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.