In early 2016, my family was ready to see something new and beautiful. The past year had been tough – we nearly lost Dad to a stroke – then, during his recovery from the stroke, we determined that he needed a heart valve replacement, his second such surgery. The day after Christmas he was pumping blood with a new bovine valve in his chest. The old man is tough though, and he bounced back quickly. By February, with a fresh reminder of life’s fragility and brevity, we began laying the groundwork for an August adventure to Iceland and Norway.
At the time, I owned N156WL, a Pilatus PC-12 I recently had refurbished, including new paint, interior, avionics, engine and propeller, and most of the wear items in the control assemblies. She is a great flying machine, and I was looking forward to flying her across the Atlantic – my first crossing as PIC, and a bucket-list item for me. Not everyone in the family was similarly enthused about flying a single-engine aircraft over the North Atlantic, but only after unsuccessfully attempting to source kid-sized immersion survival suits for my 8- and 10-year-old daughters, was I convinced it would be better to put them on Iceland Air with mom and both grandmothers. Dad, however, was all-in from the beginning. He and I, along with safety pilot Shane Jordan, would fly the PC-12 across the Atlantic.
Planning a complicated trip like this is one of my favorite things to do – I really enjoy pouring over the details of routing, fuel burn and reserves, contingencies, international procedures, and instrument flying. But on a trip like this, you’ve gotta bring in some pros to help with, at a minimum, fuel releases, weather briefing, flight plan filing, and international customs and handling.
After asking around, I was referred to a local jet captain who has a successful consulting gig helping with international handling for trips like this. For me, this was the second time using a handler for an international trip (with no regretting having done so) – I strongly recommend using an experienced handler if you’re planning an international GA trip to a destination that is not Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas.
With all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, our plan was set – day one would take us to Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, with day two flying from Goose Bay to Reykjavik, Iceland. We would spend five days touring Iceland, then fly from Reykjavik to Moss Lufthavn Rygge, just south of Oslo in Norway. Ten days of touring Norway later, we would head home via Reykjavik, and an overnight in Narsarsuaq, Greenland, before coasting in to the North American continent. The most difficult part of the trip for me was the time until August 1 – I could not wait to get going!
Day 1, KAPA – CYQT – CYYR.
If you’ve spent any time in Colorado’s summer, you probably already know what the forecast looked like for August 1 out of Denver. Clear and calm in the morning, followed by partly cloudy skies and a 30% chance of severe thunderstorms in the afternoon. So, like every other pilot in Denver flying on their chosen schedule, we planned an early-morning rendezvous at the hangar so that we could start putting waypoints behind us before the convective activity started to pop. The evening prior I had made sure the personal luggage, survival gear and first aid kit were all packed and ready to go. I also removed the rear four seats so we could have a small area to stretch out in the back of the plane – might as well, we had two pilots and over 2,000 nautical miles to cover that day.
I did, however, wait until our departure morning to put fuel in the aircraft. I don’t like warming fuel in the wings overnight in the hangar because it will likely overflow from a top-off, which means a volatile spill inside the hangar and less than full fuel in the tanks. Give me that nice cool, dense morning Jet-A please. Fueled up, preflighted, and briefed, we closed the hatch and fired up.
ATC cleared us to Thunder Bay (CYQT) via the Plains departure procedure, Akron transition, then via Duluth. After a brief stop in the climb at 10,000 ft., we were cleared to climb straight to FL270, which is where we would spend most of our time eastbound. I don’t think I saw a single cloud on this leg to Thunder Bay; it was a beautiful and calm morning for flying.
At FL270 after setting torque we trued at 270 kts with a fuel flow of about 360 pph. Descending in to Thunder Bay was uneventful, and we shot the ILS to runway 7 at the request of the local controllers. A quick stop in the customs area for a cursory phone call to CANPASS, and then we were over to the Esso FBO for some fuel.
I found Steve Davey and Shaun Appell from Levaero Aviation waiting for me at the FBO. These two gentlemen were critical in undertaking the PC-12 refurbishment (all the heavy lifting for the refurbishment was performed by Levaero in Thunder Bay), and it was good to catch up and talk about how well this aircraft was flying and the trip we had planned in it.
After saying goodbye to Steve and Shaun, picking up some sandwiches, fueling and checking with the handler for weather, we were bound for Irving Aviation at Goose Bay. For me, having flown to Thunder Bay and other areas in southern and western Canada many times, it felt like the real adventure started on this leg to Goose. After leaving Thunder Bay, all of the flying ahead would be north of 50 degrees latitude – much of it north of 60.
We enjoyed beautiful blue skies for the first third of this leg, and the coastal views of northern Lake Superior’s Black and Nipigon Bays were something to see. Coming from Colorado where water is scarce, it is a little stunning to see just how much fresh water this part of the world holds. The bichromatic land below our route across eastern Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador seemed untouched by human civilization – what isn’t blue water is green boreal forest.
Much of that water is in the air too, and the summer sun started sprouting afternoon storms. I’m pretty sure we deviated the entire span of Quebec avoiding imbedded cells, and the descent into Goose Bay involved a few heavy stratus layers, the last from which we broke out around 800 ft. on the ILS Y approach to runway 8.
I enjoyed this first day of flying, and practically rejoiced in my planning to break the journey to Iceland into two days instead of one, which many people will do. Spending 8.2 hours in any seat and I’m done. The folks at Irving were happy to see us – I think we were the last scheduled arrival for the evening – and made sure they knew what our plan was for the morning. After securing the immersion survival suits, liferafts and EPIRBs, we headed over to Hotel North for, to our surprise, a luau.
OK it wasn’t actually a luau, per se, but it was a haltingly-tropical theme for a restaurant in Newfoundland and Labrador. That said, the Canadians know how to pour a proper pint and serve up some red meat, both of which I required in short order. Later I learned that the rest of the family would be delayed by at least six hours on IcelandAir, and were currently camping out in the lounge at DIA. Come morning, my whole family would be eastbound for Reykjavik over the North Atlantic.
Day 2, CYYR – BIRK.
The morning of August 2 in Goose Bay was a great day for flying if you were instrument rated. Barely any temperature-dewpoint spread yielded broken ceilings at 1,000 ft, and the air was cool and still. Today we would “coast out” across open water bound for Reykjavik, Iceland some 1,548 nautical miles distant, via routing across the southern tip of Greenland.
The Pilatus has great legs, so this can safely be done non-stop from Goose. Before going, I made sure to clear the sumps in the fuel system, which took some extra time and is a nasty process, but pretty critical in a single-engine headed out over open water – I don’t want any unexpected interruptions to that flame. One final briefing from the handler for weather later and we sat down to brief some of the special procedures for this leg.
Navigation databases would need some special procedures on this leg. N156WL has dual Garmin GTN 750s, and the internal memory cannot hold the North American and the International databases at the same time. The solution to this is to bring an extra set of SD cards with the international databases loaded, and update the databases en route, and one at a time. I had performed a dry run of this procedure back at Centennial Airport on shore power, so I would at least have some idea what to expect.
We also briefed the ditching procedure in detail, along with contingencies for fuel and weather at various points along the route. Pre-flight briefing and inspections complete, we hopped in, fired up, and programmed the box to take us to the middle of nowhere, which was as far as the North American database would go.
Clearance into Reykjavik Airport (BIRK) was as-filed, via PORGY, 5950N (59°N 50°W), OZN, 6140N, 6330N, EPENI, ELDIS. I received an unrestricted climb to FL270 so after pulling up the gear I pitched for max rate of climb – we had a forecast net tailwind and were headed out over water, so no reason not to get up there quickly. By the time we reached the coast we were leveled off, the weather had improved to a few scattered layers, and we were most of the way to PORGY waypoint. Looking down, the rock-and-sod tundra was giving way to long fingers of salt water. Shortly after coasting out, we entered a widespread area of overcast with tops at about 26,000 feet, putting us just barely over the clouds, but still in the sunshine on top. We had seen the last of land for several hours.
At PORGY waypoint we made a slight right-hand turn, and I pulled out the data cards for the database update. My plan was to update the #2 unit first, so after verifying the flight director and autopilot was coupled to #1, I pulled the circuit breaker for the #2 nav/comm and watched part of the panel go black, as planned, over the North Atlantic. A quick swap of the SD cards and I pushed the CB back in, and the #2 Garmin unit came back to life and prompted me through the database update procedure. Once the updates were complete, and I dismissed all the database mismatch and crosstalk errors on both units, I programmed the second half of the flight plan into the #2 unit, entered heading mode on the autopilot, coupled it to #2 nav source, re-engaged nav mode, and then updated the #1 unit in the same fashion.
Fortunately, everything went as planned.
Most of the next few hours passed in relative boredom, over an overcast layer that obscured the view of anything below us and the horizon in all directions. The radio gets really quiet out here too. Goose Bay Oceanic handed us off to Sondrestrom, and mercifully the clouds broke just enough for us to get a few pictures of Prins Christian Sund in the southernmost tip of Greenland.
It looked like a sunny, verdant paradise lined with miles of beaches with cabanas and drinks served in the coconut half-shell for everyone. Negative, ghostrider. This is a realm where rock, ice and sea are unceremoniously crushed into coexistence by Jack Frost’s icy fist. In fact, by the look of things down there in Greenland, Jack Frost didn’t get the memo that it was summertime up here, probably because he was too busy doing grip-strength exercises. We glimpsed a few icebergs near the shorelines before dipping back into obscurity, headed for waypoint 6140N.
Fairly soon after 6140N we were able to contact Reykjavik Oceanic control, thanks to some very large antennas on the westernmost tip of the Keflavik Peninsula. Also, about this time the cloud banks began dissipating, and our first real views of the North Atlantic opened up to blue skies and fair-weather cues. The descent into Reykjavik was smooth and uneventful, and we were cleared for the left-hand RNAV GNSS approach to runway 1. This approach brought us down the length of the Keflavik Peninsula, over the main international airport, a bit north of the Blue Lagoon (which we could see out the right-side windows), and then a left turn directly towards downtown Reykjavik.
Had I been looking out the right-hand side of the aircraft on final, I would have had some fantastic views of a smoldering volcano whose name I’ll never be able to read, much less pronounce. That’s OK because I was focused on the numbers at this point. Shortly after touchdown and taxi, we were amidst a flock of turbine aircraft, from TBMs to Falcons at a bustling GA apron. Customs was a breeze, and we were soon on our way to the hotel in downtown Reykjavik for some fantastic food and drink – a perfect end to a bucket list flight.
Day 3, BIRK – ENRY.
After five days of touring Iceland with my parents, wife and two daughters, Dad and I rose early the morning of August 7th and headed for Ace FBO at Reykjavik Airport. Today our route would cover 987 nautical miles across the Norwegian Sea, traversing the Faroe Islands, and passing north of the Shetland Islands before coasting in to southern Norway.
Based upon the advice of more experienced international flyers and a cost comparison of several airports in Norway, I elected not to fly directly into Olso Gardermoen. Moss Lufthavn in Rygge, Norway, is about 50 minutes south (by car) of Oslo along eastern shore of the Oslofjord, and offered better value in my judgment, so the final waypoint on today’s flight would be ENRY.
Arriving at the FBO, I asked the line guys for a top off and told them I would be adding Prist as they fueled the aircraft – a procedure they were much more familiar with than I was. Until today, I had somehow never even seen Prist being added from a spray can while fueling. It’s really not that big of a deal, but between the jet fuel and the additive, the chemicals involved are not friendly or easy to wash off your hands – I was grateful to have a few pairs of rubber gloves in the kit, thanks again to the sage advice from some more experienced international pilots.
In case you don’t know about it and want to, Prist is a fuel additive that inhibits the formation of ice particles in the fuel, and also acts as a biocide to mitigate the risks of fungi and bacteria growing in the fuel system. It must be added as the aircraft is fueled to achieve an effective mix; it cannot be added before or after fueling. Most jet fuel trucks in the US have a separate tank and, at the pilot’s request, the ability to mix the additive as a jet-powered aircraft is fueled. I’m not sure exactly why this isn’t the case in Europe, but I suspect it is because there isn’t much GA in Europe, and the larger aircraft they fuel most often have fuel heaters which reduce or eliminate the need for ice inhibitors.
Today’s weather briefing detailed strong low-level westerly winds in the Iceland area, and a forecast for fair weather en route, then nimbostratus by the time we arrived in southern Norway. Overall not bad weather, but worth an extra briefing of a potential diversion to the alternate – Oslo, Gardermoen. After sumping the fuel system, checking the survival gear and completing the preflight inspection and briefings, we closed the hatch and fired up. With the exception that you must obtain a startup clearance prior to starting the engine, all other procedures seem just as they are in the US. Reykjavik cleared us to Moss Lufthavn via MOXAL, LARUX, MY, VALDI and ULMUG – about 3.8 hours en route and a little under 1,000 miles.
Reykjavik tower cleared us for takeoff on runway 01, and we climbed into a nearly cloudless sky over the city, making right turns towards the interior of Iceland and MOXAL waypoint. Once we were eastbound and continuing the climb, we could see Hekla volcano and the national parks behind it covered in snow and ice. Below us, the southern shores of Iceland were gently buffeted by relatively calm seas spotted by the occasional iceberg. This was short-lived, however, because passing MOXAL put us on the leeward side of the mountainous interior, and inside turbulent flow from those westerly winds. The ride in the climb became consistent light turbulence with occasional moderate chop – I set power and pitch for a maximum-rate climb to get us up through it.
N156WL is equipped with the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67P engine, an upgrade from the B engine offered by Finnoff Aviation Products, which allowed me to climb with an interstage turbine temperature of up to 820 degrees C. Between the engine upgrade and the 5-blade MT propeller, it wasn’t long before we were in smooth air and levelling at FL270 – two upgrades for the legacy PC-12 I strongly recommend.
Not long after passing MOXAL, Iceland disappeared behind the left wing as we coursed over blue waters and entered the first of many cloud layers on this leg which would completely obscure our view of land and sea for the remainder of the journey to Norway – right down to minimums on the approach.
At VALDI, Reykjavik oceanic control handed us over to Norway oceanic, which didn’t cause any excitement. Our route from here would take us in over a magnificent fjordal coast, making the Norwegian mainland over Bergen, then bisecting the southern portion of Norway southeastbound towards Oslo. I knew the sea surface below us would be dotted with offshore drilling platforms extracting oil and gas from subsea reservoirs, which I would love to see from the cockpit of a PC-12, but no such luck this time.
Our descent into the Rygge area took us through multiple stratus layers with increasing precipitation. In my two decades of flying, I’ve developed a severe allergy to airframe ice, so I was very pleased that the air was just a bit too warm for any icing, and we never had to pop the de-icing boots in the descent. ATIS at Moss Lufthavn indicated calm winds in rain, 1,200 meters visibility in mist, overcast at 200 ft., and 10 degrees Celsius. Oslo approach cleared us for the RNAV GNSS Runway 12 approach, so we bugged and briefed the approach, missed approach procedure, fuel state and diversion-to-alternate plan.
At the initial approach fix I checked speed, dropped 15 degrees of flaps and lowered the gear. Moss tower cleared us to land, and there was no other traffic on the tower frequency – we had the whole airport to ourselves. Aside from the increasing shush of rain on the windscreen in the descent, the ride was perfectly smooth and stable on the LPV approach.
Still IMC as we crept up on the missed approach point, I indexed my right thumb to the TOGA (takeoff / go-around) button on the power control lever – the clouds grew darker in the descent, and this approach felt a little “missy.” Without exaggeration, right as I was about to call missed, we picked up the lead-in lights and REILs, so we proceeded to a landing at a very quiet and wet Moss airport.
At the tower’s instruction we taxied to the ramp customs area and shut down, relieved that a weather diversion wasn’t necessary. Donning our raingear, we popped the hatch and two Shell Aviation reps greeted us in a van and helped us offload the baggage. There is no FBO at Moss – it’s really just a military field with some regional service – so we drove around the airport to the regional airline terminal. The ground guys told us we had to go through one door to enter the terminal, while they took the baggage on the cart through another door about 30 feet away. I got our passports and handling papers arranged, expecting the customs and immigration rigamarole.
Pushing the door open, we found ourselves next to a coffee shop in a small, clean and virtually empty terminal. The ground crew pushed the luggage cart right over to the curb – no customs, literally nothing – and indicated to us where the taxis were (right in front of us). I inquired, somewhat shocked, that we were being turned loose in Norway without so much as a passport stamp. They reassured me that no customs was necessary coming from Iceland, but offered to call the police if I would like. I promptly indicated no, I would not like that, thank you anyway. With that, we hailed the nearest cab – a Tesla Model S – and were soon chatting away with our driver northbound towards Oslo. One more leg on the bucket list flying trip in the bag.