How joining a professional ferry pilot for the trip of a lifetime became an ‘I Learned About Flying From That’ experience, complete with Tinkerbell, snowmobiles and Mounties
Words and photos: Keith Wilson
I can still remember the first conversation I had with Matt Walsh about the trip. “How would you like to join us flying a pair of former military Pilatus PC-9 aircraft from Switzerland to North Carolina, routeing across the Pond?” I thought he was yanking my chain and my initial impolite response reflected that. But, from the look on his face I realised he wasn’t joking and it dawned on me that one of the remaining items on my aviation bucket list would be ticked off.
I had heard so much about ferry flying from a number of flying friends, although some of the recent programmes like The World’s Most Dangerous Airports and Dangerous Flights made me think about the wisdom of my enthusiasm. Perhaps a will was in order?
I had previously completed a large number of European ferry trips but all in new or almost-new single-engine aircraft and under strictly day VFR. This trip would be very different.
Powered by the bullet-proof Pratt & Whitney PT6A-62 turbine engine flat-rated at 950shp, the PC-9 is much happier at altitude, where the aircraft is faster and its engine significantly more economical. We would be flying IFR for pretty much the whole trip, so I needed to brush up on my instrument flying.
Then it hit me that we would be on oxygen for most of the time, so a suitable helmet was required. Unfortunately, the standard RAF-style fittings would not work, so I had to obtain a US-manufactured Gentex helmet with standard NATO oxygen and communication fittings. (Perhaps a little surprisingly, RAF equipment is not compatible with NATO-standard aircraft, where American fittings are preferred.) Thankfully, Ollie Wheeldon of the Gnat Display Team was able to assist me with one from his excellent collection.
Ed Oleksy ? an experienced ferry pilot with numerous transatlantic crossings ? was to lead the adventure. I was booked to fly with Matt Walsh, Elite Aircraft Services proprietor and a partner in Legacy Warbirds, the company selling the aircraft. My role for the trip was that of ‘back-seat autopilot’, as well as photographing the adventure.
You may be surprised to learn the PC-9 is strictly hands-on. It may fly high and fast but it does not possess such luxuries as an autopilot, so the long trip on airways would be testing for all involved.
Our initial trip date was August 2015 but that continued to slip until things looked possible for the beginning of December. However, a winter crossing over already frozen seas was not exactly ideal.
The former Slovenian Air Force aircraft had now been registered as N69LW and N69XC. Ed organised all the necessary specialist equipment, including life-rafts and immersion suits for all three of us. He and Matt flew commercially to Switzerland and were checked out and signed-off on the PC-9 at Lodrino, before flying the two aircraft up to Conington airfield, near Peterborough. Each aeroplane was equipped with a pair of 34 gallon (155 litre) under-wing long-range fuel tanks for the Atlantic crossing.
Then came a setback. Thanks to continuing radio issues with N69XC, the decision was taken for Ed to make a solo crossing in N69LW while Matt returned to the USA on a scheduled flight. It was left me to resolve the radio issues as soon as possible. The planned two-aircraft trip had fallen at the first hurdle but Ed and I could try again later.
Captain Tinkerbell returns
On Monday 11 April 2016, I collected Ed ? dubbed ‘Captain Tinkerbell’ because whenever he said “ferry”, it sounded like “fairy” in his southern US drawl ? from Heathrow and drove to Conington. The first job was to take N69XC up into the local area to ensure all was fine, especially the avionics. Although I had previously sampled the delights of the PC-7, this was to be my first flight in its big brother. There were significant differences (particularly in the systems)and I was immediately impressed with its handling and performance. More importantly, the avionics all functioned perfectly.
After checking the weather again and passing it as ‘acceptable’, we loaded the aircraft. Aside from a small baggage compartment, the only available space was inside the cockpit, and as we were sitting on live ejector seats we had to be more than careful as to exactly how that was loaded!
Ultimately there was insufficient space to pack the immersion suits in the baggage bay for the overland legs so the only alternative was to wear them from the off. Having spent almost twelve hours in an immersion suit during a long Shackleton flight out of RAF Lossiemouth in the early nineties, I can still remember the offensive smell of the rubber and the sore neck from the constant rubbing of the tight neck piece. I wasn’t looking forward to wearing one, but grudgingly accepted.
The first leg was from Conington to Belfast, where we touched down in the rain after two hours and twelve minutes and parked at the Global Trek FBO. After overnighting in Belfast we flew on to Wick, touching down on Runway 13 after one hour and twenty-two minutes. We were welcomed by Andrew Bruce from Far North Aviation, which is a regular jumping-off point for transatlantic ferry pilots and offers a safety equipment hiring facility if required.
I must admit to feeling slightly apprehensive at this stage. Having looked at a large chart inside the Control Tower, I was acutely aware of just how much blue stuff there was between Scotland and Iceland. Oh well, it was now or never!
Three hours and fifteen minutes after departing from Wick out over all that blue – obscured most of the way by solid cloud – we arrived at Reykjavik, where N69XC was parked for the night on the BIRK Flight Services apron, with our hotel just behind it.
Wednesday dawned cold and clear for our flight onward to Narsarsuaq, which we reached in 3 hours 22 minutes, after coasting in over sea ice to see the snow-covered mountains of Greenland spread out before us. The word spectacular does not do justice to the sight.
All was going well until…
At Narsarsuaq after checking, double-checking and re-checking the weather, the flight plan was filed. Initially, we were going to experience some headwinds but once past the NDB at ‘SI’, the winds at FL160 were almost nil. At that altitude, although the temperatures were low, the trip looked to be cloud-free. The flight plan indicated a trip of a little over three hours. Well, that was the plan.
I obtained the clearance to route us via 59N 50W at FL160, at 200 knots. For this leg we would be outside any form of radio contact for quite some time so we would be expected to check in at pre-determined locations on specific frequencies. Failure to do so would activate the emergency services.
After departing Runway 24, we continued low-level across the frozen fjord and continued through the gaps in the mountains towards the south-western side of Greenland. As we neared the coastline the ice started to break-up, exposing a number of large icebergs. Our route took us alongside quite a few.
Once clear of Greenland we commenced our climb up to our cruising level and the route ahead was clear blue. Despite requesting FL160, we were only cleared up to FL140 where the OAT was a chilly -12ºC, although the headwinds and fuel burn indicated that all would be fine to our intended destination at Goose Bay. We could have requested a higher level but the fuel burned getting up there needs to be outweighed against the benefits of that altitude. We stayed where we were.
On this leg, I was flying from the rear seat while Ed maintained a constant watch on navigation, fuel burn and ground speeds. Hand flying on the airways is hard work. You are not permitted to deviate more than 5º either side of track, nor 200 feet above or below your designated altitude. In an aircraft designed as a military trainer, it is easier said than done. Let that altitude deviate by 300-feet and some controllers will write you up! My concentration levels were high.
The problems start
While Ed was able to top-up the charge in the back-up iPad using the ‘brick’ he’d brought along, we had become aware that the GPS antenna battery life was not performing as advertised ? the outside air temperatures seemed to be impacting on its performance. It soon became clear it would not last the journey to Goose Bay so a plan was devised to turn the antenna off for fifteen minutes before turning it back on and checking our position with the onboard navigational equipment. This system worked well and minimal correction was required over the next couple of hours.
Around two hours into the flight, a layer of cloud appeared to be building ahead of us and directly on our track. We were now outside of immediate radio contact, having already bade farewell to Greenland, and we were still waiting to obtain radio contact with Gander, which I was trying to achieve every ten minutes or so.
Meanwhile, Ed started to move the fuel from the long-range tanks into the wings. We continued on at FL140, torque at around 39psi but with the ground speed dropping ever so slightly. Perhaps the winds were not quite as advertised. Ed continued to monitor fuel flow and ground speeds and declared himself happy.
Soon, the layer of cloud surrounded us. The cloud wasn’t a major problem, but with an OAT of -14ºC the threat of ice was. We didn’t know how thick the layer above us was, so were unsure about climbing into what would have been even colder air. We continued to monitor everything around us in the eerie radio silence.
The leg had been forecast to be clear of ice and we were already well past the point of no return when it happened. The first signs of a white deposit on the leading edges of the wings indicated the airframe was starting to ice-up. What I couldn’t see clearly from the rear seat ? Ed had an excellent view ? was the amount of ice building on the blunt leading edges of the long-range tanks.
We waited, hoping against hope, to see if it would disappear as slowly as it had appeared but that wasn’t going to happen. It got worse. There was nothing to do but descend. I reduced the power slightly and slowly came down to FL120 but the icing remained. I continued down through FL100 and 080 before dropping out of cloud and settling at FL060, where the OAT was at last high enough to disperse the ice.
I continued to fly while Ed worked on the numbers. At this height, the headwinds had increased significantly, as had the fuel burn. In an attempt to conserve our fuel, I eased the power back even further to just 25psi torque, which reduced our indicated airspeed to 160 knots. At what point did reducing power cease to have a beneficial impact on overall fuel consumption, I pondered? Meanwhile, Ed had pumped the remaining fuel out of the long-range tanks into the wings and the tell-tale audible warnings had indicated that both were now empty. What we had left was in the wings.
Then we had a conversation that will remain with me for years to come. “What is our time to Goose Bay, Ed?” I enquired. “At our current ground speed, around one hour, forty minutes” he responded. “How much do we have left in the wings?” I added. He paused before replying “At our current fuel burn, around one hour forty minutes”.
We could have attempted to land at Goose Bay on fumes and a prayer, but it was never really an option. I went on flying the aircraft while Ed continued to work on the numbers, checking and re-checking, while seeking out alternates. Still, the radio silence continued.
Nevertheless, I continued trying to get a response on both the primary and secondary frequency for Gander. Perhaps, at FL140 we might have received a response but down at FL60 there was little chance of success.
Out of the silence…
Suddenly, over the radio, a British voice appeared on the Gander primary frequency. It was the pilot of an Isle of Man registered aircraft, M-JOLY (which I later learned was a Beechcraft Hawker 900XP bizjet). I listened patiently while he completed his conversation, although I could not hear the Gander controller. I pressed the PTT and called the pilot.
Leaving me to concentrate on flying, Ed picked up the conversation and asked him to relay a message to Gander. We waited before he came back and relayed Gander’s response: “Did we wish to declare an emergency”? No, we didn’t, but we would like to make a diversion to a nearer airport. Did they have one we could use as there appeared to be none available on the GPS?
After a number of exchanges, all relayed to us by our friendly British pilot, Gander eventually identified a small airfield in Northern Labrador named Makkovik. Ed loaded the designator into the GPS which, thank goodness, recognised it. At this point, we were 155nm from Goose Bay with Makkovik being located only 93nm away. Those 62 miles saved would make all the difference!
Next problem ? what runway surface did Makkovik have and did they offer fuel? After a longer than expected delay, the relayed response came back that the surface was unclear and they should have fuel.
Ed made the decision to divert to Makkovik and gave me a new heading to CYFT. I rolled gently on to it. M-JOLY stayed on frequency a while longer before moving on with a final ‘Good Luck!’. We made two-way contact with Gander and were handed-off to the appropriate frequency. It was comforting to realise someone was listening out for us again.
The weather started to improve a little, especially visibility. When we did see land, it was completely snow-covered. We were on a direct track to Makkovik but did not really know what we were looking for, as there were few details in the database. Gander provided a radio frequency but there was no response. Everything ahead appeared desolate and snow-covered.
Eventually, at a range of around a couple of miles, a small black strip became apparent on the side of a hill. We descended to circuit height and flew around the airfield, checking-out the windsock. The uphill Runway 27 was almost directly into wind. While on the dead side of the airfield I did notice a couple of people ice fishing in the nearby frozen lake and I wondered what kind of reception we could expect.
The landing was uneventful on the gravel surface. The narrow wheels on the PC-9 coped remarkably well. We gently taxied across to what looked like the ramp, although it was a wet, muddy-looking surface. It didn’t take long for the PC-9 to begin to bog down in the soft ground, so Ed stopped the aircraft and shut down. We’d been flying for four hours two minutes.
Snowmobiles and Mounties
We clambered out to a wilderness of silence. We needed to get in touch with Canadian Authorities to cancel our flight plan ? otherwise the emergency services would be activated ? but there was no mobile telephone signal.
We had only been on the ground for a couple of minutes when strange-sounding motors could be heard, a pair of snowmobiles. It was the two ice fisher, who had seen us fly around the airfield and came to investigate. Thankfully, one of them managed the airfield, and he took Ed to a telephone in the hangar (containing a snow plough and construction equipment, but no aircraft).
Shortly afterwards, two more snowmobiles arrived, this time with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police asking lots of questions. What was this strange military-looking aircraft doing at Makkovik? Why did we not land at a proper airport? I tried to explain about the headwinds and the icing but they didn’t really understand, viewing us instead with a heavy dose of suspicion. “Where are your personal belongings”? I pointed them in the direction of the baggage bay and advised that a few things were also in the cockpit. It didn’t take them long to check it out! “Where is the rest of your stuff” they enquired suspiciously? “This is it” I said with a smile.
Once they realised we were not attempting to smuggle white powder or paper currency into Canada, their demeanour changed dramatically. Could our friendly Mountie Officers Blackmore and Husting have a photograph with the aircraft and the pilots? With the obligatory images taken, we got back on with trying to solve the remaining logistical problems. Did they have fuel at Makkovik? Oh yes, but did we have Canadian dollars to pay for it? No, and they couldn’t accept our credit cards.
An arrangement was made for us to take on sufficient fuel to get us to Goose Bay and we could pay the FBO there. It was a most generous offer. We needed to get the aircraft out of the soft mud and with some suitable planks of wood, the locals kindly provided the lifting and pushing. Meanwhile, someone took one of the construction machines from the hangar and started to compact and smooth out the taxiway.
These were amazing people. The desolate airfield had no roads into or out of the area. All arrivals were by air ? Twin Otters ? or snowmobile. The nearby village, founded in 1860, is located alongside the water and has less than 400 inhabitants. In the summer, when the ice melts, ships can get supplies into the harbour. It really was in the middle of proverbial nowhere.
Onward to Goose Bay
With fuel in the wings, and after saying our thanks and goodbyes, Ed and I climbed back in. We started the engine and gingerly headed towards the runway. The ground work had been successful. Now, Runway 27 didn’t appear to be that long at all. In fact, it looked pretty short, especially considering the uphill slope.
Despite the narrow wheels on the gravel surface, the aircraft accelerated swiftly and the wheels were off the ground in no time. Oh ye, of little faith! We climbed before turning back towards the airfield for a low-slow pass and a wing-waggle of thanks before setting off on the short, 45-minute leg to Goose Bay.
There is not space here to tell of the rest of the trip, from Goose Bay to Quebec City (3hr 5min), Quebec City to Manchester NH (1hr 25min) ? where we cleared US Customs ? and Manchester to Sandford NC (3hr 5min), But when the engine finally went quiet at our destination, there were very mixed feelings for me.
Firstly, there was complete elation of having completed my first transatlantic single-engine ferry flight. Then there was the awful feeling that this ‘trip of a lifetime’ was at an end, and I really didn’t want it to be over.
We climbed out and shook hands, neither knowing what to say. I started to unload things and move them into the hanger while Ed secured both ejector seats. We had almost emptied the aircraft before a few people started to arrive and welcome us home.
What did I learn from the trip? Far too much to note everything here, that is for sure!
That said, I learned a lot about IFR clearances and the standard of instrument flying required to operate safely on the airways. The exposure and practice certainly sharpened my flying. I learned about the need for constant monitoring of the fuel burn, the winds and the weather, and the distances to run. Ed was always looking at the big picture, constantly checking and re-checking.
But the most important thing I learned was that experience counts for everything. Transatlantic ferry flying ? especially with just one engine ? is not for the inexperienced, the foolhardy or faint hearted. As they often say in the television programmes, ‘Do not try this at home!’
It truly was the trip of a lifetime. I would be economical with the truth if I said there was never a moment when I didn’t feel slightly nervous, but the trip was not to be missed.
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