Soon after acquiring his 690A Twin Commander at the beginning of 2016, Patrick Kenney began planning an ambitious trip for any pilot—a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe. He plans to base the airplane at Oxford, England, but the immediate destination was the Côte d’Azur. Here is his account of the journey.
Recently, I flew my still new(ish)—to me—Turbo Commander 690A from Southern California across the Atlantic to the South of France. As required by my insurance, my spouse, and common sense, I had in the right seat Tom Lopes, an experienced professional ferry pilot who also happens to be an IA/A&P and owner/operator of a couple of Turbo Commanders.
Camarillo, CA (KCMA)
Merced, CA (KMCE)
Sioux Falls, SD (KFSD)
Rome, NY (KRME)
Goose Bay, Canada (CYYR)
Narsarsauq, Greenland (BGBW)
Reykjavik, Iceland (BIRK)
Manchester, GB (EGCC)
Cannes, France (LFMD)
We had some hiccups along the way but, aside from the inconvenience of a long delay at the most remote stop of the routing, it was a great trip.
We set off at the end of the day from Camarillo to Merced. Flying up the Central Valley towards Merced we had a spectacular sunset, then descended through a thick layer of smoke from a big fire over 100 miles away that burned nearly 75,000 acres near Monterey.
We had some delays due to some random issues with planning and the Jeppesen databases for the trip. My wasting time on avionics database problems due to either hardware issues, my mistakes, or issues with the Jeppesen databases and getting them loaded in the Garmins, was a bit of recurring theme during this trip, unfortunately. Some of this was my learning curve on the new avionics, but a decent portion of the delays were Jeppesen and Garmin issues.
With our flying against the time zones and getting a late start in the day, we ended up setting off for Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the afternoon with that being the only flight for the day. This was putting us about one day behind our planned itinerary.
The flight east over the Rockies was uneventful. We were making good time and decided to press ahead to Sioux Falls, SD. We had some very interesting storms north and south of our route near the Wyoming/Colorado border, and ended up finding a gap to navigate through at FL250. It made for some good learning on satellite weather and strategic use of the radar, as the lag between what we were seeing out of the windows and on the onboard radar was meaningful. I’d mostly been flying benign weather around the Southwestern U.S. and doing more training in the plane than using it as traveling machine, so this was a good learning experience. Of course, in Europe I’m not going to have XM weather coverage, so good to learn the radar.
We were set to launch in the direction of Goose Bay, Canada, which was to be our departure point for the Atlantic crossing, but unfortunately we learned that there were no hotel rooms available in Goose. So, we adjusted our plan and for Gander to be our jumping-off point for the Atlantic crossing. It’s a bit longer than from Goose, but the plane has plenty of legs for this with just the built-in tanks and, barring unforeseen diversions or having to turn around, the Atlantic legs of the trip were not particularly long relative to the range in the 690A.
Even with an early start we weren’t going to make Gander by nightfall, and we wanted to set off as early as possible on the first day of the Atlantic crossing, so we were resigned to a single long flight for the day.
We departed Sioux Falls for Rome, NY. The flight involved the first “international” flight I completed in the plane but it almost doesn’t really count—for a brief period we were speaking with Canadian ATC over Lake Erie.
We learned in the morning that hotel rooms had opened up in Goose Bay, so we adjusted our plan and filed for Goose rather than Gander. The flight was beautiful, up the St. Lawrence Seaway, along the coast of Canada, and into the vast green expanse of northern Canada.
The day started with a quick aircraft refueling, update of the weather, and our briefing pack from the organizer. Everything was all set for us to head off for the first intimidating leg of the journey. We were non-HF and non-sat phone, so we ended up getting specific routing, with ICAO position-reporting requirements, and FL250 cruise altitude.
We set off bright and early from Goose Bay with a plan to fly to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, to refuel and then make Reykjavik by the end of the day. We departed heading east and began our climb at those lovely rates the Turbo Commander achieves—2,500-plus fpm. We then settled into a pleasant cruise climb where we were indicating 170 knots and covering a good deal of ground. Everything was humming along as we were sorting out the GPS waypoint we had to enter as our next reporting point. We were assigned a regular waypoint on the way out of Goose Bay—HOIST—and then 5900N/05000W. I was gearing up mentally for that first bit of truly inhospitable overflight, where I knew the engines were going to start making funny noises the same way they did during my first English Channel crossing in my single-engine Diamond DA40, with something approaching 100% of the funny noises being generated from my listening and pretty much 0% coming from the engines.
Upon reaching FL250, we leveled off and BANG! We completely lost pressurization. We popped on oxygen masks, descended, turned back towards Goose Bay, and declared an emergency. When we got to an acceptable altitude for the return to Goose Bay we canceled the emergency and flew along with me wondering WTF was that about.
Thankfully, I was flying with a pilot who also knew more than a little bit about wrenching airplanes. With my highly intuitive investigative techniques (opening the door on the compartment with the environmental systems and noticing that a hose right in front of my nose was no longer connected), we were able to very quickly turn the plane around and depart after a few seconds of work with my Leatherman, and a longer wait for refueling.
We took off on our second attempt at flying Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq (which I found myself completely unable to pronounce, despite many attempts). It was a long couple of hours over the freezing-cold Atlantic, occasionally in and out of IMC, but not terribly eventful. Time moved more slowly than usual.
We were handed over to the local ATC, who kept us for a bit and then handed us over to the local Flight Information Service, who were a bit too laid back. It was IMC on the approach, which is outside of controlled airspace, and they were thoughtful enough to let us know another aircraft was also inbound with a similar ETA. The FISO is clearly in the information business, not in the assistance business, and pretty clearly in the “not my problem” business.
The approach descends you between the mountains east of the runway after overflying it, then takes you out west of the runway and descends you again between mountains, then over a ridge that probably seems closer than it is, and you fly over a fjord that obviously is chilly given the icebergs in it, and onto the runway. We were mostly below the clouds by halfway through the procedure, and it was a spectacular experience.
We probably would have had ample fuel to skip Greenland and continue to Reykjavik, but out of prudence and wanting to check the developing situation with the weather, we landed. We got great, quick fueling service and our info pack, with weather. We were going to be ahead of a front that didn’t look very good.
I let Tom take over the start as we were in a rush to get ahead of the weather and I’m still reading the checklist as a do list. And—what the heck—nothing happens on the right engine start. Within an hour we know that the right starter-generator has given up the ghost and requires replacement. Unfortunately, we are in the middle of nowhere, with something like three flights per week from Reykjavik and Copenhagen, and only a bunch of helicopter flights to other local spots.
So we had five days of unplanned, unwanted, frustrating, but strangely interesting days in Greenland waiting for the replacement starter-generator.
Within 30 minutes of having it in our hands we had the starter-generator installed on the right engine. We were fueled up so we filed, got our bags onboard, and set off for Reykjavik. Our takeoff was on Runway 24, allowing us a scenic cruise up the fjord and up and over the beautiful and empty glacier that permanently covers the country. The fjords and visible mountains quickly gave way to the icy, barren expanses of the snow- covered glacier as we climbed en route.
We had some low-level clouds and needed to do the instrument approach into Reykjavik. I don’t have a ton of flying experience, but it seems like in the U.S., at a reasonably-sized airport there is a low likelihood of shooting the full published approach. But, at these airports, with limited or no radar and mountainous terrain, you are much more likely to actually do what is published. And the approach is going to be a good bit more complicated than just intercepting an ILS on a vector.
We got in pretty late and had to walk about 30 feet from the FBO to the airport hotel, where we had a nice dinner and felt like we had returned to civilization after five days in Greenland.
We set off early in the morning with a plan to fly to Manchester for a quick refueling stop, and then down to Cannes Mandelieu. Due to the local mountains and primarily visual approaches, the airport closes at sunset. If you are late you need to divert, possibly over to Nice, which is quite expensive for overnight parking if they even have the space.
We flew from Reykjavik over the water to Scotland, which looks a bit less interesting from FL250 than it probably does from low-level flying or on the ground, then over Glasgow, and ended up getting slotted into a fairly busy Manchester. On the ground at Manchester we suddenly seemed to be famous as we were surrounded by paparazzi. The truth is we had arrived in the land of plane spotters, and it wasn’t long before the first pictures of my plane in Manchester showed up on the Internet.
When I contacted clearance delivery we learned we had just missed our slot and our flight plan had expired, despite a pretty quick turnaround by the FBO. We had to contact the agent we were using to arrange fuel, a new flight plan, and a weather briefing. In a few minutes our revised flight plan was in the system.
We took off from Manchester into some of that interesting weather you get in the afternoons in the summer in southern France, with some storms and clouds with vertical development. Our IFR routing was incredibly long with a SID, multiple airways, and multiple waypoints—a long cry from what you get in less-crowded parts of U.S. airspace, where the assigned routing seems to be little more than “Direct,” which makes me feel like I’m cheating a little.
We took off and flew the assigned SID and then were pretty quickly given a vector to the UK/France border, where we resumed our assigned routing. On the way south we flew west of London across the countryside were I first learned to fly and did my first solo cross countries. We flew over the little 2,700-foot-long runway at Fairoaks where I completed my UK PPL, at an altitude a good deal higher than I’d ever flown through that area before.
Arriving in Cannes we experienced what sometimes happens at the end of the day, when the onshore breeze begins to shift direction. After initially being assigned the localizer, followed by the instrument approach with visual waypoints, for Runway 17, our clearance was revised to a straight-in to Runway 35. All went well and we happily parked and unloaded all my junk from the plane—computers, a bike, a stand-up paddle…the sort of stuff you carry with you when you fly your own plane and aren’t on British Airways.
The line crew was pretty impressed with just how much luggage (junk) I had. The customs and border guys weren’t accustomed to international turbine arrivals wearing jeans and t-shirts, so were given a bit more of a hard time than the normal just-being-waived-through, which they do for pilots with epaulets. Maybe I need to get some bars on my shoulders?