When it comes to covering brand-new airplanes, most aviation writers have a limited amount of time to become familiar in the left seat. Usually, the airplane flown for a pilot report is a tightly-booked demonstrator that the manufacturer has already sold to a customer, then leased back. So when a chance to log a 12-hour international delivery flight pops up, it's a rare privilege indeed. Nicolas Chabbert, vice-president of sales and marketing for EADS/Socata Aircraft, graciously offered such a ride and on March 11, 2007, our trip began. Our two-day mission was to fly a brand-new TBM 850 — N893CA, serial number 393 — from the factory in Tarbes, France to Canada. Eventually, the airplane made its way to its new owner in the United States.
Our route from the factory would be one used by many general aviation pilots crossing the North Atlantic, and involved stops at the Prestwick, Scotland; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Narsarsuaq, Greenland, airports before landing in Canada at the Goose Bay-Happy Valley Airport in Labrador. But our trip in the TBM 850 would take just 12.1 hours from start to finish — supersonic speed compared to some 35-hour, four-day-long marathons I've done in piston singles. So a crossing in a turboprop is quite a luxury. The longest leg would be just 3.4 hours (compared to some of the nine- to 13-hour legs I've done in lesser airplanes), the airplane is fitted with flight-into-known-icing equipment, weather radar, a dual-Garmin GPS installation (two GNS 530s), a Honeywell/Bendix-King EADI and EHSI combination, plus Bendix-King's KFC 325 digital autopilot/flight control system. This airplane also has Garmin's new GMX 200 high-resolution multifunction display, complete with navigation, terrain, radar, Stormscope, and traffic displays. The GMX 200's screen-update rate is much faster than its predecessor's (the MX 20). Though this airplane didn't have it activated at the time we flew it, TBM 850s are delivered to customers with a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS), Jeppesen's Chartview, XM radio, and most opt for XM WX's datalink weather.
Plus, we'd be high and fast on this trip. Our cruising altitudes — 28,000 feet at first, then 26,000 feet — put us above the clouds and out of the ice. Of course, at those altitudes you're subject to some inspiring tailwinds (our fastest groundspeed was 395 knots) and some depressing headwind components (118 knots at their worst, producing 178-knot groundspeeds). But with 310-to 320-knot true airspeeds and 281 gallons of Jet A aboard, it didn't matter. We never landed with less than 95 gallons left in the tanks.
The TBM 850's systems and procedures are fairly straightforward, and have some clever features. Like the automatic fuel-tank selector. One the ground, the fuel selector automatically switches from one wing tank to the other every minute; in flight, it's every 10 minutes. This helps automatically balance the fuel's weight.
As for the engine (the main improvement over the airplane's predecessor — the 700-hp TBM 700) its torque management deserves some special emphasis. The TBM 850's Pratt&Whitney PT6A-66D engine is capable, thermodynamically speaking, of putting out 1,825 horsepower. But it's been flat-rated to 850-shp (shaft horsepower, the power measured at the propeller shaft), which gives it bigger margins against engine temperature limits, more power at higher altitudes, and higher cruise speeds and climb rates.
But the full 850-shp is only for use at altitude. For takeoff and landing, the TBM 850 uses a torque limiting system that keeps power output to no more than 700-shp (like the TBM 700). After takeoff, you can disable the torque-limiting system by moving the flap switch forward, to the "850" position. Now you are the torque limiter, and you have to keep an eye on the torque gauge when moving the power lever forward. The new, maximum torque limit is 121.4 percent, but you have to consult a table for the correct torque limits as you climb. The table plots torque limits against altitude and outside air temperature. Torque limits drop with altitude, so simply ramming the power lever forward to the top of the torque gauge's green arc won't do. That could over-torque the engine and propeller gearbox, so you have to keep that table in hand as you climb to altitude, and set cruise power.
Chabbert and I met up with N893CA in front of Socata's flight department at the Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees Airport (LFBT), then we obtained weather information and filed a flight plan for the first leg — to Prestwick, Scotland (EGPK). It was clear at Tarbes, no significant weather was forecast along the route, and Prestwick — on the fringes of an oncoming warm front — was forecasting layered clouds (few 500, scattered 1,200, broken 2,200), rain and drizzle for our arrival.
Everything about the airplane said new. The smell of new paint, the fresh grease on the trim tab actuators, the pristine propeller, the plastic sheets protecting the leather interior — and the grand total of two hours on the Hobbs meter. After running all the checks, we taxied to the active and launched. For takeoff, the drill is to advance power to 95 percent torque, then accelerate down the runway; the acceleration soon brings torque up to 100 percent. Rotation speed is 85 knots, which comes quickly, and while best rate of climb is 122 knots, Socata says to use 140 to 150 knots as an en route climb speed. We switched to 850-shp leaving 2,000 feet agl, then slowly advanced power to the recommended torque value.
Initial rates of climb were in the 2,300-fpm range, and on our way to our cruise altitude of 28,000 feet, the climb rate didn't drop much. Passing through 23,000 feet, the climb rate was 1,900 fpm, using 114 percent torque; through 26,000 feet, 1,500 fpm at 109 percent torque. A TBM 700 climbing through 23,000 feet, I was told, would only do 1,400 fpm climbing at 130 knots, so the 850 delivers a better climb rate at faster climb speeds.
For max cruise power at 28,000 feet, we used 111 percent torque, based on our -38-degree Celsius indicated outside air temperature (IOAT). The result was a 200 KIAS and 317 KTAS. The Shadin engine trend monitor showed 0.52 Mach and a fuel flow of 60 gph. Not bad at all — near-VLJ speeds at a single-engine fuel burn. The engine's interturbine temperature was 785 degrees C, well below the 840-degree redline.
Our route took us past the Cognac VOR, a multitude of intersections, then the U.K's Berry Head VOR, more intersections, and finally vectors to Prestwick's Turnberry 1D arrival to the ILS to Runway 13. The low clouds (2,800 scattered; 3,600 broken) and rain weren't a problem, but there was some wind shear on short final and a nice crosswind, so my arrival was a bit graceless. Time en route: three hours even.
At Prestwick — a favorite GA jumping-off point for westbound trans-Atlantic flights — we filed for Reykjavik and donned our survival suits. Chabbert lucked out and got one that fit him, the kind that are more tailored to the human form. I got — again! — one of those floppy, orange neoprene suites. I call them "Gumby suits" because they make you look like the cartoon character. To get into them, you have to take off your shoes.
Unless you like to really sweat, you don't put the Gumby suit on all the way when you fly. Instead, you pull on the pants portion up to your waist, then tuck the top half of the suit under your legs or behind your back. You can take the suit's empty arms and fold them across your chest. If you have to ditch — unlikely in a turbine-powered airplane — hopefully you have enough time to work your arms, torso, and head into the suit on the way down. With the two of us aboard, we can speed this process by helping each other into the suits.
We left gloomy Prestwick on a flight plan that would send us to the Glasgow VOR, then over to the Stornoway VOR on the Outer Hebrides' Isle of Lewis. After that, it was blue water to the Barku (60 deg 36' 18" N, 9 deg 24' 36" W) and Ratsu (61 N 10 W) intersections, then direct Reykjavik (BIRK). In all, it's a leg of some 790 nm.
There's something about leaving dry land that focuses the mind. You start to pay much more attention to the gauges, the terrain you're leaving, the sea surface, and the sky. Much of France and England looks the same, with their cities, highways, and farms, for example. But the Hebrides seem like barren rocks, deeply etched with fjords. Now you know you're up-latitude.
And even though we were at 28,000 feet and zipping along at a 335-knot groundspeed, your attention never strays far from the ocean. It can be unsettling, if you go beyond first impressions. Those breaking waves down there aren't as small and amusing as they seem. They're 20- or 30-footers, crashing down as far as the eye can see. And the water is numbingly cold. Even with the survival suits, our raft, and our emergency provisions, you wonder if anyone could withstand the consequences of a couple of those waves.
We pass a line of small buildups well below our altitude, realizing that this is the last of the warm front heading for Scotland. Sure enough, the ship's radar paints a couple of contouring cells, and the Stormscope plots some lightning discharges. Unfortunately, when this front passes it'll probably also spell the end of our tailwind components.
During the descent into Icelandic airspace and passing through 8,000 feet, we pick up some airframe ice, which the boots, working on a one-minute cycle time, dispatch quickly. Meanwhile, the weather is holding up pretty well at Reykjavik. The ATIS calls it few 1,600 scattered 2,500, broken 3,200, with light winds and good visibility. We're vectored (a 90-degree intercept, I might add — the second one of the day) onto the ILS for Runway 20, and my landing is acceptable this time. The recommended airspeed for short final with full flaps is 85 knots, which may seem too slow for an airplane with a maximum takeoff weight of 7,394 pounds. But the huge flaps keep stall- and approach speeds low, and as a result all the airplane's target speeds in the traffic pattern are almost identical to those, say, of a Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza.
Reykjavik is an interesting, and historic, airport, situated near the middle of this capital city of Iceland. It's served by commuter airline flights and some other, longer-range airline routes, but it's also very busy with general aviation flights. In the summer months, you'll see many single-engine ferry flights go through BIRK. The neat thing about this airport is that there's a hotel — The Loftleidir — right next to the ramp. Get the right room, and you can look out on your airplane — and the bay just beyond (see "Beyond BIRK").
The next day is a long one, with legs to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, and Goose Bay and Montreal, Canada. And the comparatively good weather is no more. Our weather briefing shows strong headwinds between Iceland and Greenland, and especially strong ones (95 to 120 knots) between Greenland and the Canadian coast. On top of that, we don't have an idea of the surface weather at Narsarsuaq, our first intended destination.
At 0700 Z (also the local time at BIRK) there are no Metars from Narsarsuaq, aka BGBW. That's its ICAO identifier, and it's a reference to the airport's World War II days as a ferry stop along the route to England. Back then, the Army Air Corps called it "Bluie West One," hence the BW. There were other Bluie Wests along the coasts of Greenland. I think the identifiers went all the way up to Bluie West 8.
The BGBW Metars won't start arriving until the first tower controller does, and that won't be for another hour. BGBW's TAF mentions temporary weather of 4,000 meters visibility in light snow with a broken ceiling at 2,200 feet from 1000 to 1900Z — the time of our anticipated arrival. But we have no way to gauge the forecast trend by the current weather. Possible alternates include Nuuk (another "Bluie West" airport), some 250 nm north of BGBW, but its visibility at 0650Z was 2,500 meters in snow and a vertical visibility of 900 feet. The TAF said it would stay that way.
Finally, an hour later, BGBW's Metar arrives: 0703KT 9999 BKN64 M07/M10. Confident that the weather had at least a chance of being as good as forecast, we take off for Narsarsuaq. En route, cruising at 26,000 feet, the winds aloft are as predicted — about 30 knots on the nose. If BGBW's weather were to fall apart, we'd easily be able to turn around and wait it out at Reykjavik.
Our route takes us over the Embla intersection, then 63 N 30W, followed by 62N 40W, then on to BGBW. As we fly, we talk to Iceland radio, then Gander radio, and make our position reports. Up this high, we have no line-of-sight problems with transmitting and receiving over VHF frequencies, so there's no need for an HF radio, with its quirky reception and atmospheric interference.
One thing you end up doing on ocean crossings is making notes. I'm jotting away, taking down fuel burn and performance numbers, and Chabbert keeps busy tracking the engine's condition at various intervals — ITTs, torques, OATs, and so on. "It's good. It's a cool engine," he says, referring to the 785-degree ITTs.
Near Greenland's east coast we're cleared by Gander radio to leave controlled airspace below FL195 for our descent into BGBW. Now it's time to listen to BGBW's aerodrome flight information service (AFIS) on 119.1 for the word on the weather. The word is not reassuring. Earlier, Iceland radio told us that the 0937Z weather at BGBW was 4,700 broken, with visibility better than 10 kilometers. Now, the 1050Z Metar reports the same visibility, but with the sky at 3,000 broken, with snow showers in the vicinity. The ceiling is coming down.
By the time we're cleared for the NDB-DME Runway 7 approach, the clouds and visibility are lower yet: 2,100 overcast, and visibility three kilometers in light snow showers. The minimums for the approach are 1,800 feet and 6,000 meters (three nautical miles), so the pressure is on. This is Chabbert's leg, and that's fine with me. He has 1,400 hours in TBM 700s and 850s, and knows them like the back of his hand.
It's worth mentioning that BGBW, like Nuuk and many other coastal airports in Greenland, is at the head of a fjord, and the feet of a glacier. It's down in a bowl of sorts, ringed by mountainous terrain as high as 5,700 feet just seven nm from the runway. It can be a cruel place, and many have crashed here. Our approach has us tracking the 265-degree bearing from the Narsarsuaq NDB, then turning left at 8 DME to intercept the 073-degree bearing inbound to the runway. During that turn, we mustn't go lower than 3,600 feet; the rocks are just below us. Then it's a series of stepdown fixes at 9, 8, 5, then 4 DME, where the MDA is 1,800 feet.
It's a tense approach — one you can see online via video above and after passing 5 DME inbound, we know that the ceiling is lower than 2,100 feet. At 2,000 feet I get ground contact, but it's snowing fairly heavily, and forward visibility is impaired by clouds and snow. Finally, at 4 DME — the missed approach point! — we see the runway and land.
While we plan the next leg, a look out the tower windows shows the weather dropping fast. The snow has picked up, the clouds are now at 500 feet, visibility is now 2 nm, and the snow is sticking to the tarmac. By the time we leave the building, it's an inch deep.
"The airport is closed," says the controller. "But we'll let you leave." We blast off, go into a 2,500-fpm climb, and pop out on top at 8,000 feet into clear blue skies. With the TBM 850, obstacle clearance is seldom a problem — even here.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We flew at 26,000 feet from BGBW to 59N 50W, then to the Loach intersection off the Labrador coast, and finally to Goose Bay (CYYR) to land and clear customs. Yes, headwind components at altitude were 118 knots, putting our groundspeeds down as low as 178 knots. We must have been flying in a jet stream's core of strongest winds. The leg was 716 nm, and our flight time was 3.4 hours — the longest leg of the trip.
The skies seemed to part for the last leg. It was good VFR weather from Goose Bay to Montreal's St. Hubert Airport (CYHU), our final leg that took just 3.1 hours to cross all of Labrador and Quebec. Chabbert needed to go to Longueil, Quebec for talks at Pratt & Whitney Canada's headquarters. As for me, I airlined it home and began writing these words.
Many thanks to Nicolas for the chance to greatly increase my familiarity with such a great airplane. The TBM 850 is a roaring success, and it's easy to see why. It's the ultimate personal turboprop, with a huge standard equipment list, RVSM and other options, and the ability to fly near VLJ speeds carrying full-fuel payloads of 845 pounds as far as 1,100 nm. In 2008, Chabbert said production may well be upped to 60 to 65 airplanes.
As with a handful of other enduring favorites, Socata designer Denis Le-Grand seems to have gotten the concept just right when he began work on the TBM, way back in December 1986.
Sidebar page 31
Most general aviation pilots crossing the North Atlantic think of Iceland as just a fuel stop and an overnight stay. But Reykjavik and the rest of Iceland have other attractions worth checking out. For example, pilots are fond of staying at the Icelandair Hotel Loftleidir because it adjoins the Reykjavik Airport (BIRK). From the Loftleidir, it's just a few paces to the FBO (Flight Services Ltd.) and your airplane's tiedown on the ramp. But a short distance away, in downtown Reykjavik, are several upscale hotels worth checking out. One, the Hotel Holt features an art gallery and a fine restaurant. The Holt is more upscale than the comparatively Spartan Loftleidir, but don't be surprised by the bath water. All of Iceland gets its water from wells that teem with sulfur from the local geology. Iceland is, after all, a volcanic island, and this is one of the side effects. So is geothermal heat. The Loftleidir uses treated, non-sulfur-bearing water.
I've also heard good things about the Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel, which is also in downtown Reykjavik. By the way, Reykjavik will be a surprise for those who have never ventured there. It's a cosmopolitan city of 180,000 with abundant nightlife, art museums, walking and cycling paths, and some of the best seafood restaurants in the world.
But it's Iceland's unique terrain — fjords, volcanic mountains, and glaciers — that are the real stars of the nation's tourist attractions. A trip to Thingvellir gives you a look at the site where Iceland's parliament was established in 930 A.D. Volcanos (hopefully dormant) include Hekla and Snaeffellsjokull, and there are spectacular cliffs and glacial lakes to draw those of you with an interest in geology. If it's active, a visit to Geysir will give you a look at a geyser (now you know where the word originated) that sends boiling water 200 feet into the air. Visiting these sites are most rewarding in the warmer months, of course. Otherwise you face some icy driving conditions along narrow roads (without guard rails) clinging to steep ridges that plunge into vast lakes (hello, Peter). If you rent a car in winter, make sure its tires have studs.
Another must-see is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa on the Reykjanes peninsula that's about a half-hour from Reykjavik. The peninsula is also where Iceland's air-carrier airport — Keflavik (BIKF) — is located. The lagoon is huge, and the chest-deep water so warm that mid-winter soaks are comfortable even if its snowing. The lagoon is loaded with blue-green algae, salts, and silica muds that are good for the skin and a real adventure for the senses. There are also caves ringing the lagoon; go inside for a steam bath.
Horseback riding is also a feature of Iceland tourism, as is hiking, golfing, river rafting and sea kayaking. So is the ubiquitous retailing of Icelandic sweaters, made from the wool of native sheep. For more information about Iceland's many attractions visit the Web site.
So Iceland is a whole lot more than a gas-and-go. It's a great blend of history, culture, and geography. Explore once and you're likely to keep returning. Better do it before everybody else "discovers" this gem, and loads the island with ever-growing hordes of tourists. — TAH
E-mail the author at [email protected].