North Atlantic by light jet

Check this off your bucket list

September 1, 2012

north atlantic by light jet

For many pilots, flying their own airplane across the North Atlantic to Europe may be rivaled on the aviation bucket list only by an around-the-world trip. Having accompanied new light jet owners on their first trip “across the pond,” I’ve seen that the trip lives up to pilots’ high expectations for a new adventure.

The flying itself isn’t typically any more difficult than a long domestic trip. However, the flight planning can be intimidating for a first-time crossing. Consider the thought that goes into planning a coast-to-coast trip in the United States, with concerns such as picking fuel stops based on en-route weather systems, weather at intended fuel stops, and winds and temperature aloft. Now add new challenges: large nonradar environments, long overwater legs lacking diversion options for hundreds of miles, and the difficulty of alternate planning in Greenland, with widely spaced airports lacking precision approaches. What’s more, the efficient online and mobile-device-based flight planners do not work for trips outside North America. Pilots must either use the flight planning services of an international service provider such as Jeppesen, Universal, or ARINC—or master the intricacies of ICAO flight-plan formats, with their associated need for detailed en-route time estimates and know-ledge of acceptable routings.

north atlantic by light jetThe great circle route from the Northeast United States to Western Europe proceeds northeast over southern Newfoundland before leaving land behind for half of its 3,000-nm length. Airliners and longer-range business jets are able to fly more or less direct routings that stay close to the great circle, but light jets with about 1,000 nm of range are forced to accept a longer overall route to keep individual leg lengths acceptable.

From Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, to Le Bourget in Paris on the great circle is 3,138 nm. For a jet that can fly a maximum of 1,100-nm legs, the shortest possible route is about 11 percent longer, at 3,480 nm, and requires four fuel stops—in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom.

Further complicating flight planning, this route involves a stop in Narsarsuaq, Greenland, which can present weather challenges. Narsarsuaq is essentially a VFR-only airport, with the lowest minimums for the NDB/DME approach at 1,500 feet and 3.7 miles. If Narsarsuaq is below minimums, a routing through the next best Greenland fuel stop adds another 10 percent to the total distance. Even this second-choice routing may not be possible should winds aloft be adverse—necessitating a fifth fuel stop, and making alternate planning especially onerous.

The first sign that things are about to be different emerges during the last hour of cruise into CFB Goose Bay Airport, Labrador. Towns and farms disappear, replaced by miles of nearly trackless land. And the flying is as simple as anything in the Lower 48, with normal radar coverage and solid radio coverage—and Goose Bay has two long runways with excellent approaches. After filling up with every drop of fuel that can be put into our tanks, clearance delivery is called for the oceanic clearance on leg one to Greenland.

Leaving Canada for Greenland on one trip, we were filed for FL390, near our ceiling and a fuel-efficient altitude. All our detailed paperwork that shows the location of our equal time points (ETPs) across the water, and how much fuel we’d land with if we lost an engine or depressurized at the worst possible time, is based upon cruising at that altitude. fjord

Imagine our dismay, then, to be told our cleared altitude is being changed to FL230. In turbine-powered airplanes, speeds and fuel flows vary greatly with cruise altitude. Most jets will get about half the range from a gallon of fuel flying in the low 20s as compared to flight at optimal cruise altitude—so this is a distressing development. Unfortunately, the location of longer-range traffic overflying southern Greenland has a big impact on the highest level available for flights that will be descending into Narsarsuaq.

Lateral and vertical separation in the North Atlantic is maintained in the same manner as anywhere else, by adherence to cleared route and altitude. However, in a nonradar environment, the third dimension becomes critical: in-trail separation. This separation is maintained by strict adherence to speed; it’s so important that mandatory cruising Mach is delivered in the clearance along with route and altitude.

If we conduct the flight at FL230 and the filed Mach, which was chosen for flight at FL390, we will land in Greenland with an inadequate fuel reserve. So out come performance charts to find what the best-range Mach is at our new altitude. In the charts—along with the speed and power settings for long-range cruise—is the resulting specific fuel consumption, or how many nautical miles can be flown on a pound of fuel. Comparing the numbers for our Mach and long-range cruise, we will have 30 percent more fuel on landing if we fly at long-range Mach. Fortunately, ATC was able to grant the request for a revised clearance with the slower Mach, and we are able to continue via the planned routing.

Airborne, we soon pass out of radar contact. Adherence to our cleared Mach is now critical to maintain nose-to-tail separation from other aircraft flying our route and level. Without radar coverage, frequent position reports are required for ATC to paint an accurate picture of how in-trail spacing is working.

Unless an equipment failure occurs, most en-route flying in the Lower 48 is performed in constant radar contact. As a result, the idea of a position report seems pretty academic post IFR-training. When not in radar contact, we are compelled to make a position report crossing any compulsory reporting point, or any point specifically requested by ATC. On our trip across the Atlantic, every bend in our routing is a mandatory reporting point.

In conjunction with our position reports to ATC, estimated and actual times crossing waypoints are carefully logged. The work of completing the preliminary flight log is usually performed by a flight planning service, but it’s still up to the crew to complete the in-flight boxes, carefully checking actual fuel burn and time against the projected numbers.

If the airplane’s burning more fuel than planned, halfway across a 700-mile leg isn’t the time to figure it out, so monitoring trends right away can save anxiety later. In fact, the European regulators consider this so critical that flight crews have been violated during ramp checks if they just completed a crossing and cannot produce a flight log with actual times and fuel recorded.

approach into NarsarsuaqAfter about 500 miles overwater, the descent into Narsarsuaq begins, and with it another difference from domestic flight. Most pilots have a hazy understanding of what uncontrolled airspace means, and likely can’t differentiate between controlled and uncontrolled en- route airspace on a chart. In the Lower 48, it’s just not usually a big deal. Outside the domestic radar bliss, however, it is a big deal. Not only is no radar separation provided, no separation at all is provided.

In the case of descending into Narsarsuaq, uncontrolled airspace begins at FL195; below 19,500 feet there is no ATC service other than an advisory voice on the radio providing updates on who else is in the area. Another pilot is free to depart into the clouds you’re descending through, or even shoot the same approach at the same time.

Sadly, the rest of the world hasn’t signed on to the tacit agreement in the United States to never, ever use an NDB again.

Outside of the United States, NDBs are still widely used. Many NDB approaches do not have GPS overlays, so to be legal the NDB itself must be monitored during the approach. “Sure, sure,” pilots say, “but the approaches are all still in the GPS database, so I’ll still shoot it with GPS, wink, wink.” But many of those approaches are either not in the GPS database at all—or if they are, they are incomplete.

A pilot and I discovered this flying into Narsarsuaq a few years ago. The approach begins with a holding pattern course reversal over the NDB, followed by a teardrop course reversal outbound, and then the final segment inbound. Only the final segment was coded into the Garmin G1000’s database. There’s no option for the holding pattern or teardrop to be flown on GPS. So it was back to old-school navigation referencing the NDB. Recent database updates have coded more legs of the approach, but the complete approach is still lacking in the GPS. Narsarsuaq approach chart

After a beautiful approach and landing in Narsarsuaq, our second oceanic leg is ready to begin. While receiving a quick top off, we find a weather summary awaiting us in the small terminal building. Back in the airplane we receive our oceanic clearance from the local advisory service, and depart over stunning fjords and glaciers. While climbing to a more acceptable 30,000-foot cruise altitude to Iceland, we’re thrown another curveball.

Across the ocean, with no ground-based navigational aids to define fixes, latitude and longitude are all there is. So most waypoints in the middle of a route are defined by whole-number (degree only, no minutes) lat/long coordinates. Many GPS systems require you to enter these as user waypoints before departure. As there are no intersections to reference along most routes of flight, all ATC can work with for climb and descent clearances is lat/long.

Some FMS units are able to calculate where a given line of latitude or longitude will cross the active flight plan, and insert a reference point along the route. Other avionic suites lack this feature, requiring from the pilot either mental math or creativity with the GPS.

Within about 200 miles of the Icelandic coast the workload plummets. Radar contact is reestablished, and procedures are the same as anywhere in the United States. The Reykjavik airport features an ILS and several nonprecision approaches, as well as a control tower and a full-service FBO. After quick customs processing, we’re ready for the five-minute taxi ride to downtown Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world.

In fact, after the workload of getting from Canada to Iceland, the remainder of the trip to the final destination in Europe is anticlimactic. Departing Iceland for the United Kingdom, we’re never more than 200 miles from a suitable diversion airport. Flying west along the coast of Iceland, there are several airports of sufficient size. After turning more southerly, first the Faroe Islands, then northern Scotland provide diversion options. Radar coverage and strong radio contact are maintained.

Flight deeper into Europe presents its own surprises, with differences in communication and IFR procedures keeping us on our toes. That said, we relax noticeably on day two, with the most challenging part of the crossing behind us. After a fuel stop at the Glasgow airport, we launch for our final destination in France.

For the return trip, we’ll encounter the same challenges in reverse. Day one is the relatively simple process of positioning to Iceland, while day two will bring the two oceanic legs. Soon we’ll be in radar contact with Canadian ATC, and the biggest challenges of our crossings will be behind us. Back in the familiar North American ATC environment, there’s a palpable weight off our shoulders. Check one off the bucket list!

Neil Singer is a Master CFI and a mentor pilot in Cessna and Embraer jets.

atlantic ocean