LEFT TO RIGHT: Andrew Bruce of Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland, Patty Wagstaff, Richard Spencer, Polly Warner and Rich Sugden.
There’s another highway “up there,” one in which pilots fly airplanes across great expanses of water and time, across the sharp edges of continents and the less sharp geographical boundaries of politics and countries. In North America, we fly long distances across the country, east to west, and even farther distances north to south; Alaska to the Lower 48. Bonanzas with drop tanks fly to Costa Rica and Panama on a regular basis, but when we leave the confines of our continents and set out beyond the islands, beyond the coast of Labrador, crossing the Atlantic leads us to a different culture both in aviation and in geography.
I used to fly jump seat with my dad when he flew 747s for JAL from Anchorage to Europe. At 33K, I had the best seat in the house, but since then, it has been big on my list to cross the pond in something less commercial. I’ve flown the Caribbean and down to Central America, but always have land in sight: an island, a shoal, sometimes a faint outline of the mainland—but frankly, I’m in awe of anyone who’s willing to keep going the distance after losing sight of land altogether. Transatlantic/Pacific ferry pilots are a different breed with nerves of steel. I have friends who have ferried small single-engine pistons, even one who flew a 60-year-old P51-Mustang across the Atlantic. And a few years ago, I met Eppo Numan, who crossed the Atlantic in an ultralight that had hand controls for steering! I’m not nearly that brave, but I have admiration and respect nonetheless.
So when friends Rich and Sue Sugden invited me to fly in their Citation Super II to Kenya, I couldn’t believe my good luck. Not only would flying across the pond check off one of the boxes on my wish list, I’d also be checking off a couple of others: possible polar bear sightings, as well as visiting Rome. It wasn’t just the idea of avoiding long TSA lines in Miami and London, it was the idea of a grand adventure with friends.
Rich sent me an email telling me to pack light, and that’s when I started to study our route: KDIJ-CYYR-BIRK-LIRA-HEBA-HDAM-HKNW. Did packing light mean one pair of shoes for the Arctic and for the equator? How heavy are those Uggs, and are they suitable for flying a Super Cub? What about après-flying pool wear? I decided on a couple of duffle bags and a flight bag with my Kenya/bush flying gear: Swiss Army knife, Leatherman, handheld radio, EPIRB, headset, fuel strainer, chamois for refueling out of 55-gallon drums and my perfect backup lightweight battery-powered Garmin 92 GPS. After a couple of weeks of complete closet disaster, I flew commercial to KJAC to meet my ride to Kenya.
Our reason for going to Kenya was to continue to give recurrency and aerobatic training to pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which we’ve been doing on a semi-annual basis since 2001, when Dr. Bill Clark started the program. (I wrote about our KWS training program in my February 2013 column. Read about it online at www.planeandpilotmag.com/pilot-talk/let-it-roll/kenya.html.)
Joining us would be Richard Spencer and his significant other, Polly Warner. Richard is an ex-Marine fixed-wing and helo pilot, and would be a valuable resource for our training program. Rich Sugden, a physician, former Navy flight surgeon, air show pilot and bush pilot, has lent his expertise to the program for the past several years. Rich and Richard are adventurers like me, and recently flew Kodiaks to deliver supplies to the Mars Arctic Research Station (MARS) in Nunavut, Canada. This time, they’d be flying in a different environment—the red-dirt brush of Tsavo West.
Like most adventures in aviation, getting there is often the best part of the journey. The great circle route from Driggs, Idaho (KDIJ) to Nairobi’s GA airport, Wilson Airport (HKNW), is approximately 8,500 miles. We’d arrive in style flying the Citation Super II, a high-performance modification of the Citation II (550) that features Williams engines, FADEC, a range of over 2,000 nm, a service ceiling of 43K and cruise speed up to 416 knots. We weren’t picking up ice while weaving our way through icebergs shooting an NTB approach into Narsarsuaq, Greenland, a la Ernest Gann, but I was okay with that.
Flying aside, the people you meet along the way are what give any trip its soul and texture. Before we left, I posted our itinerary on Facebook, and got great tips and advice from ferry pilots who knew the route, and who suggested friendly stops and good handling service along the way.
Our first stop was a cold and snowy Goose Bay, Labrador (CYYR). Our FBO was Irving Aviation. Irving gets four stars for their warm welcome and beautiful facility. A few years ago, when I was demoing the T6B at Paris and Farnborough for Raytheon/Hawker Beechcraft, the guys who flew the airplane over the pond from Wichita always claimed CYYR/Irving to be one of their favorite stops. When I noticed their framed, signed photo of the T6B on the wall, I texted the photo to the crew and said, “Look where I am!” I got an immediate response back from them (flying in the Philippines at the time), with restaurant recommendations. After we checked into the North Hotel, we put on our Uggs and walked through the snow to Trappers Cabin Bar and Grill for a great dinner.
The next morning, it was snowing but cleared quickly, and I asked the guys if we could make a detour up the Labrador coast to see polar bears. Since we had plenty of fuel to make our next stop, Reykjavik (BIRK), we started heading north, but unfortunately, a low cloud layer prevented us from seeing anything. We headed east and into clear air all the way to BIRK. (I didn’t see polar bears, but I know they were down there.)
When Greenland came into view, the view was spectacular. We were cruising at 40K, but it felt much lower because of the way the severe clear air defined the mountains and glaciers. We made our approach into Reykjavik just after sunset and were met by friends Thorgeir Palsson and Arngrimur Johannson. Thor is the former head of Iceland Civil Aviation Authority, and I first met Arngrimur when he flew his Air Atlanta 747 into Oshkosh, and unloaded not only a group of visitors, but a Piper J-3 and a modified Pitts, and sat them under the Jumbo Jet for the week. What a true aviator, I thought!
Arngrimur had invited me to Iceland several years ago to fly a show for the opening of a new Terminal at BIRK, and I discovered a friendly and vibrant aviation community on this small island. Since then, he and others have started a beautiful Aviation Museum (www.isavia.is/english/airports/akureyri-international-airport/icelandic-aviation-museum/) in Akureyri, and we flew up for a wonderful tour.
One of my ferry pilot friends suggested stopping at Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland, for fuel and to see his friend Andrew Bruce, so we departed for EGPC after a couple of days in Reykjavik. Andrew runs the FBO, and is the Customs and Immigration agent and a one-man PR agent for the airport. He took great care of us and sent us on our way to Rome, LIRA.
From EGPC to LIRA, I flew right seat. Flying in the EU isn’t like flying in the U.S. I entered 48 waypoints to LIRA, a trip of about 1,400 nm. As I started loading them in the GPS, it made no sense to me that we weren’t going more direct, but then realized that flying across so many borders was a political navigation rather than geographical. Yet another reason that flying in the U.S. is so much easier than anywhere else.
Again, we lucked out with weather, and while I’ve flown in Europe before, seeing the full length of the Alps come into view was pretty spectacular. As soon as you cross the southern border of the Alps, the air changes into warmer hues, and you know you’re in Italy. After landing in Campion, friends played a part in our journey again. My aerobatic student Stefano recommended an “insider” restaurant in Rome, and my friend Michelle Bassenesi, a flight instructor from Rome, met us for dinner at Restaurante Roscioli. It was superb!
The next morning we took off, again in perfect weather, for Alexandria, Egypt (HEBA). The people there were nice enough, but they made it clear we were to leave ASAP and that they didn’t allow overnight stays. After some pleading, the women were allowed to use a restroom. We took off for Djibouti (HEBA) in the late afternoon on our longest leg. We had great views of the Nile Delta, the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea, but the rest of the trip was in darkness over Sudan, where we didn’t see any lights on the ground for most of the trip. Landing in HDAM, friends helped us again with transportation to and from our hotel.
Djibouti is wedged between Eritrea and Somalia, and a short distance across the Gulf of Aden from our friends in Yemen. I was glad that Richard Spencer had given us each the Smart 24 service from Global Guardian (www.globalguardian.com). We downloaded the apps on our cell phones, tracking our positions constantly. The best feature, of course, is the panic button, should “anything” happen (kidnapping?). When it comes time to discontinue the app, I’m going to miss the feeling of security it gives me.
Djibouti was hot and sticky, and we were happy to take off for the next and last leg of our journey: HDAM to HKNW. As the humid air started clearing over Ethiopia and on into Kenya, we crossed the equator near Mt. Kenya, and I recognized the tea fields and the red dirt that I’ve committed to memory after many visits to this beautiful country that’s one of my favorite places.
Landing at Wilson, we were met by an old friend, Capt. Ibrahim Ogle, the Deputy Director of the KWS. He helped us through immigration and took us to the East Africa Aero Club, one of the great places for aviators in Kenya (www.aeroclubea.com). We’d fly a KWS Caravan to Tsavo West, where we’d spend the week flying Super Cubs and Huskys with the KWS pilots.
Flying privately to Kenya was interesting in so many ways. Jet lag is gentler when you only lose an hour or two a day. The brother/sisterhood of aviation is worldwide, and when people help you along the way, there’s no hidden agenda and nothing expected in return. The trip gives you a broad sense of how aviation operates in so many different countries, and makes you realize how much easier it is to fly in the U.S. where it’s the least restrictive of anywhere in the world. We have a freedom that no one else has; respect it and fight for it. And, while you’re at it, if you’re not already a member of AOPA, join. Help them keep up the fight to protect our freedom before we lose it.