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.


Vidya said...

Wow... that was wonderful... I really felt like I was reading a passage right out of the adventures of Captain W.E. Johns' protagonist, Biggles! Of course, I'm sure that it helps that you weren't being shot at by enemy planes!

Just out of curiousity, does anyone really read Biggles these days? I asked one of my younger cousins why he didnt read that instead of playing 'command and conquer' and all i got was a very blank look... a quick survery of about 30 kids (hmmm.. compared to my age, of course) under 20 showed, none of them had heard of Biggles... where has the system left them behind?

Athul said...

hi sir ,
what is this " ferry tanks " u had mentioned this above ,

ie flying without ferry tanks in older planes across the polar area .

could u elaborate bit more on this .

22 June, 2006

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks Vidya, the experience was indeed similar to Bigglesworth's own (although he was a fictional character). I wasn't being shot by enemy planes as you mention, I was only worried about a dragon coming out of the misty fjords of the Faeroes! There's more interesting stuff coming up as i continue this journey. My co-pilot almost quit flying after this! As for Biggles, I did a bit of research, it says on wikipedia that most of the Biggles books were taken off bookshelves because they were not "politically correct" in term of today's realities. Seems the terms that were used in those books are today considered racial slurs (such as calling the germans as "huns"). I think some of the same things happened to Enid Blyton (remember?) books where some of the characters were gollywogs and so on. So much for political correctness. We read all that stuff growing up and did not turn out to be racial fanatics, nazis or skin heads!

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Athul, "regular" long range Aircraft have big enough tanks to carry fuel in them so that really long non stop flights may be made. For example, the Airbus A340-500 is a long range jet passenger Aircraft that can do, say, Singapore to New york direct. I did Singapore to los Angeles direct last month and heading out there just now, as a passenger, of course. Then there are small Aircraft that are for mainly short sectors such as the one I flew on this trip. These are manufactured mostly in the US, most general Aviation and Corporate Aircraft are US made. They have to be flwon and delivered to countries like India which is half way round the World from the US. This one was going from India to be delivered as a used Aircraft in Western Canada. The shortest route that takes us the maximum over land area is the North Atlantic route. Even there, there are vast stretches of water to cross and with the limited fuel capacity of our tanks, we have to either install additional fuel tanks in the cabin (after removing seats) that are also fed into the engine, these are approved by the airworthiness authorities OR find places in between such as points in Greenland for landing (that we normally avoid).

Ferry tanking and flying non stop is sometimes cheaper and safer. Additional landings in Greenland can be more expensive in terms of landing charges, more costly fuel and bad weather. In our case, we did not have a choice on this particular trip. Anyway, it gave me subject matter to write after six years!

Anonymous said...

Hi Capt

Fascinating stuff. As always, is there some way one can hitch a ride with you when you go continent hopping next !



Gauri Satya said...

What an exciting and thrilling experience! It makes a
wonderful reading. Kannadigas should take pride that
they have a captain with them who has achieved such
great things! In fact, while reading it, I was
remembering some old English war movies I had seen in
the 50s and 60s! You must compile your experiences
into a book. Very few Indians, I think, have the kind
of experience you have, and of course none among the
Kannadigas. It will be a good contribution and a rare
contribution from a Kannadiga in your area.

I have been visiting your blog and reading the pieces
you are posting. They make very interesting reading,
detail the wonderful experiences you have. I liked,
in particular, your posting on Mysore Airport, what
are the hurdles that lay for the future. I am
wondering whether I should take some points from your
observations and compile a report for Business
Standard, as a follow up to the latest development -
the AAI's insistence for the remaining piece of land
and rerouting the Mysore-Ooty road for taking up the
airport work. I think I will do it. If possible do
post me your views on the Mandakalli airstrip and the
present proposal briefly. I will quote you and try to
make a story.

Thanks and take care in your air adventures!

Gouri Satya

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks Mr. Govindraj for your kind comment. I read your recommendation, Alex Frater's Beyond the Blue and I thought to myself, why should not put down what I have done, at least from recent memory. Thats going to come out in this series. The next one will come out soon.

Thanks Mr. Gauri Satya for your words of encouragement and for permiting me to use your e-mail for posting as a comment.

Vijendra Rao, the critical outsider said...

You make me want to stop writing. What is writing without travelling and the dense experience it gives you?

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Don't stop blogging Vijendra. After suggestions received from wellsishers, I am begining to write a little more freely, not in so much of a documentary style of writing that i may have done till now, including this piece.

I am posting Part 2 of this trilogy now, with hopefully a more freewheeling style. Please let me know if this is entertaining at least!

Vijendra Rao, the critical outsider said...

Imitation is the best form of flattery. But, how do I imitate friend Anup? I am no pilot? I cannot fly, except in a fanciful mood?
Captain, I re-read this piece, with the help of the atlas, this time. If you would permit me, I want to translate your to-be book into Kannada. My Kannada, you trust me, is good. If you say yes, I will henceforth read your aviation blogs as a would-be translator.

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

I am honoured that you want to be a would-be translator to a would- be book! Honestly, I have no objection, lets see when and how the book may come along. I thank you for your kind support. I have no doubt about your Kannada translation abilities. GVK also felt that publishing in Kannada, even serialized, may be a good idea for wider exposure of the topic.

Vijendra Rao, the critical outsider said...

It skipped my mind while making the offer that you yourself could be a good Kannada writer. It is just that we have been communicating so much in Englihs that I forgot that you are a Kannadiga! I will translate it provided you yourself have not intentions of writing it in Kannada as well.

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

I am a born and brought up Kannadiga but unfortunately, I cannot claim to have the proficiency to be able to translate correctly, English to Kannada. I had no plans to do a Kannada version, however, I am for it, so long as it is done by someone else other than me!