|FRIGID FALL FLYING. Out in the cold and snow at minus-20 degrees C, the Marchetti is prepared to cross the North Atlantic.|
If there’s one absolute truth about flying the North Atlantic in normally aspirated piston aircraft, it’s ice. Those pilots who’ve been flying the ocean at low level for a few years recognize airframe icing as perhaps the most dangerous threat.
It doesn’t matter much if your airplane is certified for icing. Standard pneumatic deice boots can provide a slight edge, and you probably have a little more advantage if your airplane is equipped with full TKS, but icing is an equal-opportunity killer. In various forms, it has brought down airplanes of all sizes and descriptions, and it continues to account for two or three airplanes each year on the ferry run from Labrador to Greenland to Iceland to Europe.
As I sit here in Goose Bay, Labrador, watching the snow fall and occasionally glimpsing the green/orange November glow of the aurora through breaks in the clouds, I can only dream of continuing across the ocean. Most of Southern Greenland is down and out with fog and icing conditions, symptomatic of late fall. So far, I’ve been stuck for six days, waiting for a break in the weather, listening to the occasional wolf howl in the local forest and “enjoying” the brisk minus-10 degree C weather.
On this trip, I’m flying a Marchetti SF.260, an Italian sportplane. Under normal conditions, the Marchetti is a magnificent aerobatic airplane, used by dozens of foreign governments as an entry-level military trainer. In keeping with its Italian lineage, the Marchetti is an athletic performer, possessed of almost sensuous handling. I’m also told it’s notoriously intolerant of icing in any form. I’d rather not find out about that.
The Marchetti comes standard with fuel tanks everywhere, four altogether, a pair of 11-gallon main-wing containers and two 18-gallon tip tanks. I have an additional 32 gallons of ferry fuel installed behind me in what would normally be the kid’s seat, but the placard limits that tank to 80% capacity, or 26 gallons. (If I was feeling brave, I could go to the full 32 gallons and risk being slightly outside the aft CG limit. I’ve flown airplanes beyond the aft limit before. I’m no longer brave/stupid [choose one].) This brings total fuel to 84 gallons. At a typical burn of 14 gph, I have exactly six hours to exhaustion.
The leg across the Labrador Sea to Narsarsuaq is 680 nm, exactly four hours at the Marchetti’s typical 170-knot cruise. In other words, I have a two-hour reserve—not much in the far north. It had better be enough. It would be difficult to fit the SF.260 with more fuel, as the left passenger seat is filled to the roof with survival gear, charts, emergency rations, bottled water and my one concession to comfort, a CD player. Flying diagonally across the United States from Santa Monica, Calif., to Bangor, Maine, and on to Goose Bay, the sounds of Bergeron, Goodwin, Kubis, Ferguson and Kenton have helped keep me awake.
But, for now, I wait for Greenland to freeze over, a phenomenon that occurs each fall/winter in mid-November. Narsarsuaq, my next destination, is near the coast, 42 miles up the Tunugviarfik Fjord, so it rarely experiences temperatures below about minus-15 degrees C. Colder, however, is better: As the air gets colder, it becomes drier, and for that reason, super-cooled water droplets are less likely to stick to an airplane wing in extremely low temperatures.
If Greenland becomes cold enough, I hope to cross at 5,500 feet with the help of tailwinds, land in Greenland just long enough to refuel and relaunch for Reykjavik, taking maximum advantage of the sparse six hours of daylight. With luck, I hope to be off Narsarsuaq early enough to clear the southern tip of Greenland while I can still see it, then fly straight to Iceland below the clouds.
I’ve been caught by the ice several times, mostly on this route, and it’s always a problem when the limit of your deicing equipment is pitot heat. The worst instance was in a new but defenseless Piper Archer some 25 years ago. I was headed from Vero Beach, Fla., to Genoa, Italy, heavily tanked and easily capable of making the direct 1,350 nm hop from Goose Bay to Reykjavik without stopping in Greenland. That meant I could avoid the island continent’s super-expensive fuel, in those days $8 per gallon—now $15 per gallon. In this case, that was a good thing, as the weather was characteristically bad in both Godthab and Narsarsuaq.
I was tracking across the NDB at Prins Christian Sund, on Greenland’s south tip, when I got caught in a band of icing that seemed to go on forever. Within a few minutes, it became obvious the only way out was down before the ice deformed the wing so badly I’d lose control. I descended from 9,000 feet, dropped out the bottom of the clouds at 500 feet and continued down to about 100 feet above the waves, where the temperature was barely 1 degree C. It took a half-hour for the ice to sublimate as I droned on toward Reykjavik, watching the angry Atlantic rolling 20 feet at the crests just below me.
If you ever need a lesson in your insignificance on the face of the planet, the Davis Strait between Greenland and Iceland at 100 feet is a great place to study. I stayed at that altitude all the way to Iceland, then ATC forced me to pull up into the clouds to shoot the ILS approach into Reykjavik.
After nearly a week of waiting in Goose, I called my friends at Halifax FIC and was given the news I hoped I wouldn’t have to hear. Greenland would be down for at least another week. Accordingly, I called the client in East Midland, U.K., and suggested that he’d save money by sending me home rather than paying my daily rate to babysit the Marchetti in Goose Bay with nowhere to go. Fortunately, he agreed, and I was on the next Air Canada jet to Halifax, then on to Toronto and finally home to Los Angeles the following morning.
As this is written, I’m a week away from going back to Goose to complete this, my 201st international ferry flight. I hope it will be anticlimactic and not worth writing about, but if it isn’t, you’ll probably read about it in this space next month.
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected]