Mike Collins Archive

Day 8: Oman to Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Dawn in Oman

Sunrise in Muscat, Oman–ready to go, but the runway isn’t.

It’s still evening at home in Maryland when I awake at 3:30 a.m. in Muscat for a 4:45 pickup at our hotel for a planned 6 a.m. takeoff. Our handler Abraham escorts us through the crew entrance and gets us through customs quickly as promised, walking us to the front of every line. While I’ve joked a bit about the pilot uniform it’s clearly an expedient to international flight in this part of the world, and I have already seen a full return on my investment.

Walking out of the frigid terminal onto the very humid ramp, our glasses instantly become Foggles, although there is a nice breeze. A crew bus takes us to the airplane, we preflight, and get our departure clearance. All is tracking perfectly for a 6 a.m. departure until Mike calls for engine start–the runway is closed for half an hour, apparently for a FOD check. So we climb out of the cockpit and stand on the ramp.

Across the runway an array of lights twinkle on a forest of construction cranes, where a massive new terminal is being built. Above we see a crescent moon. Eventually the sun rises off our nose, over the old terminal building and a parked Boeing 737.

Finally we’re off, climbing over a line of mountains not far from the airport. Fog hugs one side and a road carved out of the rock snakes its way up to a pass.

Organizing charts

Mike Laver takes advantage of a quiet climbout to organize charts.

Over the Arabian Sea we’re handed off to Mumbai Radio, and it takes a while before Mike can talk with them on high frequency radio. For a while, anyway, it’s position reports and estimates, which GPS makes pretty simple. “This is just like the old days,” Mike observes. This leg’s a little more than 800 NM and the flight plan used our long-range numbers. “We’re just going to open it up and get there,” Mike says. Normal cruise is giving is us about 275 knots on 68 gallons per hour. It’s warm at altitude–ISA plus 20–not as warm as yesterday but the day is young.

Below, a solid layer of clouds has become mostly clear, with isolated clouds beginning to show vertical development. The forecast includes a chance of isolated thunderstorms later, with tops to FL410–all the more reason to fly early. Approaching NOBAT intersection, where we will resume VHF communication, we cheerfully turn off the squeaking, chirping HF radio. The Mumbai ATIS can be heard 200 miles out. The busy Indian controller acknowledges calls with a crisp, “Rog.”

Cloud tops on the descent are around 15,000 feet and we break out just over a significant peak on the ILS approach course. The rolling landscape is a verdant green, and we don’t see the runway until we’re two and a half miles out because of the haze. The approach is over taller buildings that give way to squat residential structures with black roofs, many covered with bright blue tarps.

Marshaller in Mumbai

Our marshaller in Mumbai, India–stopping us in the middle of a taxiway.

Our concerns about the complex airport are unfounded; a turnoff to the left, right onto a parallel taxiway, and straight to our marshaller, who stops us on the taxiway. On the way we pass a group of workers watching us pass who give us the “MU-2 salute”–a finger in each ear to counter the airplane’s ground noise. There’s no tow bar that will fit the Mitsubishi, so the line crew pushes us back for fueling. The bowser (fuel truck) arrives quickly; I oversee the delivery of 966 liters of Jet-A while Mike takes care of the paperwork. The Indian bureaucracy won’t accept the flight plan BaseOps had filed, so Mike has to refile. No question I get the better end of this deal.

Birds are a problem at the Mumbai airport, and many others around the world. People are stationed under tents at intervals along the runway, firing noise cannons to discourage the feathered nuisances. At times on the ramp, it sounds–and smells–like the Fourth of July. Less than 100 yards from us, a steady stream of airliners comes and goes, brightly decorated and bearing names like IFly, Spice Jet, and Air India.

Ramp crew in Mumbai

Our ramp crew in Mumbai.

Moving the MU-2

Pushing the fueled MU-2 back onto the taxiway–uphill.

We’re nowhere near a conventional FBO, but our handler knows some people, and we’re able to use the water closet in a private hangar that is home to a Piaggio Avanti and a couple of jets. After that, the friendly line crew pushes us back onto the taxiway–slightly uphill, and with the additional weight of the fuel–so we can start engines. Total time on the ground was one hour…pretty good in anyone’s book. They were good sports about it, but it’s probably a good thing that I took the group photo before the big push.

After departure we turn southeastward and angle inland toward Bangalore, roughly paralleling the coast. All aircraft registrations in India begin with the letters VT, just like those in the United States begin with N. I don’t know if the letters have any historical significance, but the phonetic pronunciation “Victor Tango” rolls off a controller’s tongue with a cadence that’s almost musical.

Thunderstorms in southern India

These thunderstorms in southern India stayed to the west of our route.

Puffy clouds are visible over the rolling green landscape below, and they’re starting to build, but it’s clear along the coast–just like many flights I’ve made along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Much taller buildups in the distance include a couple of monsters at our 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock that appear to have reached the mature stage. We pass well clear to see some big ones to the right of our course, which become part of a line. Here we’re happy for the quartering headwind, which is pushing the weather off to our east at 25 knots.

We leave the clouds behind at India’s southern coast–covered with rectangular white areas, possibly salt harvested from seawater?–and cross the Gulf of Mannar, with only scattered puffy clouds far below us. We descend through a layer at 2,000 feet along the beach, and hear another pilot tell the controller that kite are being flown at midfield (we never see them). Soon we’re on the ground, parked on a large ramp beside a Russian-built IL-76 and near a Cessna Citation bearing the registration, M-AYBE. Clearly the United States is not the only country where aircraft owners can seek vanity registration numbers.

Crew bus in Colombo

We could almost fit the whole MU-2 fuselage in our expansive crew bus.

After adding 973 liters of Jet-A and just before we board what’s by far the largest crew bus to date–this is for just the two of us, mind you–a Sri Lankan airport official tells me that an Australian pilot making a world record flight attempt, Ryan Campbell, visited the field just a week or so ago. I tried to look up his website, but couldn’t; the high-speed internet in my room simply wasn’t. Maybe you’ll have better luck. For me, I’m already late to bed–we have two legs tomorrow, 950 and 805 nm, and our ride to the airport comes early.

A cheat sheet for any nonpilots:

ATIS: This stands for Automatic Terminal Information System, a recording of important runway and weather information at airports with control towers. It’s usually updated hourly, and broadcasts in an endless loop on a designated radio frequency. Approaching pilots listen to the information so controllers don’t have to repeat it for every arriving flight.

ILS: The Instrument Landing System uses ground-based radio signals, aligned horizontally and vertically, that guide pilots to the runway when there is low cloud or something else that reduces visibility and make it difficult to see the runway. Depending on a variety of factors, an ILS can bring an airplane down to anywhere from about 300 feet above ground level to, potentially, the surface.


Day 7: Kuwait to Muscat, Oman

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Our handler in Kuwait

Edmund was our handler in Kuwait.

It’s a beautiful morning in Kuwait, and already hot as we load and preflight the airplane. Our departure time was moved 30 minutes later by our handling company, BaseOps, to meet a landing slot restriction at our destination of Muscat, Oman. Mike Laver contracted with BaseOps for flight-planning services on this trip; sometimes this results in a contracted fuel price lower than the posted local price. BaseOps and similar companies also offer handlers in many countries–a person on the ground who meets you when you arrive, knows the local people and procedures, and helps you navigate “the system”–which is different in every country. We have used handlers at every stop since arriving in Salzburg.

Edmund, our handler in Kuwait, is great–he has us through customs, immigration, and security in less than 15 minutes. Pilots can theoretically take care of this themselves, but in foreign countries–especially in this part of the world–having a handler is priceless. Well, it’s not priceless–there is, after all, a fee for this service. But he guided us through the process very quickly; left to our own devices, and with neither of us speaking the local language, we figure the process would have taken us at least a couple of hours…and maybe much longer.

Once in the airplane with the cabin door closed, the cooling breeze is gone, and I’m dripping with sweat before we can get engines started and the air conditioning on. Yes, if I lived in this part of the world, I would consider air conditioning a worthwhile option for an airplane. Today’s schedule has only one leg, planned for 706 nautical miles and two hours, 30 minutes, to Muscat, Oman.

Persian Gulf airways

The Garmin navigator shows airways across the Persian Gulf.

By the time we cross into the Persian Gulf, we’re at 6,000 feet and already Kuwait is fading into a brown haze–I don’t know how much is traditional haze and how much is blowing sand, but the cleaning cloth I used to wipe the windshield before we took off was pretty brown when I was done. Keep in mind, our stay was less than 15 hours. We finally top the haze layer at 18,000 feet, as we climb to our cruising altitude of FL250 (about 25,000 feet). It’s hot at altitude, as well. The temperature at our cruising altitude is minus 17 degrees Celsius; a normal temperature (or ISA, for International Standard Atmosphere, representative atmospheric pressure, temperature, and other conditions pilots use to plan aircraft performance) would be minus 35 degrees Celsius. That makes the temperature at our altitude ISA +18, which has an effect on aircraft performance; fuel flows are reduced because the warmer air is less dense, but it also reduces our cruise speed. Because of the higher temperatures, the exhaust gas temperatures for our two Garrett turbine engines are higher than I’ve seen them on this trip–about 520 degrees, slightly into the yellow arc on the gauges but not really a problem.

Kuwait Control is handling more flights in Arabic than English, which is different from our experiences of the past several days. I’m more interested in the route of our flight, however. We’re angling south-southeastward down the length of the Persian Gulf, flying on one of several designated airways (see above). Our aircraft is following an airway–the purple line shows that it’s our designated flight plan, but several other airways appear in green just to the right. To the left is a blue line that represents the edge of Iran’s airspace. Mike estimates that we’re no more than five miles from Iranian airspace. For you nonpilots reading: An airway is like a highway in the sky, comprised of waypoints (which could be radio beacons on the ground, an intersection of signals from two radio beacons, or simply a named latitude and longitude in a GPS database). Controllers route flights along various airways, at assigned altitudes, to keep everything moving along safely. In the United States, a chart would show airways moving in many directions, and usually farther apart, as well. Here traffic is forced into a narrow corridor to avoid Iran’s airspace, and the effect is remarkably similar to the lanes of an interstate highway going through a large city.

Persian Gulf chart

Paper chart showing airways in the Persian Gulf.

Fully electronic navigation is relatively new for many pilots, and a lot of us still carry paper charts as well. To give you an idea of the difference, here’s the paper chart showing the same portion of the Gulf. This is oriented a bit differently but otherwise presents the same information. Our assigned airway is highlighted in yellow; all those other airways are below it, and Iran’s airspace is just above.

Dubai from 25,000 feet

Dubai as seen from 25,000 feet.

We exit the Persian Gulf almost directly over Dubai, United Arab Emerates. We’re talking for a time with UAE Control, and the controllers pronounce the “UAE” as a word (rhymes with Louie or Huey). It’s hard to see much through the haze from our altitude, and I’ve given this photo about as much help as possible. But even from this altitude–wow, are those some tall buildings!

Hydration is always a concern when you’re flying, especially on long flights in an aircraft without a restroom. Our strategy has been to limit ourselves to one cup of coffee in the morning, and drink only a minimal amount of water until we’re within a hour or so of a stop. We do have options on board for obtaining relief should an urgent need develop, but these have not yet been necessary. The MU-2′s seat rails, just below the pilot seats, make a great place to park a bottle of water–the metal channels conduct cold air through the fuselage, keeping the water nice and cool. When I open a bottle today, the water’s lukewarm.

Approach into Muscat

This mosque is on the approach into Muscat, Oman.

Passing Dubai, the tan of the desert occasionally is interrupted by oases and irrigated areas, small shapes visible in an ocean of sand. The ILS approach to Runway 8 Right is essentially straight in from our direction, and soon we’re skimming over a massive area of new construction. I guess it’s not just in the United States that builders want to build things on an airport’s approach path. Just to the left, and visible in the center of the circular green area in the photo, is a gorgeous mosque–their domes and minarets are seemingly everywhere. And it’s a little cooler in Muscat, which has mountains on at least two sides; it’s 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit) when we touch down, and the forecast high is only 95. Now it’s dinner and early to bed, because both of the next two days are scheduled as long, two-leg days as we head for Australia. If we stay on schedule we’ll land there Wednesday.


Day 6: Salzburg to Kuwait City

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Dawn refueling in Salzburg

Refueling in Salzburg at dawn.

Today started very early in Salzburg, Austria. Not only were there two long legs on the schedule, but our refueling stop at Ankara, Turkey, was time constrained–we had to be there and on the ground before the airport closed temporarily because of flight restrictions for a military demonstration over the city in celebration of Turkey’s Independence Day. First, we had to refuel in Salzburg–we had not on arrival, and most MU-2 owners will tell you that they hang around for refueling if the fuelers are not familiar with the airplane (more about this later). We had a few anxious moments but the fuel truck did arrive, allowing us to take off when the airport opened to noncommercial flights at 7 a.m. First up: A flight of about 1,000 nm to Ankara.

Morning fog in Austrian valleys

Fog fills valleys outside of Salzburg, Austria, as we climb on route to Turkey.

The sun has risen beyond the eastern mountains, striking taller peaks to the west but leaving the valley with the airport in shadow. We’re the first to taxi out, passing four parked Cessna 150/152s and a Diamond that apparently belong to a local flight school, as pilots preflight jets being tugged from hangars. As we taxi for departure from Runway 33, the multifunction display’s synthetic vision shows imposing terrain ahead. The center of the runway, and the Red Bulls’ Hangar 7 and 8, are still in shadow as we roll for takeoff, although the arrival and departure ends bask in bright sunshine. Climbing into the still morning air, we turn over brilliant green valleys, most filled with fog. In the low morning light villages of dark-roofed, white-walled houses are as sharp as etchings from 11,000 feet.

Mike and Mike make captain

Mike Collins and Mike Laver make captain.

Today is the first day MU-2 owner Mike Laver and I wear captains’ uniforms. There are parts of the world where appearances are important, and it’s important that pilots look like airline captains–even if their airplane for the day is a Cessna 172. Uniforms convey a sense of authority and purpose that can be very helpful in getting through customs, immigration, and other stops in the terminal process–and if it might save us time, it’s something we should do. We’re handed off to Bucharest and we’re immediately cleared to TEGRI, an intersection on our flight plan that lets us skip past three or four others. “Look, they’ve cleared us all the way across Hungary,” Mike observes. I think it’s all because of the uniforms.

Turkey's brown landscape

Flying over the browns of Turkey’s landscape.

Our timing is almost perfect. We cross Hungary, and similarly we’re given a fix that takes us all the way across Romania–more than 250 nm. We’ve seen a couple of contrails above, but otherwise we seem to have the sky to ourselves. Below, a couple of cloud layers make it hard to see any surface details, but our GPS displays indicate the terrain is rising. In southwest Romania, near the Serbian border, we do get a glimpse of some beautiful mountains through a hole in the clouds. Ahead and to the left, weather appears to be building–it’s off our route but we’ll encounter some later today. The controllers in Bucharest and Budapest are excellent, easy to understand, and sign off with a distinctive “bye bye” instead of the “good day” pilots often hear in the United States. Sofia Control hands us off to Ankara over the Black Sea, and we’re in Turkish airspace. We’re assigned a circling approach to Runway 3 Left, which confuses us–there is no such approach in the GPS database or the paper charts we were carrying (all were current). We can tell by the pilot’s voice over the radio that an airplane behind us is similarly surprised. We worked everything out and landed with time to spare before the airspace restriction went into effect. The leg takes 3.9 hours of flying.

Fueling in Ankara

Refueling in Ankara, Turkey.

Our handler in Turkey is great. He’s waiting with the fuel truck when we taxi onto a massive cargo ramp, used at night by military and civilian cargo aircraft but deserted on Independence Day. Our handler has been working with general aviation aircraft since 1996, and has never seen an MU-2. “I told all the guys, come out and see this airplane,” he said. Several ask if it’s a new model, not knowing that the 50th anniversary of its first flight comes in just over two weeks. One asks if he can photograph the airplane, and then, handing me his camera, asks if I’d take a photo of him with it.

Since they’ve never seen one, they had to be coached through the process. There’s a tip tank on each wing that holds 90 gallons of fuel–that’s 603 pounds of fuel on the end of each wing (yes, the wings are strong). Balance becomes important when fueling this aircraft. First the main tanks, closer to the center of the aircraft, are filled. Then one tip tank is filled about halfway–45 gallons or, say, 200 liters. Then the other tip tank is filled completely–and finally, the fueler comes back to the first tank and tops it off. Ladder placement is important, too, because the airplane leans to one side, then the other, during this process. A ladder in the wrong place can have a fuel tank land on it, which is not good for either the ladder or the airplane.

083013 Tea with the airport crew in Ankara

By the time we’re done, the airport has been closed temporarily, and we have to cool our heels for 45 minutes. Our handler graciously brings us hot tea, and we adjourn to a gazebo beside an administration building. Some airport workers are there, and others come out. They’re gracious, interested in our trip, and a good group to hang around with. We learn the browns that permeate the color exist pretty much year round–and that winter is not the best time to visit Ankara. They show why the Turkish people have a reputation for being so hospitable, and welcome us to return soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are now following the blog.

Independence day in Turkey

Turkish flags celebrate the country’s independence day.

Before leaving, I had to take a photo of this airport services building, sporting–like many other buildings on the airport–the national flag. Turkey celebrates its independence from Europe each year.

Weather in a tight space

What you don’t want to see between Iran and Syria.

Soon we’re on the way to Kuwait, 1,138 miles distant–planned at 4:21. The brown soil of Turkey begins to disappear into the haze, and below building clouds. Our route of flight is southeast, staying north of Syria, then south-southeast across Iraq to Kuwait. Cruising at Flight Level 270 (around 27,000 feet), we see cloud buildups taller than our altitude to the left, and to the right. Eventually, there’s one right in front of us. We’re about to enter Iraq airspace, which offers a narrow corridor between Iran, to the left, and Syria to the right. Violence has escalated in Syria, and I saw a news report that some 1,500 people were killed there today. So we deviated to the left around one particularly nasty looking cell; the Baghdad Center controller was very helpful and we managed to avoid causing any international incidents.

In the United States, it’s seldom difficult for pilots to deviate around weather–challenging, sometimes, when there’s a lot of weather that every pilot wants to circumnavigate–or if that weather is in busy terminal airspace. But anything like that can be worked out by controllers much more easily than an excursion into airspace belonging to a country like Syria or Iran.

A couple of terminology notes for you pilots: In much of Europe and into the Middle East, controllers prefer to say “identified” instead of “radar contact.” We do note that Baghdad Control uses the more familiar “good day” when handing a flight off to the next controller, instead of “bye bye.” Could this be a U.S. influence? Our route takes us east of Baghdad but we can’t see the city through the haze, which comes almost up to our altitude of 27,000 feet. One controller with an American-sounding voice asks us where our flight originated, and Mike mentioned our around the world journey. Wonder if, like that controller back in the States so many days ago, he’s been reading up on us?

Refueling in Kuwait

Refueling in Kuwait at sunset.

After 4.3 hours we touch down in Kuwait–another airport with acres upon acres of cargo ramps–and follow a Follow Me truck to our parking space. We open the door and step out into what feels like a blast furnace, relatively speaking. It must be 100 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe higher; the day’s high was more than 110. Our third refueling of the day is completed just as the sun sets; after some paperwork, it’s off to the hotel. Tomorrow: One leg, to Muscat, Oman. Access the tracking map online.

Day 5: Red Bull

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Red Bull Hangar 7 museum

Hangar 7, the Red Bull air museum in Salzburg, Austria, is an expansive facility.

We spent much of today at Hangar 7 in Salzburg, Austria, home of the Red Bull aircraft collection and the Flying Bulls. That’s somewhat of a misnomer; all the aircraft fly–and the specific aircraft on display in Hangar 7 change frequently because they’re rotated in and out as they fly and undergo periodic maintenance.

Red Bull's Hangar 7 and 8

Hangar 7 is reflected in the nose of Red Bull’s P-38. Near the center, across the ramp, is the Hangar 8 maintenance facility.

The structure is glass and steel; from the end, its shape is that of an airfoil. The building is 10 years old and was designed to showcase Red Bull’s three passions: aviation, cuisine, and art. In addition to the aircraft on display, the building is home to several restaurants and an art gallery.

Red Bull jet gets cleaned

A Red Bull technician washes the top of an Alpha Jet displayed in Hangar 7.

The facility is spotless; display aircraft are regularly cleaned–a detail that did not come from Hangar 7′s PR representative, but from personal observation. There’s no admission fee, either; entrance to the museum is free. Apparently, it’s dog friendly as well. And if you plan to fly to Austria any time soon, be aware that visitors are welcome to visit the facility in their personal aircraft, although arrangements must be made in advance (there’s a form on the website) and no overnight parking is allowed.

Red Bull's B-25 gets engine work

Red Bull’s B-25 gets a new cylinder.

One of Hangar 7′s hidden gems is Hangar 8, just across the ramp, where technicians maintain the Red Bull aircraft fleet. Unfortunately, Hangar 8 is not open to the public, although if you’re a credentialed member of the news media you might be able to arrange a tour (well, it worked for us, anyway). It’s a hopping place, too, with five aircraft receiving maintenance during our visit in addition to Red Bull’s F-4 Corsair, which landed while we were in Hangar 7. The good news is that almost all the aircraft are regularly displayed in Hangar 7; they cycle out frequently, are flown, and then undergo maintenance–after which they go back on display in Hangar 7.

Alpha Jet reflections

Hangar 7 reflects in the curved flanks of an Alpha Jet.

All of the Red Bull aircraft appear to be maintained in excellent condition. The polished aluminum airplanes are kept polished. With all the glass in the building’s structure and sunlight often streaming in (it’s been cloudy for most of our visit), it’s hard not to notice the many reflections visible on the aircraft.

The timeless appeal of aviation

Aviation’s timeless appeal.

At one point I looked across Hangar 7 and saw one of those timeless scenes, a father pointing out to his son something across the ramp at Hangar 8. It’s details like this that can help introduce the younger generations to aviation, and I always find scenes like this heartwarming. I wasn’t at the best angle for a photo, but I had a shot, so I took it–and liked it enough to share with you. We’ll pay for the luxury of this visit tomorrow, when our seven to eight hours of flying will take us to Kuwait by way of Turkey. If you’re at your computer tomorrow morning, follow our progress online.



Day 4: Straubing to Salzburg

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Today has been a nonstandard day. Instead of getting up early and flying, we got up early and spent most of the day visiting MT Propeller, a German company that has been doing some innovative work with propellers for general aviation aircraft. (The airplane we’re flying, Mike Laver’s Mitsubishi MU-2, has five-blade MT propellers installed; in fact, his airplane was used for FAA certification testing of the new props.)

MT Propeller was founded by Gerd Muhlbauer in 1980, and he still serves as the company’s president. Most of the propellers that MT makes are a combination of beech and spruce–yes, wood–covered in carbon fiber, Kevlar, or a combination of the two. “There’s nothing new here,” said Muhlbauer, explaining that the basic design can be traced to work that Ludwing Hoffman did in 1928. What is new, in addition to improved coverings for the wood, is a trend toward more blades that are shorter; this can reduce noise significantly and often improves performance, as well. In addition, MT has expanded into nonaviation areas, making propellers for hovercraft; the largest propller the company makes is used in wind tunnels.

Future propeller blades ready to cut

Beech and spruce are glued and compressed into blocks that will become propeller blades.

Wooden blades ready for finishing

Wooden blades are shaped and ready for finishing.

Glass goes on a wood propeller blade

Glass fiber is applied to a wooden propeller blade.

082813 Gerd Muhlbauer and Mike Laver at MT Propeller

Gerd Muhlbauer, MT Propeller founder and president (left), talks with Mike Laver by the MU-2 in Straubing.

Germany has become a multinational place. Late in the afternoon, following lunch at an Italian restaurant run by people from Turkey, we depart on the 20-minute flight to Salzburg, Austria. Taking off VFR, we turn over the Danube River–avoiding overflight of several small villages near the airport–and pick up our IFR clearance before climbing into the clouds.

Touching down in Salzburg

The Salzburg airport is well lit, and the runway was easy to spot when we emerged from the clouds.

We’re asked to keep our speed up–to 180 knots until we’re five miles from the runway–and we touch down a minute or so before a Boeing 737. On the ramp, we’re parked next to a Learjet from Switzerland; next to it is a Cessna Citation XLS from Austria and another Learjet from South Africa. The co-pilot of the Citiation walks over and talks with us as we wait for the crew van to pick us up.

Parked on a wet ramp in Salzburg

Our airplane parked in Austria, near another futuristic control tower. Cloud obscures the mountain peaks.

Tomorrow is a nonflying day. We’re going to visit Red Bull–the aviaton museum, not the energy drink! I’ll probably enjoy an extra cup of morning coffee, however….


Day 3: Reykjavik to Straubing

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Sunshine on the departure from Reyjkavik

Sunshine streams through a hole in the clouds as we depart from Reyjkavik.

It was overcast and drizzling a bit as we prepared to take off from Reykjavik, Iceland, this morning. Seconds after we took off, however, sunlight flooded through a hole in the clouds and first bathed some buildings across a bay from the airport, and then flooded a green valley that turned out to be a golf course. The clouds were not thick and we quickly popped out into a gorgeous sunrise. I was glad my sunglasses were within reach.

Mike Laver organizes paper charts

Mike Laver takes advantage of some quiet cruise flight to prepare charts for the next few legs.

When we leave the Icelandic coast behind, we’re crusing at FL250 (about 25,000 feet) above the cloud-covered Atlantic. The winds are blowing at 86 knots at our altitude, but they’re generally perpendicular to our route of flight, and we’re actually getting a pretty good tailwind on this leg. A push is always nice; we can go faster or reduce power to save fuel. Today we’ve reduced power, and we’re still covering the ground at 338 knots–at least for a while. Mike takes advantage of the relatively quiet overwater flight to get his charts in order for the next couple of legs. Even with electronic navigation and international databases, paper charts still come in handy.

Garmin displays show Scotland

Proof that Scotland really is below all those clouds!

Passing RATSU intersection, we’re handed off to Scottish Control, and lose a lot of groundspeed when we make a turn on our flight plan. Our true airspeed is 280 knots, and after the turn our tailwind drops to 20 knots–so our groundspeed only falls to 300 knots. The ride gets bumpy for the first time this trip as we cross a jet stream but the turbulence lasts less than half an hour. We wouldn’t know we were flying over Scotland this morning if it wasn’t for the moving maps on our navigation displays. The country is blanketed by clouds. Eventually a mountain peak juts through the low clouds, providing visual confirmation that there’s land down there. The accent and cadence of the Scottish air traffic controllers is my favorite of the trip so far. Other notable changes with respect to air traffic control: Frequencies are assigned as “One Two Seven Decimal Two Eight,” instead of “Point” which usually is said in the United States, and controllers are much more likely to use the “proper” phonetic pronounciation–by saying “tree” for “three” and “fife” for “five,” for example.

Newcastle's futuristic control tower

The Newcastle, England, airport boasts an interesting tower and two active flight schools.

The clouds break up as we approach England, however, and the English countryside looks positively quaint as we descend through several broken layers en route to our fuel stop in Newcastle. A great couple of blokes take care of us at Samson Aviation Services, and our fueler, Martin, is a pilot. The airport has a uniquely modern air traffic control tower, and the Newcastle College flight program appeared to be keeping its modest fleet of Piper trainers busy. The first leg takes 3.1 hours and we’re on the ground less than an hour, never leaving the airport, although we did see two double-decker buses pass just beyond the end of the runway as we backtaxied to depart from Runway 25.
From there it’s 2.7 hours through the busiest airspace yet on our way to Straubing, Germany. Our route takes us across the North Sea into the Netherlands, just east of Amsterdam. ATC uses 8.33-mHz frequency spacing here, which can be a trap–it’s one more numeral that might be misidentified by a pilot listening to a foreign tongue, or a readback that could be misunderstood by a controller facing the same challenge. We arrive in time to stop in at MT Propeller, where we’ll spend part of the day tomorrow, and enjoy a traditional Bavarian dinner in the historic city (I recommend the Octoberfest). Many of its buildings are 900 years old, or even older; our restaurant is one of the newer ones–it’s only 700 years old.

Day 2: Goose Bay to Reykjavik

Monday, August 26th, 2013

Five-blade props at sunrise

Mike Laver’s MU-2 on the ramp at Goose Bay.

First off, let me confirm that it’s true: Iceland is green, and Greenland isn’t–at least, not at this time of year. We had hoped to get a predawn start from Goose Bay, Labrador, for our fuel stop in Narsarsuaq, Greenland–but Mike Laver, who I’m accompanying on a flight around the world to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Mitsubishi MU-2′s first flight, remembered that you couldn’t depart for Narsarsuaq without getting a recent observation from the field…and the airport doesn’t open until 6 a.m. Sometimes, interational operations are just “interesting” but in this case, the airport lies at the end of a fjord, and weather frequently makes it a challenging place to get into.

Clouds over the North Atlantic

These clouds over the North Atlantic showed vertical development at 8 a.m.

Once off, however, we’re cleared directly to FL250 as we pass over a solitary boat on Lake Melville. “We’re going faster in the climb than we were in cruise yesterday,” Mike remarked, pointing at the groundspeed readout. Far below, whisps of morning fog rise, painting delicate white lines on the dark canvas of the Earth. The rising sun reflects on marshland below as we go feet wet over the Labrador Sea. We’re covering ground–er, water–at a rate of 313 knots when we cross the Davis Straits, but a solid layer below precludes any view of the water. Then we pass through 10 or 20 miles of clear sky, followed by more clouds–these with vertical development, despite the early hour. By 2 p.m. these could provide significant weather, and they show the wisdom of launching early in the day for long trips.

Iceberg on final to Narsarsuaqt

An iceberg marks the approach to Runway 7 at Narsarsuaq, Greenland.

We’re in nonradar airspace. Proper configuration of the screens on Mike’s Garmin GTN 750 and GTN 650 makes position reporting a breeze. The sky below us has cleared–was that an iceberg? A good tailwind gets us to Narsarsuaq in slightly more than two hours, so we didn’t have to take on a full load of fuel (at $8 per gallon)–and there’s no question that the shape off the end of Runway 7 as we approach is an iceberg.

Martin and Juliette Prakken

Martin and Juliette Prakken are flying home to Virginia from Europe.

After a quick refueling, we pause to talk with Martin and Juliette Prakken, who had just landed in a Socata TBM 700. Natives of the Netherlands who moved to Virginia about 20 years ago, he uses the airplane for business in the United States and in Europe, flying it across for several months every summer. They were westbound, heading home with their two children before school starts. Pilots flying internationally are quick to exchange notes about the weather and procedures; later at our hotel in Reykjavik, we talk with the pilot of a Socata TB-20 who had been following us east.

Icebergs east of Greenland

Icebergs dot the water off Greenland’s eastern coast.

Narsarsuaq is…cool. Any longer on the ground and I would have had to upgrade to a heavier coat. On Greenland’s east coast, however, it looked downright cold. The snowpack appeared thick and glaciers were calving icebergs–so many in a couple spots that the water looked more like a bowl of ice cubes. But we’re high above by now, enjoying an 80-knot tailwind. Eventually over the Atlantic we see nothing but a lot of water. While we don’t see any whitecaps from FL270, the texture of the surface looks like something to avoid in a small boat. After about two more hours, we break out of clouds at 2,200 feet and touch down at Reykjavik in light rain. 

Tomorrow we fly to Newcastle, England, for a fuel stop, and then to Straubing, Germany, for the night. If you want to know where we’re going, a schedule that’s almost up to date is posted on Mike Laver’s website. If you want to see where we’ve been, check out my DeLorme tracking map–the longer distance between tracking points today (the InReach SE updates position every 10 minutes) illustrates how much faster our groundspeeds were today.

Day 1: Frederick to Goose Bay

Sunday, August 25th, 2013


082513 Climbing out of Maryland

After taking off from Frederick, we climb through scattered clouds.

After a couple months of planning and several days of packing, it’s almost a relief to take off and begin watching the route unfold off our nose–just like my daughter and wife drew it out last night on a wall map at home. Not long into the trip a New York Center controller surprises us. “Five-Zero-Echo-Tango, I’m advised this is an around-the-world flight for the fiftieth anniversary of the aircraft.” Mike replied, “That’s a true statement.” We didn’t tell him, so he must have seen this blog or read the short article in AOPA Pilot. “Have a wonderful flight,” he said. What a great way to launch this adventure.

Landing Runway 8 at Goose Bay

Mike was astonished by this view. “I’ve never landed at Goose Bay in good weather,” he said.

Flying over Scranton, Pa., Mike took advantage of a lull in the action to enter the next few flight plans into the Garmins, creating waypoints over the middle of the Atlantic. FL250 (about 25,000 feet) gives a different perspective of Scranton and Albany, N.Y., than I normally see from 6,000 or 8,000 feet. Crossing into Canada, an array of wind turbines spins lazily beneath scattered clouds. There are more along the shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I didn’t expect this green corner of Canada to be so green!

Chocks Goose Bay style

Believe this is the first time I’ve seen chocks like this!

Up above, contrails chase airliners approaching us as the afternoon rush of international arrivals heads for the northeastern United States. We have a smooth ride the whole way, although Boston Center earlier advised a gaggle of airliners cleared to Green Bay that “For folks heading westbound [Flight Levels] 320 to 360 are light, occasionally moderate chop.” A few bumps below scattered clouds on approach was it for us.

MU-2 and Bombardier CL-215T at Goose Bay

This firefighting aircraft was our neighbor on the Goose Bay ramp.

Our departure took us on a scenic tour of central Maryland before we could climb enough to turn on course. Between that and a headwind that diminished more gradually than forecast, Mike spent more time than usual calculating fuel burn. At 1,112 nautical miles, this is one of the trip’s longer legs, but we determine that we would land with more than our required minimums–otherwise we would have made a precautionary fuel stop.

Tomorrow: Greenland and Iceland. You can track us online at http://blog.aopa.org/blog/?page_id=5288 or directly on a DeLorme tracking map, which updates our position every 10 minutes while we’re flying, at https://share.delorme.com/MikeCollins.


Final stretch

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

When I talked with Mike yesterday, he said that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan is planning several activities around the 50th anniversary of the MU-2′s first flight. We’re also anticipating a factory tour, as well as a tour of the company’s aviation museum. Both will be fascinating.

Because of this, we’re tweaking the schedule again. We had a buffer day scheduled in the Philippines for Thursday, Sept. 12, to help assure an arrival in Nagoya on Sept. 13 in case we took a delay because of weather or a mechanical issue. Now Thursday will be a flying day, and we’ll spend the night in Taiwan (previously only a “technical” stop, where we would refuel and not formally enter the country–think Snowden in the Moscow airport, except that we wouldn’t be making a habit of it). Friday will then be only one flight leg, which should get us into Nagoya before noon local time. I had thought about posting the original itinerary, but parts of it would be unrecognizable now–I hope you agree with that call.

I will say that I’ve never been so focused on packing for a trip before. I’m not sure why, because once you leave town, you’re gone–whether you’re going across the state or across the globe. Maybe it’s the lenght of the trip. Regardless, I’ve got packing to…and grass to mow…and I think I better get a haircut, too.

Solar Impulse adds D.C. visiting hours

Monday, June 24th, 2013

The Solar Impulse—the manned, solar-powered airplane currently making its way across the United States–has added some additional public visiting hours during its stopover at Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia.

The historic aircraft, which arrived at Dulles early Sunday, June 16, is parked behind the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. It will be open to the public Tuesday, June 25, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. If you’re in the area and have the opportunity–go! Additional public visiting hours could be added as the team awaits suitable weather conditions for departure.

Solar Impulse will launch on the last leg of its transcontinental journey, to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, in late June or early July. Plans call for its successor, already under construction in Switzerland, to fly around the world in 2015, making one stop on each continent.