Summertime flying in the North Atlantic can be vicious
(Because of a computer glitch that only IBM could possibly understand, this column was written before the one you read last month. Therefore, it’s something of a prequel. Hey, if George Lucas can do it, so can I.)
This is being written on the road or, more accurately, in the sky. As I tap out these words on my Think Pad, I’m cruising comfortably at FL390 in a British Airways 747, only two hours out from Heathrow Airport in London. I’m flying to Jolly Old England to explore the puzzling British penchant for cold meat as well as warm beer.
But this is supposed to be an aviation column, despite what you might think from reading editor Lyn Freeman’s monthly social diatribes (“Partial Panel”). In reality, England (sorry, it will never be the U.K. to me) is one of my favorite destinations, partially because it’s so incredibly beautiful and the people speak an elegant version of the same language, sort of.
My real reason for riding across the Atlantic is to pick up David Gardner’s Cessna 421C in Biggin Hill, south of London, and drive it across the usual milk-run route over to Waco, Texas. Gardner, an executive with a San Francisco computer gaming company, purchased the airplane late this spring, did a minor refurbishment and contracted for his delivery in conjunction with the summer solstice, June 21, the longest day of the year. The plan is to fly to Reykjavík, Iceland, late in the evening on June 20, relax for a day and hop up to the Midnight Sun Fly-In on the Isle of Grimsey, 80 miles off Iceland’s north coast and right on the Arctic Circle.
When weather will allow, a group of Icelandic and European pilots fly their airplanes to Grimsey for a party in bright daylight at midnight on June 21, frolicking directly above a line painted on the airport that delineates the Arctic Circle at exactly 66 degrees, 30 minutes north, then fly back to Akureyri or Reykjavík at 2 or 3 a.m. (using only designated pilots, of course).
Fun and games aside, this is, first and foremost, a standard delivery flight. Our plan after Grimsey is to fly through Narsarsuaq, Greenland, and Goose Bay, Canada, and on to Bangor, Maine, clear customs and continue to Waco. Unfortunately, if winds are strong, we won’t have many options, as neither Kulusuk on Greenland’s east coast nor Iqaluit in Canada have avgas. Only Sondre Strom Fjord in Greenland has 100-octane gas available, and we don’t have the range to make that.
The lack of avgas is becoming a problem in the more remote sections of the world, and it’s almost guaranteed to get worse before it gets better. Price also is becoming something of a disincentive around the world. Fuel costs as much as $6 per gallon in Europe and $10 per gallon in the more remote sections of the world.
Gardner’s C-421 turns out to be a good one, and even better, it’s ready to go when we arrive in Biggin Hill, something that doesn’t happen very often. Most of England is luxuriating in clear skies and unusually warm temperatures. Practically all of the British Isles are CAVU, and the route to Wick, Scotland (still Scotland, not the U.K.), goes without a hitch, looking down at the pristine green from about 16,000 feet.
Andrew Bruce of Far North Aviation has our weather package waiting, he has our IFR flight plan prefiled, and he refuels the airplane in a half-hour and waves goodbye as we launch for Reykjavík, 650 nm northwest across one of the world’s nastiest oceans. Talk about quick turnaround service!
Ironically, summer is one of the nastiest seasons for ice on the North Atlantic. Climb to 10,000 feet or more, and the civilized temps down low translate to perfect conditions for icing. Sure enough, we pick up our share, pushing into the perpetual headwinds at 20,000 feet. We land in Reykjavík a few minutes before midnight, still in residual sunlight as the sun dips slightly below the horizon and starts right back up again.
It’s the longest day of the year in Iceland, but our plan to fly up to Grimsey for the annual festivities is frustrated by nasty weather on the small island. Reykjavík flight services manager Sveinn Bjornson calls the Grimsey Airport and learns that it’s suffering from low visibility, freezing temperatures, light snow and high winds. No fly-in tonight, and considering that they have had to cancel six out of the last 10 fly-ins because of weather, there probably will be no fly-ins ever again, a sad end to an interesting tradition.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the option of continuing to Greenland, as June 21 is a national holiday and all airports on the island continent are closed. With no other option, we drive out to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, geothermally fed pools near the old Keflavík Air Force Base and luxuriate in the warm, soothing water. There’s always tomorrow.
June 22 And 23
Or maybe there isn’t? One reality when flying westbound on the North Atlantic route is that winds can become really unfavorable and remain unmanageable for weeks at a time. That’s exactly what happens. Headwinds on the 670-nm leg to Southern Greenland are 30 to 40 knots on the nose, and without the Kulusuk option, there’s no way we can make it to Narsarsuaq with anything like a reasonable reserve. As a result, there are only two choices: an extended holiday in Iceland or return home until the winds turn around. Since both Gardner and Minar have important business elsewhere in the world and I have a Grand Commander waiting in California destined for Melbourne, Australia, the only choice is to postpone the delivery.
So we tie down the airplane, hand the keys to Sveinn Bjornson and promise to return in two or three weeks. The following afternoon, we’re on an Iceland Air jet to Heathrow, and I’m back in California the next afternoon via Lufthansa Airlines through Frankfurt, Germany, and on to Los Angeles.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].