This trip started out badly as I tried to jam too much into one day. I accepted a flight for a client to New Mexico on the same day that I was to depart for Saudi Arabia. My airline flight was not scheduled to depart until 4pm, and I figured I had plenty of time to fly to New Mexico in a King Air and come right back. It would help my customer, help me, and all would be well…right? Wrong! I got all the way to Portales, NM, refueled the King Air, and then the right engine igniter completely failed. To make a long story very short, I had to have an igniter overnighted to Portales, scramble to install it, and then hope to make it back to Jacksonville so I could get on the airliner for Saudi Arabia. My fortune did not improve as I bought my airline ticket through Cheap-O Air (something I’ll NEVER do again) and they conveniently forgot to book my flight, but they did take my money. So, I ended up missing my flight to Saudi Arabia again for the second day. I also had to hold a phone up to my ear and listen to Cheap-O Air’s obnoxious recording as I waited for someone to talk with me, and then had to argue with them to get my ticket. It was a nightmare! The only consolation was that I got to spend an extra evening with my family, and it was a really good time together.
I had time to go to church (it was a Sunday morning) and then made it to Tyler for the first leg. Probably one of my better international flights, I got a mild upgrade to “Coach-plus”, which meant that I got a few more inches legroom, and I also had no one sitting next to me. On the flight from Houston to Frankfurt, Germany, I watched “Flight” (with Denzel Washington; not realistic from an aviation perspective; I don’t recommend it) and then “Life of Pi” (I fell asleep during some of it and lost the plot). The connection in Frankfurt was very tight and I barely made it as the last passenger. I was sure my bags would not make it, but hoped for the best. The flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was also nice. I had an open seat next to me and watched “Apollo 13” (highly recommended…one the best movies ever!). It was not long before I was in Jeddah and got to go through one of the more frustrating experiences of the trip…customs at the Jeddah Airport.
The airplane was parked on the tarmac and everyone was bussed over to the International Customs area. I got off the bus as one of the earlier passengers, but got into a line that appeared to be for non-Saudi people. There were about 8 lines and all of them were super-long. When I got to the front of my line, a customs agent motioned for me and about 10 other caucasians to get into another line. He spoke no English, but his pointing made us think we were supposed to go to the far line and move to the front. When we got over there, about 15 minutes lapsed until we were informed that was the wrong line too. We finally had a guy point to the longest line of all and we got into the back of that line. It took 4 hours of standing in line for me to get through the customs process and on the “other side”. Next time…I’m wearing a “pilot uniform” and pushing for special treatment. The consolation prize…my bags did make it to Jeddah!
I found a taxi (actually, he found me…not hard as I’m sure I looked completely lost) and got a ride to the hotel, which was about 15 minutes away. I checked in, took a shower, and had one of the better sleeps I’ve had in a long time. The jet lag was virtually non-existent and I thoroughly enjoyed the bed as my head hit the pillow at about 1am.
My phone rang at 0700 and Bob was on the other line. Bob ended up being a huge help. He is the guy responsible for the maintenance and airworthiness of the fleet of airplanes that were to be ferried to the USA. I was to fly 2 of 18 total airframes. Bob had a sidekick named Richard, and the two of them navigated me through breakfast, a ride to the airport, security, customs, flight operations, and finally the final prep for the King Air. Without them, I’d have spent a full day trying to figure out the system. With them, I sailed through and was airborne in record time.
Saudi Arabia is known for being a really tough place to get anything productive accomplished, and this day lived up to that reputation. The logistics of launching an airplane in Saudi Arabia are immense, but with Bob and Richard, all went well.
Jeddah is a big city on the Red Sea, but I could barely see the sea as I took off due to the blowing dust. It was a hazy appearance that obscured any good pictures I had hoped to take.
As I progressed up the Red Sea, I caught glimpses of photo-worthy scenes, but the sand and dust just did not cooperate.
I had a 50 knot headwind for most of the trip and landed at HEBA (Cairo, Egypt) slightly delayed.
They parked me at the same place as they did during my last middle-east flight, and I got the same crappy service. No food, no water, just 8 guys standing around with their hands held out ($410 in fees) and the dirtiest bathroom that has ever existed. The only thing good about Cairo was the fact that they did get me in and out fairly fast.
The flight to Dubrovnik started well, but it became quickly apparent that this was not going to be a quick flight. 80-100 knot winds were right on the nose the whole way, and I even had to throttle back a little to max-range airspeed to ensure I would make it all the way to Dubrovnik. The only consolation was the ride was smooth and mostly clear. I got a good look at Greece and much of the Adriatic Sea. The weather at Dubrovnik was splendid, and I landed at night with hopes of going to a hotel and crashing for the night.
When I landed at Dubrovnik, the controller asked how long before I would be departing, and said that a flight plan was filed for me. That meant that Travis anticipated I could press on for the night to Luxembourg. A phone call at the FBO confirmed that I should if I could. So, Dubrovnik turned into a tech stop and I was soon advancing the throttle on the mighty King Air 200. I did my best to stay awake over the Adriatic Sea, Italy, Germany, and into Luxembourg. I ate a sandwich, chatted with controllers, and generally entertained myself with my thoughts. It worked and I landed at 10pm on the gargantuan runway at ELLX (Luxembourg Airport). I hit the bed around 11pm and slept well until 0700.
I met up with Devon (a pilot that Travis is grooming for future flights) and he was to be my pilot companion for the rest of the trip to Fargo. He has lots of Beechcraft time, and so the King Air 200 was no challenge for him. Soon we were off the ground and on our way to Wick, Scotland.
The weather was about as expected…low clouds, smooth air, and not much to see along the way. Devon and I chatted and then got to fly the full approach to the VOR/DME RWY 13 at Wick. As we came into the airport and finally got below the weather, we both noticed a cool castle on the eastern shore with huge wanes crashing against the coast. Scotland is beautiful from the air. The wind was howling, but Devon kept a wing low on landing, touched down nicely, and taxied to the ramp. All was well until we checked weather in Iceland.
I’ve had lots of instances where I had to make a call due to weather, but rarely have I had to dwell on the subject. But, with the weather in Iceland I really had to think about the options. A long story short…Iceland had 50 knot winds (right down the runway) with Driving Snow (DRSN…rarely do you see that report!), 400 foot ceilings, and visibilities as low as 1/4 mile. The predominant weather still had the strong winds, but the ceilings at 600 OVC with visibilities around 2.5 miles. I did not want to violate the strong aviation axiom, “I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air than in the air wishing I was on the ground.” So, Devon and I talked about this decision at great length, and then even got Travis out of bed at 2am (sorry Travis!) to get his opinion. He concurred, and we started putting the covers on the airplane to put it to bed for the night. We then had a day to spend in Scotland, and I am never one to let an opportunity like that go to waste!
On the way to lunch, a couple of guys approached us to ask us to fly them to Iceland. They had been hanging around the airport for 6 days. The guys at Far North had told us about them. I was intrigued and so I invited them to go to lunch with us. It turns out that they were two Frenchmen who are creating a documentary about starting with nothing in France (literally…no clothes, even!) and ending up being able to see the northern lights. They lived off of what others would give them only. So, they hitch-hiked, bummed food, and took whatever was given them…or accepted what was not given them. They had some cool stories and we had a super lunch getting to know them. Here’s a link to their website. I hope their documentary goes well!
Andrew is the owner of Far North Aviation, the FBO at Wick. It is a really neat place and Andrew is a firecracker sort of guy who inherited the job of finding us a place to stay for the night.
All of the local hotels were booked up, so he had some serious trouble. He even called a “castle” to see if they could take us. At first they could not, but after a few hours of waiting and no luck anywhere else, Andrew called again and was able to talk them into accepting us. It was an unbelievable turn of events…we had no idea how good our life was about to become.
We were driven to the Ackergill Tower, an absolutely stunning castle near the Wick Airport. The long driveway was lined with stone fences, trees, and had herds of sheep in the fields. It opened up to a view of the castle that is stunning.
We got the uppermost room that has only a winding staircase available. Soon after arrival, we put on our warm clothes and went on a tour of the estate. We played croquette, walked near the surf, chased sheep, and generally toured the grounds.
The wind in Scotland never let up the whole time we were there. Although croquette was fun, our under-prepared clothing forced us inside to play Snooker. Much like billiards, snooker is a bunch of fun, although incredibly difficult. The smaller balls, smaller pockets, and longer table require extreme precision in shooting. We had a super time playing. Dinner started at 7pm so we put away the sticks and went to the super-nice sinning room.
All of the castle was adorned in period-pieces and art that was well-suited for the castle. Large paintings, oversized furniture, and intricate mouldings made the interior ideal. Our menu for dinner included 3 courses…scallops for the appetizer (by far the best part of the meal, locally procured and picked), venison (locally harvested and really good), and a 3-part chocolate dessert that was also splendid. Although I am definitely NOT a drinker of alcohol on any habitual basis, I did have a nice glass of wine with my dinner, as it seemed like the right thing to do considering our surroundings, and it came with the meal. I’m glad I did. Devon and I had good conversation eating a fine meal by a wood and coal fire in the fireplace. We then went back up to the room and I typed out an e-mail to our french friends to let them know that we’d let them go with us to Iceland, if they could find an immersion suit and a raft.
Devon and I woke up to another splendid meal…a breakfast served in the same nice room overlooking the ocean. Soon our ride arrived and we were off to the airport. Just as expected, our french friends were eagerly awaiting our arrival. Andrew (with Far North Aviation) loaned the survival equipment and we began to prepare for the trip. Our Frenchmen were simply ecstatic! I felt like I was accepting a certain amount of risk in taking them, but they seemed so likable and I believed their story. So, with two smiling and giddy Frenchmen, we all got onboard and advanced the throttles for Iceland, where the weather had improved somewhat.
The whole way to Iceland our French friends were filming and talkative and excited. I let Devon fly by himself for a while as I sat in the back to allow them to interview me. Then, in what I hoped would be a twist, I interviewed them. It was a fun time of bantering back and forth and I bet the footage ends up on TV one day.
The weather in Iceland had improved insofar as ceiling and visibility, but the winds were just howling. Fortunately, the wind was only 2 degrees off from runway centerline, and Devon handled it with aplomb. On final approach to Runway 09 (landing east), we came over the ocean and I could clearly see the boiling and blown sea. There were some fishing vessels out on the water, and I could not imagine how men could handle such seas. I’m sure if they looked up at us, they’d have thought the same thing.
I was worried about the Frenchmen going through customs at Iceland, but they made it through with no troubles. We hugged and shook hands goodbye and they began the next segment of their big adventure. I can only imagine how their first night in Iceland would be…I hope they found shelter. The Frenchmen added a lot to this trip. They have an endearing personality and are clearly having a lot of fun. I was glad to be a part of their adventure and look forward to hearing how it ended.
There was another King Air 90GTI that had been moved to Iceland earlier in the week, and Devon moved over to that bird for the remainder of our trip. I was much faster than he was, as I had the mighty King Air 200GT, so I beat hem everywhere we went.
The weather at the surface of Iceland was super-windy, but the weather at the upper altitudes was quite benign, except for the extreme cold. The lowest temperature I saw was -50C, but that is cold enough to get my attention, and to make sure to watch for fuel problems that could develop. I had the cabin nice an toasty, and the flight to Greenland was unremarkable otherwise. I landed in Sonderstrom within 3 hours of taking off from Greenland, and Devon came about 45 minutes later. They treated us well during our brief stay for fuel and food. It was about -12C on the ground in Greenland, but with no wind it was not painful at all. Soon we were off on the third leg of the day to Iqaluit, Canada.
The weather continued to smile upon us as we flew westward. Reasonably clear skies gave us a nice view of the cast ice below. I believe a person could walk from Greenland to Canada in the more northern latitudes, expect for the large fissures and cracks in the ice. I’m sure it’d be a super-dangerous trek.
Iqaluit had a very thin layer of clouds about 1,000ft AGL so we flew the ILS to RWY 35. As we came over the frozen bay in to Iqaluit, I could see several dog teams below. Life is sure different up here.
The two Canadian Customs agents came on board my airplane to greet me. Canada has some of the more enforced customs borders that I’ve seen. The agents are always professional and friendly, but they always do a thorough job of making their inspections. Soon I was on my own and went to the small shop in the airline terminal to buy some food items for the rest of the trip. Devon and I wanted to make it to Fargo, if at all possible.
The flight to Le Grande Riviere was uneventful. We flew over an undercast so little could be seen that was interesting. I spent most of my time trying to block the incoming sun that constantly moved slowly from left to right. The undercast broke up to clear skies over Le Grande Riviere, and the wind was perfectly still. I landed as the sun was setting and Devon landed about 45 minutes later. We refueled as fast as possible hoping to leave quickly, but our quick get-away was not to be. The handler had troubles with his credit card machine, and we spent about an hour dealing with its stupidity. Finally, after many phone calls and attempts, we just paid in cash.
The delay in payment created one of the more interesting takeoffs I’ve ever experienced. Riviere is in a truly desolate part of North America, and there is little to no lights from cities or towns. As soon as I rotated on takeoff, the runway lights were no longer visible and the incredible darkness took over. Now, I know what you are thinking…it’s not that big of a deal, right? Wrong! It was a true instrument takeoff on steroids. Had I not transitioned to the instruments, I could easily see how a pilot could quickly be disoriented. As I climbed out, another scene became present…the completely dark skies and ground produced the most stars I’ve seen since being in the African bush many years ago. After settling down the cockpit, I turned all of the interior lights either off or as low as they’d go, and enjoyed the view. It is hard to describe a night with absolutely no light from cities or towns. The immensity made me feel small and generated a solid time or reverent prayer, just simple reflections and thanks to God for giving me this perspective. You’ve got to get FAR away from civilization to see a scene like the one I saw. Our light pollution in today’s modern society fades scenes that anyone who lived prior to electricity would be intimately familiar. It is definitely worth traveling to a remote part of the world to behold it.
The landing in Fargo was normal and customs was easy. I was glad the trip was over, but mostly glad the last day was over. I logged a little over 13 hours of flying, and that is entirely too much. The good news is that I get to get on an airliner in the morning and do the whole flight all over again in another King Air. I’m looking forward to the trip!