Over the Ocean II
By Richard “Mongoose” Hess
A good friend recently said everyone should have the chance to ferry an aircraft across the ocean…once. Well, I had that experience the end of June 2010. That trip certainly had its operational challenges, but it was very successful and was completed exactly as planned. Two months later the European buyer decided he wanted another L-39 for a flying club. So, we sold him a second airplane. Guess who volunteered to ferry number two? You guessed it. Need to have my head examined, right?
The first challenge of this second ferry was getting all the planning and export permissions finished in three to four weeks. The first ferry took three to four months to plan, get permissions, and execute. We certainly learned many lessons in that process and applied those lessons to this event. The final requirement, U.S. State Department export approval, came just four days before our planned departure. Talk about cutting it close.
My motivation for moving this aircraft quickly was strictly weather related. Our planned departure date was September 6, 2010. Late summer is usually great weather in the lower 48. Not so in the North Atlantic. In fact, the weekend before our departure had 28°F and snow forecast for Goose Bay, Labrador, our jumping-off location.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hurricane Earl was working its way up the East Coast the same weekend. Would you believe that the hurricane ended up being a benefit to us? Strange but true since it brought warmer weather to the Canadian Maritimes and influenced the wind patterns at altitude.
I can’t say enough about my team at International Jets. Everyone worked hard to make sure the aircraft was as ready for the ferry as possible. Just as Uli Megel made the first aircraft ready, Igor Zitnan worked diligently to make this second aircraft set to go. In fact, after mounting 350-liter fuel drop tanks, Igor and I performed a test flight of 700-plus nautical miles (nm). We even put a 50-pound sandbag in the nose to simulate the baggage we would have along for the actual ferry. With 528 gallons, I calculated we had a no-wind, 800-nm range with IFR reserves flying at flight level (FL) 250.
The seller of this second aircraft is a dear friend from Western Canada, and he wanted to come along for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. He arrived in Atlanta, Georgiathe day before, and we organized everything for the next day. Of particular interest to me were the new, insulated survival suits that Jeremyshipped ahead to IJ. They’re made of quilted neoprene and are very warm. They’re also actual flight suits, so you can wear them comfortably in a fighterlike cockpit. We laid our heads down that night, confident we were ready for the following day.
We left Gadsden, Alabama, at midmorning heading for Allegheny, Pennsylvania (KAGC), near Pittsburgh, in perfect weather. The flight was uneventful except for the S-Tec autopilot which performed flawlessly at lower altitudes but tended to wander plus or minus 100 feet in the flight levels. That would be the one irritant to plague us the entire way to Italy.
The folks at KAGC were very attentive and had us fueled quickly. The girl manning the fixed base operator’s office wanted to go to Italy. Sorry, lady. All seats were taken! We took off and headed for Quebec with good weather as the hurricane was already further north off the Labrador coast.
We landed and taxied to the passenger terminal since that’s where Canadian customs normally meets you. Turned out our handler, Skyplan, didn’t notify CanPass of our arrival. I dialed the 800 number and talked to a very helpful woman who filled out the appropriate paperwork and gave me a reference number for our customs entry approval. Lesson learned! There’s always one more detail!
The weather was just perfect in Quebec. It was midafternoon, mostly sunny skies, and 20°C, 68°F temperatures. Call it a day, right? Silly me. I decided we should continue on to Goose Bay so as to be able to complete the ocean crossing in less time. I was still wary of weather changes and wanted to have the option to get ahead of schedule if weather so dictated.
The flight to Goose Bay was fine with a nice tailwind. The weather was forecast to be partly cloudy with possible rain showers. We arrived just before dusk, anticipating the instrument landing system approach to an uneventful landing. Not! A business jet was coming in from the east and set up for the back course localizer to runway 26. So, we received long vectors to final for the nonprecision approach.
The exciting part was just ahead. Approach control updated the weather with rain showers over the field and one-mile visibility. Oh joy! I set up the approach and hand-flew the final. I saw the runway a bit right of the nose approaching minimums, made a correction, and landed. The rain was heavy enough, and the runway wasn’t draining quickly enough, causing the anti-skid to work overtime.
We parked in front of the fixed base operator and put the airplane to bed in the pouring rain. The water was nearly up to our ankles as we walked across the ramp! Hindsight is always 20/20, right? In retrospect I should have quit at Quebec. Stick to the plan! Lesson learned.
We stayed in a little motel just off the airport in Goose Bay and had a nice dinner at a local restaurant. The fixed base operator was ready to pick us up at 0730 sharp. We now wanted to get in front of the remnants of Hurricane Earl which was bouncing like a pinball between Labrador and Greenland. I thought about making it all the way to Scotland in one day, but between long legs and time zone changes, that didn’t happen. Plus we needed to update all the permissions for a one-day early arrival. Skyplan did a great job taking care of those changes on short notice.
Unlike the last ferry, Gander Center worked with us for more direct routing to Narsarsuaq, Greenland (BGBW). That was the good news. The bad news was we had a Mooney at FL 240 in front of us also heading to BGBW. The problem was that the let-down into Greenland was uncontrolled airspace below FL 195 and non-radar to boot. ATC was concerned that if it let us go to FL 250 or 270, we wouldn’t have safe separation during descent. So, we stayed at FL 230 with an increased fuel flow. The extra fuel was really appreciated now.
Okay. Everything was fine at this point. Fuel was good. Weather was VFR. No worries, right? Wrong! About an hour into a 2.5-hour mission, both panel-mounted GPSs lost satellite reception. We both had handheld backups. Unfortunately, Jeremy had to hold his up over his right shoulder or it would also lose reception. After another hour, all GPSs started acting normally again. Nothing like contemplating dead reckoning over the North Atlantic. This was how they did it 60 years ago. We just don’t realize how good we have it today.
We arrived at BGBW with cloudless skies and stunning scenery, a scant 12 minutes ahead of the Mooney. An uneventful landing, a quick refueling, and we were ready to continue to Keflavik, Iceland (BIKF). I took off to the west, reversed course over the fjord, and came back for a good-bye low approach. Heading east we flew over a huge glacier as far as the eye could see. Truly amazing scenery!
Initially, Sondrestrom, Greenland,held us down to FL 180 as there was a turboprop coming in from Iceland, and again, it was uncontrolled airspace in a non-radar environment. We had enough fuel with a nice tailwind to fly all the way to BIKF at this altitude if necessary. We were handed off to Gander Oceanic and started bugging those guys for higher. That turboprop was about 150 nm behind us before they finally let us climb!
Approaching Keflavik, the skies were perfectly clear. Kef’s weather was never this good, so where’s the catch? Another low pressure system off Iceland’s southern coast was causing the surface winds to gust to 33 knots about 40 degrees off runway heading. So, I performed a landing with about 20 knots of crosswind.
It was getting late, and Wick, Scotland (EGPC), had a curfew I didn’t think we could make. We put the airplane to bed and headed to the hotel. Keflavik is a quaint little town. Everything is neat and clean and very Scandinavian. We found a great pizza place with cold beer next to the hotel and turned in early for the next day.
There was a delay getting landing and overflight permissions in Europe for a day early, so we planned to fly just one leg to EGPC and take the afternoon off. Kef was high overcast, but we climbed to beautiful conditions on top. We had 650 nm to go but found ourselves with a 40-knot headwind due to the low pressure system south of Iceland. Again I was thankful for the large ferry tanks.
It’s always a good feeling to start talking to Scottish Control and know you’re less than an hour to “feet dry.” However, Wick was about 800 overcastwith light rain showers; we flew the VOR approach and landed uneventfully. We put the airplane to bed and handed all our survival gear to Andrew Bruce at Far North Aviation for shipping back to the States.
I stayed at a hotel named McCay’s on the last ferry and thought we had reservations. We did, but they seemed to have gotten lost in cyberspace. Then Andrew found us a room above a bakery in town. Seemed that week was busy and there wasn’t a hotel room to be found. We still found our way back to the restaurant at McCay’s for a great meal. We even went to the local distillery for a tour and to pick up a little “sustenance.”
During the last ferry, this fourth day became very frustrating for me as Euro Control added 140 nm to each leg of my route for the two legs to Italy due to traffic conflicts. This time I was determined to avoid that issue. We worked with Andrew, finding a route over the North Sea that ATC deemed acceptable, and stayed at FL 230. It was a great route and resulted in a very efficient flight.
The folks at Liege, Belgium, were once again very helpful. We fueled up, checked the weather en route, and sat down for a coffee before taking off on the final leg to Reggio, Emilia (LIDE), near Bologna, Italy. German controllers were very efficient, and the weather over the Swiss Alps was perfect. We even got a great view of Zurich as we passed overhead.
As we let down into LIDE, I was keeping an eye on the thunderstorms building over the Adriatic Sea to the southeast of our destination. LIDE is a very short runway (900 meters with a 300-meter overrun) with no instrument approaches, so we needed good VFR conditions. I canceled IFR in the descent and prepared for a true short-field approach. I did a low approach on arrival to look everything over and then set up for an uneventful landing.
I love the L-39 for great stopping ability. At 110 knots indicated airspeed and everything hanging, you can stop in about 2,000 feet. We taxied onto the ramp and shut down just as the rain started. Talk about good timing!
Once again I’m impressed; the requirements needed to successfully complete an oceanic ferry in an aircraft with limited range are sobering. Just about every operational factor has to be considered and planned for: weather, winds, approaches, and traffic. There’s no margin for error as your options quickly shrink in such an environment.
Having said the above, this is a mission that can be planned and flown with great precision and a high degree of success. I will say it’s not for the faint of heart due to the high-potential risks. Survival gear is an absolute must, your options are very limited, and you must be constantly aware of fuel status.
As my friend said, it’s a mission everyone should do once. If nothing else, I hope this article helps others who might be planning their own oceanic ferry. The costs are actually quite reasonable, even less than what it costs to disassemble, ship, and reassemble an L-39, and the time required is infinitely better (four days versus 40 days). In the end, think about the memories you’ll have to share with your friends. You can join me as the one they all think is crazy!
Fly safe, and always check six!