Archive for May, 2008

School’s out — and Crossing the Icecap

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

It’s easy to intellectualize the idea of northern latitudes having longer days this time of year. It’s something else to live in them. When you arrive in Nuuk, Greenland, on the last day of school, the hotel bar and restaurant are packed chock-a-block with somewhat frantic, posing, overdressed teenagers, chugging away at both drinks and cigarettes non-stop. Luckily, Jean-Pierre, our tour guide, wangled our group a private room where we dined on reindeer, breathing non-toxic air.

This town of 14,000 lives by…well, I don’t know what it lives by. Maybe the government, since Nuuk is the capitol of Greenland. Both most certainly not its capital. I went down a hill to the water’s edge. There, three locals urged me to join them in drinking beer, which they yanked out of a large paper bag. Meanwhile, children played under the supervision of their bleary eyes. Paradox. All this great natural beauty of Greenland, and the natives appear to be hooked on a variety of toxic habits. I know, being judgmental is frowned upon these politically-correct days. But it’s hard to avoid when you draw in the crystal-clear air up here, and enjoy such tremendous scenery and visibilities. When the weather is good, that is. Which it is. It’s severe clear, in fact.

Back to the school theme. I waddled from the dinner table to go to bed. It was still light outside at 11p.m. Fell asleep anyway. Awakened at 3 a.m. by a racket that sounded like a combination of fighting, drunken yelling, and two-stroke motorcycle racing. Seems the school year had just ended. The partying had commenced. It died down by 6 a.m. But so what? I’d been awake since 4 a.m. Maybe it was the noise, maybe the sun piercing the gap in the curtains.

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I flew again with Bill Anastos and Dottie Thompson in their Conquest II. It took a while to get our IFR oceanic clearance, which we never got on the ground. Instead, we were cleared to depart into uncontrolled airspace (which goes to 19,500 feet), then contacted Sondestrom radio for the clearance. Now, this is one thing if it’s severe clear (which it was), but it would have been something else if the weather was down. Think of it–launching into a non-radar environment, in icing conditions, with mountains nearby.

Our clearance turned out to be the following: climb to 19,000 feet; go direct 65N 45W; then the DA NDB; then 65N 30W; then direct Gimli intersection, direct RK NDB (which is at BIRK). Our final altitude was 31,000 feet, and the trip took 2 hours, 44 minutes. There were some great views of the ice cap along the way, but then it was a continuous undercast. For the landing, we used BIRK’s runway 13. The weather was: few 1500, overcast 3800, with rain showers–but visibility unrestricted beneath the ceiling.

There was enroute drama involving the turbine Duke. At one point the crew felt it might not have enough fuel to land at BIRK with adequate fuel reserves. (The wind had changed, slowing the airplane’s groundspeed). Even worse, the alternate, Kulusuk (it’s on the east coast of Greenland), had gone below landing minimums. But bottom line: the Duke made it with gas aplenty. It did require some power reductions to reduce fuel consumption, however. That’s tough to do when you’re in the middle of the ocean with 400 miles to go. Pilot Jeff Yusem likened his dilemma to those he faced as a paymaster in the Army. “We payed in cash,” he said. “So I had this stack of bills and I doled it out to a huge line of soldiers. After a while you could see that the pile of cash was not tall enough to take care of the remaining soldiers.”

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After landing, we had a tour of the nearby Reykjavik control center–an ATC facility that often handles 650 or more ocean-crossing flights per day. It controls the airspace from the Arctic Circle to just north of Scotland, and from western Greenland to the North Sea. A shift manager, Hordur Ariliusson, showed us the workstations and displays. Huge screens were the rule, and here’s something we all noticed immediately: the room was well-lit. No dungeon-like darkness of the kind seen in U.S. ARTCCs.

Right now I’m kicking back in Reykjavik’s Hotel Borg. One more bottle of Icelandic glacier water, and it’s off to dinner. Tomorrow is a non-flying day. I’ll visit some of Iceland’s glaciers, volcanos and geysers. Should be fun, which is the whole idea, right? Wish you were here.

Make that Nuuk’ed, not BIRK’ed

Friday, May 16th, 2008

The Hotel North in Goose Bay, Labrador, is a Spartan place. Narrow bed, a basket of candy, canned mini-sausages and kippered herrings sit atop a mini-fridge. No closets, just a cubby. One TV channel–something about Canadians playing poker in Vegas. A crank-out window looks out on a vast expanse of sand, illuminated by a sun that shines all but three or so hours a day this time of year. This made it easy to get up this ayem.

Then it was back and forth again with the wx. BGBW (Narsarsuaq, and that’s THE last time I spell it) is forecasting fog in the vicinity with a chance of 400 scattered. BIRK (Reykjavik, and that’s the last time I spell it) says it will be 500 and 1 1/2. This is not good. Air Journey holds to conservative weather minimums, and one rule is that if ANYONE is concerned about pressing on, then the group stops until the issue is resolved.

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This particular issue was resolved by our flying to Nuuk, Greenland, instead of BGBW. This is where I am now, in the Hotel Hans Egede. The view is colorful. Red, blue and yellow houses carved into rock walls. Snow-covered hills behind it all. We’ll be here one night and move on to BIRK tomorrow if the wx improves. Let’s hope it does. For a good lowdown on our weather, check Air Journey’s around-the-world weather website.

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I flew into Nuuk–a 3,100-foot-long strip hard by a cliff–with Bill Anastos and Dottie Thompson in their 1981 Conquest II. We came over at 29,000 feet doing 300 KTAS and burning 240 pph per side. The weather here was severe clear for the arrival. You could see snow-capped mountains from 75 miles out.

Heard around the dinner table: “I wouldn’t fly anything older than the women I date”… don’t expect a comment from me.

And the trip is just beginning! This group is already getting a little salty …

Stay tuned for more!

When you’d rather be flying

Friday, May 16th, 2008

We’re lucky here at AOPA headquarters, because we have several vantage points that look out on the runways at Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK).

If we’re deskbound, we can still take a break and look out the windows. KFDK is a busy nontowered airport with a great mix of airplanes both classic and new; large and small; helicopters and gyrocopters; and airships–the Goodyear and Outback blimps in particular. (One of Goodyear’s aerial ambassadors was making leisurely circuits around the airport as I was writing this.) So there’s always something to see.

For those without an airport view, the Internet has you covered. Take your own  break and Google up an airport Web cam. Here’s one of my favorites: the lush green grass of Campbell Field Airport (9VG) in Weirwood, Virginia.

Herding Cats in Goose

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Well, the staging leg of the Trans-Atlantic portion of Air Journey’s “Around the World 2008″ trip went uneventfully.

I rode shotgun in Jeff Yusem’s turbine-converted Duke, and we flew two hours at an average groundspeed of 316 knots and burned 138 gallons of Jet-A to get from Quebec to the Goose Bay-Happy Valley Airport. Almost immediately, a weather crisis popped up.

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Get this: ADDS (NOAA’s Aviation Digital Data Service) reported VFR conditions for both Greenland and Iceland (I’m getting tired of writing Narsarsuaq and Reykjavik)–BUT, the Danish weather service gave a forecast of rapidly lowering ceilings and visibilities in fog and low stratus. Who to believe? The group almost flew off in different directions in an attempt to get to Iceland asap. One pilot wanted to go north to Iqualit or Kujuaq in Labrador. Another thought about going to Kangerlusuaq (Sondestromfjord). Finally, the group opted to stay in Goose.

So here I am in Hotel North, one of many warehouse-looking buildings in this aging NATO air base town. A British Vulcan bomber is parked in front of one building complex (the same type of bomber used in the Falklands War, and in the “Thunderball” movie).

Tonight it’s dinner at Trapper’s, down the street. There, you cook your own steak. You know it’s done when the smoke detector goes off.

Tomorrow, Iceland–we hope! The system is supposed to move to the east, away from Reykja…well, let’s use ICAO-speak and call it BIRK. Check out our Trans-Atlantic wx. Don’t worrry if you don’t speak Danish–it’s pretty intuitive. I wouldn’t hang my hat on ADDS for Atlantic wx after this experience.

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Coming up: A long flying day

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

The group’s decided to make a three-leg trip tomorrow.

The first will go from Quebec, Canada, to Goose Bay, Labrador (578 nm). The next will be from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq, Greenland (677 nm), and the last leg will be from there to Reykjavik, Iceland (675 nm).

The idea is to minimize our time in Greenland at a time when low clouds and icing conditions may well move in from the west. If we spent a night in Narsarsuaq we might be stuck there. So it’s going to be a full day of flying for Jeff Yusem, group leader Jean-Pierre (“JP”) Arnaud, and myself in Yusem’s turbine Duke.

In picture left to right: Tom Horne, Jeff Yusem, and journey director Jean-Pierre Arnaud.

We’ll be the first out of Quebec in the morning. Butch Stevens, of Port Orange, Florida will probably go next in his TBM 700. A Cessna Mustang piloted by Tracy Forrest of Winter Park, Florida, and John Hayes of Tucson, will follow. Bill Anastos in his Cessna 441 Conquest II will go non-stop from Goose to Reykjavik. The airplane has the range and speed to easily make the 1,200-plus nm trip. The weather in Reykjavik is supposed to be VFR for all our arrivals.

An around the world kickoff

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Lucky, lucky me. After years of waiting I’m off on a  trip around the world. Well, part way around , anyway. I’ve joined up with Air Journey LLC, a well-known purveyor of very high-end, guided general aviation tours, for the first few legs of their first-ever around-the-world voyages.

As you might suspect, the participants in this tour all fly turbine airplanes. How else could they fly with a greater degree of safety and comfort on such daunting and exotic legs as those taking them to India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Peoples Republic of China?

As I write this, I’m in the Chateau Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City. It’s one of the chain of hotels set up by the Canadian Pacific railroad, back in the early part of the last century. It’s right on the Saint Lawrence river.

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So far, a few participants have shown up. There’s my ride, Jeff Yusem’s Beech Duke, which has the “Royal Turbine” modification–it has a pair of 550-shp PT6As. Yusem’s from Aspen, Colorado. A TBM 700, a PC-12, and a Cessna Mustang are to arrive later today. The Duke does 290 knots true at FL270, burning just 66 gph (that’s for both engines).

Our first daily briefing is set for 4 p.m. today. We’ll be discussing the weather for what looks like (things can always change) our next two legs. The first will go to Goose Bay, Labrador. The next goes from Goose to fabled Narsarsuaq, Greenland. A north-south occluded front is now stalled over Narsarsuaq, and we’re hoping the forecast for it to move east will hold up. There’s another weather briefing before takeoff tomorrow.

I’ll keep you posted along the way. For me, this trip (I’m getting off at Paris) represents a huge contrast to the crossings I’ve made before. All of those were deliveries–driven by pressures to get through on a rigid schedule, and often decidedly non-luxurious. On this one, Air Journey has done all the yeoman’s work of transfers, reservations, flight plans, and clearances.

But blue water is blue water. We all have our rafts and our portable emergency transmitters. And I once more–sigh–have my Gumby suit. It’s a big floppy orange thing that keeps you warm should you ditch, and even keeps you afloat. My SPOT satellite personal tracker should transmit my position, superimpose it on a Google earth map, and deliver it to me trusties at AOPA, but perhaps we’re too far north for the satellite to read it. I’ll keep trying.

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Think you know your glass cockpit system?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Think again. To be exact, think again every six weeks or so.

The glorious thing about software-driven cockpit systems is that they can be renewed and revamped just by plugging in new software updates. I don’t mean database updates telling you there is a new airport available. I mean remapping of so-called “soft” keys and whole new features that the system couldn’t do before.  A pushbutton that once meant “Direct” may now mean “New Flight Plan.” If you own the airplane it is less of a problem, but if you rent, you might want to ask an instructor if there are any new tricks in the system if you haven’t rented in six weeks or so.

Next big thing

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

You can bet that user fees are still topic number one for general aviation pilots. It would seem the strategy of those who favor them is to wait until we fall asleep, or go home, and then sneak them into a bill while no one is looking–if it takes three years. That won’t happen. But now there is another issue coming into view.

This week I attended a backgrounder session in a hangar at Dulles International Airport by groups eager to get the FAA to accelerate next-generation air traffic control systems. These were the new air taxi operators, many of them using Eclipse 500 jets or Cessna Caravans, that want to prove their new cockpit technology can keep them out of the way of traditional airline routes. AOPA has monitored next generation technology for years and will keep you up on the latest. As for the session at Dulles, attended by AOPA but not sponsored by AOPA, there were mixed results. Apart from trying to hear air taxi industry speakers in a noisy hangar, there seemed to be few influential congressional staffers present–the real target of the session.

Expect to hear from top officials in California and Florida soon in support of the FAA speeding work on next-generation systems.

Single lever power? Butcher birds had it first

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Ever wonder why your piston single doesn’t have just one knob to control the throttle, prop and mixture, instead of three? For many years the engine manufacturers have thought the same thing, and finally, with the advent of full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) for the general aviation market, the ultimate switch to single-lever power seems virtually assured.

Too bad they’re only about 60 years too late. Dare I say the Germans—er Nazis—built it first? Consider the Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, the devastating “Butcher Bird” of World War II fame. More than 20,000 of these rolled off the assembly line equipped with the BMW 801D-2, a 1,730-horsepower, supercharged, twin-row radial engine with water-methanol injection.

A standard feature of the BMW 801D-2 was the Kommandogerat, a hydro-mechanical computer that controlled fuel flow, mixture, propeller pitch setting—even ignition timing and supercharger boost. All of this happened automatically, every time the pilot manipulated the throttle. Equipped as such, FW-190 pilots spent less time fiddling with cockpit controls, and more time scanning the sky for the enemy.

It wasn’t a perfect system. American pilots flying captured FW-190’s thought the brain box lacked sensitivity, and didn’t permit the kind of precise RPM control needed for tight formation flying. This was no big deal, to the Luftwaffe. They had long since switched to the fairly loose, “finger-four” formation, whose tactical advantages more than compensated for any technical shortcomings.

Few original FW-190s survive, but strangely enough, production has resumed of an airplane that British test pilot Captain Eric Brown once called, “the quintessence of aeronautical pulchritude.” Flugwerk GmbH in Gammelsdorf is building replica FW-190A-8s to order, powered by a Chinese knockoff of a Russian copy of a Pratt & Whitney radial not unlike the BMW 801. They’re also working on an FW-190D-9 “long nose,” powered by an Allison V-12.

For additional details, see

Liberty Belle’s European Vacation

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

“Liberty Belle,” a beautifully restored B-17G, is headed to Europe (and back) this summer–and the nearly 8,000 mile odyssey is likely to mark the last time a Flying Fortress ever stretches its wings across an ocean.

Don Brooks of rural Douglass, Georgia, started the Liberty Belle Foundation to honor his dad, a B-17 crewmember, and other veterans. Now, the airplane that flew as part of the 390th Bomb Group in England is making a final trip to the site of its wartime service. It should be interesting to see the reaction it gets there.

Getting the airplane across the Atlantic and back is going to be a major logistical and financial effort. The longest leg is less than 1,000 miles–less than half the airplane’s maximum range of 1,850 miles. But avgas can be hard to find in Greenland and Iceland, and high prices combined with unfavorable currency exchange rates will make U.S. pump prices seem like a bargain. At economy cruise, the airplane’s four Wright 1820s burn about 250 gallons of fuel (and about five gallons of oil) an hour. The foundation estimates the trip will cost at least $275,000.

Brooks knows what he’s getting into, though. He flew his DC-3 to France to drop parachutists over Normandy for a D-Day anniversary, and he’s flown to Greenland many times as part of the team that recovered “Glacier Girl,” the P-38 that had long been buried under the ice cap.

For a detailed schedule and more information about the Liberty Belle’s upcoming adventure, visit the foundation’s Web site:

   For a map of the Liberty Belle’s route:

   Good Luck!