|WEATHER RULES ALL. Bill Cox ferries the “world’s brightest” Marchetti across the North Atlantic, with a fuel stop in Greenland.|
When I returned to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, in early December to complete the delivery of the world’s brightest Marchetti (yellow and red with blue stars, formerly owned by an air show pilot), I was hoping it was cold enough that ice season was pretty much over. It was, but not without a few dying gasps.
A storm was marching across Labrador, so I waited again, the frustrating but never incorrect choice. In the far north, the airplane and the weather don’t care how many trips you’ve made or how many hours you’ve logged. If you can go but decide not to, the result is usually nothing worse than a minor delay. If you shouldn’t go but do anyway…fill in the blank. The weather controls everything, with extremes to minus-40 degrees C and often-vicious blizzard conditions.
As is so often the case on that route, the problem isn’t so much the weather at opposite ends of a leg as it is the weather on the en route portion. The 500 nm of Labrador Sea between Goose Bay and Narsarsuaq is often plagued by ice from late fall through early spring. Unless you plan to buy a house in Goose Bay, you need to find the best weather window before you elect to go for it.
Rod Fifield and his staff at Woodward Aviation had taken good care of the Marchetti during my absence, and it was ready to go when I returned. Goose Bay had run out of avgas in the interim and was fueling airplanes out of barrels, but I had wisely fueled before the break.
I paused two more days to let the warm front pass through, then fired up for the 680 nm hop from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq. The SF.260 eagerly inhaled the minus-20 degree C air to an initial 5,500 feet, then leaped up to 9,000 feet 100 miles later for the crossing.
Under normal conditions, the SF.260 turns in about 170 knots cruise, but shortly after level off, I punched through some frigid CUs that coated the airplane with frosty white rime and cost me about 10 knots. The good news was the wind was solidly out of the west-northwest at 55 knots, providing a 20-knot tailwind component for my heading.
The plan was to sneak into Narsarsuaq just long enough to refuel, refile and launch for Iceland before the sun went down and I could no longer see the ice cap for the short snow crossing. The direct route to Reykjavik, via 62N 40W and 63N 30W, requires about a 70-mile leg over the narrowing southern cap, already 8,000 feet tall.
Sunset in Narsarsuaq was at 2:48 p.m. local time in early December, so the last three hours of the second leg would be in the dark, always a little disconcerting when you’re flying near icing conditions. Accordingly, I lofted to 11,000 feet after my quick, expensive turn at Narsarsuaq (avgas is $17/gallon). Eleven thousand was about as much as I could take with a standard muff heater that wasn’t nearly up to providing any recognizable heat at the minus-30 degree C temperatures aloft.
Again, the tailwinds were there, pushing the SF.260 to a 200-knot groundspeed. Still, flying IFR at night in the clouds in winter could hardly be called fun. Night can be spooky. There are certain aircraft sounds that can only be heard in the dark, where they’re harder to troubleshoot and often impossible to identify. The engine may love the cold temperatures, but the rest of the airplane and the pilot definitely don’t.
Manipulating charts and flashlights while contending with gloves and a parka is always a challenge. Drop a flashlight, and you need to first find your backup light so you can see the original, then somehow manage to contort enough to reach it, meanwhile struggling with heavy clothes and heavy boots and cursing profusely. It’s a task made all the more difficult in a two-seat airplane with a ferry tank in the rear and essentially no room to move.
Most radio controls won’t accommodate gloves, so you’ll usually need to remove them to work the avionics and GPS. For all those who believe ferry flying is a high-paying job that’s romantic and glamorous, try it in a tight two-seater in the dark of winter, and you may revise your opinion. If you’re looking for the end of the rainbow, you have to be willing to put up with the rain.
Reykjavik, Iceland, is the pearl of the North Atlantic, but the residents would just as soon keep that a secret. Most of the big airplanes fly into the old Cold War–era U.S. Air Force Base at Keflavik, 30 miles west of the city, but little guys are welcome at the short downtown runway in the heart of town. Icelandair does operate a fleet of F-27 commuters into Reykjavik, but the runways are too short for Boeings.
I’ve made perhaps 100 trips through Reykjavik, and if you have to be stuck somewhere in winter, Reykjavik is a good place. Directly across the street from the Flight Services office is the Loftleidir Hotel where most of us stay during overnight transits. Operated by Icelandair, the Loftleidir faces the ramp, so you can monitor your airplane as it’s slowly transformed into a snowbank with wings.
Sure enough, the weather closed in, and I was forced to once again postpone departure. As I mentioned in last month’s column, the Marchetti is a magnificent aerobatic sportplane, but flying the ocean isn’t what it does best.
Reykjavik is one of those locations with incredibly dynamic meteorology in winter. It’s the old cliché that if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. During my delay, I watched conditions deteriorate from severe clear to half-mile in heavy snow, then improve back to blue skies, all in the 20 minutes I spent talking to Pilot Peggy in California. A series of small storm clouds assaulted the city for most of the day, lasting no more than a half-hour each.
My weather window finally opened, and the remainder of the trip was anticlimactic, with only a touch of ice. I headed for Wick on the north coast of the United Kingdom, where the famous Scottish winds were waiting. Again, the Marchetti proved itself the master of the situation and allowed me to perch long enough to refuel and continue on to my destination of Coventry.
Weather rules all on the North Atlantic. When it’s bad, which is much of the time in winter, there’s no choice but to wait until it isn’t. Remember that you can’t defend yourself at the hearing if you’re not there.
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].