Monday, 9 October 2017

How to fly the Atlantic in your Homebuilt - Part Two, The Flying Experiences

In Part One I did not go into much detail about the aircraft itself because this guide is intended to be for any type of homebuilt aircraft. You will have to satisfy yourself that the aircraft you use is suitable for the trip.

In saying that I did test all the systems on my aircraft thoroughly before setting off to satisfy myself that they all worked and there were no ergonomic snags or other issues along the way.

This link is also helpful and worth reading - even though it refers to Round The World flights the principles still apply.

The last bit about drinking and being able to urinate does make sense if you are doing very long flights. My longest flight was just under 5 hours. I did not have the ability to urinate with my immersion suit on and done up - it would be virtually impossible to do that in the confines of my cockpit. I just made sure I was well hydrated before setting off and made sure to go to the toilet as close to my departure time as possible. I did also carry a water bottle but would only take small sips from it and that was generally towards the end of the flight when I knew a toilet would be near soon.

Studying the weather - specifically the pressure charts for the North Atlantic (BBC weather was a good source for this) - I noticed a high pressure system forming over Greenland and moving East. It looked like very settled weather for the next few days so I set off to Scotland on Sunday 25th June.

The first leg to Scotland was some of the worst weather for the entire trip but it was as forecast, so not unexpected. I ended up dodging rain showers most of the way through Scotland. Aberdeen control were more than happy for me to transit their airspace to the South West to avoid the clouds right down on the mountains directly on track.

I had already arranged services at Wick airport with Far North Aviation. They are the go-to company for Ferry pilots leaving Europe and making the North Atlantic crossing so are well versed in helping in this area. You could if you wanted to hire immersion suits and life rafts from them. I had heard the boss their, Andrew Bruce, was very helpful but I actually found him stand-offish and he did not approve of my routing. Saying I should not be going to Vagar in the Faroes and instead go direct to Egilsstadir in Eastern Iceland. He also did not approve of me going to Nuuk in Greenland as Kangerlussuaq is the normal preferred stop off point on the West Coast of Greenland. As it turns out both were fine for me and I enjoyed going to different airports and places as this was part of the experience for me.

Wick is controlled during the week but closed for most of the weekend - except for a 2 hr window between 1415 to 1615 on Sundays which is when I arrived. Annoyingly their ATIS is on a VOR frequency so unless you have a VOR you won't be able to listen to it.

Far North Aviation sorted out my fuelling needs and also accommodation for the night at the recommended Norseman Hotel which has good food in the restaurant and a bar for the essential P.F.D. (Post Flight Drink). In this case I had a double Whisky, Old Pulteney, from the local distillers in town.

They also put my plane into a massive old WWII hangar for the night.

The bill for handling, landing fee, hotel and fuel (46 litres) was £242.

The next day I set off for Iceland with a stop in the Faroes for fuel (and a rest).

I filed my flight plans with SkyDemon but the first leg one had not yet gone through so the controller made me hold for 20 minutes while he sorted it out and also to allow some other traffic to arrive. If I had known he would hold me for that long I would have shut down. Anyway I had loads of reserve fuel for this first leg so it wasn't an issue. It may pay to file your flight plans several hours before - or even the night before with SkyDemon to avoid this happening to you. I did not experience the same problem with Foreflight.

Anyway I finally set off and initially climbed to 5,500 ft which is the maximum allowed height on a VFR flight plan as there is Class A airspace above that. After about 20 minutes and noticing some cloud ahead I requested a Special VFR to climb above the cloud layer to 7,500ft. This was, somewhat reluctantly, approved by Scottish Control. After passing The Orkney Islands it was nothing but ocean ahead. Scottish handed me off to Sumburgh (in the Shetland Islands) but I was not able to make contact with them. So I came back to Scottish and stayed with them as long as I could, finally losing contact. I then switched to Vagar which is an uncontrolled information only service. 

It should be noted that if you are on a VFR flight plan then you do not need an Oceanic Clearance and you do not need to submit hourly position reports as required on an IFR flight plan. 

As I was in Class A airspace then any change in flight level would require an approval from a controller - in theory. In practise you are outside of VHF coverage for a good bit of these flights and there is no traffic that low down that you would affect anyway so if safety dictates it then a flight level change is the best thing you can do - with or without approval. If you have a Transponder then anyone with TCAS will see you anyway.

If you get ice and need to descend over the ocean - do so and without delay. Don't wait to ask permission from the controllers there will not be any traffic below you anyway. If by some chance you are still within VHF coverage then once the ice is melted you could give them a courtesy call to let them know your new level and why.

I preferred to fly above any cloud layer if I could and did so on most legs. 

I generally cruised between 7,500 and 9,500ft over the oceans.

Vagar in the Faroes has a notorious reputation for bad weather but on the day I arrived it was fine. There was still a layer of stratus and some light rain on the approach though, this soon cleared after I landed. It's the wind that you need to watch out for here as the windshear on the approaches is legendary as being some of the worst in the world.

It was fun to fly the 'Waterfall Approach' which takes you over a waterfall that is spilling out into the sea, a spectacular sight.

The ground drops away steeply on both approaches to Vagar so it can fool you into approaching too low. Ignore the ground cues and watch the PAPI lights and you'll not go wrong. After landing it may feel like you've got a flat tyre but don't be alarmed it is just the deep cuts in the runway surface to drain water away (and to limit ice forming on the surface too I guess) that makes a funny noise from your tyres. 

I requested AvGas from the tower and the refuelling truck came right away. I paid him direct and then he took me over to the Customs area to pay my landing fee. The Customs officers just wanted to know if I was staying in the Faroes and when I said no then they said "we don't need to see your passport".

I short walk over to the Terminal area and I had a rest and some lunch. I planned for 2 hours turnaround and this seemed a good amount of time to get everything done and have a rest and a bite to eat.

I paid with card for everything so didn't need to get any Danish Kroners out. Although in hindsight some cash would have been useful as they use the same currency in Greenland. As it turns out on the outbound trip I could use a card for everything so it wasn't a problem.

The landing fee was a reasonable £23.45 but the fuel was an eye watering £136.10 for just 43 litres of AvGas.

The next leg to Reykjavik was fairly uneventful. After leaving Vagar's frequency you are handed over to Reykjavik Control East whose radio coverage is very good. There were the usual cloud layers which I climbed above. Reykjavik being happy for me to cruise at 9,500ft.

I found the Icelandic controllers to be very good, helpful and accommodating. 

Upon approaching Iceland there was a stratus layer covering most of the country so I opted to descend below it while still out at sea and then hug the coast all the way in to Reykjavik. I lost radio coverage when I did this so when getting closer to Reykjavik I climbed above the cloud layer and made contact again before another descent back down below it being careful to do this well before the rising ground which is South East of the airport so I was visual all the way in.

Upon landing I was directed to Ace FBO. All they really did for me was call the Customs officers to check my passport. They then charged €150 for that. If you wanted to avoid paying this fee then I guess you have to organise yourself a bit better than I did and choose not to use the FBO.

The Customs officers were pleasant and I only had to sign one form and have my passport stamped then I was on my way. I stayed 2 nights in Reykjavik as the weather was not the best the next day and I felt I needed a rest anyway.

I stayed at Guesthouse Anna which was a 10 minute walk away so I didn't bother with a taxi. Iceland is expensive. It was £170 per night for the accommodation and this was one of the cheapest places to stay. It did include a good breakfast and the location is excellent so I can recommend it.

Reykjavik is a nice place to spend a day or two. It's pretty compact and I felt I walked around most of the city in one day.

I left the next morning after a rain shower and with an overcast layer which I soon climbed above.  

After leaving Reykjavik you are soon handed off to Reykjavik Control and the VHF coverage is very good stretching almost all the way to Greenland.

When you cross the FIR you are requested to call Sondestrom info on 120.3 who soon hand you off to Kulusuk when you are about 30nm out.

Kulusuk is non controlled and is an information service only but Hans in the tower is very professional and helpful.

The main traffic in this area are helicopters which constantly ferry passengers from the airport to the nearby settlement of Tasiilaq. 

There was a Bell 212 arriving as I was making my approach and he got there well before me. It was actually a fore-warning as to the weather as I overheard him saying the fog had got much worse. It was CAVOK on the TAF before I left Reykjavik but that was nearly 4 hours beforehand and the coastal fog had come in since then, as it does in this area. Weirdly just a few miles north of Kulusuk it was clear all the way to the ice cap with no fog but Kulusuk has a little mini-climate of it's own and there was fog alright with Hans reporting a base of 100ft.

There was also a thin broken layer of cloud at about 500 ft so I descended below that first and hugged the granite as I made my approach.

Both GPS sources were giving very accurate information and sure enough they led me to finals for the gravel runway - even though I didn't get visual with it until about half a mile out. The PAPI lights were the first thing visible. There is a marked upslope after half way when approaching from the East.

The stones from the gravel runway caused my tailplane some damage on the return journey but did not do any damage this time round.

There is no security or customs in Kulusuk. I was told just to go up to the Tower which I did. Hans was there to offer coffee and cake! He also wanted to know if I was continuing on that day. I told him I would stay the night and attempt the ice cap crossing the following day.

There was talk of the Polar bear which got too close to the Village in the early hours of that morning and so was shot by the locals. Then the talk turned to what Polar bear meat tastes like... nothing is wasted in the Arctic.

The hotel in Kulusuk - there's only one - is about a 10 minute walk from the airfield. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the hotel was, fast WiFi (which you have to pay for by the hour - £25 for 2 hours) and excellent food in the restaurant.

After dinner and a rest I went for a walk around the bay area between 10 and 11pm and it was still very light as the sun did not set until 1am and then rose again at 2am so it did not get dark at all (bring your airline eyeshades if you want to get a good nights sleep). On that walk I did not see a single soul or car or any sounds other than the dripping of water from the slowly melting icebergs in the bay and the odd sea bird call. A very serene and peaceful place.

The next day looked promising with a high pressure over the southern part of Greenland and tailwinds too. It doesn't get much better than this for a flight across the ice cap.

This is the met chart handed to me by Hans that morning.

Kulusuk is BGKK and Nuuk is BGGH.

I waited for some early morning fog to clear and then set off at 11am but not before paying my bill at the airfield which came to £270.60.

I chose to fly to Nuuk because it made the next leg to Iqaluit in Canada (which was the longest leg over water at 450nm) shorter by 50nm than if I went to Kangerlussuaq. The weather further north was not perfect in any case and Nuuk was a better option that day - the winds also favoured Nuuk too.

The departure was to be my first ever intentional downwind take off. The reasons for this were that firstly the wind was only about 5 knots, the downwind runway direction was also downhill and finally behind me in the other direction was a lingering freezing fog with high ground hidden beneath it. In the downwind direction it was clear sky and no rising ground so it made sense to take off this way.

Then began the long slow climb to 12,000ft - the minimum height as instructed by Sondestrom.

As I found out later on my return crossing, this so called 'perfect' weather for crossing was not really perfect at all. It was CAVOK and not a single jet trail was seen on the entire flight. This made for a 'white out' below and 'blue out' above. I can now understand how those WWII pilots flew into the ice cap as there is no depth perception when the sun is this bright on the snow. There was nothing to aim at for a heading either so I ended up having my head down and concentrating on the EFIS for most of the flight. This was very tiring as the C of G was quite rearward and subsequently I was having to hand fly an unstable aircraft on instruments. All the while the reflection from the ice cap is extremely bright and almost gives you a bit of snow blindness.

So although the weather may have seemed perfect to a newby like me in reality it is much easier if you have a thin cloud layer well above your cruising level to cut out the sun reflecting on the ice cap. I found this out on my return journey which had a high layer of cloud and this was much less tiring and also done in an earlier part of the day too so the sun was lower in the sky anyway. Something to bear in mind. Although if you have an autopilot then it's not really an issue.

I suppose the good thing about the blue above was the solar heating through the canopy which kept me quite warm despite the minus 20 C temperature outside. My Twister does not have a cockpit heater and frankly does not need one as I was rarely cold on this trip. The composite sandwich fuselage and then the safety cell inside that (also composite sandwich) must be good at insulating from the outside air. Wearing the immersion suit obviously helped. I would want a cockpit heater in a conventionally constructed metal aircraft though.

You lose radio coverage over the ice cap and there is a long period of feeling well and truly alone on this flight.

Radio coverage at Nuuk is poor to the direction I was arriving from so I didn't make contact with them until I was about 15nm out despite being requested to contact them by Sondestrom at 30nm. Nuuk is also an uncontrolled airport - despite being an international airport of the nations capital city. 

I spent the night in Nuuk and went for a walk around the compact 'city' (pop just 17,000). The coastal fog closing in that evening. 

The next day was virtually perfect weather for the longest leg so far of 450nm crossing to Iqaluit in Canada. Canada would be the fifth country in 6 days of travelling.

Before departing I visited the control tower to make sure my flight plan had gone through and to phone Can-Pass, the Canadian customs system for entry. Upon phoning them and giving the required information I was then asked what my ETA number was. I replied with my ETA - Estimated Time of Arrival in ZULU time. They continued by saying that was not the number they were looking for and much confusion continued until they explained that a new system was in place and that I must have an eTA number Electronic Travel Authorisation number before I would be allowed to enter Canada. So I had to apply online and pay the money - I got a receipt via email that the money had gone through and waited for the eTA to arrive via email. After 1 hour I decided to phone them back and spoke to a helpful lady at Can-Pass. I explained the situation and that as I had the receipt for payment then the eTA was clearly being processed and I had been told by the previous person that it was normally done in a matter of minutes and I had been waiting for over an hour and that I really needed to depart soon. She reluctantly agreed that it would be okay for me to depart even though that was strictly not the procedure, so I was on my way.

The eTA system was only put in place 6 months beforehand and no mention was made of it on the Can-Pass website anywhere which I pointed out to her was poor and had led to my error in not applying for it in advance.

As the wind was only about 3 knots and across the runway I taxied out at Nuuk and decided to take the runway that favoured the direction of my destination so back tracked making blind calls as I did so. An Air Greenland Dash 8 came on the radio and questioned my choice of runway and said it would be a confliction with them as they were approaching for the other runway - but were still 10nm out. I said I would be airborne in 30 seconds and on my way and out of there way. They still thought there would be a confliction and continued by berating the guy in the tower saying he should not have let me choose that runway. I reminded the Air Greenland flight that as it was an uncontrolled airfield that it was the pilots discretion as to the runway to use and it was my decision and nothing to do with the guy in the tower. After take off I turned onto my heading to Canada and could easily see the Dash 8 from about 5nm away as it entered the downwind. So no harm done. They have so little traffic in Greenland I guess the pilots are not used to sharing the air with anyone else. Maybe they should spend some time at Heathrow?!

After a short while it was nothing but water ahead and I spotted a white dot many miles away. Was it a ship? As I got closer it was clearly not a ship but an iceberg. I saw a few random icebergs like this as I crossed until they eventually formed into a 'sea' of ice. 

Random icebergs in the middle of the Atlantic.

I soon crossed the Greenland FIR and was instructed to contact Gandar but even after trying them several times as I made my way across the ocean I never got a response from them and I never heard them transmit either - although I did hear one aircraft talking to them. So again you are on your own here for some hours unless you have HF radio.

About 50nm out from the coast the icebergs became an ice sheet that covered the water. Thoughts now entered my mind about what to do in the event of a ditching/forced landing? Should I go for one of the larger icebergs? Or try for a landing in one of the slivers of water that remained? As I found out later the iceberg is the better option. Although they did not look like they had a smooth uniform surface so it would be a rough landing and would most likely wipe the undercarriage off.

A short while after that the east coast of Canada came into view. A rugged and desolate landscape with not a sign of life anywhere. Opportunities for forced landings were almost non existent until further across this peninsula that forms the eastern edge of Frobisher Bay.

Finally Iqaluit radio was heard and I listened to the latest weather, at the end I was initially confused by the number until I realised that the pressure settings are still done in Inches of Mercury there - despite Canada being otherwise fully metric. So I changed over my setting on the Dynon.

Over this peninsula I experienced some moderate turbulence and this alluded to the strong surface wind from the north which frequently funnels down the valley that leads into Frobisher Bay.

Sure enough on landing it was gusting to 35 knots - thankfully almost straight down the runway so I basically 'hovered' into land.

Unfortunately I was marshalled in by a clueless guy from Touch Down Services FBO who parked me exposed out on the apron with an angle which meant my canopy was vulnerable to the wind gusts.

Avoid using Touch Down Services they are a waste of time!

My attention was taken by the two Customs ladies which wanted to see my passport immediately after landing and although I closed the canopy I did not lock it (which I would normally do in such a strong wind). With my back turned and within 20 seconds one of the Customs ladies pointed behind me and said "Your bubble has blown over". I turned to see the canopy blown right over with the perspex touching the wing surface, the securing wire having been ripped out of it's place and the canopy hinges over centred and cracked in several places.

This was to be the only real damage caused on the entire trip and was thankfully repairable.

I had previously made contact with 'The Polar Pilots', two local ex pilots who like to meet and greet any travellers passing through Iqaluit. My contact was Bert Rose who I met in my hotel for dinner and an aviation chat. He was good enough to give me a guided tour of Iqaluit and then sorted out some hangarage for the repair to the canopy with Air Nunavut. He also drove me around the next day to source some 5 min epoxy for the repair. A top bloke! You can contact him on this link:

So the next few days I was 'stuck' in Iqaluit with this canopy repair. Actually it was a blessing in disguise as the weather in the southern part of Canada where I was planning to head to was atrocious. Also it was Canada day and the 150th anniversary of Canada's formation so there were events going on in town which made it a more interesting place to be than usual.

After 4 days the weather was good enroute and the canopy was all fixed and cured so I headed south to Schefferville. The longest leg of the trip at 541nm. The flight plan was pretty straight forward with a direct to destination and no turn or way points along the route.

Before departing I bought my drum of fuel and told the guys to save it for me as I would use it again on the way back. After my return fill up the unused remaining fuel (approx 100 litres) would end up in the refuellers snowmobile - that's what he told me would happen with it.

I also filed a flight plan for this leg (which was wholly sensible given the remote country I would be passing over) this is also a legal requirement in Canada when you are flying any further than 25nm from your departure airport.

I enjoyed good tailwinds of approx 15 knots on this leg. The weather was good for most of the flight until approaching Schefferville where there were some thundershowers developing. These were isolated so I just flew around them.

Schefferville is a one horse mining town and in a bad state of disrepair. I later named it Shitterville. There is not a lot to recommend it as a destination other than it's runway and AvGas availability. There's also a plague of mosquitos there in the summer months as I found out when I went for a walk that evening to the one and only 'restaurant' in town. The hotel although being modern and in good condition did not offer a restaurant. Everyone speaks French here.

I will leave the travelogue at this point as from here I had a sightseeing tour of Canada and the USA rather than heading straight for Oshkosh. I'd been lucky with the weather to make such good progress and had several weeks now to 'kill' before Oshkosh.

If you were to head straight to Oshkosh from Schefferville then I'd recommend Timmins and then Sault Ste Marie as stopping off points on a more direct track to Oshkosh. You could be at Osh in just a day using this route if you pushed it but two days is probably a better idea. Sault Ste Marie is also handy for Customs as there is a US Customs based on the US airfield just over the border here.

I crossed the border into the USA at Buffalo just near Niagara Falls. By far the most red tape and 'hassle' of any border crossing on the trip.

Before setting off from Toronto I had to file an eAPIS report, stick the customs 'decal' to the outside of the aircraft, phone Customs in Buffalo (they rejected my first request to arrive within 1 hour as they said I must give a minimum of 2 hours notice before arrival so I had to delay my flight plan and departure by 1 hour). I was also instructed to file an ESTA - which is an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation - only to find out when I got to Buffalo that as I had a B1/B2 visa then there was no need to also file the ESTA (as described in Part One of this blog post you are better off getting a Visa in advance especially if you want to do multiple entries into US territory). 

Upon landing in Buffalo I requested a taxi to the FBO and Customs office. I parked up and shut down and was told by the marshal that he would call over a Customs officer. You are not allowed to open your canopy/door, let alone get out of the aircraft, until instructed to do so by the Customs officer. Luckily it was overcast and not a really hot day otherwise I would have overheated as I had to wait for 10 minutes for the officer to turn up. They then walked around my aircraft with a black box scanning for radioactive material! And the officer started to question me through the DV panel and it was ridiculous as I couldn't really hear what she was saying and she couldn't hear me either so finally instructed me that it was ok to open my canopy. After a few more questions I asked if I could get out and she said ok. I was then instructed to walk with her to the office for 'processing'. I asked what I had to bring and she said 'everything'. So I took all the paperwork I had. They looked at everything too, insurance, license, decal, passport and visa. Took fingerprints and a facial picture. Then came a long line of questioning about what I was doing where I was intending to go etc.  After a while they seemed to bore of asking me questions and it went quiet. I asked "So am I good to go?" and they said "Yeah... you're good to go". As every T was crossed and every i was dotted they had nothing on me so had to let me on my way but it was by far the most thorough border crossing of the whole trip. 

When departing the USA from Seattle back into Canada on the return journey I was still obliged to fill out another eAPIS but that was it. I did not even have to leave from a customs airfield and departed directly from Bremerton to Canada.

Once in the USA no-one cared a bit about who I was - I was just another 'Experimental' - and free to fly everywhere and without filing any flight plans - which is what I did (except for that flight back into Canada as mentioned above, across a border, which is a legal requirement). The ATC were very helpful and provided Flight Following when requested. Most airfields I visited were Unicom with no control tower, so just blind calls on the frequency are all that is required. Most airfields also have an ASOS - automated weather frequency which you can listen to on approach. All the FBO's I dealt with in the USA were helpful and friendly and provided a good service with refuelling. A few were self-serve with fuel also with just a credit card needed for payment at the pump. Also there is no such thing as a landing fee in the USA.

Flying in Canada was similarly easy and straightforward with only the aforementioned flight plans being compulsory. If you land at a non-controlled airfield then you will have to phone to close your flight plan yourself, try to do this as soon as you land. ATC were also very helpful although some were a bit more strict especially with regards to flight levels when VFR and following the Semi-Circular rule. Some of the controllers were a bit baffled by my rego though with several asking for confirmation that it indeed did start with a G and not a C as they were used to. I guess they do not get many small aircraft from across the pond flying around in Canada. There were landing fees at the larger airports I visited, namely Sept Iles £15, Quebec International £15 and Labrador City £23. Also when I got home I received a bill through the mail for ATC services which was £50. The landing fee and FBO charges for parking were expensive at Toronto Billy Bishop airport but I knew that before I went there.

Although I arrived into Canada on a VFR flight plan - on my return journey when I was leaving from Iqaluit to Kangerlussuaq I filed as usual with Foreflight but this time it was rejected by Foreflight as it said I must file IFR when departing Canada (which is a legal requirement). So I filed IFR and had the idea to cancel it and revert to a VFR plan when I first spoke with the controller. This did not work out and the controller said "I don't know how to do that" which seemed strange to me and insisted that I depart as IFR and call Montreal Center after departure and sort it out with them. Sure enough I did call Montreal Center once in the climb and asked to cancel IFR and make it VFR - they reminded me that on a VFR flight plan I would only be able to climb to 5,500ft due to the Class A airspace above. I asked for a special VFR to climb higher and they refused it so I stayed on my IFR flight plan. Theoretically I should have been making position reports every hour on the hour but before the top of the first hour had passed I had already lost comms with Montreal Center. On approaching Greenland I had already switched frequencies to Sondestrom and heard an Air Greenland aircraft that was airborne relaying a message that could I call Sondestrom or if no joy to relay a position report to them. This I did and once I got closer to Kangerlussuaq and the runway was in sight I cancelled IFR for a VFR approach.

I hope these blog posts have dispelled some of the myths and mystery surrounding a Trans Atlantic crossing in a homebuilt.

If you have any ambition to do a similar trip yourself then I can wholly recommend it as a great life experience. Just be well prepared with your equipment and allow enough time to 'complete the mission' so you can fly in good weather. Also it will be expensive so allow enough funds to do the trip - my trip ended up costing just under £15k.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below and I will try to answer them as best as I can.