Trans-Atlantic in a Mooney 231

Zingesser in Mooney
The author is geared up and ready to cross the Atlantic in his Mooney 231.

For many years we had contemplated a trans-Atlantic flight in our Mooney, and finally in June of 1982 the plan became a reality. Our first plane, a 1967 Piper Arrow had taken us to the Caribbean and to South America safely and comfortably via an island-hopping route, so the overwater aspects of single-engine flying held no special terror for us. Articles and books that have appeared over the years, especially Louise Sacchi’s Ocean Flying, and Peter Garrison’s Long Distance Flying, supported our thoughts in this regard.

For more flexibility in route planning we decided to increase our range with a 70 gallon auxiliary fuel tank, which would replace the rear seats and vent through a hole in the fuselage below. In order to satisfy the Canadian requirements for trans-Atlantic flight, we also installed an HF radio in front of the right seat. This was attached to an antenna which was reeled out through a hole in the cockpit floor. The installations were supervised by Margrit and Dave Waltz at a firm in Scranton, PA, that had fitted out many Mooneys for this trip. Margrit Orlofsky, as she was known then, is now the number one guru for ferry crossings.

With the additional fuel on board, route planning eliminated the need for the extreme northern route with its hop across the Davis strait to western Greenland, and then on to another stop in Greenland before the crossing to Iceland. We then had three route choices:

  1. Goose Bay to Reykjavik (1328 nm, to Prestwick, Scotland (760 nm)
  2. Gander to Shannon (1693 nm)
  3. Gander to the Azores (1496 nm) to Lisbon (788 nm).

Our range of about 13 hours at 55% power truing 150-160 knots made the Azores routing the most marginal of the three choices. At that time Loran C was available, but pricey. GPS was just beyond the horizon. Peter Garrison had taken the Shannon routing in Melmoth using only ADF. So we decided to rely on our ADF. Another hitch arose: the Canadians required a back-up ADF.  Our four band Sony radio with its direction finding capability was accepted by the Canadians as a backup.

Greenland from air
Greenland provided stunning views en route.

Additional considerations include charts which we purchased from Jeppesen, and International Carnets from fuel companies, which facilitate fuel purchases and additionally save much folding money. I understand that it is difficult for small operators to get an International Carnet presently. Also to be considered is the survival gear required by the Canadians. At that time survival suits were optional. It is now required. The ferry pilots we talked to did not have much confidence in life rafts. A flare gun, a waterproof ELT and life jackets, and emergency rations are on most lists.

After having given the necessary 48-hour prior notification, we were cleared by the Canadian authorities in Moncton. We then checked weather forecasts to decide whether option one or two would be utilized for the trip. It turned out that the weather featured a low off the Irish coast to the west. As far as 40 degrees west, headwinds were predicted along the great circle route to Shannon. A prudent flight plan would have involved a detour of several hundred miles south of the great circle route in order to pick up a positive wind component into Shannon. This type of flying, according to a pressure pattern, involves some complexities if one is relying on a compass and ADF. Thus we decided on the Goose-Reykjavik-Prestwick routing.

Topping off at Goose we headed out through some windy wet weather that had blown up around the Goose Bay area. On climbout over the 100-mile stretch from the airport to the coastline, we encountered problem number one. Although we were only at 700 feet, we were able to pull only 27 inches on the manifold gauge instead of the 40 inches that should have been available with the Mooney’s turbocharged engine. This we thought was due to induction system icing, but playing it safe we returned to Goose. On the ground at Goose we were able to see 40 inches.

Departing again, we went through fewer clouds and saw no icing. About an hour out of Goose a second problem emerged. We were running out beyond VHF coverage at 7,000 feet, our assigned altitude. Our attempt at HF communication was thwarted when we discovered that the funnel attached to our trailing antenna had broken off. Protocol calls for a broadcast in the blind on 121.5. When an answer is received, usually from a high-flying jet, one requests a switch to 123.45 for a position relay to Gander Oceanic Center. Contact was reestablished and we were rewarded with a message: “Flight over the North Atlantic without HF is forbidden. What are your intentions?” We considered our options. A two-hour return flight to Goose against headwinds was rejected. We relayed a message to Gander that we were cancelling IFR and were going to descend below their control level (5500 feet. ) Apparently this was acceptable for we heard no more from them until two hours later when we responded to a request from a jet above for a position report to be relayed to Gander.

Our route was designed so we would cross the Prince Christian beacon (OZN) on southeastern Greenland. This and a commercial broadcast station in Iceland were usable signals halfway across the Davis Strait between Labrador and Greenland. A diversion to an airport in Greenland such as Narssarssuaq is possible if there is reason to do so. Expensive fuel is usually available there.

About 4 1/2 hours after departing Goose, we looked down at icepack, then mountains and finally fjords. There were large holes in the icepack and out in the open water a few green-tipped icebergs were floating off into the sea. Mountains along the coast fell off precipitously into the sea and the water in the fjords was a deep blue. As we looked back the sun behind and to our left illuminated a high stratus layer with shades of pink and red. We had daylight all the way into Reykjavik. About 100 nm from Reykjavik, the Keflavik VOR came alive and the transponder reply light began to wink. About 8 hours after leaving Goose, we made an IFR descent through a fog bank into Iceland breaking out of the fog about two miles from the field. After landing and securing the Mooney, we checked into the Hotel Loftleidir on the airport boundary and fell asleep with the sun in our eyes.

Shannon airport
On the ramp in Shannon, Ireland.

The next day was spent touring the nearby thermal springs and lava fields for which Iceland is famous, while the radio shop handled the problem with the ADF antenna.

The next day we visited the operations office where a weather briefing had been prepared for our ETD. The leg from Reykjavik to Prestwick is shorter and less forbidding than the Goose to Reykjavik leg. The initial segment took us over the Westman Islands parallel to the southern coast of Iceland. At the other end of the route the Hebrides were in sight for many miles before we crossed the Benbecula VOR about 140 nm before Prestwick. HF communication with the repaired rig allowed hourly position reports and reports of boundary crossings from Icelandic Control through Shanwick FIR into Scottish airspace. With a slightly negative wind component, our arrival in Prestwick was 6 1/2 hours after departure.

As it was still early in the afternoon we went to ATC in order to file a flight plan to Skye, an island of the Inner Hebrides. We were befriended by a controller by the name of Ray Mapleson who told us that 24 hours prior permission was required for a landing on Skye. With a phone call, Ray was able to facilitate our arrival for late afternoon. The weather was good and Skye, also known as “The Misty Isle” had no IFR approach at the time, so we departed quickly. Ray had arranged for a taxi and a hotel.

That night we celebrated our European arrival with Scottish spirits in a pub in Kyleakin while looking at a sunset over the inner sound of the Kyle of Lochalsh. Topping a hill overlooking this strait is the ruin of the Castle Moil. Now we felt truly in the Old World. We spent a few days in Skye touring the island.

On our return from Skye, we were invited by Ray to stay with him on Arran, his island home, a kidney-shaped island in the Firth of the Clyde an hour’s ferry ride from the Scottish mainland. At dinner with Ray, we discussed the difference between flying in the U.K and the U.S. Regulations in the U.K. are more restrictive, and costs are much higher because of fuel prices and landing fees. Ray gave us helpful advice and assisted us in obtaining the necessary charts, and after touring Arran we moved on to the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of mainland Scotland. Skara Brae on Orkney is “the most perfect stone age village in Europe,” and at Jarlshof near Sumburgh on Shetland stone age, bronze age, Viking and medieval settlements can be inspected. Landing on Sumburgh expecting to pay an exorbitant landing fee of about 50 pounds, we were pleasantly surprised when the tower informed us that they would waive the fee if we did a fly-by past the tower. A troop of boy scouts was being entertained by ATC there.

From Shetland we flew to Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast for some salmon fishing on the river Dee near Balmoral. A salmon was intermittently rising in the river behind the inn where we stayed, but he did not take the flies I presented.

Dingle Peninsula
The beautiful Dingle Peninsula.

Later we flew to Shannon to tour the west coast. We visited the Dingle Peninsula where a close friend and colleague had grown up. He had had a promising career in neurology that had been cut short by a death due to Hodgkins Disease. It was this colleague who taught me the ins and outs of fly fishing. We had spent many enjoyable hours together in the Catskills and Adirondacks fishing the waters there.

As the time allotted for our vacation drew to a close we began to inquire about weather conditions over the Atlantic. The weather was forecast to remain good only for a few more days so we deferred plans to visit the Channel Islands and flew back to Prestwick to tank up for the return flight. Although Prestwick or Stornaway could be used for a departure point Prestwick is less remote and offers better facilities. The return to Reykjavik involved an IFR departure. No ice was present in the clouds and we were able to fly between layers for much of the trip. HF communications were poor when we were in the clouds but above the clouds we had no problem with the required position reports. That night at the Hotel Loftliedir we partook of a smorgasbord and later swam in the hotel’s pool, which was filled with warm water pumped in from the thermal springs.

The weather forecast for the return to Goose Bay indicated minimal head winds. Cloud tops over Greenland were forecast to be at 16,000 feet with freezing level at 5,000 feet. In fact we had to climb to 22,000 feet to top the clouds. Successive changes in altitude were requested from Gander Oceanic Control as the clouds climbed higher along the route. Passing Greenland, the cloud tops began to lower, and we obtained approval for a descent after leaving Sondrestrom FIR. In mid-afternoon we began to see numerous contrails above and the HF radio became alive with position reports from airlines all arriving in North America at the same time and along the same track. Our own position reporting based on forecast winds proved to be inaccurate when we were able to get good fixes using ADF. We were on track but 45 minutes early. Soon we were on the radar at Goose and after 30 minutes more we landed, cleared customs and refueled. A taxi took us to the Labrador Inn in Happy Valley, and we rested for the return to Westchester County Airport.

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9 Comments

  • We did a similar flight in 2006 in our Skylane, stopping multiple places in Greenland both directions and taking several months in Europe to explore. Gps makes the flight a whole lot easier. But the flight remains a fabulous lifetime adventure.

  • Great story!! Planning it myself for 2014 in my Mooney, ’88 M20J. It’s been my goal since i started flying in 2008. Just did my first overwater flight, from Texas to Cancun Mexico.

  • Enjoyed the article very much. I flew my Mooney 231 from Oregon to Hannover, Germany and back in July 1988 – one of my most memorable life experiences that included a partial panel non-precision approach into Narsarsuaq in the dark after AI failure over the southern tip of Greenland!

    • Glad you enjoyed the article. Commenting on your memorable experience, the current approach charts at Narsarsuaq offer an NDB approach and an NDB + DME approach. Both, however, indicate they are only to be used for daylight and civil twilight. Was it different then, or did you declare an emergency?

      • It was the same NDB/DME approach then, don’t remember its not being authorized at night. Lost the AI over Prins Christian Sund on top of the cloud deck, decided to go into Narsarsuaq VFR (supposedly 3800 ft. scsttered, 4,800 overcast), flew out over the ocean about 40 miles to be safe, but solid pea soup down to 1,100 ft. No choice but to fly the approach. Cost an extra $250 to keep the airport open! Did not declare an emergency. Remember my son’s complaining about having to pay $24 for a rum and coke in the bar there!

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