Flying the Atlantic
Here’s the draft of an article written several years ago about flying the Atlantic in a Cessna. It was the first thing I’d ever been paid to write.
Two pilots meet by happenstance and eventually fly the Atlantic in a Cessna 337. They encounter weather, bureaucracy, but get it done. The article makes the trip sound doable, which it is. A utube video of the trip can be viewed at
During a spring ’05 dive trip to Cat Island, Bahamas Stan and Brian, divers, pilots and adventurers met for the first time. Typical of pilots their, dive boat conversation quickly turned to aviation, which eventually included an after dive walk to their respective airplanes; doesn’t everyone like to see the other guy’s airplane. Stan’s airplane, a PC12 was decked out with all the trappings of a typical charter plane, which is its primary mission. Brian’s airplane, a Cessna Skymaster, had only two seats, and was packed with emergency gear. At first Stan considered the gear over kill for Caribbean flying then learned that Brian regularly flies the Atlantic in the C337. Flying the Atlantic in a small plane had been on Stan’s list for a long time; he immediately started thinking of how to sell the adventure to wife.
55 weeks later Brian and Stan met in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They were about to embark on what would be a trip of a lifetime. Brian VonHerzen is CEO of Rapid Prototypes. In that capacity he makes annual trips to Europe. Rather than hop on a commercial airliner, which is how most cross the Atlantic, Brian takes his Cessna 337 Riley Sky-Rocket. It takes longer to get there in the 337 but wow, what a way to go.
Their target for the first night was Iqaluit, NU, which is located on Baffin Island; that’s way up there. The first leg crossed Lake Michigan and Huron with a fuel stop at Sudbury, Ontario. Customs at Sudbury are self-service, once on the ground one simply calls customs and says, “We’re here!”
The second leg consisted of ample IMC and a full approach into La Grande, Quebec, located adjacent to James Bay, on the southern tip of Hudson Bay. Standing next to the airplane in the blowing snow and in need of a men’s room, Stan was thrilled to see the customs van approaching. A $5 landing fee is all that the inspector wanted, then sped away after refusing to give them a ride to the terminal; welcome to ‘French Quebec’. Customer service isn’t their calling and they don’t really seem too interested in selling fuel. La Grande isn’t a recommended stop.
The leg from La Grande to Iqaluit was mostly IMC. A few breaks in the clouds at the right time allowed them to get a glimpse of The Hudson Straight. Dinner that first day was a homemade MRI, prepared by Becky, Brian’s girlfriend. Tuna salad, fruit, cheese and crackers, would be the faire for the next few days. Thankfully the weather became VMC just before a dusk arrival at Frobisher Bay and Iqaluit.
Everybody was friendly in Iqaluit, which sets near the center of Baffin, Island. Due to a head wind Stan & Brian arrived late and the FBO, a small trailer, had already closed for the day. Few planes come and go in Iqaluit but Phillip, who runs the FBO, heard the plane land and left dinner with his family to greet them. In sub-zero temperatures Phillip rolled a couple of drums of avgas under each wing of the Riley Rocket, inserted a small pump, which got it’s power from the battery in his pick-up, and slowly refueled all four tanks.
The Frobisher Hotel staff are very friendly but they don’t offer Internet service, which makes getting weather a challenge; there’s no 1800 WX BRIEF in those parts. Brian made a few calls and was assured of clear skies all of the way to Greenland.
Pre-flight prior to flying over un-inhabited, ice covered terrain and water is done with a great deal of focus, even if it’s so cold that spit freezes before hitting the ground. The two turbo-charged TSIO 520s idled for fifteen minutes before all the gauges were in the green. The airport was reporting clear skies but the runway had less than a mile of visibility due to blowing snow; welcome to Baffin Island.
The first flight of day two crossed the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island by flying, at low level, through a glacier filled valley that lies between Pangnirtung and Qikiqktarjuaq. It was an incredible flight and certainly a sensory overload.
Unexpected low ceilings and overcast skies greeted them at the coastline. Most of what could be seen of the Davis Straight was frozen solid. Soon IMC prevailed and a significant amount of ice accumulated before reaching Disko Island, the first view of land before reaching the island of Greenland and the final destination of day two – Illulissat. A customs agent was waiting before the prop stopped spinning, she asked for their passports, made a few calls while examining them, then welcomed them to Greenland; it was the most thorough check they’d received on the entire trip.
Illulissat is a small town that lies north of the Artic Circle, is blanketed by ice and snow and inhabited by Inuits and Danes. Nearly every home has a sled parked in the yard surrounded by the ubiquitous Husky. The hotel had an excellent view of the bay, icebergs, and wireless Internet.
After getting settled and a enjoying a whale steak dinner, Brian studied the weather and determined that an early departure the next morning was essential or they’d most likely be weather bound in Illulissat. The sun didn’t set until nearly midnight and then was peeping over the horizon before 3AM; contemplating the poor weather forecast and the lack of darkness resulted in little sleep. The next morning a freezing drizzle had turned into a freezing rain by the time the airport opened; the temperature was well below freezing and there wasn’t much hope of the ceilings going anywhere but lower. After going through the motions of departure preparation, looking at an ice coated airplane, the two came to their senses and returned to the hotel for a twenty-four hour delay.
Skies cleared overnight. Flying across the Greenland ice cap is eerie and difficult to describe; angel hair comes to mind. Scattered granite shards acutely pierce the cloud looking icecap along the way and give the eye something to focus on. Numerous Grand Teton like peaks dot the Kangerlussuag Glacier, located on the east coast of Greenland. The Sky Rocket zigzagged its way through the peaks while Brian and Stan photographed the breathtaking views.
As one might expect, another load of ice accumulated on approach to Iceland, it’s so poetic; the boots on the Skymaster worked perfectly. Isafjordur has a most unique approach it’s one that AOPA should feature in a Q&A article; the reward for flying the approach is a view of a beautiful fjord sitting on the very north shore of Iceland. The tower had closed for the day but three Isafjordur Police / Customs officers were waiting at the airport; their questions were more of curiosity and flying the Atlantic in a small plane than of immigration; they didn’t ask asked for a passport or any proof of identity. They were friendly, helpful, and provided a ride to the hotel.
A north Atlantic tropical storm/hurricane making its way slowly up the Denmark Straight between Iceland and Scotland kept the adventurers on the ground in Iceland for several days. They rented a car and spent a few days exploring the northern parts of Iceland; it’s a beautiful area. After a few days it was decided to fly to a different part of Iceland. While doing a preflight a local pilot approached the plane; he and Brian recognized each other and realized they’d met a few years earlier in Phoenix; the world is not only flat but it’s apparently small.
The next destination was Myvatn, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates meet; I guess it’s officially the divide between Europe and America. The divide is clearly visible as a huge surface wrinkle that runs across Iceland. Beneath the wrinkle are numerous hot-spring pools. The area is covered by large lava flows, volcanic formations, and large rock formations, one of which is similar to Ayers Rock of Australia; this one is covered with snow.
The tropical storm became stationary and the stay was extended. After becoming familiar with the locals, Brian and Stan pitched in with some chores; trout fished with the chief and enjoyed a pool of sulfur-laden hot springs that lie just below the surface throughout the Myvatn area.
Finally the weather moved north and the Denmark Straight cleared; they departed Myvatn for Hohenfjordur, fueled, and filed a flight plan for Scotland. Iceland to Scotland was the longest over water leg, except for the Faros Island chain, which they planned for and crossed. The Faros are magnificent; they jut sharply out of the water on nearly all sides.
Wick, Scotland is located in the northern most part of Scotland and is a frequent stop for Trans-Atlantic flyers. Far North Aviation is an excellent stop and is frequented by many Trans-Atlantic flyers. They graciously put the plane in a WWII hangar, served tea, and provided a ride to a bed & breakfast, which they reserved. The B&B didn’t have Internet service but a nearby coffee shop provided a connection with rest of the world. After sending emails and digital photos to friends and family Brian and Stan toured the town by foot and enjoyed fish and chips at a local pub.
Clouds shrouded the UK during the flight from Scotland to Holland; the flight down the North Sea was mostly on the gauges, but the temps remained well above freezing, yahoo. Lellystadt had been recommended as a good stop enroute from Scotland to Greece. The people were very friendly; arrival their coincided with their Liberation Day, which is the date the US liberated Holland from Germany during WWII; it was a good day to be an American in Holland, except for the price of fuel; $14 US per gallon. The short walk to the hotel gave Brian a bit of time to recover from the fuel gouging. It was agreed that as nice as the Dutch were, Lellystadt wouldn’t make the recommended stop list.
The next morning was filled with mixed emotions; all future flights would be over solid ground and no long stretches of water or dealing with ice, but the bureaucracy of filing a flight plan in Europe is unbelievable. First of all it took three tries to get a flight plan filed to the next stop, Austria, but the real kicker was discovering that the Athens, Greece area no longer accommodated private planes weighing less than ten thousand pounds. After several calls to the FBOs located on the field at Athens and a Cessna service center in the area the wheels of progress started slowly grinding away, but approval was still several hours away, and at that time uncertain.
While Athens authorities considered a request to land, Stan & Brian bored their way through a hazy European sky to Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg cuddles next to the Alps, but due to the haze, the view wasn’t spectacular. The purpose of the stop in Salzburg was to fuel up before heading down the Adriatic coast and take in a Mozart dinner concert. Salzburg is a beautiful city; the fortress and Mozart dinner concert was a short walk from the hotel.
Late that night Brian called Athens and gave them a good dose of American cock and bull regarding his importance. His performance did the trick and in less than an hour they were granted permission to land; it wasn’t until after landing that they learned just how well the hyperbole had worked.
Departure from Salzburg was crystal clear VFR and the ride through the early morning Alps was spectacular. Every digital camera in the plane clicked away, taking in the snow capped peaks. Brian was constantly changing tape cartridges on the two video cameras. Words can’t describe the trip from Austrian to Croatia; it was a God Blessed flight.
Croatia’s coastline is unbelievable. Gorgeous resorts populate nearly every cove; it looks very inviting. Things aren’t quite so rosy on the ground. During the fuel stop at Zadar the people were very friendly but strict. Stan had to stay with the plane while Brian was escorted to the terminal to file a flight plan into Athens. Armed guards escorted Brian into the terminal while armed guards stayed with Stan and the airplane.
The flight to Athens from Croatia was very odd. After being allowed to skirt the coast at low level they were told to climb, then along the Herzgonovenian coast were directed to about fifteen miles off the coast to an altitude of one thousand feet or less. Finally, in Greece airspace they were allowed to climb to a safe altitude.
Arrival in Athens was a show. After touchdown ground control directed them to a ramp, which was full of police and emergency aircraft. They were instructed to keep the engines running. It was at that time that Stan first noticed the “Bond” girls. Three black sedans were parked near our plane and in front of each sedan were ladies dressed in black suits. They truly looked like something out of a James Bond movie; Brian and Stan wondered whom the ladies were waiting for. It was surmised that the hold up was some large private jet owned by a celebrity that needed to taxi in front of us, to the waiting entourage. After a thirty minute wait, which included shutting down each engine, one at a time, ground instructed the Riley Rocket to follow the “Follow-Me” van to yet another location, which they did; the Bond girls followed.
Finally, after forty-five hours of flight time and nearly two weeks since the US, the pair arrived ‘safely’ in Athens. After getting out of the plane Stan kissed the ground; the Bond girls had parked just off the right wing and were watching. While waiting for Brian to get out Stan asked them what their purpose was. Each of them had a specific function: one was to take Dr. VonHerzen and his passenger to their taxi, which was waiting, the other was a representative of the Cessna dealer, and the other was simply there to watch; her function was never made clear; she left after only a few minutes. It’s possible she’d simply come to see the, now famous, Dr. VonHerzen. Brian’s phone call had made quite an impression. The girls were visibly disappointed in the disheveled looking Americans who tumbled out of a packed Cessna. They no doubt had expected a distinguished looking gentleman to descend the stair door of a private jet.
The owner of the Cessna service center arrived with a different perspective and was visibly excited. He explained how he’d learned to fly in a Cessna 337, then promptly flew it to Africa, landed at a prohibited airport and was forced to take it apart and ship it back to Greece. He invited Brian and Stan to his house for dinner where he wanted to show them the disassembled 337, including the tail booms which hang from his living room ceiling. In less than twenty-four hours Brian and Stan had gone from being pariahs and not welcome to celebrities.
Brian extended his stay another two months; Stan returned to the USA via Delta two days later. Ten hours from Athens to New York sounds like a long trip until one has done it in a Cessna 337. As the large jet started it’s slow taxi to the runway Stan sat back, closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until the flight was less than 30 minutes off the US coast.