340A Atlantic Crossing – Part 2

It was two o’clock in the morning, and while muted from its peak, the sun still leaked around the blinds at my window in our Narsarsuaq hotel. All was quiet, I was tired, and I needed sleep — the next day we would launch across a long stretch of very cold and unforgiving water. We would lift off from this secure strip of land, turn east, and trust my machine and skills fully for four hours where if anything went wrong, the outcome could be very dire.

L to R: Mike Hahn, James Creamer, and me – “crossing the pond.”

Narsarssuaq was magical, as was all of Greenland we’d seen. Majestic peaks soar from the turquoise fjords all around the valley where the airport lies, and icebergs lumber slowly by in the bay just off the end of the runway. Researchers we had met at the hotel had gone out for a couple hours and caught cod and char right off the road next to the runway.

If you read Part 1 of this series in the December 2019 issue, you know that my goal was to cross the ocean to Scotland, where my mother’s family was originally from before a potato shortage sent them to North America. This dovetailed nicely with fellow TTCF member Mike Hahn’s goal to tour Greenland at low altitude. The Greenland part of the trip was now mostly behind us except for a quick tour around the tip and some of the west coast.

In truth, the upcoming leg wasn’t different from any other flight — we plan, we factor for the safety margins required, process all the information that enables our go/no-go decisions, and confirm we and our plane are ready (you use the TTCF FRAT, right?). The airplane doesn’t know it is over water, and there’s no reason the flight should be any different from any other of the thousands my plane has made before.

But this flight struck me differently and caused me to dive deeper into risk assessment; not so much the risk of the weather, flight conditions, or the plane, which are quantifiable, but the deeper assessment of what was driving me to make the flight in the first place.  Why was it so important to me to do this? Could I turn home and be satisfied, or did I really have to complete this trip?

This last question was the only one that mattered. I realized my answer was a resounding: “Yes, I have to do it.” If I didn’t finish the trip, I’d regret it for the rest of my life! Once this became clear to me, I slept great.

Narsarsuaq to Reykjavik

We departed downwind from Narsarsuaq – the penalty of 10 knots on the tail is nothing compared to the impossible climb that is required in the opposite direction to clear the hills and icecap. One becomes used to tailwind landings and departures in the coastal fjords of Greenland!

It was a perfect day with the sun filling the Narsarsuaq fjord, making the turquoise water below and the statue of Leif Erikson on the far shore gleam. This is certainly one of the most beautiful places I have been on earth, and I was a little sad to be leaving it behind.

This superlative didn’t last long, however, as the initial VFR clearance we’d gotten – in order to meander along the fjord and climb to the south and west around the peaks of the very rugged terrain – gave us vistas that consistently topped the previous ones!

After a short while, we were over top of the ice cap climbing to the east, while maintaining VFR views to the south coast and the east coast ahead. Our weather briefing showed clear skies and light winds until we reach 300 miles or so off the coast of Iceland. And while weather data gets a bit less specific in the oceanic areas, ground temperatures in Iceland showed we would likely encounter some icing off the coast but would be fine if we descended to a lower level. According to Jim Creamer, our Atlantic crossing specialist who accompanied Mike and me, these were pretty typical conditions around Iceland. The weather develops and changes almost continuously.

When filing my flight plan I requested and was given FL230, rather than the FL250 standard flight level for VHF communications with Gander Oceanic control. I wasn’t sure that I’d get it,

but that last 2000 feet makes quite a difference in comfort and performance in the 340, so if we could get it, we thought, “Why not?” However when we were handed to Iceland Radio, they continued asking if we were climbing (without ever stating any basis for why we needed to cancel the VFR flight plan we were on, which we would then abandon to pick up the IFR at a waypoint near the coast of Greenland). 

The controller was very pleasant, but as we were handed off to Gander Oceanic control, I was informed that they were “going to have to report me.” For what, we still didn’t know! Our best guess is that we filed (and our plan was accepted) for FL230, rather than FL250 (the purpose of which is to assure VHF communications would be maintained.) Our plan was to fly FL230 and test the radio with Gander and request a climb by bouncing with an overhead commercial flight on guard, if it was needed. (It wasn’t…and Gander was fine with FL230 after the hand-off from Greenland Radio.) 

No consequences from the “report” have occurred, and there were no issues at all on the return trip through Greenland. Our best guess is that this may have been a case of a lack of coordination between the filing agency at Narsarsuaq and Greenland Radio; safe radio communications were maintained at all times, and the 340 breathed a bit easier at FL230! I would file for it again but would also probably discuss with each sector to regain the approval we first received (we did get the approval from Gander but did not discuss or gain the approval with Greenland Radio Control).

IMC and Icing Ahead!

As expected, at about 300 miles off the coast of Iceland, the clouds started to gather.  The OAT was -20C, so we expected to see some icing. We were right, but it was light icing only, and intermittent. We continued on at FL230 for another fifty miles or so until the layers disappeared and the light rime started building more quickly. At 250 miles to go to the coast, I requested a block altitude down to 8,000 feet from Iceland Radio in order to allow us to descend until we either saw a good layer or broke out below the freezing layer. 

Being based in the upper Midwest, I’m used to planning for and flying in icing conditions.  Plus, my new boots and icing systems were all working well. Regardless, I sure don’t like to stay in any icing without having a plan for getting out of it. We were denied the block altitude request due to other traffic outbound from Keflavik, but we were cleared for an initial decent to 17,000. We were still picking up ice at that level, so we requested a more aggressive descent

to 11,000, thinking if we hit a layer we liked we’d just request to stay there.

We did end up going all the way down to 11,000 and the icing stopped. It was a bit unnerving to be descending down towards the cold ocean I knew lay below but Jim’s stories of flying 172s across the Atlantic at a few thousand feet to avoid icing made my concerns seem a bit silly!

We stayed in solid IMC almost all the way to the final approach fix on the ILS at Reykjavik. It was quite an experience to spend about an hour and a half in IMC over an ocean, teeing up an approach, and then busting out to see the incredible country situated so remotely in the North Atlantic. What a sight! Beautiful mountains to our north, rugged coast to our south and east, the beautiful city of Reykjavik passing below us, and the tower of Hallgrímskirkja, the City’s major church tower landmark and highest point, ahead of us.

As we touched down in light and blustery rain, I taxied clear of the runway and it hit me that I had just finished the flight that had kept me awake the night before. In hindsight, it honestly didn’t seem such a big deal, and that would be the last time I fretted at all about a water crossing. As with many things in life, experience puts things in perspective and widens our boundaries.

Reykjavík and the FBO – New Friends for Life

Arnor Styrmisson and Sigurdur “Siggy” Sigurdsson manage the newest FBO at Reykjavik airport (aptly named “Reykjavik FBO”). I’ve never had such a welcome and great introduction to a place as we had here! Not only were customs and fuel a non-issue thanks to Arnor and Siggy, but coffee, information about anything we wanted, good jokes, and friendship is a given with these guys! In fact, we found ourselves in Reykjavik for a few nights, and on one of them Arnor got us a reservation at 3 Frakkar, a spectacular and non-touristy restaurant with truly Icelandic fare. Here we ate hashed fish, fermented shark, Minke whale, and Puffin – things we just can’t get at home. I am sold on the whale and hashed fish which were excellent! But I’ll need to keep working on fermented shark and Puffin!

I can’t speak more highly of Reykjavik FBO. This place is a gem, as are the folks who run it. In fact, we hit it off so well that Arnor hopped in the 340 with us on our way back home, making the return trip to Minnesota and staying with my wife and me for nearly a week, flying to Oshkosh with me and meeting many other TTCF members at the AirVenture gathering. My wife and I also returned to Iceland in the fall, spending more time with Arnor and his family, with whom we’ve come to be great friends. We are planning further flying adventures with Arnor here in the US this coming summer. Both Arnor and his dad are accomplished pilots, and it was an unexpected blessing of the trip that we met such wonderful international pilot friends!

Reykjavik to Wick – First Departure

Our time in Reykjavik was a wonderful break from the many hours in the cockpit, but we had intended only two nights. On our third morning, we awoke refreshed and made our way to the plane, saying our goodbyes to our new friends and filing our flight plan to Wick, Scotland. Departure was into IFR conditions at 1,000 feet, but the weather was benign, and we would be on top at about 8,000.

Shortly after lift-off, our first gremlins of the trip arrived. My annunciator was showing that the right alternator wasn’t functioning and in addition the vacuum indicator was pegged at its maximum. Lovely. We continued to climb as we assessed the situation, popping into

the IMC as we requested an altitude hold while we worked the issues. The alternator appeared to be a just an annunciator indication problem — the EMS showed the right alternator at full performance, and that made sense to me given it was a new alternator installed just a month before!

The vacuum issue, on the other hand, was a bit more perplexing. We cycled the boots and they worked, but the indicator continued to stay maxed out. With

the prospect for icing always present

in the North Atlantic regardless of season, I elected to return to Reykjavik to troubleshoot. The mechanics there quickly diagnosed a stuck regulator

in the wing root on the right side and resolved the problem. By this time, however,  the airport would be closed at Wick if we continued on. So, darn

it all, we HAD to spend another night in Reykjavik! We all took that in good humor and were happy to eat more Minke whale and devise hilarious business plans to use Twin Cessnas to

“import, possibly legally” this incredibly delicious meat (think the best Kobe beef you’ve ever had, and then better…) to the US! Whaling ethics aside, (and consider that one whale is equal to about a thousand sheep) — well, it’s just spectacular and I highly recommended you try it!

Reykjavík to Wick – Second Departure

With the previous day’s issues resolved, we woke to an even nicer day in Reykjavík. However, the weather in Wick was fogged-out with a ceiling at worm height, and with visibility as if the worm had cataracts. Great!

The local forecast had the fog lifting around noon. Or maybe 1 or 2 or possibly not at all.  So, with that solid forecast, we calculated fuel needed for a diversion to either Shetland to the north of Wick, or Stornoway in the Hebrides to the southwest. Weather at our alternates would be good all day, and fuel was more than ample for either.

With the previous day’s gremlins banished, we departed with fingers crossed that the ocean fog at Wick would clear by the time we got there. It was a calm and beautiful crossing as we were passed from Iceland Oceanic Control over to Scottish Control. And when my eyes picked up the coast of Scotland, the 130 years of living in North America gave way to the inexplicable draw that “the old sod” has on so many of us Scots abroad. I swear I could hear bagpipes, taste the peated Scotch, and see Brigadoon materializing in the mist as we drifted over top the west coast of the highlands!

As we crossed over the west coast, control brought us lower and lower, setting us up for the full approach at Wick. With satellite texting on-board, Jim had been communicating regularly with our ground support crew in the US who were sending us current METARS that showed the fog had been lifting and that visibility was such that we would at least get in with an approach. 

However (and I’m guessing Mike and Jim may not agree with this), I am fairly certain that because there was a Scotsman on board (me), at 5000 feet the fog fully dissipated and gave us a view of Wick airport off our right. What a sight! Queue the bagpipe; we’d made it!

We broke off the full approach to go visually…we thought. But apparently you have to specifically say, “I am requesting cancellation of IFR and proceeding VFR” rather than just

“airport in sight, requesting VFR.” Not saying the magic words will cost you about 65 pounds ($85 USD) in additional service fees over a VFR arrival!  (Note for next time — always fully cancel IFR and confirm it has been cancelled whenever arriving visually in the UK!)

L to R: James, our new friend Arnor Styrmisson, and me – on our way home.

Wick to Dundee and back to Wick

We reveled in arriving at Wick, one of the original Crimson Route WWII airports still in operation. The folks at the FBO there are superb, and those done flying for the day get a shot of Old Pulteney – the local Scotch from the area. Jim and I would get that treat when we got back later that afternoon.

With the extra night layover in Reykjavik, Mike was starting to get a bit tight on his timeline to hop commercial back to the US and resume his work schedule with American Airlines. With the perfect weather that had arrived

(due to me being Scottish – I’m sure of it!), we took advantage and made a VFR flight at low altitude across most of the country from north to south in order

to get Mike to Dundee and on a quick train into Edinburgh (landing fees were exorbitant in Edinburgh – something like $1,500!) This flight was so achingly beautiful that all three of us had sore cheeks from smiling! 

The late afternoon air was warm in Dundee as we took pictures and reveled in the accomplishment of bringing a Twin Cessna “across the pond.” The culmination of the time Mike and I had spent planning the trip together was coming to an end and I had a sense of slight melancholy that this segment of the adventure was over. 

But this feeling lifted as Jim and I flew back over the hills toward the Highland. The setting sun to the west was giving a warm glow with clouds only across the west side of Scotland – something most Scottish would say is likely “a rrright bloh-ie lie!”  But it’s true, we had lucked out and gotten what was about the nicest summer afternoon and evening I’ve seen in many months of traveling in Scotland previously!

Back in Wick, and with a shot of Old Pulteney down, Jim and I settled in town over a great dinner and another dram, celebrating what had been an incredible achievement for me — to cross the Atlantic in my own airplane and return to the land of my ancestors. Quite a feeling indeed, and one I am not sure can be fully explained or shared. Some things are just beyond words.

Returning Home

Jim and I rented a car and drove the north coast of Scotland for a couple days, covering the remaining ground of the country I had not seen before, such as John O’Groats at Land’s End which overlooks the Orkney Islands along towards Ullapool. This is a ruggedly beautiful coast to see and worthy of a follow-up trip.

Alas, the weather brewing in the Atlantic dictated it was time to go home. With the touring and sight-seeing behind us, the return trip was a contender for the “iron saddle award.” We had an uneventful and very peaceful crossing above the weather that broke by the time we stopped in Reykjavik for a quick night. Arnor joined us at the FBO the next morning to take Mike’s seat for the crossing back to Greenland at Sondrestrom Fjord, which we had made by mid-afternoon. Refueled with 100LL and Icelandic sandwiches Arnor had packed (Shrimp sandwich…one of the best things I think I’ve ever had…who knew!), we blasted off for Iqaluit where we landed in perfect setting sun.

All the time zones we crossed on the way home had more of an impact on me than the trip east, where the frequent stops gave us time to adapt. I found myself awake very early, walking to find coffee and breakfast with Jim. Arnor, who was more adapted to the time zone, joined later, but even his extra sleep wasn’t enough to out-wait the fog: 100 foot ceiling and ¼ mile visibility!

At a reported 300 feet and 1 mile we decided to launch, but once we were rolling I’m pretty sure it dropped back to about 200 and ½ – a fun departure to get en-route for what would be a few hours of IMC banging along below the freezing layer to La Grande, Quebec, our next fuel stop.

The weather cleared south of La Grande and we flew peacefully in perfect conditions, making our way south across James Bay and Moosonee, Ontario, and then arriving through widespread convective storms at Thunder Bay, Ontario, where the company I founded and recently retired from has a townhouse for visitors to our Canadian office there. Thankfully we were able to get the courtesy van from my friends at World Fuels at CYQT to take Arnor the thirty miles

to the US border to process his immigration — a requirement for him before flying into the US.

The day was perfect to clear customs at International Falls, MN. (Duluth Airshow had KDLH airspace closed for arrival at the time we were coming.) We landed and taxied up to my hangar in Anoka, MN, on a perfect July afternoon, where my wife and friend Brad were waiting. They had hung  a sign on the hangar door celebrating our ocean crossing which had been signed by many friends and family. 

Of course, the bottle of Old Pulteney I’d stowed in the nose of the 340 was opened immediately, and we all toasted the journey. The trip was an almost impossible thing to think of doing just five years earlier, when I first set out to find a twin engine airplane and get my multi and IFR ratings. And yet, here we sat sipping Scotch, having done exactly that.

The dream of crossing an ocean had long been burning in me but it was my 340, the team around me, my friend Mike, and our new pal Jim, that made it all possible. I would do it again,

and I would encourage anyone with the interest to do it as well. It’s just a series of flights connecting places where planes can go — no differently than anywhere else — except for the amazing scenery, newfound friends, and exotic experiences like eating Puffin and delicious whale meat!