In the interests of sharing knowledge I've decided to put down everything I found out and my experiences along the way. I hope this uncovers the 'mystery' surrounding crossing the Atlantic.
This Part One covers the planning and preparations and Part Two will be the actual flying experience.
First of all - is it possible to fly a homebuilt across the Atlantic? If every letter of every rule book is followed then the answer is "No". But as you will find out below nobody is checking anything so you are free to fly across the same as you would be in a Certified Aircraft.
Where to start?
Well it's good to have a goal in mind and in my case it was to get to Oshkosh before it started.
The aim was to fly into Oshkosh on Friday 21st of July, to avoid the extremely crowded skies that happen the next day.
Working back from that I wanted to allow a full calendar month to get there (more about that later) which meant leaving around Friday 23rd June.
So I had a start date to aim at and also an end goal to aim for, Oshkosh.
Next up came planning out the route.
For me that meant short(ish) legs and the 'Northern Route'.
To fly the 'Southern Route' - Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq to Goose Bay - you are required to have HF radio, which I didn't, plus the legs are quite long and out of my comfort zone with the limited range I had. 670nm and 676nm respectively.
So that settled it - I would fly the Northern Route. I would also minimise my time in Greenland (to avoid getting stuck with weather) by flying across the ice cap rather than going all the way down to Narsarsuaq and back up to Nuuk or Kangerlussuaq as some people have done before me.
Speaking of the HF radio requirement there are two ways around it if you have the range for the Southern Route. One is to do what I was told a French ferry pilot did on leaving Goose Bay. He filled out his flight plan marking that he was HF radio equipped but he didn't even have an HF radio installed let alone operating. As I said above nobody is checking anything. I guess he could always say it was faulty and not working when airborne and then just use VHF. This trick is probably only good to use once, after that the authorities may get suspicious. The second way around the requirement is to fly above FL200 - that way you will always be in VHF contact the whole way across Ganders Oceanic airspace. Not many homebuilts have a service ceiling that high though.
The other thing I did not like about flying the Southern Route was the reputation of Narsarsuaq, it closes in with coastal fog at a moments notice. There are no alternates when flying there. The nearest airfield is 250nm away. The approaches to it are also sketchy with a glacier at one end of the runway and a series of mountains at the other end.
See below for the route I planned (and flew) on the outbound legs of my trip.
This was done on Great Circle Mapper. A free and excellent website.
This route was also determined by availability of AvGas. The only airfield I had to really worry about was CYFB, Iqaluit. Where they get a delivery of 300 drums of AvGas once a year and when it's gone it's gone. Best to phone ahead and see what the availability is before setting off. They had good availability so I didn't need to pre order a drum. You must buy a whole drum - which is 210 litres. I ended up using about half of that on both my outbound and return legs.
I bought one drum and paid $318 Canadian Dollars for it which makes it 91p a litre. They make no money on it and the Govt subsides the delivery of it.
Everywhere else they sell it by the litre, but do check ahead in places like Greenland and Schefferville as I have heard that they run out there from time to time also.
As a backup, if you are flying behind an engine that takes MoGas then you can always get that from a service station in the towns near the airports, although you'll need something to transport it in.
For navigation I used SkyDemon in Europe and Foreflight in Canada and the USA as SkyDemon does not cover Canada and is not a complete service in Greenland. I had two backups to the iPad running this software. One was my iPhone running the same software and the other was a Garmin Aero 500 GPS in my panel.
Both SkyDemon and Foreflight will give you excellent airport data, including availability of AvGas and other facilities, although as I said above you are best to phone directly and check if you are in any doubt.
As you can see my route into Canada was not directly to Oshkosh. Indeed once you get to Schefferville you could start heading in a south-westerly direction and be in Oshkosh in 2 days if so desired. As I'd never been to Canada before I wanted to explore some of the cities hence heading for Quebec (which is lovely BTW) and then onto Toronto. The plan had then been to head for New York but that didn't work out so I headed south to visit the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC instead. Then across to Dayton for the USAF museum and finally north to Oshkosh from there.
I was only able to do this as I 'got lucky' with the weather and was able to cross to Iqaulit in only 6 days. 5 of which were flying days and one rest day in Reykjavik for weather.
As much as I would like to have spent longer in all the stopover places along this route I had to take the good weather when it presented itself.
Study the pressure maps and watch the trends, Greenland does get the occasional high pressure build over it and the same goes for Iceland, although I found the weather window was short (particularly in Iceland) so it's best to get moving and fly in the best weather while you can.
It almost goes without saying - but I'll say it here - the Weather should be your primary and main concern throughout such a journey. Particularly in the Atlantic crossing part of it. You should have a fully 'shaken down' machine with all your equipment functioning as it should. You should also have multiple backups in the event of navigation failure.
I had a long range fuel tank which I made myself and this gave me a theoretical still air range of 800 nm. The longest leg I did was 542 nm. So I had a good reserve should I need to loiter at my destination or if headwinds became more than forecast. So I had a 6.5 hr endurance and the longest flight was just under 5 hours.
I had heard lots of stories about exceptionally strong winds in the Arctic region - someone even said 120 knots. Well the worst headwind I encountered on my entire trip was 20 knots and the best tailwind I got was also 20 knots.
In this day and age there is no excuse for not thoroughly checking out the weather before setting off.
To this end I mainly used windy.com.
Which is free, has global coverage and is brilliantly accurate.
Even so I would still cross check with other weather sources to confirm Windy was accurate. There are also multiple sources within Windy so you can cross check within that site - they range from 4km to 22km accuracy with a 9km intermediate source. The 4km source is only good in central Europe BTW - it's coverage drops off north of Scotland.
Try to avoid flying through any kind of 'front'. Even a trough in the Arctic will bring crappy weather. Obviously a nice big high pressure system is the best. Think about the coriolis effect and where you will be flying so you avoid the worst of the headwinds.
The air flows in a counterclockwise direction around a low pressure system and in a clockwise direction around a high pressure system. So heading north from the UK you would be ideally placed if a low was coming in from the West (but hadn't arrived yet) and a high was just moving off to the East.
I didn't get so lucky with my flights and accepted a headwind on most of the outbound legs - the worst being 15 knots.
Don't believe the myth that you will only get headwinds heading West though - I got a couple of tailwind flights on my way over. Notably on the outbound crossing of the ice cap where I had a good 15 knots tailwind.
I also got headwinds coming back across Canada heading East on a couple of legs.
Regarding Ice - I was also given information that ANY cloud in the Arctic would contain ice. This was just not true and so long as you can descend (ie nothing to hit below you) then any icing in flight is not a deal breaker, despite this I still avoided icing as best I could and only suffered from it once and that was over the ocean so I was able to descend to melt it off. This is clearly not an option over the ice cap so that leg must be done with no chance of icing - therefore no cloud at the levels you wish to fly at. At the end of the day it's all about freezing levels - check that before you fly and you can determine if you're able to descend to melt it off or not, indeed it will give you a good idea of where to expect icing if you have to fly through some cloud.
What about flight permissions for a non-certified aircraft?
I followed the rules on the outbound leg and got a special flight permit to fly in Iceland. This was expensive - £220 - and a bit painful to get, taking some weeks and having to chase the lady in charge of issuing this permit several times. Eventually I went up a level and contacted her superior and sure enough the next day I was issued with a permit. On the return leg I decided not to bother and see what would happen - sure enough no one is checking - so I was able to fly through Iceland without this permit.
For the Iceland permit they asked if I was "IFR capable" and I replied that I was - even though the aircraft I was flying was clearly not IFR Certified and I did not have an IFR rating. Although I was in my mind IFR 'capable' and had an EFIS, and indeed I did fly IFR for several hours on some of the legs of this trip.
You're also supposed to have a heated pitot tube for Iceland requirements but I didn't have one of those either.
For Greenland (and the Faroes) you are supposed to get permission from the Danish CAA but nobody checks so I didn't bother.
For Canada you are supposed to get special authorisation from their CAA - I only found out this afterwards as the information I had was old and did not mention this so it may be a relatively new requirement. Anyway same as Greenland no body checks this so you could go without it as I did.
For the USA I attempted to get a SFA (Special Flight Authorisation) as that is what I understood I needed for a permit based aircraft. The FAA official I was dealing with told me in writing that I did not need a SFA and instead needed a TSA. So I contacted the correct agency and attempted to get a TSA - lots of form filling here. Only to have that rejected as I was told I did not need a TSA either.
So I ended up not getting a permit for the aircraft in the USA either and guess what - nobody checks anything.
As it turns out I found out that Canadian experimentals visiting the USA are required to have an SFA so strictly speaking I should have had an SFA issued but in practical terms it was not a problem as no one is checking you have it.
Visa and entry requirements:
As a British passport holder I did not have to get a visa for any of the countries visited.
I did get a B1/B2 visa for the USA though as that was what I understood I needed - old information told me so. As you are not arriving on a commercial aircraft then the usual visa waiver does not apply and you must have a visa already in your passport. When visiting the US embassy in London I was asked why I didn't just use their waiver system and apply online. As I'd already paid the money and filled out numerous forms and stood in the queue for 2 hours I wasn't about to stop the visa process going ahead. Then on arrival in the USA at Buffalo I was again asked why I had filled out the waiver form online if I already had a visa, I replied that is what I was told to do by the official on the phone I spoke to before leaving Canada.
As it turns out it was a good thing to have the Visa as I found out later on a couple in a home built from South Africa arrived in the USA a few weeks after me and had problems. When they arrived in Bangor the customs officers said that they could not use the visa waiver programme as they had not arrived on a commercial flight. They were told they had two options, fly back to Canada or apply for a one off visa waiver for 585 USD each. After quite a while a senior officer got involved and decided to waive the fee and let them in but they were then not able to leave and re-enter the country - this was a one time deal - so their plans to fly down to South America and the Caribbean and then return back through the USA to Hawaii were scuppered.
So if you want less hassle and expense at the border to the USA then I would suggest getting a B1/B2 visa in advance. It's good for 10 years once issued too.
You also need to buy a customs 'decal' for your aircraft and stick it to the outside near the cockpit entry point before you enter the country.
|US Customs 'decal'|
You also need to be set up with the eAPIS website before applying for an entry to the USA. Do this before you leave also.
As it turns out Canada changed their legislation on me and you now have to apply for an eTA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) before you enter the country. They had only changed this rule about 6 months before I tried to enter but had not update their entry website with this important piece of information! So apply before you go. It costs 50 Canadian dollars and is usually issued within 24 hours.
I will cover more of the entry experiences in part two of this post.
To cross Greenland you will need a special addition to your insurance. I was told this would be circa £3,000 - as it turns out I was able to get it added to my policy for £1400 and this included Canada and the USA also. Obviously I highly recommend getting insurance but the only country that checked I had it was the USA so you may be able to fly without it but that seems a silly risk to me.
As you will be flying over lots of cold water the main requirement is that you can survive a ditching and survive long enough to be rescued in this environment.
Without an immersion suit you will be dead in about 20 minutes in Arctic Water. Well before that you will lose the use of your hands (that happens in about 2 mins). So not wearing an immersion suit is not an option. Also that suit should be fully zipped up. I have seen many a ferry pilot flying along with the top half of their immersion suit undone and pulled down to the waist - for 'comfort'. These suits are hard enough to get on when outside of a cockpit and on the ground let alone when in a seated and cramped cockpit and with a certain emergency to deal with. I consider this practise potential suicide.
You can hire an immersion suit from Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland but they want you to drop it off at Goose Bay typically and then you'd have to fly back through their to pick up another different suit on the way back. I decided to buy my own suit as it was only £200 and well worth having as I know it fits me properly and is not damaged or worn out as the hired ones may be.
With an immersion suit on you have 1.5 hours in Arctic water (outside of a liferaft) so this gives plenty of time to get into your liferaft and crucially does not let your body temperature drop before you do so.
The next most important piece of survival equipment is the life raft.
Again this could be hired but I chose to buy my own as it had to fit into a compact space - behind my back where my parachute would normally be. And I could see myself using it again on other trips. I used a simple nylon tie down to strap the life raft to me - across my chest and under the life jacket straps - so in the event of a ditching the life raft would come out with me and not become separated.
The life raft I bought is a one man covered type with an inflatable cavity in the bottom that gives air insulation so is good for cold water operations.
As far as I know it is the lightest and most compact life raft made for Arctic conditions at just 4.4kg and 320x225x90mm. It also contains fresh water pouches and signalling flares.
I bought it direct from the manufacturer and saved over £100 on the retail price.
See www.ses-safety.com for more details. The model I bought was the HELP Survival Pack.
I also had neoprene gloves and hood which I would don in the event of a ditching (the hood most likely after the ditching). The neoprene gloves actually came in handy to keep my hands warm while flying on several occasions.
I also had a woollen beanie which would be put on in the event of ditching to keep my head warm until I had donned the neoprene hood.
I wore a lifejacket and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) was attached to that.
The PLB is of the GPS type giving a very accurate location for the search and rescue to find you easily.
I had a SPOT Tracker mounted behind my head on the top of the headrest as it needs a good view of the sky to get GPS coverage and send out it's 'ping' every 5 mins to the internet. The tracker itself is not that expensive but the subscription is but as a backup means of locating me this was an essential piece of kit. It also has an SOS function which alerts SAR of your distress and gives them an exact GPS location.
Despite it being a legal requirement I did not have an ELT. Frankly they do not work most of the time in a crash and I had multiple means of alerting the SAR should I need to anyway.
Also strapped to the liferaft were two waterproof bags containing a portable VHF radio, food rations, an LED torch, 2x space blankets and water purifying tablets.
In the baggage compartment I carried a metal billy can that contained fire lighting equipment. I also carried a roll of duct tape and had a Gerber multitool which has a saw, knife and various other useful functions.
It is also essential to read the North Atlantic Flying Manual which gives specific legal requirements and general information about flying in the region. You can download it from here: http://flightservicebureau.org/2017-edition-nat-doc-007-north-atlantic-airspace-and-operations-manual/
Although if you follow it to the letter then you'll never go so take it with a pinch of salt and add some common sense where you don't meet regulations.
I also carried oxygen for the ice cap crossing in Greenland which is conducted at 12,000ft. So whilst not strictly a legal requirement (only above 12,500ft in the UK and 15,000ft in the USA) it is sensible as it keeps your brain 'fresh' and helps you make good decisions.
Stay tuned for Part Two - the flying - coming soon.