I was awakened from a deep REM sleep by what sounded like sporadic repetition of “baaharalmminumm” (forgive my poor onomatopoetic translation). As I mentally park my red-and-white Ferrari SF-16H Formula One car after winning the Monaco Grand Prix and fight my way back to consciousness, the sound repeats itself over and over.
Oh, yes, now I remember, I’m in Vágar, Faroe Islands. The strange sound seems to be practically in my room or perhaps just outside my ground-level window. Here in the sub-Arctic, the hotel’s bottom floor is in the basement with windows that open out onto the “green,” in this case, more of a dirty gray grass just beginning to recover from the inhospitable winter.
I open the blinds of my one small window, and there, staring back at me, is a large, wooly sheep, chomping sideways on the grass stubble and obviously not especially impressed by the curious human before her.
I check the clock, and notice I’m about due to be up and out, anyway. It’s 5:00 a.m., and the sun is already high in the sky here in mid-May. It’s time to check with flight service and see if I can sneak into Iceland against the giant wind tunnel that seems to prevail much of the year on the North Atlantic.
Winds can be a consistent problem in this part of the world, especially on any westbound Atlantic hop above the high ocean. The Faroe Islands perch far up north, well above the British Isles and the infamous North Sea. You might expect the weather in such a far-flung outpost to be little better than atrocious, and some of the time, you’d be correct.
On this occasion, the weather has been reasonably clement, but the winds have been nothing less than horrible, and I had no choice but to visit Vágar for the overnight.
I’d probably made 80 to 100 trips on the Iceland-Scotland skytrail and had never had to divert until the day I did, yesterday, I think. The weather wasn’t really that bad for the westbound ferry of a Cessna 340 from Germany to California, but the characteristic winds were howling across Greenland and Iceland, then swirling southeast toward the British Isles, as if replicating my exact course in reverse.
This is my first wintertime, reverse ferry (as hardly anyone calls it anymore), flying “backwards” into gale-force winds to the U.S. from points European. I’ve flown over the Faroes twice before, once enroute to Helsinki, Finland, in a raggedy Navajo Chieftain and the second time transiting from Iceland to Northern Germany in a Mirage. The islands always looked small and forbidding from 11,000 feet or above, but on this trip, I was forced to visit them at ground level.
My airplane this time is a Cessna 340 out of Dortmund, headed for Palo Alto, California, for a double-engine change at Victor Aviation. Like so many high-time engines, these two are running incredibly well, not producing much power, but doing so very smoothly. Both engines have been holding hands for 1900 hours, and the German owner had finally decided to spring for a pair of Victor Black Edition overhauls. He elected to do the job right and have the airplane ferried to Victor’s shop in California. My kind of guy.
Most of the time, there’s little reason to stop in Vágar, west or eastbound, the only airport on these remote islands. The Faroes are roughly halfway out on the leg from Scotland to Iceland, and the full distance is only 650 nm. Yesterday, however, the winds were wailing at 80 knots, slowing the Cessna twin to a groundspeed of about 100 knots.
The airplane is untanked, so I have six hours fuel, not nearly enough, I decided, before I left Prestwick. I knew the atmospherics were agreeable as far as Vágar, and that would put me halfway to Reykjavík, Iceland, my usual stop.
I check out of the hotel, wave goodbye to my wake-up sheep and stop by the weather office for the bad news. The man with the charts assures me that nothing has changed since yesterday and seems a little surprised that anyone would expect it should. Big winds, big waves and a small window of opportunity to scamper into Iceland before the liquid sky turns to ice. It’s clear beneath the clouds, but still cold and inhospitable above 5,000 feet. The winds are more agreeable down low, so I elect to file VFR for the short hop northwest.
With nothing more than full fuel, me, 80 pounds of luggage and survival gear to lift, I low-jump out of Vágar, climb to 4500 feet and set course for VM, the first and only radio beacon on the way into BIRK, the ICAO identifier for Reykjavík.
The sheep apparently awakened the wind when she summoned me, and as predicted, I have about 40 knots on the nose. I point the airplane toward where Reykjavík used to be and settle in for the short 2+20 trip.
No more than 30 minutes out, I spot a tiny sailboat tacking into the wind on the angry ocean below, almost invisible in the confusion of breaking waves and rolling surf. My God, I wonder, is he really sailing to Iceland in these winds? Anyone with that level of intestinal fortitude has to be saluted, so I make a racetrack circle off to the east, losing altitude to 500 feet, and fly by the boat’s starboard side, watching the sailboat crashing through 10-foot waves.
The boat’s captain, apparently the tiny craft’s only occupant, waves his hat at me as I pass on the right. I wag my wings in recognition and make another 360 to come by him again, marveling at his ability to tack back and forth, 22 degrees to left and right of the wind, and still move forward.
Thirty years ago, when I thought learning to sail would make me more popular with women, I was equally mystified by the phenomena, both sailing and women. I learned a little about the former in the classroom of Long Beach Harbor; never did learn much about the latter.
Winds over the oceans have always been the nemesis of pilots, because the consequences of a misjudgment can be severe. If you’re flying over land and winds don’t work out as forecast, you have the option of diverting to another airport. Over water, you often must make it to your original destination…or not.
Unlike the sea captain below who need not worry about fuel consumption, most of us who fly these routes adopt strict rules about wind interpretation, fuel burn and reserve, preferring to be live pessimists rather than marginal optimists.
First, we reduce any forecast tailwind by 10 knots and increase any headwind by at least five knots. Then, we assume that every ferry tank holds five gallons less than the placard indicates, and each wing tank’s capacity is actually two gallons less than it’s supposed to be. Finally, we build in at least a two-hour reserve on the Pacific and an hour-and-a-half on the Atlantic.
As I circle one more time and wave goodbye to the sailboat captain, I can’t help admiring his determination.
Three days later while I’m waiting in Reykjavík for civilized winds and weather in Greenland, I wander down to the harbor and spot the little sailboat tied up at the guest docks, looking none the worse for wear. I discover that the owner is a gentleman named Reg Philmore from Duxford, UK, and that he’s staying at the Loftleidir Hotel where I’m also temporarily marooned.
We make contact, have dinner and I learn that, while Philmore isn’t a pilot, he’s an enthusiastic follower of WWII airplanes. He certainly lives in the right place, as Duxford is famous for one of the UK’s largest WWII museums, the Imperial War Museum. It’s also home to one of the country’s premier flying warbird displays, the Duxford Air Show. Several years back, I was part of a team put together by oil and gas magnate Rod Davis that flew the P-38 “Glacier Girl” and a newly rebuilt P-51 from California to Duxford—almost. But that’s another story.
I left early the following morning and never saw Reg Philmore again. I’d like to imagine he’s somewhere out on a cold ocean, ignoring headwinds and smiling at bad weather, perhaps preparing to sail around the world from pole to pole.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].