Pilatus N47NG, Goose Bay. Ready to copy your oceanic clearance?”
Even in today’s technological world, aviation continues to evoke many virtues of the past: Exploration, adventure, forging new roads (or, in our case, “holes in the sky”) and a myriad of other feelings, memories, sights, and sounds. One such privilege of flight wraps all of these virtues into one: international flying. There are endless joys to flying internationally: The delicious food and drink; the mixture of cultures; beautiful topographic changes; the excitement and challenge of different weather patterns, languages, rules, and tribal knowledge of foreign land. However, Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, as magnificently and romantic as international flying can be, it can be just as daunting and ruthless: Due diligence in preparation is essential.
Follow along, as I take you on a Pilatus PC-12NG journey from Oxford, Connecticut to beautiful Iceland. I’ll begin by walking you through my processes and procedures, then conclude by narrating my journey. I should note, however, that this is just my way of operating and is by no means an end-all-be-all. Our operations manual fulfills our objectives, but everyone’s operation is different and so, too, will be procedures.
Study, Plan, Study!
There are many ways to tackle an international flight. Luckily, in today’s day and age there are endless resources at one’s fingertips to review, plan, engage, and facilitate the mission. I started my journey by Googling the most widely-visited destination in Iceland, after I was given word that we’d be traveling there. Up popped Reykjavik – a beautiful seaside city on the island’s western coast. I was more familiar with Keflavik, as this is the larger international airport and one of the ETOPS alternates for oceanic crossings. However, Reykjavik is the most popular destination for smaller business/corporate aircraft, and thus it was the choice. Destination chosen, it was now time for route planning, familiarization, and all the considerations of taking a single-engine, albeit turbine-engine, airplane over a large body of cold water.
Our PC-12 does not have HF or the performance and range to join the track system, so the planned route was taking us up over northern Maine, above New Brunswick, over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and descending into Goose Bay (CYYR) for our first and only fuel stop. I should also note that our passengers wanted to travel overnight, so we departed Connecticut at 2300 local time in order to allow them to sleep enroute. Since overnight flying wasn’t part of our typical operation, it required me and the other pilot to adjust our body clocks physiologically a few days before the flight. Chocolate espresso beans and coffee also helped! Moreover, the logic of the late-night departure was to put us in a position to coast out over the ocean after sunrise. I did not want to cross the Atlantic in darkness, as that adds the obvious element of reduced visual acuity and, psychologically, a bit of pessimism. The sunrise, as in the old days, I’m sure, lends itself to hope and prosperity.
From CYYR we would launch over Lake Melville, coasting out to our first fix, HOIST. Unlike the airlines that pick up their oceanic clearance enroute, we could receive the oceanic clearance on the ground at Goose Bay, as part of the normal clearance procedure. This made the process very easy. Overflying HOIST, now talking with Gander Oceanic (Gander FIR), we proceed to N58W50, then fly direct to N60W43 (OZN- tip of Greenland), crossing into the Sondrestrom FIR, henceforth to N61W40, direct to N63W30, EMBLA, and finally into BIRK. Needless to say, the route of flight was taking us over a bit of water, and given our engine situation (only one, but a good one! A very good one…nice engine, good engine…) we needed to mitigate as much risk as possible.
Some of the ways we accomplished this was as follows: (1) Daylight operation over the open water; (2) Survival suits, life raft, and jackets- the water, even in summer, is only a few degrees above freezing; (3) a route with as much access to land as possible; 4) VHF; (5) timing the flight so as to have other aircraft around us; (6) a solid and well-rehearsed ditching plan, should the need present itself, and lastly, (7) realization. You can take the risk (some of it) out of the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the risk. There are just some elements to flying that you have to be mentally prepared for and this was one of them. Again, good engine…nice engine…
In addition to the route planning considerations, there are also the communication and operational aspects: ICAO procedural compliance, country regulatory requirements, airway/space rules, oceanic crossing etiquette and communication, and security precautions, just to name a few. All of these can be found in the many online and offline resources, including the FAA’s North Atlantic Resource guide, each specific country’s AIP (Airman Information Publication), Jeppesen publications, handling companies (which I’ll cover later) and additional sources of info. It’s imperative to study all of the material ahead of time, so as to overturn as many stones as practical before you go. You’ll have enough pitfalls to deal with as they’re thrown at you, so it’s in the best interest of everyone aboard (and most professional) to have all the ducks in a row.
Unlike the airlines that have an entire team looking out for the safety and efficiency of the flight, you’re usually left up to your own devices in a small Part-91 flight department, and that’s why I chose to have a handler (Universal Weather) for the flight. Essentially, Universal brought all the tools of a large flight department (flight following, weather briefs, performance data – a dispatch, if you will) right to our own operation. It was necessary (and comforting) to have a “team” backing the flight.
In regards to the charts, some specifics to become familiar with are FIR boundaries, non-compulsory reporting points (I derived a chart modeled after the American Airlines position report log), Transition Altitudes and Levels (remember, outside the USA they’re not all at FL180, so Transition Altitude- QNE- and Transition Level- QNH- can be different), the usual MEAs, etc., the Oceanic transponder code (2000), the Oceanic common Frequency 123.45, and other small details (i.e. 10-minute call-aheads for FIR boundaries) that need to be taken into account prior to launching. What’s more, it’s important to calculate and monitor the conversions between U.S. gallons and liters, and feet to meters, depending on where you are in the world. Miscalculation has obvious consequences! And speaking of Jet-A, fuel additives are not always available so, again, planning ahead can make or break the trip. Additionally, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with ICAO terminology because, as experienced on another international trip, slang or abbreviations often heard in the U.S. may not be understood or perhaps accepted in other countries.
At this stage, the planning and briefing is complete and the aircraft is packed, passengers boarded up. It’s 2300 local as we lift off runway 36 at Oxford. It’s a beautiful summer night, lit by the moon and stars and distant thunderstorms; an interesting juxtaposition. As we progress, we sail over northern Maine and the last few lights of the USA. We transition over to Moncton center and are greeted with a suave “Bon Jour.” We return the gesture and progress through the night. It’s now close to 0400 local time and the sun is already starting to peek from underneath the horizon; a beautiful sight, and a psychological boost to boot. We’re now 100nm from CYYR and are prepping for the arrival. Soon, we find ourselves number one for the airfield and initiating the RNAV to runway 26. The weather is clear and a million and the runway is illuminated in stark contrast to the surrounding vastness of northern Canada.
Shortly after, we touch down without as much as a screech from the tires (credit to trailing-link gear). The taxi-in and customs process is a breeze. In fact, we were processed via telephone rather than an agent (most likely a function of arrival time). A quick fuel stop, and we’re loading up the survival suits, rented from a Scottish company out of Wick Airport, Far North Aviation. The rental process is very easy, as they have suits on both sides of the pond. Generally, an aircraft picks them up in Goose Bay and drops them off on the return. At that instant, a reality check sets in: The thought of the chance of needing these things is enough to be needing these things! Needless to say, this was an interesting physiological dilemma.
Coffee in hand and clearances received, we’re ready to launch off CYYR’s runway 8. We’re given a climb straight to our cruising altitude of FL270. What’s nice geographically about CYYR is that you still have a little over 100nm before you coast out. This facilitates plenty of time to settle in, confirm aircraft systems, fuel burns, and radio checks. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it also gives you plenty of time to contemplate the mission ahead. Cruising out over Lake Melville, 25 minutes into the flight, we’re just about to coast out. The scenery is gorgeous. The sun is rising out over the Atlantic and the pieces of icebergs are sitting in the water as if they were big blue ice cubes in a very large bathtub.
We’re now talking to Gander Oceanic as we settle in for the five-hour leg to BIRK. The weather is as forecasted with very light winds for the North Atlantic. As we approach our fixes, we make the required position reports: “N47NG Position. N47NG go ahead. N47NG, N58W50, 0900Z, FL270, Estimating N60W43 at 1120Z, N61W40, Fuel 2.3.” The vastness of water is beautiful in a lonely kind of way. Occasionally, we see the passing of a ship or the contrail of another aircraft, but overall, you feel entirely isolated from the world, which is actually a nice, albeit strange, feeling. Of course, that’s not the case, given the amount of air traffic.
Two and half hours in and we’re flying over the tip of Greenland. Narsarsuaq, Greenland is our alternate point, slightly north of our route and very close to the calculated equal-time point (ETP). Although a fun airport, I’m sure, on that particular day it was nice to see it from above rather than attempting an NDB approach on the back side of our clocks. The airport sits just on the end of a fjord, and although there is an approach, it appears to be more of a cloud-break procedure than an actual approach. What’s more, viewing YouTube videos of the approach prior to the flight gave me just enough insight to want to attempt it for the first time on a visual day rather than in IMC. Nevertheless, the scenery is majestic as we sail on past. Soon enough, we’re out over water again and passing N63W30 on our way to our last fix, EMBLA.
At this point, the sun is shining and we’re seven hours into our overnight duty day; our destination is within reach. Before we know it, we’re briefing the descent, approach and taxi-in, and preparing the passengers in the cabin. Shortly thereafter, we’re given a frequency and code for Reykjavic FIR and subsequently given a descent, taking us along the western coast of Iceland. A silent sigh of relief can almost be heard as we see land. Again, being prepared and studying the charts and plates gives us an idea of what to expect, but, shortly after our approach brief is compete, the fog clears and we’re given the visual approach to runway 1. Lining up on final and receiving clearance to land, we finally touch down 10 hours after we left Connecticut. The hotel is calling our names. Then again, so was the whale burger!
A few days later we’re prepping for the flight back, but not before we do a VFR day trip between Reykjavic and a small island just off the southern coast of Iceland, called Vestmannaeyjar. This, however, is another story, in and of itself.
The flight to Iceland was an incredible journey. The PC-12NG is a reliable, formidable aircraft; however, regardless of equipment, you MUST do your homework, as the efficacy of one’s preparation will derive the outcome of the trip – good or bad. I still can’t imagine the courage, precision, and determination the aviation pioneers of the past must have had!