“Dan, if you look out your window, you’ll see a spit of land jutting out into the Labrador Sea. The only reason I mention it is that’s the last land you’ll see for the next 500 miles until we cross the coast of Greenland. In case you’re wondering, the water down there at this time of year is typically about 40° F, and despite our thermal dry exposure suits, neither of us would survive for longer than about 20 minutes in that water. You might want to get a shot of that last look at the Labrador Coast.”
Cinematographer Dan Wilson gave me a long, steady stare, then climbed into the back of the Piper Malibu, hoisted the Sony Betacam to his shoulder, and began shooting video.
It was March 1987, and Dan and I were on our way to Europe on a special mission for the ABC Television series Wide World of Flying. ABC Executive Vice President Phil Boyer, an active pilot with a Cessna 340, had okayed the trip to show pilots how easy it was to fly the Atlantic. We all hoped the documentary episode would convince the flying population that the ocean is not necessarily just for high-time ferry pilots.
Wilson and I had picked up the new Malibu at Piper’s Vero Beach, Florida, plant and were on our way to Saarbrucken, Germany, to document an Atlantic crossing by Malibu.
We wanted to fly into Greenland by sunrise, hoping to make it to Narsarsuaq in decent VFR.
The airport is small but adequate for everything up through 737s. It sits at the bottom of the island continent, and, with luck, we’d refuel and press on to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the overnight.
When ABC announced the project to chronicle an Atlantic crossing in a single-engine piston airplane to its cinematographers in New York, the response was less than overwhelming.
That was no big surprise, considering that few of ABC’s cameramen were pilots. Many “shooters” who saw the notice probably regarded the trip as too dangerous.
For me, it was just another ferry job in an airplane I had learned to love. The Malibu was/is a wonderful example of aviation technology at its best. I had made three deliveries of Piper’s ultimate pressurized piston single and had come to regard it as the ultimate alternative to a piston twin.
Since I had signed on with ABC several years before, this was an opportunity to fly another European trip in Piper’s top-of-the-line piston product.
The whole idea for a video had been mine, and I had already written the script by the time the project received a green light. As a regular contributor to Wide World of Flying, I was convinced a video account of an Atlantic crossing in the world’s premier single-engine piston airplane would be a surefire winner for viewers.
The Malibu was a near-perfect choice for this type of mission. Back at the new model introduction in 1984, I interviewed Jim Griswold, leader of the Piper design team that produced the Malibu. He summarized the project as follows: “We didn’t need to reinvent the wing on the Malibu project,” said Griswold, “but it’s true this airplane is unlike any other Piper. The only similarity between this and other Pipers is the company logo on the yokes,” he said. “There’s really nothing that innovative about the Malibu.”
Flying a Malibu across the Atlantic to Germany was an easy trip, following the milk run route from Vero Beach to Bangor, Maine; then, on to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada; across the Labrador Sea to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, near the bottom of the ice cap; over the cap and the Greenland Sea to Reykjavik, Iceland; southeast over the North Sea to Scotland; and, finally, across the English Channel into Saarbrucken, Germany, about 4,500 miles in total.
Wilson would try to capture interesting shots of the trip en route, from airports and other points of interest to pilots, and I would later provide voiceover or on-camera narration.
Dan and I were both hoping the weather would be agreeable on the trip, though I suspected that was a little optimistic at this time of year. Spring on the Atlantic is when the Gods of Icing hold their parties.
At least, the forecast was for decent tailwinds as far as Iceland. The Malibu could deliver an easy 200 knots on its own, and in winter and early spring, you can usually count on another 20-40 knots of jet stream push from tailwinds at or above 20,000 feet.
At 220 knots across the ocean, our longest leg would be only about three hours, and we had an easy six hours’ fuel plus reserve.
Icing is always a concern on that route, but I was hoping we’d be well above the clouds to give us a good view of northeastern Canada and the Greenland ice cap.
My cameraman shot some great video as we flew up the East Coast toward Bangor, with the pressurization dialed in for an 8,000-foot cabin altitude at 20,000 feet.
Two days later, as we departed Goose Bay and left North America behind, clouds over the Labrador Sea suggested Greenland might be a challenge. Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
“Icing is always a concern on that route, but I was hoping we’d be well above the clouds to give us a good view of northeastern Canada and the Greenland ice cap.”
Narsarsuaq Airport (ICAO code BGBW—G for Greenland and BW for Blue West 1—the military name from World War II) was reporting scattered to broken clouds at FL200.
BGBW airport was built at the end of the Tunulliarfik Fjord, 42 miles inland from the Labrador coast. When the weather is marginal, some pilots choose to cancel IFR and drop below the clouds over the ocean (where there’s nothing to hit) and track inbound visually.
The fjord is a narrow body of water that winds inland with mountains on both sides. It’s no more than a half-mile wide and often narrows to 300 yards across. I’ve only had to pull that trick once in cloudy conditions, and it was not fun.
The good news is that the ceiling inside the fjord is usually at least 500 to 700 feet, and visibility is rarely less than 2 miles. If you have a good GPS, a backup portable (I carry two) and are able to slow to approach speed for the last few miles, you can usually get into Nasarsuaq.
The runway is right on the water, totally surrounded by mountains, some reaching above 5,000 feet. There’s an IFR approach to BGBW with minimums of 1,700 feet and 3 miles. The approach plate is covered with warnings that anyone unfamiliar with the approach should not attempt it. Godthab, Greenland, is your only alternate, 250 miles north, but they have a localizer if things go downhill at Narsarsuaq.
As a result, many pilots avoid the NDB/DME (the only one of those I’ve ever seen) and fly up the fjord.
Our approach wasn’t that difficult, with broken clouds barely hiding the airport. We refueled (at $18/gallon) and launched for Reykjavik, Iceland.
We climbed up to 23,000 for the trip across the ice cap and the spectacular display of icebergs on Greenland’s east coast. During the climb, we crossed directly above Sea Bass, the farthest south abandoned radar installation of the 1950s-era DEW line (Distant Early Warning) from the Cold War days. Sob Story and Big Gun, the other two stations, are farther north, intended to warn of Russian bombers approaching the U.S. over the North Pole.
Reykjavik has always been one of the best-kept secrets on the Atlantic. The comparatively warm Gulf Stream runs roughly south/north along the west side of Iceland, and the result is a mild climate, despite the fact that the entire country is just south of the Arctic Circle. If you have to be stuck somewhere on the Atlantic, choose Iceland.
In 70 trips through the country traveling to or from Europe, I’ve enjoyed at least 40 days of weather delays, not because of bad weather in Iceland but predominately as a result of weather in the British Isles or Scandinavia.
The Icelandic people couldn’t be friendlier, and Reykjavik is a great town to see and enjoy while the weather ahead clears out.
Dan and I would have enjoyed a day off, but we knew the Malibu’s owner in Saarbrucken was eager to see his new airplane, so we pushed on toward the U.K. the following day. Wick, Scotland, was our next destination. If you’re traveling around the North Atlantic out of Europe, stop by Far North Aviation in Wick.
Our final leg was on to Saarbrucken, solid IFR for the end of our trip, perhaps retribution for the decent VFR on the other five legs.
The owner was beaming with joy when I handed him the keys and logbooks just before we pulled away in the taxi for the airline trip home. I would be, too, if I had just taken delivery of a six-seat, 200-knot airplane that redefines the top piston single in general aviation.