By: Deanna Wallace, CFIIM and International Ferry Pilot
My list of “rules” regarding international ferry flying is growing. The number one rule, as presented to me by Joe Casey on my very first international ferry trip, is “always stay flexible”…and boy, has that one been put to the test on numerous occasions. I have now added rule #2 as “expect the unexpected,” as nothing is likely to go exactly (or even close to) as planned. After weeks of delays, Joe & I left Texas for what we expected to be a trip to India to pick up two aircraft that needed to be returned to the USA. Upon reaching Europe, we found ourselves diverted to Austria to pick up a different aircraft on an entirely unrelated trip. Always excited by the prospect of flying a new type of aircraft (a beautiful Diamond TwinStar DA62) along a great route, we were only mildly disappointed by the diversion from our original destination.
Austria proved to be beautiful on the day we arrived in Vienna and made the 60km drive south to Weiner Neustadt, but the following morning we arrived at the local airport to dense fog and an unknown delay time.
Luckily for us, Weiner Neustadt is home to Diamond Aircraft and we were able to arrange a fantastic walking tour of the factory and see each stage of production for a Diamond aircraft, from start to finish. Although the fog started to dissipate and visibility was getting better, our departure was held back by something that would never have delayed us in the United States…a VFR (visual flight rules) only airport. While many US airports only allow for VFR arrivals in poor weather, an IFR (instrument flight rules) departure can be made from any airport, at any time, at the pilot’s discretion, and with ATC approval, under Part 91 operations (general aviation operating rules). Such is not the case in Europe. This airport had minimum cloud height requirements that forced a takeoff delay until the weather minimums were met. You can bet Joe and I, both used to regularly taking off in poor visibility and low clouds from our home airport in east Texas, were pacing the floor, checking weather every 15 minutes, and “chomping at the bit” (as we say in the South) to get airborne and started on our way. Though we are mostly relegated to single pilot operations, Joe and I work well together in a crew environment and efficiently divvied up cockpit duties between the “pilot flying” and “pilot not flying” to get us off to a mid-day start at the absolute minimum weather conditions we were allowed to take off in. The late start offered us an early sunset view on the way to our first fuel stop in Hamburg, Germany enroute to Stavanger, Norway.
This particular aircraft was equipped with optional equipment that made it capable of flight into known icing (FIKI) conditions and we got to put that equipment to the test early on in those first two legs. It gets dark early in the winter time and we carefully watched, through what visibility we were afforded by small leading edge wing lights, as the TKS liquid based system removed much of the accumulated ice from the windshield and leading edges of the wings. This gave us a measure of comfort with a somewhat unfamiliar de-icing system as we continued further north into increasingly colder conditions conducive to airframe icing. Despite our late start, we managed to keep to the intended schedule with a late night arrival into Norway.
The next morning boasted mostly clear skies as we departed Norway across the Norwegian Sea for our first stop in the Faroe Islands. The islands appeared beneath the clouds in our descent as a series of small islands, consisting mostly of dramatic, sharp cliffs jutting out of the water.
The winds there are strong and harsh and warnings of turbulence were heeded as we slowed to a safe turbulent air penetration speed for our approach to the airport. While beautiful to see, you couldn’t help but note how quickly the combination of open water, rugged terrain, and swirling wind patterns could make a stabilized approach become unstabilized very quickly.
As the pilot flying this leg, Joe masterfully handled the challenging approach and terrain into a small airport nestled in a small flatland area between the sharp cliffs. After a quick fuel stop and break for lunch, we departed the islands for Keflavik, Iceland, arriving to a cold, windy, rainy locale just prior to sunset at 4:15p. Following the combination of a long commute to Europe, a delayed start resulting in a long night flying the day prior, and an early departure from Norway that morning, we welcomed the much needed rest afforded by a late afternoon stop in Iceland and made plans with our “handlers” for an early start the following morning towards Greenland and Canada.
The last 2 times I made a North Atlantic crossing I was in larger, faster, turbine powered aircraft. This time I was in a much smaller aircraft with piston engines, resulting in less speed and range. Although the schedule was to depart the following morning, with these limitations and high winds aloft, we were unable to make the 2 intended over water crossings from Iceland to Greenland and then from Greenland on to Canada. This gave us a rare, free day to check out what we could on Iceland. Sunrise is not until 10:30a and the sun sets shortly after 4p this time of year, so our options were slightly limited by available daylight hours.
With no specific plan in mind, we rented a car, asked a local what they would do with a free day, and took off to see part of what is referred to as the “Golden Circle”. The route is filled with mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rocky lava fields, grassy pastures, and ocean views. Although the day was overcast and showery, it was a beautiful drive and we braved the cold just long enough to get out and walk around a couple of the sites we passed.
That evening, a discussion on possible alternate routes was held and a new flight plan was formulated. We departed early the next morning, well before sunrise, along the northern, over-water routes to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland and on to Iqaluit, Canada. While this added significant distance and time to our overall route, it did get us moving in the right direction rather than wait days on a possible wind shift to favor our original planned stops along the more southern, North Atlantic crossing route of Narsarsuaq, Greenland and Goose Bay, Canada. The eventual sunrise on this leg seemed to never end. At this latitude, the sun barely peaks the horizon and as soon as it does, it seemingly begins its slow descent down again.
The arrival to the eastern edge of Greenland was spectacular. We had a rare, clear view of the mountains and icecap before we encountered a low cloud layer blocking our view. I almost didn’t realize the cloud layer below us later disappeared, as the glacial icecap was smooth and flat for as far as the eye could see in any direction.
By the time we began our arrival into Kangerlussuaq, the sky was mostly clear and we were able to enjoy a scenic approach to the runway sitting at the end of a long fjord.
There, Joe took the liberty of introducing me to the culinary delight of a muskox burger prepared by the local cafeteria…muskox are quite hairy, buffalo-looking beasts prevalent in Greenland and a dietary staple for residents there.
Although the sun set in Kangerlussuaq shortly after our arrival, twilight lasted for a couple more hours and we were afforded a visual, low level departure down the fjord. Settling in a hundred feet or so off the water, well below the surrounding terrain in smooth air, we enjoyed the last bits of daylight before climbing to an altitude that allowed us to clear terrain and start towards Canada.
The last leg of our day was the slowest, with heavy headwinds and a slow groundspeed over the Davis Strait. We remained in or above the clouds most of the 4 hour flight, but the most interesting part about the leg westbound was catching up to daylight again and enjoying the start of a second sunset as we entered Canadian airspace. Our twilight (second one for the day), picturesque arrival into Iqaluit reminded me of approaching a tiny, snow covered village set out as a household decoration at Christmas time. Even though it was not anywhere near as cold as it will eventually get this winter, Iqaluit was -14°C (7°F) with blowers and plows hard at work to keep the runway and ramp area clear of ice and snow. As the pilot flying this leg, I carefully taxied my way across the ramp to our parking spot, avoiding large clumps of ice and trying to maintain traction on a mostly frozen surface. Iqaluit is a small town in northern Canada with a population of almost 8,000, serviced and provisioned almost exclusively by aircraft. The cost of provisioning such a town showed in the steep hotel and food prices for modest accommodations and food options.
We arrived at the aircraft the next morning to find it covered in a thin layer of hoarfrost, with enough accumulation and roughness that it would have to be removed prior to flight. Joe set to the task of deicing the wings and other critical surfaces with a manual pump sprayer of deicing fluid and a squeegee, while I took on the duties of finding hot water for our thermos containers and tending to fees within the heated office building of the FBO. I lingered around the aircraft just long enough to show I was willing to help outside if needed, but was quickly shooed in by Joe, who I’ll not pretend didn’t do my very warm natured self a great favor when he assigned me the inside duties that morning. Free of ice, we let the engines slowly warm up and departed across the Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay over some of the most barren landscape I’ve seen towards Wabush, Canada. This leg of our route was completely devoid of radar contact by air traffic control and, unlike the Atlantic crossings, there were no regular position reports given. We tuned in to a frequency only monitored by other aircraft in the case of an emergency and settled in for the longest leg of the trip (almost 5 hours) over some of the most inhospitable terrain we had crossed yet. Our fuel stop in Wabush was pleasantly met by security and ground briefers and we were fueled and quickly on our way to the required Customs and Border Protection stop in Bangor, Maine for entry into the United States.
The last segment of our journey was “business as usual” within the confines of the continental US. The plane was safely delivered to its new owner in Ft Lauderdale, FL and I got another great story and learning experience out of the deal.