Friday, June 23, 2006


I was recalling some of my earlier flights with a friend recently and thought I’d pen a few things about those trips. In a mini series sort of way, I will write about the North Atlantic crossing in some three parts I think. Somewhat like the Star Wars prequels, myself Luke Skywalker (my father’s no Darth Vader, though, his voice is not deep or raspy enough) will attempt to tell this true story of a crossing that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fairly recent actually, about six years back but it does feel like it happened in the distant past! This is the first part of that trilogy of sorts.

I have done a few North Atlantic ferry flights both ways, in small piston engine short range Aircraft as well as turbine powered Aircraft able to make the hop across without stopping over in Greenland in between. The general air route from Canada usually takes place between Goose bay, Labrador region of Canada, over flying Greenland and landing in Reykjavik or Keflavik in Iceland and then on to the United Kingdom. The alternate jump off point is St. John, Newfoundland in Canada and going the same way. Goose Bay weather is better than St. John, most of the time and is my usual choice for a jump off point across the pond.

On this occasion, I was flying a small, ten seat Britten Norman Islander twin engine piston Aircraft, non-pressurized and with no heating, on a delivery flight across the North Atlantic the other way, which is crossing from the U.K. to Canada. The Aircraft, made in the U.K., had a very short range, in that it had limited fuel capacity and hence could fly a limited distance before re-fuelling. Authorities would not allow the installation of temporary additional fuel tanks and since there was no time to get new drawings approved by Authorities and to get the work done, the easiest way was to find the shortest stopping route across. Easier said than done, in this case.

Stopping every 400 nautical miles (1NM=1.852 Kilometers) means limited possibilities across the vast stretch of freezing North Atlantic water. Reading the manual about the North Atlantic waters is not very comforting, it says that in case of ditching the Aircraft in the ‘drink”, one would die of hypothermia within minutes, even in summer, if proper precautions were not taken. So, yours truly had to rent orange colored immersion suit, a big bulky overall type of clothing made of rubber compounds, including gloves. Wearing this contraption is not very comfortable, your movements are restricted and you can’t even feel the control column in your hand because of the insulating material. I had to rent a raft with signal flares, potable water maker, tent covering, rations to survive floating around till the search and rescue chaps came along and so on.

On this trip up from India, stopping at Pakistan (yes, you got that right), Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, France and the U.K. before hopping across the pond (as we’d like to call the Atlantic). I had reached the far north of the U.K. at a place called Wick. Now, if I started writing about the trip previous to the crossing of the pond, which would make a small novel perhaps. Maybe another day, another blog piece. Mr. GVK would say, I think, that one day this entire collection of musings can be collated to form a book. It could attract a few readers, some of them living with me.

What comes after Wick? The U.K. pretty much stops at the Ornkey islands, just a little North of Wick. As far as mainland U.K. is concerned, you go no further than Wick. Neat pretty little town with friendly people who you get used to very fast. Needless to say, me and my young co-pilot (who had never gone abroad before this trip!) were the only non-white chaps. Kind of know what Vidya feels like in rural Japan, but not quite, at least in Wick they spoke English (or what sounded quite like it, Scott’s accents not so easy).

I had rented all this survival equipment from a company called, what else, but Far North Aviation. A friendly guy runs it, even now, going by the name of Andrew Bruce who told me that I had made history and was going to make some more (this will come up in the sequel to this prequel), by being the first Indian Aircraft at that Airport. The Air Traffic Control told him so, who knows, they don’t have previous records that mention any other!

Back to the trip. I had a few problems with the Airplane on reaching Scotland. She had behaved very well till then on this trip. The problem was with carburetor heat. Without this, the carburetor could freeze up, freezing the fuel and stopping my engines. That would not be nice for me except for a bunch of hungry Orca that may be watching me come down with smacking lips. Andrew set out on the task of making repairs, he has many talents and this is one of them. What got us stuck for nearly a week was the lack of spare parts. Meanwhile we enjoyed the lovely weather (better than England, it does not rain everyday in Scotland).

On the appointed day, I took off in poor visibility and cloud conditions (that’s how it is most of the time anyway) from Wick, and keeping us company was a German crew in their small airplane who we met up at Andrew’s office a day before. It is always a good idea to go out together and be in radio contact throughout so that one can relay distress radio calls if the other has problems along the way. Next stop was to be the eastern part of Iceland, a place I was unfamiliar with, called Hornafjordur (nobody said Icelandic names were easy!) also mercifully called Hofn, for short.

The Germans nearly ended in a disaster, trying to fly below the cloud base, thinking that visibility is better than being in the clouds. I thought otherwise and climbed up to 10,000 feet. Mind you, this airplane only goes up to 11,000 feet altitude. I broke through the clouds at around 9,000 feet and found the lovely sun, blue skies above that. I radioed the Germans who by now, had anticipated badly and at that point had gone so low, that they were reported to skimming the waves. So low that Scotland radio could not reach them. I told them that, at my altitude, things were fine and sunny. At their level, the thick overcast clouds appeared to meet the sea. Long story short, they made it up, without becoming a meal for the Orca (killer whales).

The scenery was bare, blue skies above and grey clouds below. If anything had happened to the engines at this point, we’d have to go down into the clouds and grope around for gaps in the cloud formation and, hopefully, find the Faeroe Islands. Look up the map, you’ll see how remote they are. Normally these Islands are always covered by low clouds and these Islands have treacherous coastlines with fjords running all along the coast line. Not a hospitable area, really, and you don’t want to be in a position where you have an emergency and are looking for the small airports on the top of the hills, making an approach in from the fjords. If I saw dragons in between the clouds, I was not hallucinating!

Anyway, since I am here to write this piece, we made it OK, by the skin of our teeth and low on fuel because of the unanticipated head winds directly in our path. Coming in on the coast of South East Iceland can be very pretty. We sighted the gravel airstrip at Hofn and made a nice landing. The tower asked us to stay in the airplane while a bunch of people, wearing space suits came with a large tub, poured chemicals into it and we were asked to alight into the tub and slosh around, while still in our immersion suit and then we had to get out those and continue sloshing in our shoes that we were wearing under the suit! It seems that they did not want “Mad Cow” disease in their rather fragile environment. We assured them that we had never visited a farm in the U.K. and then we were let in. The only "Mad" thing in our cockpit were the two of us flying jockeys. We did not feel bad sloshing around, cleansing oursleves, they did this to Prince Charles when he went to New Zealand (or was it Oz?), and he had to slosh around in his boots when he arrived from the U.K. before he set foot on the soil! No one above the law.

The second part of the trilogy will be about Hofn, Iceland in general and my experiences across Greenland. Meanwhile, actually, Iceland is not all icy and Greenland is not green, by and large it is covered with Ice all year round.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


This article is a continuation from the previous one on Seletar Airport. I have been reading Alexander Fraters book called ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon” as mentioned in my earlier blog on this book and he mentions a few things about Aviation history with respect to Singapore and Seletar. I have also added my research into this subject. For aviation history buffs, this is an interesting piece.

According to history, a French chap flew a biplane on a demonstration at Farrer Park Race Course. At the same venue, the first overseas Aircraft landed, flying in from the Britain after making numerous stops along the way, of course, in small biplanes. Later on, KLM and Imperial Airways (later became BOAC and later still British Airways) used to do the England to Australia flights with a stop over in Singapore.

The early records state that the first Imperial and KLM flights used to touch down in RAF Seletar after it was completed in 1929 and opened in 1930. RAF is for Royal Air Force and some old RAF buildings still stand and some are in use after passing down to the Singapore Air Force and subsequently in Civilian hands. In 1937, the operations moved to Singapore Marine and Land Airport at Kallang. This place was closed down in 1955 and the new Airport at Paya Lebar came into operation in that year. It seems that Singaporean Government decided that Paya Lebar would not suit the ultimate goal of a large Airport that would make Singapore a prime destination for World travelers and Changi then came into being and is what it is today.

Changi International Airport opened on 29th December 1981. Terminal 2 was added in 1990 and it has now been re-done, section by section, without anyone noticing the work and without any disruption to the flying public or Aircraft operations. Something worth emulating, in India, if ever this is possible. The Airport is equipped with Long Range radars and these are the things that show how that Government is serious on getting things done right, in advance, the first time around. Now, who can teach our politicians to the same? Are they educated enough, you think? Mrs. Vidya’s comment on my last blog prompts me to write more about development issues with respect to Singapore and I have managed to cover some of those things in a longish reply to her comment. Thank you Mrs. Vidya and I hope we can get some more anecdotes of your stay and life in Singapore.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I am sure that a lot of people don’t know that the tiny city-state of Singapore with around 4.5 million residents has more than one Airport. In fact it has several of them. Most visitors to Singapore only know about the one that is called Changi International Airport and is a gateway to this country. Older generation people, who have been to Singapore in the 70’s and 80’s will remember that they used to get in and out of the Country from an Airport called Paya Lebar. Well, that is still there, although not used for civilian flights anymore.

I am located temporarily at another civilian Airport in Singapore called as Seletar Airport. There are some charter and scheduled flights to nearby destinations from this Airport and it also has a small immigration and customs counter. Those of my readers who read my earlier blog called “Fast Jet from Oz” will know that I flew the Premier 1 “sexy jet” (as a pilot magazine has called it) from Sydney to Singapore, alighting at Seletar Airport.

The Airport is located towards the north of the Island of Singapore. As one takes off towards the straits, the Malay Peninsula comes up immediately. The runway and Airport complex is surrounded by two Golf courses; one of them is a public course. At one end, near the terminal is the Seletar Reservoir, a large lake caused by a dam built across a river and this reservoir is one of the primary sources of drinking water to Singapore. The scenery is green and fabulous, in this entire area. I have seen water monitor lizards casually walking across the greens and some of the arterial roads around here as well. Very cool!

The latest news about Seletar is that the Singapore Government has announced that this place is going to be made into an Aerospace hub attracting massive investments, Aircraft hangar and maintenance facilities and creating around 15,000 new technical jobs. Singaporeans are confident that projects that are announced by the Government are taken up expeditiously and this one, with new buildings, new roads, runways extensions, tarmac expansions and many civil works will be completed in two years. Well, I can’t say we can compare with anything in India with this; India’s pace of doing things is pathetic and poor quality to say the least. I have heard that Singapore plans everything 10 years in advance. We in India plan 10 years from now what we needed ten years back. C’mon, everyone knows this, even die-hard, chest beating, flag waving patriots.

Anyway, back to Seletar, there are a few Aircraft Maintenance facilities here at the moment and they are also set to expand. Just yesterday, I came across a small company with vintage Russian AN-2 biplanes and AN-12 cargo Airplanes standing on the tarmac. It seems this company flies around the Indonesian archipelago, collecting fish for import into Singapore. They fly fish in biplanes!! Fantastic, the scope of business and ideas that can come up in the business of aviation. Biplanes, for those who are not initiated into aviation, is an Aircraft that has two sets of wings, mounted parallel to each other. Most of the First World war and earlier warbird were Biplanes. Even Wright Brothers first design, the “Flyer 1” was a Biplane. Monoplanes are what we have in the World today.

Seletar has a bright future, so does Singapore. Wish we had farsighted officers in India who put action into their words and make such facilities for aviation in India. If Mysore can get half of what Seletar is going to get in two years, we should all be having a party to celebrate.

Monday, June 05, 2006


My readers, who have always encourage me on my blog, have been asking me if I have taken a hiatus from writing. One of my blogger friends, in an e-mail to me, has even described my intermittent writing as “deficit monsoon”! Actually, I have been a bit tied up with some of the projects that I have on hand and have not been able to sit down and put some of my thoughts together. One thing that happened was that my trip back to the US got delayed to the first week of July. That prevented me from writing about the T-28 Trojan that I wrote about in an earlier piece.

One of my blogger friends who keeps encouraging me with his comments is Mr. Govindraj Ethiraj who has a blog of his own:
He is a journalist and writes about current issues on his blog. He mentioned to me once, in a comment on my blog, about a book called “Beyond the Blue Horizon” written by Alexander Frater. I have Frater’s book in my collection called “Chasing the Monsoon” which was also made into a TV Documentary. Beyond the Blue… is a travelogue of sorts, based on the old Imperial Airways of the U.K. and their overseas routes. I had been traveling around, as normal and began visiting book stores everywhere to find this book that had been recommended by Mr. Govindraj. Finally, running out on time, I placed an order with a book store here in Singapore who then kindly proceeded to import the same for me. Two weeks later, I have it with me.

“Beyond the Blue…” is actually Alexander Frater trying to follow the original Imperial Airways route from London to Brisbane in Australia. The original Imperial Airways flew out of Croydon instead of Heathrow and Frater seems to make the trip as close to the original route, landing in rather interesting places. I just started to read the book and I know I am going to have fun going through it. Some of the interesting places, I have been to, and some of them I have seen from the air while flying. Some, I have been chased away from (Gwadar and Pasni in today’s Pakistan, earlier called Baluchistan during Imperial times). That’s a whole different story! I will blog a little more about the book as I go along and also on other matters that may come up in my little field. Thanks for the continued support from readers.