Here’s a link to the route with lots of pics…the written story is below…
I’m always excited any time I get a call from Travis Holland for you just never know what adventure he might have in store. The owner of HollandAero, Travis is a bonafide Jetprop/Phenom nut who loves to fly internationally. He’s built one of the coolest aviation businesses I know of, all centered around making international flying safer, easier, and cheaper. He had a need to move a King Air 200 from India to Fargo, ND. I jumped at the chance moving all sorts of other opportunities out of the way to create a hole in the schedule big enough for this flight (thanks Jimmy, Fernando, and Lynda!).
The plan sounded easy enough at the outset, but the complexities of the flight soon mounted. I needed to leave the US within 7 days to make it back to the US before Christmas, the date committed to the new owners. The biggest time-issue was my obtaining an “Indian Visa”. To get into India you need a passport that has the visa attached to the passport. So, I overnighted my passport to a visa company (who shall remain nameless as they TOTALLY screwed up!). I paid extra to have express delivery and even called several times to make sure everyone knew the criticality the schedule. On the evening I was to receive my visa, a phone call to the visa company confirmed that they had done nothing and my visa was still at the Indian consulate.
I had already bought an airline ticket through Orbitz. I’ve since learned that they have a 24 hour cancellation policy and I was able to cancel my original ticket (whew!!!) with no fee. Then, I had a series of not-so-fun conversations with the visa company. They again dropped the ball, didn’t return phone calls, and generally neglected me completely. Finally, I got someone on the phone who cared, and so began a new plan.
I had to buy a ticket from Texas to NYC (the location of the visa company) and pick up the visa in person. A quick glance at the flights out of Tyler, TX (TYR), the preferred departure location, threw me into hyper-drive for I had a window of opportunity to keep the original schedule. I packed my bags as quickly as I could, kissed my wife (Becky), and ran out the door. Despite my rushing, I came upon TYR 5 minutes late and could not make the flight. So, I drove to DFW while Becky looked for flights to NYC. She found one and bought the ticket. With this flight to LaGuardia, NY (LGA), I’d have only 90 minutes between connections, and I’d have to go through security again. Plus, I’d have to hope my luggage made the flight to LGA.
As I came upon DFW, the traffic was slow, and I ended up making it to DFW 10 minutes late for my flight. This trip was really going south quickly! As it turned out, American Airlines also has a 24 hour refund policy, So, I just walked in the door at DFW, went up to the counter and purchased a ticket for a departure that was in 1.5 hours. I had no clue how the day was going to proceed, but I knew that I was moving toward NYC, as that’s where my passport was located, so it had to be a better place to be in order to get the mission accomplished.
When I landed at LGA, I discovered that my worries were senseless as my wife and Travis worked to get me out of a jam when I could not. While I was airborne, they were busy finding me a doable plan. She ended up finding a flight from JFK that left that evening, and I was back on schedule…if I could find the guy that had my passport. Since the passport company had “dissed” me several times, I had little confidence, but high hopes. After getting my luggage (it did arrive…whew!) I checked my phone and there was no message from passport-boy. He was supposed to call me, and the passport office phone just rang and rang with no answer and no voicemail. Now I was getting pissed. Becky and Travis had spent an enormous amount of time, effort, and energy trying to get me on this plane, and now it all came down to one guy showing up at LGA with one small document.
After 20 minutes…an incredible long 20 minutes…my phone call came. Passport-boy was late, but I now had commo with him and control of my destiny was returning to my hand. We played phone-tag for about 20 minutes until I finally talked him to my location on the airport. I didn’t know whether to kiss him or punch him, so I did neither. I just said “thanks” and proceeded to the taxi that awaited for my drive to JFK.
The flight to Oman was with Qatar Airlines, and it was one of the nicest airlines I’ve been on. The seats has about 3” of extra space, so much so that I could stretch my legs all the way out if I tried. The food was good. And, most importantly, they had a great entertainment system, so I watched 3 movies on the way over. When I landed in Muscat, Oman, I knew I was in a different place, but I was in good shape considering the long distance.
I woke up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to one of the best breakfast buffets’ I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. All sorts of breads, meats, fruits, and drinks were available, and I feasted knowing I was about to enter Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where there was almost assuredly to be no food available. I dined with the two Indian pilots who ferried the airplane from India. The Indian Visa debacle slowed me down, and required a shift in plans. One of the Indian pilots was supposed to fly with me for the first portions of the trip since this airplane was registered in India, and I had no Indian license. The other pilot was along for the ride since India wanted to have two pilots on board when the airplane left India. I met the two in Muscat where they showed me around the airplane and then got on an airliner back to India. I was on my own from here.
This King Air 200 had a very nice Proline 21 avionics suite. It works great, but I am no pro at using it, at least I was not when I took off from Muscat. Fortunately, the weather was idyllic and I had time to get some single-pilot OJT as the flight progressed. I was alone in the cockpit and the Proline 21 was my ticket to success of this flight. I was already in unfamiliar airspace, and I didn’t want any navigation troubles.
The relative desert of Oman turned quickly into the “real” desert of Saudi Arabia. The vastness and emptiness of the desert around Saudi Arabia is astounding. I flew for long periods of time and saw nothing that resembled human encroachment. I would not have encroached it either…it was one of the most inhospitable places I’ve seen.
The emptiness of Saudi Arabia was matched by the traffic on the radio. There was an occasional airliner with me, but for the most part it was just me and a series of Saudi Arabian controllers butchering the English language. I caught most of their words, but usually on the second transmission. I said, “Say Again” more often that I care to count. When I was 10 miles out of Gassim, I still did not see any sign of human life, and then, all of the sudden, Gassim presented itself in my windscreen. A driving rain then limited my visibility as I came in to land on the long runway. I totally didn’t expect rain in the desert, but I can assure there was rain. The rain stopped as soon as it started and it was back to the dry desert upon touchdown.
Once on the ground I was met by about 8 Saudi Arabians. The “Main guy” spoke decent English and we got along super. I had to stay at the airplane the whole time (except for a short escorted potty-break), and I began to get chilled with the cool breeze that blew. After about 30 minutes of negotiations as to exactly how this fuel was to be paid, the King Air was refueled. The big breakfast had worn off and I was ready to eat. It was about 2:30pm and I fully expected to “fast” for lunch this day. However, when I asked about food, the “Main guy” (I asked his name, but it far too strange for me to remember) asked me to hold for 5 minutes. He came back with a super-flavorful fruit slurry and a vegetarian sandwich. I offered to pay, but he simply refused. Not wanting to offend, I accepted, but I shall remember him well for he was a true friend on this day. All of the Saudi Arabians were very nice to me.
Because of my Biblical interests, I was most observant of the Red Sea and its environs. Much of the Red Sea had boats going up and down its length, but there are VERY few signs of humans along the shores. It’s pretty rough country and my mind wandered as to the exact location God opened these waters for Moses and the Israelites. The Red Sea is really wide…as I think most US Christians think of God opening a river. To fly over it gives a good perspective of how grand a miracle the “Parting of the Red Sea” really was.
I landed in Cairo, Egypt at night and was greeted by about 10 people with only one airplane on the ramp…mine. Typical of many foreign nations, government intervention has led to the demise of aviation and much of the rest of their economy. I paid about $400 in various fees, even $40 for a guy with a fire extinguisher to stand 50′ from the airplane for “Safety”. The funny part was that he held a lit cigarette as he stood there. Again, they did not let me away from the airplane except for another potty-break. They took me to a decrepid building that stunk from 50′ away. The stench was often-used toilets that did not work. I did a #1 as fast as I could (with no flushing) and got back to the airplane. Within an hour I was airborne over the Mediterranean Sea with howling winds beating me back. I did not see the ground again until I came upon the Grecian coast, and then only sporadically. The winds did not abate in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I landed there in a 30mph crosswind late at night. It was one the more difficult approaches I’ve made in a long while.
The long taxi drive from the airport to the hotel gave me plenty of time to get to know the driver and hear of his exploits during the Bosnian War. Since I was stationed in Bosnia for a while in the US Army, I was particularly interested in his perspective. The drive back to the airport in sunlight gave me a good view on what I missed the previous night. This was fabulously beautiful country! The mountains and sea made for many post-card-worthy views.
The weather was beautiful as I left Croatia, but it got far worse as I headed for Luxembourg. However, the Italian Alps were particularly beautiful.
The weather got progressively worse as I came into Luxembourg. The last 3000′ of the approach was definitely “Moderate” turbulence. I landed in a moderate rain on one of the longest runways I’ve ever seen.
One interesting aspect of the Luxembourg FBO…I had to go through security to get to the bathroom! Strange place…seems like they would have engineered their business a little better. But, like much of Europe and Middle East, there is very little understanding of capitalism and associated business excellence.
My departure from Luxembourg was easy as I was back into the land of Air Traffic Controllers that spoke very fluent English. Whereas the controllers were easy to deal with, the weather was not. Airframe icing, turbulence, and headwinds made for a rough go over the English Channel and northward to Wick, Scotland. After about 3 hours of flying, I landed at Wick in another driving 30+ MPH crosswind. It was even worse than Dubrovnic the night before. I am so glad to be flying a King Air on this trip and not a smaller, less capable airplane.
I landed at 5pm, and soon found out that the airport closes at 5pm. This meant that I was going to get to remain overnight. Iceland would have to wait until tomorrow.
I departed Scotland at 0800 local with a shading of light on the horizon, but the sun had not broken the horizon. The weather was perfectly calm (a stark contrast to the night before) and Scotland was beautiful in the soft light. I enjoyed a nice tailwind on the way to Iceland and chatted with Reykavic Control, but there were VERY few other talking on the radio this Christmas Eve day.
As I approached Iceland, the sun still had not broken the horizon, but the glow from the south was greater. So, if you can imagine, although Scotland was visible in the light of the morning at 0800, the sun still had no broken the horizon in Iceland 2 hours later. I’ve seen it the other way around…when the sun stays up all day in the northern latitudes, but I had not seen the slow sunrise before. It was 10am as I came over the southern coast of Iceland and my GPS was still on “night mode”. However, there was enough light to see the Island of Iceland and the waves of the north Atlantic below me.
South Air, the FBO at Keflavic is a super place. They are very professional and know how perform a “quick turn”, aviation-speak for spending as little time as possible on the ground. Plus, they have bowls of Icelandic chocolate laying around the FBO, and that is worth the stop, for sure. As I went to the airplane to leave, the sun was just poking above the horizon and I got to see a beautiful sunrise with all of the colors imaginable. I wish I had my tripod to have taken a good HDR picture, but the single-frame version will have to suffice. Interestingly, this scene probably went on for quite some time as the sun was rising so slowly.
My greatest concern on this leg leaving Iceland was the distance and range of the King Air 200. Because I was flying on Christmas Eve, all aviation in Greenland was closed, and the fee for the FBO to open is $1800!!! So, Travis and I did all sorts of calculations to determine if there was any way to bypass Greenland altogether. The best shot at doing so was to aim for Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, a small outpost on the Canadian northland. I determined my “bingo” fuel and determined a plan in case I could not make it (land at Kangerlussuaq) and made a million calculations in flight. As the Greenland coast came closer, the headwinds became stronger. But, this was exactly as depicted on the “winds aloft” chart. So, with confidence that the weather-guessers were guessing accurately, I pressed on.
Greenland was awash in white. It is hard to tell where the white clouds existed versus the white snow. I could see a peak poking through a white mass every now and then that broke up the white monotony of Greenland, but for the most part, it was just white. As I came to the western side of Greenland, the ice sheet diminished and the tan mountain peaks began to peek through. By the time I got over Kangerlussuaq, it was clear and beautiful, with the Kangerlussuaq Airport being the only sign of human existence anywhere in sight, a lonely black short stick amongst the vastness of the region.
The sun has been to my left since rising and has barely become above the horizon. The best way to describe how far above the horizon it rose is to extend my arm fully and hold my fingers sideways. If you can picture this, the sun rose about 2 fingers above the horizon, and that is all. At FL280, I was on top of any clouds in sight this day, and the brilliance of the sun as it glared off all the white below made me wish I had brought my sunglasses.
I regularly checked the fuel gauge and the ground speed indicated on the FMS throughout the flight. The thought of making only 1199nm of a 1200nm trip (complete failure) was ever-present on my mind. I planned to divert Kangerlussuaq unless I knew I had more than 300 lbs of fuel in each tank, as that is a one-hour reserve. But, still…that’s not much fuel in a thirsty King Air…at least it does not feel like much extra. On the east side of Greenland, my calculations showed that I would land with 430 lbs of fuel, but that number diminished slightly as the flight progressed to about 380 as I passed Kangerlussuaq (no the western side of Greenland). There’s a place on a flight like this one where you don’t turn back and are committed to the course of action. For me, this was about 1/2 way across the Labrador Sea. I’d done so many fuel computations on this trip that I was confident, but there’s a little voice in the back of you mind that makes one think “what if the winds change, a mechanical failure occurs…what if…”.
As I passed my turn-back point, I looked below at the cold icy water, rechecked my raft and immersion suit, and (since there’s no radio contact in this part of the world) turned on my Ipod music. The song “All I need to know” by Thousand Foot Crutch came on and replaced those thoughts of doubt with thoughts of comfort as I knew, even in this remote area, that the final words of the song are right, “I know you’re here with me, and that’s all I need to know.” As I travel the world doing that which many think foolish or too risky, I argue that I am possibly not risky enough. God wants us to live a full life, not a life of skittishness. Even as I write this, I’m totally comfortable with my current place in the world…in fact, I think this is exactly where God wants me. Nothing can get to me that has not already gone through the hands of Christ.
I ended up coming into the Iqaluit area with a comfortable amount of fuel (I landed with about 400 lbs on each side). Completely snow-covered and sparse, it is a very beautiful area that would be fun to explore in a bush-type airplane.
I was amazed at how many airplanes came to Iqaluit while I was there. It seems that there were enough houses in the area for about 1,000 people, but everything needed by the people must have been flown in. Several older Boeing 737’s landed as did a few ATR-72’s, all depositing large pallets of goods and materials. I spent minimum time on the ground, wanting to simply refuel and fly southward. The line crew came to my aircraft as soon as I landed and were most helpful. It was Christmas Eve and they were doing a great job serving me quickly, so I spotted them $100 as a tip for their help. They guided me to the small shop in the airline terminal and I got one of those nasty pre-packaged sandwiches that we have at convenience stores in the US as that’s the best of what was available.
The flight to Le Grande Riviere was uneventful, except that the desolation below is remarkable. Quebec Center lost radio contact with me soon and soon thereafter radio contact was lost too. I again busted out my Ipod and jammed out to some good music for about an hour or so since there was no one else to talk to. While Iqaluit has hardly any trees, LeGrande Riviere has plenty. When looking down from high above the dark trees contrasted against the white snow blanket. I descended through a shallow overcast layer into the Le Grande Riviere airport, breaking out at about 800‘AGL. I landed during the long dusk period and the overcast made the scene seem even darker.
I had yet another crosswind to land with (only 15 mph, but with a patchy-iced runway, I was challenged), but the powerful and stable King Air 200 handled it well. After filing my EAPIS and calling the customs agent in Fargo, I got fuel fairly fast and launched as quickly as possible. By the time I climbed back through the overcast the sun was below the horizon, but the glow from the south illuminated the cockpit for another hour.
There is something nice about crossing the border of the U.S. Familiar speech on the radio, familiar aviation procedures, and the comfort that comes from being “home”. I’d never been to Fargo (or North Dakota for that matter), but it was US soil and I liked that. Plus, I’ve been to every state in the union except for North Dakota. So, this was an additional pleasure experienced by landing in Fargo. The customs agent was particularly friendly, but I had done a good job of communicating with him and the new owner of the airplane had too. So, there was probably little doubt in his mind that I was legitimate.
My focus then turned to getting home. Fortunately, Travis had already paved the way for me by securing an airline flight out of Fargo. I made the flight with about 10 minutes to spare . So…as the song goes…”I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me…” I’m on the way home on that airliner as I write this post, and it is good to have home in my sights. I will be home for Christmas, although a little later than I hoped.
It was a great trip where I saw everything from a desert sands to the arctic snows, from the middle-east culture to the small outposts of northern Canada, and the government-decimated economies of Egypt and Croatia to the opulence of the US. I’m glad to have had the experience and am glad to have been able to fly something as trustworthy and reliable as the King Air 200. I’d do it again in a heartbeat…hopefully soon.