340A Atlantic Crossing – Part 1

It was two o’clock in the morning and I was caught in a palpable struggle between courage and fear. After a lifetime of dreaming and a couple years of planning, I had already made the shortest leg of my intended Atlantic crossing from Northern Canada to Greenland and traveled its incredible west coast from Kangerlussuaq to Nuuk, and then on to the southern tip of Greenland at Narsarsuaq. I’d gotten to fly the Bluei West One approach made famous by Earnest Gann in Fate is the Hunter — the most scenic and amazing flight of my life so far!

Mike Hahn, left, and I (right) met at the 2017 TTCF Convention and learned we both dreamed of flying across the North Atlantic. We recruited professional ferry pilot James Creamer (center) to join us.

The rest of this trip was now about my biggest goal — to cross the Atlantic piloting my own airplane and landing in Scotland, the place my family left to come to North America more than one hundred thirty years ago. As I lay there partway through my journey, my guts churned as I faced my fears and tried to resolve the struggle: “Things have gone well, but am I pushing my luck too far? Do I really need to cross an ocean? What is driving me to do this? Could I be ok with returning home, having completed this already amazing flight to Greenland that has met my partner’s goals, or will I struggle with regret if I don’t do the rest of this trip?”

“Ever Thought of Crossing the Atlantic in your Twin Cessna?”

I hadn’t known fellow TTCF member and 310 owner Mike Hahn for more than a few minutes when he asked this question over lunch at the 2017 Convention in Tucson. The question made my head tilt slightly as I recalled all those times I had planned the trip on Foreflight, and even more times growing up when I had opened the atlas to see the routes my ancestors took to get to North America.

That chance lunch meeting with Mike kicked off a friendship, a research and maintenance project, and ultimately a challenge and adventure that I’d dreamed of since I was a teen — to cross the Atlantic piloting my own plane.

Mike’s goal was to see Greenland flying down low, a task well-suited to a piston twin, and in particular my 240-gallon equipped (four nacelle tanks) 1980 RAM VII 340A, N340EL. The rugged and unforgiving landscape makes a second engine advisable, and a turbine would not have the fuel efficiency down low to fly the fjords and coast the way we wanted to. And with 240 gallons of fuel, the various scenarios for possible diversions, where the weather and fog conditions can change quickly, were all possible. While I was also very excited to see Greenland, the bigger goal for me, I thought, was to set foot on Scotland after crossing the ocean in my plane.

I was by far the least-experienced of this partnership. At over 2,000 hours total time, most of my flying has been back-country and float flying in my Aviat Huskys and C-185. It was only five years ago that I decided my flying needed to expand to a multi-engine instrument platform in order to meet my company’s business travel demands. In the intervening years I have accumulated almost 700 hours in my 340, getting to know it pretty well in a wide range of operating conditions and interesting places — but I would never consider myself an “old hand” at it.

Not like Mike, that is, who on the other end of the spectrum is a 28,000-hour 787 captain with thousands of hours in Twin Cessnas and a wide range of experience in almost any other plane you can name. He knows the procedures used by the big tin and, like me, he is a stickler for details and safety. I had the right airplane and the burning goal to cross the ocean, but Mike had the desire to see Greenland VFR and down low over the coasts.

The combination of skills, experience, and equipment made the prospect of fulfilling this dream an increasingly real possibility the more I thought about it following our chance meeting. I departed the 2017 Convention with the idea burrowing deeper and deeper in my brain. When else would the opportunity of fulfilling one of my dreams present itself this way? I would get to fly the trip in my plane, but would have a second set of eyes and ears and a well-experienced partner in the adventure.

Planning – Devil in the Details:

I am fortunate to own N340EL, an airplane that has been upgraded in almost every way. A relatively low-time airframe (3,600 hours) with a RAM VII upgrade, new MT composite props, a full glass panel, and new interior, it delivers performance that still thrills me when I fly it. I knew my plane could be made ready for the task. In fact, my plane had made the crossing before as its logbooks show that it lived for a short time in Portugal and Germany. And, of course, I needed to prepare myself as well. I was extremely fortunate to have a team nearby with the ability to get both the plane and me fully ready for such a trip.

Bolduc Aviation, one of the top engine shops anywhere, was key to verifying the health of the beating hearts on the plane, including sourcing, rebuilding, and providing a lot of spares — mags, starter and adapter, alternators, etc., — to make the flight. And even more importantly, Dave Johnston, my mechanic and friend with 30 years of Twin Cessna maintenance, had recently taken the position of head mechanic at Twin Cities Flight Training, right on the Anoka County Airport where my hangar is. I used to have to travel to Dave for maintenance but with both of us now on the same field, he was as gung-ho to participate in the project as Mike and I. Over four years Dave has built a detailed knowledge of my plane’s history and invested much of his time and personal commitment to maintaining it at the highest level. He would put in a lot of overtime with me in the months leading up to the trip.

We embarked on a year-long maintenance program, going through all the plane’s systems to assure we arrived at departure day with everything as perfect as it could be. We installed new de-icing boots, all accessories were inspected or rebuilt to zero time, GAMI injectors were installed and lean of peak operations tested, a new digital autopilot was installed (STEC 3100), we sourced spares including redundant fuel pumps, and tested all the fuel indications and transfer system — every possible element and failure mode we could think of! The time to be thinking, “I wonder if such-and-such system is going to last until such-and such time,” is not when you are halfway over an ocean!

And last, I have Steve Thibault as my CFII, also at Anoka Airport. My training ahead of the trip included simulated ditchings and other worst-case scenarios, both in my plane and also in Steve’s simulator. I practiced low-ceiling and IMC engine failures on simulated departures at the airports we would encounter enroute long before seeing them in real life, just so that when I was actually there the surrounding terrain would be familiar and the decisions on the “what ifs” would already be worked out. I even bought and set up my own simulator at home, so I could fly all the approaches that might become necessary.

I would not have made the trip if I didn’t have the highest confidence in this incredible support team.

Mike and I also studied and discussed emergency procedures regularly, and bought all the necessary safety equipment. (Do you know how hard it is to resist pulling the cord on a new offshore raft, just to prove to yourself it will work when you do need it? It’s really hard!) We even held conference calls with Robert DeLaurentis, the author of Zen Pilot, who writes of his ocean crossing adventures and is currently readying his next adventure of flying pole-to-pole in his Turbo Commander named “Citizen of the World.”

We still wanted to stack the deck even further in our favor and we were fortunate to be able to hire the expertise of ferry pilot James Creamer. Jim is one of those incredible pilots described in the novel Air Vagabonds: Oceans, Airmen, and Adventures. (One of the best aviation novels I have read, but I’m glad I read it after our trip — it has some harrowing tales in it!) Our trip would be his 67th and 68th Atlantic crossings. He has delivered single engine Cessnas, Bonanzas, Cirrus, and many other singles, as well as a bunch of twins, all over the world. He’s even taken a Cessna 210 across the Pacific! Jim’s unique expertise (and personality) were a big advantage on our trip. Mike had met Jim on a flight when he was returning from delivering a plane to Europe – another chance encounter that was the hallmark of this trip. I met him for the first time the day we departed when we landed at Milwaukee to pick him up, but I quickly came to appreciate his detailed focus on safety in all decisions.

On the first legs to Northern Canada, Jim pulled out a well-developed spreadsheet and began tracking every detail, every half hour: CHTs, EGTs, MAP, RPM, fuel flows, airspeed, altitude, temperatures, etc. Everything! He always verifies all operating details of any aircraft he’s going to fly over an ocean first on the many hours over land before committing to a big water crossing.

My 340 got a thorough going-over prior to the trip that included rebuilding quite a few parts and stocking up on spares to carry.

Collecting all the data and analyzing it allows detection of any developing trends. This commitment to details and safety made me know we had the right guy along. Additionally, Jim’s knowledge of airspace, procedures, and people along the way would come in handy on multiple occasions.

Conquering Fear

I must admit, this was the most difficult part of the trip for me. And truth be told, I didn’t give it much thought until the segment of the trip where the umbilical cord would get cut and we’d head “out to sea.” I have had many flights across all the Great Lakes and have traveled to and around the Bahama out-islands many times, but to me there was something quite different psychologically about spending hours and hours out of sight of land over the frigid and unforgiving North Atlantic.

I hold a quote I heard a few years ago fairly close: “Fate makes nonsense of all our striving.” In 2017, I lost my bother-in-law and close friend to a heart attack at age 50. Deep loss struck again when my father died in a motorcycle accident not many months later.

These things had been a very tough reminder that life can change quickly. But they were also strong motivation for me to never take anything for granted, and to live out the big things while I can. This provided part of my drive to do the trip as well as the motivation to be cautious about the adversity and challenges that can lurk around any corner. A serious engine failure 300 feet over the trees in a float plane earlier in 2019, which resulted in an intentional stall-spin to bring it back to land on a mud flat in a ravine, further proved this point for me — things can go wrong despite all one’s best efforts and most acute attention to details.

The reality that we would be in serious trouble if anything went wrong over the North Atlantic had certainly crossed my mind a time or two. I’d even recorded a video for my wife, in case I didn’t make it back, which I had left with my best friend before we departed. But I didn’t allow my brain to focus too much on the what ifs. It just seemed to me that it was better to focus on making everything go right, in order to have the experience and realize the dream.

That said, there came moments of doubt and fear that presented themselves during the trip. They appeared in ways I hadn’t anticipated. This, however, was one of the most significant benefits of the adventure for me.