weather in northern Canada in the winter is beastly, cold blowing snow with ice covered ramps and the real possibility of slick runways.  Crosswind landings in a twin can be easier than in a single, but either way you really want to know runway conditions.  We had no desire to slide a 12000lb, expensive King Air off the side of a runway in some out of the way place in Northern Canada.

Joe called Travis Holland, who was coordinating the movement of N465GT as well as 16 other King Airs and jets back to the states from Saudi Arabia.  Travis is a super guy, who I have flown with in the past when he was a flight instructor, he has now moved on into several other businesses and his work is really making a difference in the ease of traveling internationally by private aircraft.   He developed a web based program eurofpl.eu that is lot like fltplan.com but is used in Europe and elsewhere around the world,  outside of the united states. It meshes very seamlessly with Foreflight on the ipad and is a must have for the pilot who wants to file flight plans in that part of the world.

Travis suggested a fuel stop near the Hudson bay, called Le Grand Riviere.(CYGL) The weather was forecast to be tough, but it was doable.  In to the KingAir and off we go…climbing to FL280 in solid IMC. We remained IMC all of that trip until, as we descended to  Le Grande Rivière (CYGL), we broke out of the clouds at 4000 ft AGL, 10 miles from the airport. Ok, piece of cake. But as we got within 5 miles of the runway it was again solid IMC, and the ATIS was reporting 400 ft OVC with less than one mile visibility.  I flew the VOR/DME approach to minimums and held it all the way to the missed approach point, but with limited forward visibility.   As we passed over the airport I moved slightly to my right and looking almost straight down.  I could see the runway just below me on the left side, but there was no way to set up for a landing and there was no need to try again as I was not going to fly that approach any better…I had really nailed it.  So with the help of Canadian ATC and local pilots (also on the radio) we were able to find another airport nearby named Moosonee (CYMO) 40 minutes away that had good weather, but significant crosswinds. It was a relief to find out that the runway was clear and braking action was acceptable.

What made this work out in the end was Joe’s active, kind, but forceful voice on the radio that we were unfamiliar with the area, at the moment had plenty of fuel, but we needed to make some good calls NOW because we had flown to our destination and missed the instrument approach and we needed to KNOW that we would be able to land at the alternate airport we chose. Airports in this area are very far apart and the weather up here can be bad for hundreds of miles.

So we flew over the frozen James Bay which is the southern-most portion of the Hudson bay and landed at the community of Moosonee.  It was slightly surreal that the french accented female aircraft controller pronounced “Moosonee” in the most lovely fashion, making you think you would be flying into a wonderful Shangri-La.  Actually, It was cold and pretty sad, but wonderful for these two pilots who wanted to transit northern Canada in the middle of a snow storm.

In Moosonee we fueled up, filed for Fargo, ND, and took off.  Travis had already dealt with E-APIS for us   And we were able to update U.S. Customs of our arrival time with Minneapolis Center.  This was a great flight with slight tailwinds adding to the 300 KTAS that this plane delivers. We were above a broken cloud layer that let us see the Canadian countryside. I was finally starting to feel really comfortable flying this turbine wonder, but now it was time to re-enter the USA and give this airplane to its new owners.

Joe and I had dinner that night and the conversation was lively and far ranging as ever…what a delightful guy to travel the world with.  We parted company and I flew to my home in Santa Fe, NM the next morning.

Upon arriving home my wife asked, what was the best part of my trip?  Certainly the most amazing thing was to see the aurora borealis, but the best part was getting to actually fly a great airplane, feel its responses to my controls, and fulfill a dream of flying across the North Atlantic.

Tom Thomason is an ATP rated pilot, an AME, and a part owner in a Piper Malibu, Cessna 310, and a Pitts S2B.  He lives, and works as an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician, in Santa Fe, NM

About Joe Casey

ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G Commercial Pilot - SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Glider US Army AH-64 Pilot and UH-60 Instructor Pilot and Instrument Flight Examiner
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