COMANCHES ON THE FLY
CROSSING THE ATLANTIC IN THE WINTER
by Holger von Bulow
It was time for our migrating PA 39 N4297A to once again go back from Europe to Florida, its fifth trip over the Atlantic, and our tenth crossing overall … but this time it was two months later than usual. The delay had various reasons; the main reason being that the aircraft was being painted by Aeromeccanica/APOS in Locarno, Switzerland. They did a marvelous job, and through no fault of theirs the estimated three weeks turned into over two months, due to difficulties with getting parts that were needed or ought to be replaced and were not so easy to find.
But once the job was done, we flew out of the beautiful Lago Maggiore valley with 10.000' Alps on both sides, via Italy and on to Cannes, France for a stop with our good Comanche friends, Leo and Mireille Amar, and to await improving weather for the flight up to Denmark, where the crossing was to take its beginning. Central Europe was clamped down under a strong west/east cold front with northwesterly winds hitting the north side of the Alps, which kept towering, icy cumulus clouds to above 20,000' hanging in there.
Finally, in Denmark the crossing equipment was loaded, and the HF radio installed.
We have a six passenger life raft which rides on the seat behind the copilot--in this case, Gigi--with its 11 foot activation line attached to the seat belt so that the raft can be thrown out without anybody having to worry about it being carried away by the wind.
A hard pull on the activation line will inflate the raft and, of course, we do have to get into it while the plane is afloat. The line is fastened to the raft in such a way that, if the plane sinks, the downward pull will release the line and the raft will not be pulled down with the plane.
The survival suits we are wearing were recommended to us by Jeny and David Buttle, and are made by a British company. They are made like inflatable life vests, and are not too heavy or bulky to wear during the flight. These suits provide thermal insulation as well as floatation to protect a downed aviator against the frigid North Atlantic water, in which survival time is measured in minutes, even in the summer.
A high frequency (HF) radio is a requirement unless you take the long haul up north over Sdr. Stroemfjord and Frobisher Bay, now called Iqaluit. This would make it an 1,887 NM trip and eleven hours and fifty-five minutes worth of flying instead of just 1,341 NM and a little over eight hours via Narsarsuaq in the south of Greenland.
Another option--not available for us, though--is to fly above FL 300 for VHF coverage.
But just over eight hours to Goose Bay, or back to Iceland in case Narsarsuaq suddenly closes down (see later!), is a comfortable distance with Capco nacelle tanks. Tom Smith designed these practical nacelle tanks, with 20 gallons each side, to boost the endurance of the Twin Comanche to around eleven hours.
With this installation, no other ferry tanks are needed. But Canada requires that you have three hours of fuel remaining when arriving over your destination, so with a headwind into Goose Bay the option would be to turn back to Reykjavik. There are more alternates available within reach in Iceland than around Goose Bay.
So much for the equipment needed for our crossing.
As for the operation itself, weather briefings and flight planning take up a lot of time but you are free to plan to fly as you please, taking advantage of tailwinds if you can find any, left or right of your course, but you must file IFR above FL55.
With these things checked and installed, maps acquired, etc., we were ready to go.
But a word of caution: One must not forget that this kind and size of airplane has it limitations; not in range etc., but as to what kind of weather it can handle. Flying in the north, be it over the Atlantic or otherwise, does mean risk of ice which for a Twin Comanche is basically a No Go.
Now began a patient wait--the first of many to come--for the right weather for the first leg from Lolland-Falster Airport in Denmark (EKMB), to Reykjavik, Iceland (BIRK), 1,164 NM and 07:25 worth of flying … as it turned out.
Diary, as written while we were on the go:
Thu, 28 Nov 2002 06:46:51
It is 06:30 and today is the day, - we are heading for the Lolland Falster Airport in Denmark and have a tailwind to Reykjavik. We will probably have to stay in Iceland until Sunday to get acceptable weather to proceed via Narsarsuaq in Greenland to Goose Bay in Labrador.
We look forward to find out what a Thanksgiving dinner is like in Reykjavik! Might not be turkey – maybe whale??
Thu, 28 Nov 2002 18:34:01
It had been a long wait with a lot of obstructions before the trip over the Atlantic could commence but today things worked out and we made it to Reykjavik all be it with less tailwind than forecast - especially over the North Sea and the Shetland Islands, but after the Faroe Islands and after turning south of track in order to go through a front that was between us and Reykjavik at right angles, we were seeing 205 kts Ground Speed for a long time. Final result was a flight time of 06:55.
We were able to climb straight to FL80 from Maribo because there was only a very thin stratus cumulus layer positive temperatures and over time we worked our way up to a max of FL140 between Faroe Islands and Iceland to stay above the clouds and ice. The freezing level was at FL60 so we always had an out (read: a down).
A sigmet with severe icing came out for the south east of Iceland between FL60-180 but south of Iceland was without convectively lifted clouds and icing and the Reykjavik wx kept being reported as fine - broken at 4000 and plus 10 degrees C.
We did end up having to climb to FL140 to stay on top or in the "valleys" – or we could have deviated even further to the south.
On the downside: The Garmin 430 flickered a few times and then quit about two hours into the flight. I am glad I never uninstalled the old steam driven Trimble Loran/GPS and that we also had the Garmin 195 on the yoke.
Another problem was the autopilot, - we had it repaired in Denmark and I test flew it. It was oscillating from side to side at an increasing rate. During the test flight after the repair it was fine. Only not today. So we took turns training good old hand flying again!
The weather between Reykjavik and Greenland/Labrador is not our cup of tea tomorrow and we are having a radio guy start working on our problems tomorrow.
We will now enjoy a good Thanksgiving dinner and a glass of wine, as there will be more than 24 hours to the throttle.
Fri, 29 Nov 2002 19:26:09 - The Solving of Problems .......... is well under way.
A local avionics man checked the Garmin GPS and found a few things. He called Garmin in the UK and they preferred to ship a loaner unit with DHL immediately for ours to be overhauled at the factory.
As today is Friday, it is not going to be here until Monday morning, so Monday we install and Tuesday is the earliest day of departure.
Reykjavik is a fine airport.
Your hotel is on the apron. And it is an easy 10 minute walk to town, - actually the town starts after 5 minutes and the shops and restaurants after 10 minutes.
Includes a fantastic restaurant (only for locals and crazy ferry pilots who go and ask the locals for insider knowledge) called The Three Coats/Tre Frakkor (says something about Iceland weather) and which served the most fabulous fish dishes. Fish that has never been near a freezer, that is. And very good beer!
Saturday morning the avionics guy has agreed to do some trouble shooting on the autopilot, - he and our online consultant in Denmark think it is a corrosion of connectors and nothing serious.
Otherwise it is going to be a quiet weekend, - checking on the weather for early next week.