One of the frequent sources of frustration in ferry flying is that most trips are one way. It’s extremely unusual to link one international ferry flight to another in the opposite direction and eventually wind up at your starting point.
In 40 years of ferrying, I’ve made a grand total of two such round trips in ferry airplanes. The first began with a Piper Malibu from Vero Beach, Florida, to Copenhagen, Denmark. Then, it was a short commute in a Cessna Caravan across the Baltic to Hamburg, Germany, to clear up some paperwork problems, back to Copenhagen and finally launch for the USA. I had to fly back to Copenhagen to pick up a passenger who was excited to fly the Atlantic in March, not an especially friendly time to be challenging the cold waters and wet skies of that unpredictable ocean. I’ve probably been delayed for weather more times on that route than in all my trips over the rest of the world combined. It was a tough time of year to be flying westbound, in this case headed for Orlando, Florida.
The return trip wasn’t to visit Disney World. Like so many others of its type, the airplane was destined to go into package delivery service all over the Southeast.
Okay, it wasn’t a perfect round trip, since I live in Southern California. Still, it was close enough, excluding the back-and-forth between West and East Coast. Too often, the final return trip home is a wasted 12- to 17-hour airline hop back to Los Angeles, only to pack up and head back to Europe a few weeks later.
Neither of these airplanes I’d be flying would be tanked (fitted with supplemental fuel tanks in the cabin), so I’d need to rely on standard tanks, 120 gallons on the Malibu and 335 gallons on the Caravan, roughly 1,000 miles range between pit stops. Fortunately, the longest leg is only 700 nautical miles, so I should’ve enjoyed a reasonable reserve on every leg. That’s six to seven hours’ endurance on either airplane at max cruise, an hour more at economy settings.
If range wouldn’t be a problem, weather very well might be. Late winter and early spring on that route can be an especially difficult time of year because of in-flight icing. Both airplanes were certified and equipped for known ice encounters, and the Malibu offered the added advantage of pressurization to handle the flight levels.
The Caravan’s PT6A turbine engine also offered possible flight above 18,000 feet, but it’s not pressurized, and performance at flight-level altitudes is marginal. More significantly, the airplane is huge in all respects, quite a contrast to the Malibu, with long wings, a massive fuselage, struts and wheels hanging in the wind. In short, there are plenty of surfaces available to collect ice. I’ve delivered about a dozen Caravans to destinations ranging from Europe, Scandinavia and Australia to Singapore, Chile and Jordan, but the cold climate raises the most red flags.
Icing can be an especially serious problem on the Caravan. I lost a good friend back in 2006 who was flying a new Caravan from the factory in Kansas to California. He was flying in known icing conditions but was trying to stay out of the clouds to avoid icing.
The short, sad story is that Rick hit a mountain in California’s Banning Pass between two 10,000-foot peaks near Palm Springs. He was at 7,500 feet and died instantly. (In fairness, the NTSB classified the accident as a CFIT—controlled flight into terrain—rather than an icing encounter, since Rick had already announced that he was maneuvering to avoid the clouds.) At the time, the FAA was actively investigating the icing certification requirements on the Caravan as a result of 27 icing accidents in the type. The agency eventually concluded that all certification standards had been properly administered and that the existing known icing certification was proper.
Even so, Caravan pilots were justifiably cautious about inflight ice operation in the Cessna 208.
Fortunately, both airplanes were in excellent condition, all paperwork had been attended to, and the Malibu was good to go when I arrived in Vero Beach.
I departed on a typical chamber of commerce spring day in Florida and drifted up to FL230 for the run into Bangor, Maine. The tailwinds were pretty much as advertised behind the Malibu, allowing me to make the Vero Beach to Goose Bay, Canada, legs in decent IFR/VFR, including a quick stop in Bangor for U.S. Customs.
The following day, the weather in southern Greenland was on the ground and forecast to remain marginal to unflyable for a week or so. Rather than sit in the famous North Hotel in Goose Bay and watch it snow for a week, I filed IFR and headed due north to Iqaluit, Nunavut, far up at 60 degrees north near the Arctic Circle, RONd and hopped across the Labrador Sea to Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland, the former American Cold War military base that provided support to the three DEW-line radar stations out on the ice cap. Refueled and refreshed the following morning, I continued across the 10,000-foot Greenland cap to Kulusuk on the opposite coast, one of the island continent’s most picturesque airports.
Following the old fighter pilot rule that the only time you can have too much fuel is if you’re on fire, I topped off again and flew for the short, 400-nm leg across the Davis Strait to Reykjavik. I was rewarded with good weather and a forecast of minimum icing for the next day’s trip down the North Sea to Copenhagen.
I’ve written about Reykjavik many times, so I won’t bore you with vivid descriptions of what a magnificent place it is. Those of us lucky enough to fly into the downtown airport, designated BIRK, would rather be stuck in Iceland than in Hawaii or Tahiti any day. (The local joke about Iceland among pilots is that Iceland is mostly green, and Greenland is mostly ice.)
The weather went down again coming out of Copenhagen headed back north to Iceland in the Caravan. Fortunately, I was able to top most of the nasty clouds where, as I’ve been advised many times, the ice gods hold their parties.
My passenger wasn’t happy about the lack of visibility and generally poor weather, but I explained that this was the wrong time of year for a sightseeing trip, and I needed to get across the Atlantic as safely and expeditiously as possible. I wasn’t about to press my luck in icing, but I needed to fly when I deemed it reasonable and prudent. The passenger was the son-in-law of the new owner in Florida, so I needed to tread lightly.
Even so, neither airplane posed any maintenance or avionics problems, and the two airplanes handled ice admirably.
The next morning posed a potential new problem. A volcano in Iceland named Eyjafjallajokull (I think—no, I can’t pronounce it) was throwing up clouds of volcanic ash, and there was some debate about closing some airspace between the Faroes and Iceland.
More than incidentally, I was almost directly into the wind, and it soon became apparent I couldn’t make Iceland the following day. The alternate was Vagar in the Faroe Islands. I had been in there a few times, and I knew the airport was built in a small valley with hills on all sides. I descended through the overcast and broke out with relatively good visibility.
On the ground at Vagar, my passenger found another pilot in the hotel restaurant who was heading down toward the British Isles, not that far from Copenhagen. He came back to my table, shook hands, and said he didn’t realize how tough weather would be on this trip, apologized and said he really wanted to SEE the stops along the way, not stare out the window at clouds.
I continued the next day to Iceland while the volcano grumbled and coughed more ash but eventually shut down until the major eruption of 2010.
After Iceland, the Caravan trip was an anticlimax, with stops in Narsarsuaq, Goose Bay and Bangor for customs again. The Caravan trundled along at a consistent 155 to 160 knots true, less the seasonal headwinds that slowed the airplane to more like 130 to 140 knots.
Ah yes, the second round trip was a Cessna 340 out of Dortmund, Germany, to Victor Aviation in Palo Alto, California, for a major resurrection of all systems. That roundtrip occurred in late spring and summer, when ice was not a problem.
I was grateful for that.