Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Always The Weather


Fall, not winter, is the tough time in some parts of the world


x-countryIf 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.
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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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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