The day was here. The sun was shining and four pilots from SAA were eating some last minute fast food on the communal bench just outside the flight school in Västerås.
Jokingly I uploaded a picture on Facebook and captioned it "Our last supper". That generated some buzz and laughter from friends and family that knew the big flight was just around the corner.
My mother was perhaps not as pleased...
The flight schools two old workhorses "Tango-Alpha" and "Tango-Bravo" were to be delivered to a new owner in the USA and a happy retirement in California. It was difficult to believe I was one of the lucky four SAA-pilots that were about to embark on the big adventure. The serene evening behind us, with the two airplanes silhouetted against the low Swedish summer sun, made it hard to fully grasp that we were soon going start our journey across the atlantic ocean.
Iceland, Greenland and Nunavut in northern Canada. Places I could not imagine, even less thought I would ever visit, but places that would nevertheless soon spread below my wings - to become a pilot may have been the best decision I have ever made.
Half the fun is in the planning
The airplanes to be delivered were two Beechcraft 76 Duchesses, a small four seater twin engine airplane designed in the seventies. They had been given our special attention through our long day of packing. The back seats and the baggage areas were now filled to the rim with equipment, the tanks were full and the last bits and pieces were officially signed off.
The "stuff" carried on a long trip like this must be carefully planned, keeping in mind not only the necessities and safety but also the weight limitations. These smaller airplanes are rarely loaded far from their maximum allowed weights. The equipment crowding the back of the airplane included things such as a couple of spare tires, an extra generator, a dozen emergency flares, two satellite phones and a box full of engine oil meant to last the over 50 flight hours long trip to California.
The extra technical equipment had been brought to us by the SAA technicians the day before, and were chosen with the Duchess's technical history in mind. A flat tire or a generator failing is not an uncommon but rarely a hazardous event. However, finding a spare part for designed for the Duchess somewhere along the Greenlandic east coast or in the roadless northern Canada could very well prove impossible.
On this, our first day of the journey, we were planning to leave Västerås, Sweden for Bergen, Norway. There we would take a night stop and prepare for the first Atlantic sector to the Faroe Islands. But the long day of packing and preparing had taken longer than we had desired. As the sun was starting to set we were updating our weather information, and we were dissapointed to realize that the outlook had deterioted. A weather front was going to affect the western and central parts of Norway during the late evening and during the night, and it had beaten us to Bergen.
Clouds are made out of condensed water droplets. In cold air, these water droplets would want nothing else than to freeze and become ice. However, in turbulent air without any pollutants these water droplets are unable to freeze. They remain in liquid form - in a "supercooled" state (trust me, it's an actual term). If you introduce an aircraft to the supercooled water droplets they will certainly take the offer and freeze on the airframe and wings - causing icing. Icing causes increased weights and reduced aerodynamic performance to such an extent that it may cause an accident.
Icing is a vile and potentially dangerous phenomenon that must be avoided at all costs in smaller airplanes not fitted with anti-icing systems. There are nicer popsicles than an iced over temperature probe like this one.
Given that the central parts of Norway have very high mountains, there was no chance to try to fly in the lower, warmer parts of the atmosphere. Without any anti-icing systems on our Duchesses it looked like we were not going to Bergen at all this night.
An anti climatic end to what was supposed to be our wonderful first day.
But nevertheless, such anti climatic results are not at all unfamiliar. The weather will disrupt the best plans almost on a daily basis at SAA. It creates a dynamic environment where the pilot is central to the decision making process.
Thus, as had been the case many times before, our flight plans went into the trash before we even got into the airplane.
Instead, we spent the late evening and early night looking for alternative plans. The frontal system over Norway was supposed to remain for a few days. Not getting on our way until several days later felt like the worst start to our journey, so we were eager to find an alternative solution.
During the summer you can avoid flying into icing conditions by flying at a lower altitude, where the air is warmer and there is no icing. But to do this, we would need to replan our route to avoid the high mountains in central Norway. Kristiansand, a town on the southwest Norwegian coast stood out on our maps, and we got to work crunching numbers and checking distances. It did not take long to confirm that Kristiansand was "above minimums" and that we would be able to go there tomorrow.
But... Kristiansand is a lot further south than Bergen. Flying directly from Kristiansand to the Faroe Islands was literally impossible. There just wasn't enough space in our fuel tanks to cover that distance.
One creative solution had created a new problem.
Planning how to pack clothes, boots, shoes and equipment for a trip that stops in both Greenland and California certainly is an uncommon and difficult challenge.
You know that classic scene in a movie, where the hero spreads a map across the table in a dimly lit ships cabin, then draws a line between two important settlements only to find an unmarked island inbetween the two?
That is how I imagine myself when I learned that the Shetland Islands are almost right in between Kristiansand and the Faroe Islands.
Maybe not quite true to reality, but I like the drama.
Set and done: The Shetland Islands would be our replacement fuel stop! As midnight approached we started our new plan (fuel, altitude, performance calculations) and went to town reading up on rules and transit procedures for the United Kingdom, as we had never planned to stop there in the first place.
Satellite phones were one of the uncommon items carried on our Atlantic crossing. The radio coverage over Greenland and in northern Canada is poor at best, and a sat' phone is an extra safety net if trouble appears.
Sometimes people who work normal desk jobs have asked me if I don't find the dynamic and weather dependent nature of aviation tiresome. "Isn't it exhausting coming to work every day, not knowing what is going to happen, where you are going to sleep and when you are getting back home?"
I like to tell them about our late decision to go to the Shetland islands. If not for the weather, how else would I have randomly visited the Shetlands with less than 24 hours notice? Sometimes the biggest and most stressful change of plans will turn into one of your biggest adventures.
So in the end, as with much else in the world of aviation, this first day of our Atlantic adventure was not spent in the great blue, but with our noses deep in rulebooks and maps while we were doing performance calculations long into the night.
But it would certainly become a lot more blue during the next day.
The vast deep blue was waiting for us.
Psst... If you want to know more about our Atlantic adventure you can get right into the scenery on Youtube. The clips are produced by my then SAA-colleague (and nowadays Flybe-colleague) Henrik Gustavsson. Henrik flew in the other aircraft during the crossing.
The events described in this blog entry can be seen in this first clip:
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