A [True] Transatlantic Tale

A [True] Transatlantic Tale

A [True] Transatlantic Tale

Fifty-one years ago, crossing the pond in a twin piston Piper with a single ADF was a pioneering adventure

Life was coming up roses for me that spring of 1965. I was successfully established as a freelance aviation journalist; a major aviation magazine had added me to its masthead as a contributing editor and my photos were being published. Life was hectic; life was good.

Fatigued from all the activity, I was sleeping in late one Sunday morning when the phone woke me. It was Herman Miller calling. Herman was president and CEO of Bayside Electronics, a manufacturer of the Bayside 990, a VHF, 90 channel, portable radio for aircraft. The company was located in Stockton, California, where I lived at the time, and I’d written a story about it and its little radio for a magazine several months earlier. He told me he’d just ordered a turbocharged Piper Aztec in which he planned to island hop via Greenland and Iceland over to Europe to exhibit at several aviation trade shows and visit Bayside dealers. A typical businessman flight. Would I like to ride along?

I thought about it maybe all of four seconds then casually told him, “Yeah, I guess so.”

My family immediately began begging me to change my mind. Friends thought I was insane. This was in 1965, remember, 51 years ago. Lindbergh’s New York/Paris flight was still a subject of current conversation. “Lucky Lindy” he was called, for the extraordinary feat of conquering the wild Atlantic, killer of sailors and aviators. In 1965 the Atlantic still maintained its malevolent reputation as near unconquerable. Airlines, in their four-engine Lockheed Connies and DC-6’s had established Atlantic service, but our Coast Guard maintained an ocean station midpoint to report weather and to assist flights in distress. Hardly a week passed without Page 1 headlines about a flight that had limped into Greenland with an engine out or after encountering staggering amounts of ice or fierce headwinds on the east-to-west crossing.

Final approach into Narsarsuaq, Greenland on a VFR day. The one-way-in and one-way-out airport is situated in a fjord.

But young journalists in pursuit of a byline are fearless, right? I threw an extra pair of shorts in my kit and was off to Europe. It was just about that fast. Miller wanted to demonstrate his radios at a big aviation event in Hanover, Germany within two weeks, so no time to engineer and install long-range tanks, assemble maritime and artic survival kits or even discuss it with my life insurance agent. Ten days later, Miller and I were over far north Canada at 19,000 in his new Aztec en route to Goose Bay, Labrador. We were on top of a thin strataform layer. We could see ice crystals skittering across the wing now and then, and sometimes through holes, a view of the world below. Snow everywhere, nothing but miles and miles of snow in every direction that early spring day.

About a half-hour before Port Menier, the final NDB fix before Goose Bay. without so much as a hiccup, the left engine died.

Miller looked at me; I looked at him. “What do you think?” he asked casually. “Don’t know,” I answered even more casually.

“Anything you want to do?” Miller asked.

“No,” I lied.

For want of anything better to try, Herman pulled the left manual alternate air knob. At which signal the right engine also died. Since we’d already run out of ideas, he pulled the right manual air on, and we waited. After about 60 days (it seemed) the left engine spun up slowly to normal, followed eventually by the right. (Later we discovered that each alternate intake auto door was being jammed by a slightly too long bolt. And that’s why pros recommend that you have 50 or 100 hours on an airplane, in all sorts of weather, before starting to Europe in it.)

Goose radar had us 150 nm out and at 130 nm began letting us down without our asking. We broke out on a perfect downwind. (A good thing, since we were down to under an hour on fuel.) During rollout, Goose Tower told us that under no circumstances were we to turn left. “Repeat, do not turn left! Turn around to the right and back-taxi to the terminal.” That seemed odd, as we could see that left was the American side and right was Canadian.

As the engines were shut down on the ramp a Canadian soldier ordered us to follow him up to the tower. That was ominous. However, after a dressing down by a Canadian captain for not sending a message we were coming (most early spring arrivals made that mistake he admitted) the captain arranged for our aircraft’s servicing, a free oxygen top off and directed us to the Canadian mess where we had the finest T-bone I’ve ever had. Nice people those Canadians, By the way, while servicing our oxygen the Canadian corporal revealed why the excited instruction to not turn to the left to backtrack on the runway. The left side is U.S. Air Force and back in 1961 when an airplane was pointed at them they either shot it down or impounded it forever.

We were up at 5 a.m. the next morning for the longest over water leg of the trip and one with no alternates. No big send-off. No one was at the airport, except a pair of tower operators. Weather was by phone. Flight plan was filed on a direct line to Gander. We simply drew a straight line on the map, Goose to Narsarsuaq, Greenland; then figured ETAs to 55 deg. W/ 56 deg. 45 min. N, 50 deg. W/59 deg. 15 min. N (compulsory reporting points), to Narsarsuaq, then to the alternate at Sondrestrom (high up on the west coast of Greenland, the closest legal alternate), phoned it in and left. No one got nosey. No checks of equipment, or signing of waivers, or anything. We might as well have been checking out of Hoboken en route to Hooterville.

Goose runways were like JFK that morning. Canadian fighters swooshed off the west runway, U.S. F102’s off the north and finally we putt-putted off the east one and continued straight out. We went on instruments eight minutes after takeoff; broke out on top two minutes later. With turbo-charging, weather is not what it might be without turbos, at least not at FL210 on that day.

Our terminals, in every instance, were better than forecast. The critical one was Narsarsuaq, which lies at the head of a notorious one-way fjord. It had been below minimums when we took off; forecast to improve. It is 678 nm out of Goose. And if that fjord is plugged up, your alternate is Sondrestrom, 365 nm northward. As we flew northeastward, an alternate — and a possible landing on the ice cap — was very much on our minds. Narsarsuaq is far up a fjord from the sea. If weather there is down, meaning less than 4,000 and 5, it’s necessary to fly up the fjord, easy enough to find because of an NDB at the entrance, which we’d picked up leaving Goose. But finding the entrance was only half the problem. Then you had to snake your way up the winding fjord between tall mountains with no room for a 180. At a critical Y, fortunately identified by a wrecked ship, you had to take a left turn up a canyon (a right turn is to a dead end, — dead, dead, dead). You then hoped to break out over a small bay with the runway end a hard-right turn immediately ahead. All the time you battle fierce, turbulent winds trying to blow you into a canyon wall. And the airport itself is buffeted by those same wild and rolling winds found so often on the lee side of mountains everywhere.

We needn’t have given it a thought. As we came up on the coast we saw that indeed the fjord was a bit plugged. He could have gone in underneath, but instead he flew on over the coastal mountains, and shortly there was this great hole in the clouds, with one end of a runway barely showing. The west wind aloft had blown a hole on the lee side of the mountain peak. He circled down through the hole, dropped the gear, turned right and landed; three hours, 33 minutes out of Goose. Our estimate: 3:40.

Narsarsuaq was an outpost sort of place, peopled by a bunch of fun guys. We were met by Per Christiansen, who said, “I’m the official greeter, gas order taker, customs agent, chauffeur of dignitaries, interpreter, historian and collector of landing fees. Five dollars, please.” Willy Plumhoff, meteorologist, said he’d ordered the warm day for us. He claimed the weather at Narsarsuaq in the summer is never bad more than a few hours at a time. “Unless, of course, a pretty girl lands. Then we order some bad to keep her here a while.”

In short order they had us fueled, fed and flight-planned. It took a bit longer to get a clearance to Iceland, because of atmospheric conditions that made HF communications all but impossible. We got out at midafternoon (no need to worry about darkness up there) turned left 180 degrees and climbed up the glacier face eastbound in VFR conditions. (Standard procedure out of Narsarsuaq is takeoff southwest toward the fjord and mountain, circle back while climbing to above 8,000, then turn east across the ice cap. Miller did it different. As the gear came up he turned back and climbed between canyon walls up the glaciated valley. The result was spectacular scenery as we went up the slope 6,000 feet then topped out over the solid ice pack to our cruising altitude.)

Approach to Reykjavik, Iceland

The scenery across Greenland is magnificent. We had a perfect day for gawking at miles of snow pack and, on the east coast, a glacier dropping icebergs into the sea. It seemed we’d never get away from land. Flight Level 210, you know. Every time all that cold water up ahead got to working on us we’d look back and there, apparently just behind the wing, was the coast of Greenland. It was a relief to finally lose sight of it. Never any apprehension; engines in auto-rough or anything like that.

Navigation? The Bendix ADF locked on to a commercial station in Reykjavik, Iceland (210 kc) while we ran up on the ground at Narsarsuaq. All the way across we could get two or more NDBs. Later it was the same into Prestwick, Scotland. We wished for a second ADF for taking cross-bearings.
When so much depends on one, you don’t like to continually be cranking it around the dial. (Herman’s VOR receivers never worked, much to his disgust.)

Once we heard a Seaboard airliner on 121.5 calling Coast Guard Ocean Ship Bravo (which was on station far to the south of our course). Evidently, he wasn’t getting an answer. We broke in and called him, but he came back with the cheerful word that our signal was breaking up so badly he couldn’t read us. Later we heard Bravo calling us on 121.5, but we couldn’t reach him either. Through all this, Miller, whose company manufactured the radios we were using, maintained a rather stoic silence. But from Greenland to Iceland he was all smiles. Since no one seemed to care about the lack of position reporting on that Goose Bay-to-Greenland leg, we didn’t plan to sweat it on the Greenland to Iceland leg. After clearing the east shore of Greenland and establishing a heading that kept the ADF centered on an Iceland NDB, we relaxed.

Suddenly an authoritative voice broke into our reverie. “This is Scandinavian 915. Sondrestrom wants your position.” Uh Oh! What could we say? We hadn’t even been keeping track of time, so consequently, no one got a position report from us between Goose and Greenland. So, when Scandinavian 915 called we didn’t have the foggiest idea what our lat/long might be. Herman half-figured and half-made up an answer and sent it up on 121.5. We settled back down into a semi-awake state, thinking problem solved. Then, suddenly, a few minutes later, a second authoritative voice came on with the announcement, “I’m Big Gun!” He wanted to talk with us on 126.1. We supposed it was a smart aleck, Texas-type airline captain. But, son-of-a-gun, sure enough there is a Big Gun Radio, way up on the east coast of Greenland. We measured the distance. He was 150 nm away! He said he was reading us “four by four.” Herman’s little one-watt Bayside BEI 990 com radios fairly danced in their mounts; Miller nearly choked on his grin.

Big Gun smugly informed us we weren’t even near where we said we were, then gave us a fix. For the next hour or so Big Gun came in occasionally to give us a position report. He never would confirm that he had us on radar (“I’m not saying I haven’t”), but we got with the navigation bit just the same, so we’d know as well as he when the reporting points came up. He smugly corrected each position report we claimed.

The coastline of Scotland, a welcome sight after an 11-hour flight.

Iceland came up faintly visible only an hour or so after losing site of Greenland behind us. At three hours, 30 minutes out of Narsarsuaq we were there. The big airport at Keflavik was clear, while Reykjavik, only 25 nm distant, had a 1,500- foot ceiling. We could have slipped under, but Miller wanted the LF approach practice. We landed at Reykjavik 3:44 after takeoff.

Miller had business on the airport. S. Thorhallsson ran a dandy radio shop there: Flugverk Aero Sales and Service. There was also an excellent fixed base operation, I asked about flying back across to the airport at Angmagssalik, on the eastern coast of Greenland on an east-to-west crossing against headwinds and was assured that there’s nothing to it. A fine airport and fuel is available there. Going to Angmagssalik on a westerly crossing would take the anxiety out of the prevailing headwinds. From there you could go to Sondrestrom ($190 landing fees), or across the cap to Narsarsuaq, thence to the mainland.

Friday morning Flugfelog Islands Airlines filled our oxygen bottle and we got off for Scotland at noon. As we climbed out, the left fuel flow dropped down to zero. We watched the exhaust gas temp rise. Obviously, the engine was running lean, and the higher we went the leaner it got. At 19,000 feet, the engine began surging and the prop governor couldn’t hold it. Back to Reykjavik and the Loftleidir hotel. We called Piper and got some help, but it was Flugthjonustan’s mechanic, Bjorn Ingimarsson (who got his A&P at Spartan in Tulsa, incidentally) who found the problem. A pressure air line, turbocharger to the injection nozzles, had worked loose. Piper had used those cheapie wire clamps rather than quality Adel ones. At slow cruise, it hadn’t been critical; in a high-power climb, it was and it finally let go after six or so climbs from factory new.

Early Saturday we tried again. This time the 750-nm flight to Prestwick was a snap. We flew most of it in high thin ice crystal cloud, with the alternate airs out. TWA 717 relayed one position report for us; we did it ourselves the second time. Then, quite unexpectedly, there was Scotland, a few little blue islands hiding in cloud shadows. We canceled IFR, dropped down for sightseeing, and landed 4:05 out of Reykjavik.

We’d been 11:26 Goose to Prestwick, only 7:40 of it out of gliding range to land. And that was broken into 2 parts. Big deal.

One more little hop that evening across the narrow English Channel and Miller was demonstrating his radios at the Hanover Air Show. For us, flying to Europe, even way back there in 1965, had been simply a longish business trip. 

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