Arctic Crossing and Winter: Flying a Cessna 210 from the USA to Europe

Arctic Crossing and Winter: Flying a Cessna 210 from the USA to Europe

The weather in the arctic regions is unlike anywhere else in the world. The winters feature intense freezing precipitation combined with extreme fronts and negative temperatures. The summers are often a mix of good and bad, often with storms popping up when conditions are right for convection. Finding a good weather in February can be hard to do. After all, February is the Arctic’s coldest month. After weeks of waiting for a cold air mass to leave northeastern Canada, I finally found a decent window and decided to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

The job was to take a Cessna 210 to northern Europe. However, this was not just any Cessna 210. This was N210EU, also known as Balou, and she was an internet celebrity. N210EU had completed an around the world flight a few months’ prior. After having the ferry fuel tanks removed, the plane was sold and needed to be moved. This T210 was special though – instead of having the standard TIO-520, it had a Continental IO-550 instead. In preparation for the flight I talked to the person who holds the STC for the engine and he bragged of the performance – and the plane itself did not disappoint. With fuel flows lean of peak less than 12gph and rich of peak around 14gph between 155-165 knots, this plane was well equipped for the journey ahead. The plane also featured a nearly all glass panel, autopilot, but the one downside is that it was not equipped with any engine pre-heat system at all. Along on the adventure was Marcus, one of my most experienced ferry pilots who expressed interest in getting some ocean crossing experience for future ferry flights. It was an adventure that neither of us could have predicted.

I prepared for weeks leading up to the flight, shipping many boxes to Tulsa with survival gear and equipment needed for the crossing. The broker, Michael Rourke of Dan Howard Aircraft Sales, couldn’t believe how much gear we had. I then showed him piece by piece of how every item has a purpose. After arriving in Tulsa to pick up the airplane, I completed a test flight of the airplane and found a few minor issues that the mechanics worked tirelessly on nearly all night to fix in preparation for the next day. The boots were fixed as they were a necessary part of the equation as icing conditions are very common in February. The early Cessna T210s were certified for flight into known icing conditions, but I will note that the T210’s icing protection equipment is not nearly as good as those systems of modern aircraft. However, the equipment being operative was important in case icing conditions were to be encountered.

The next morning Marcus and I began our journey to our first stop – Milwaukee. A line of storms delayed our departure until the afternoon and we headed to Milwaukee. On the way, I experimented with different altitudes for performance. I often keep a very detailed journal of exact performance obtained prior to any water legs to get a good understanding of how the plane performs. We donned our oxygen and climbed to 13,000ft. On the back side of the front there were some non-convective cumulonimbus clouds, which at certain temperature ranges are ripe for icing since they generally have a high liquid water content. Although no ice was forecast, before we knew it, ice started accumulating on the airplane. At first it was very light, but then started picking up when getting deeper into the cumuliform clouds. I waited until about an inch of ice accumulation, and then blew the boots for the first time. My heart sunk as I looked over to the wings and saw that the ice was bridging along the left wing, but the right wing had shed all the ice. Further attempt to shed the icing were unsuccessful although the prop and windshield de-ice worked well. I then attempted a climb to get out of it, but the plane wouldn’t climb with the ever-increasing load of ice. The freezing level was at about 8,000ft, after requesting a descent and leveling off at 8000ft, the warm rain took the ice off very quickly. It was relieving to see the airplane start picking up speed again and continuing forging on to our journey north.

Due to the front passing, we had some horizontal wind shifts for about the last hour of the trip up. Winds were rapidly shifting every few seconds from the northwest to the northeast, and the autopilot couldn’t keep up. It was constantly changing heading to keep our course, probably changing heading about once every 10 seconds. Although the wind wasn’t that strong, it did provide a few bumps and constant babysitting. The weather was much nicer in Milwaukee, and I performed a visual approach to landing. We were able to sweet talk the smaller FBO into a hangar for the night so that we could avoid pre-heat the next day, and had a warm bowl of tomato bisque at the local Hilton Garden Inn for dinner, which is one of my favorite dishes in the world. I always said that I always had my “last supper” of the Tomato Bisque at that same Hilton Garden Inn before each crossing. I have developed my own tradition and weird rituals over the years from ferry flying.

The next morning started early. The weather getting up to Iqaluit is more tough than the journey across water. The Hudson Bay is much like the great lakes, wreaking havoc on Quebec and anywhere around it. Although it’s a salt water bay, it still freezes over for most of the winter. In fact, polar bears live on the ice in the winter and walk from iceberg to iceberg in search of food. Our first planned stop in Canada was Sault St Marie to clear customs. Due to the route taking us directly across Lake Michigan, Marcus and I donned our Stearns Immersion suits in the event that we had issues over the water. In the winter, the water is so cold even in the Great Lakes that you have very few breaths without a suit, and the suit provides some protection as well as flotation in the event that you would have to ditch. It buys you time to get into the raft, so as a personal rule anytime I’m outside of gliding distance of land I will wear the suit unless the water is very warm such as in the Caribbean, at which time I’ll wear a life vest. As we came into Sault St Marie, the winds started picking up and the snow started blowing. On final, winds were calling for up to 40 knots. Blizzards were everywhere in Quebec. We did a localizer followed by a circling approach, and I landed with a very stiff crosswind before the snow arrived. After landing and clearing customs, we got fuel and were on our way again.

Our next stop was about 4 hours flying time away to La Grande Riviere, Quebec. The further north you go, the harder it is to find avgas, especially in the winter. La Grande very well may be the farthest airport north that offers avgas out of a pump and not a barrel. Part of my gear included a mobile hand crank fuel pump that would allow me to pump fuel out of a drum of avgas. Luckily, I did not need to use it this trip. La Grande Riviere is on the southeast side of the Hudson Bay, and a blizzard was coming. You could almost think of La Grande as the Canadian equivalent of Buffalo, New York. It gets lake effect snow and blizzards with temperatures colder than Buffalo. The winter also lasts nearly all year. The weather was not expected to arrive until 1 hour after we landed, and a review of satellite imagery and wind charts confirmed what was predicted. I even messaged one of my experienced oceanic ferry pilot mentors, who gladly took a second look at the weather. It’s always good to lean on those who have more experience, and no matter how many times you cross the ocean, you realize how that region is not meant for small planes. I often tell people that ferrying is hardly about stick and rudder skills – it’s all about judgement and planning. A North Atlantic crossing in a limited range airplane is the ultimate test of all of your training, judgement, and planning.

The weather was fairly docile on the way up to La Grande. The visibility was holding steady with high ceilings. When we started onto the first fix of the RNAV approach, flight service notified us that visibility dropped to 2 miles. Not a big deal, we had plenty of visibility for the WAAS approach. As we continued past the final approach fix, we were notified that the weather had arrived and they visibility was dropping rapidly to below a mile. The facility was on the east side of the airport and we were approaching from the west while the snow storm was blowing our direction. We likely wouldn’t have made it in from the opposite direction, but right at minimums we saw the approach lights and continued for a safe landing. The snow had just started so they hadn’t had a chance to plow the runway. I landed on a snow-covered runway and taxied in the snow over to the fuel pumps. We were the last plane to land for the next 24 hours as the visibility stayed below minimums for all future flights over the next day. Although the weather in Iqaluit was decent, we decided to spend the night in La Grande. I also didn’t trust the boots, and it became a priority to avoid icing.

The next difficult task was moving the plane. In the time it took to get fuel and make a weather decision, the engine had cooled off too much and wouldn’t start in the frigid February cold. We then attempted to push the plane about 200 feet back to the parking but we were slipping and falling in the snow trying to push it. After seeking assistance in a local hangar, some very nice men helped us move the plane by creating a makeshift tug and using a truck to move the airplane. This far north, piston airplanes are far and few between so nobody has equipment to handle small planes. We parked it facing into the predicted wind direction the wind was predicted to shift in the night. There was one taxi in town – driven by a large, gentle Canadian Frenchman whose English was not very great. He cracked jokes the entire way into town. Marcus kept laughing, so I just assumed he was understanding the jokes better than I was. He was driving quite fast on the snow-covered roads. Somehow, I still felt more comfortable with the taxi’s driving on the snow because I thought he might not know what to do if there wasn’t snow!

There was only one restaurant in town and it was connected to the motel. I had a nice bowl of French Onion Soup with Marcus and we had a very nice, authentic French dinner. Most of our clothes had gotten wet from being out in the snow for so long, so we laid them out to dry for the night. After debriefing, planning, and preparing for the next day, we went to sleep to be rested for the next adventure.

The next morning started with an early breakfast at the French diner. Our trusty cab driver took us back to the airport. The next order of business was pre-heating the engine. Some mechanics from a local operator brought out a large portable heater and we had to remove the cowling in the high wind and frigid cold in order to get the heat to all the cylinders. The engine had accumulated ice inside, with icicles hanging from the cylinders. It took about 30 minutes to preheat. Marcus held a tarp on the other side of the engine to protect it from more snow while I held a heater into the engine. After getting it warm, we were able to crank it up. We had spent almost 2 hours getting the plane heated and ready in the snow and we knew that if we shut down that we might not get it started again. The snow continued to blow, and after a careful, tactile inspection we determined there were no frozen contaminants and took off for Iqaluit.

As we were coming into Iqaluit, the Aspen PFD suddenly went blank of all information and a message to check pitot heat was displayed. We did have the pitot heat on as we were descending through cold arctic stratiform clouds but could see the ground. Luckily, the weather was good VFR with overcast skies at around 8,000ft in Iqaluit and I continued on a visual approach with no airspeed into the airport. Upon doing some research, it turns out this exact same problem happened to the around the world flight and was captured on video. Ironically, it happened at right about the same point. We did get it inspected and nothing was found to be wrong with the pitot tube or pitot heat system, and we didn’t have a problem with it again.

After landing, I started to taxi over to the fuel farm, which was where the fueler would attach a portable fuel pump to a barrel of avgas and plug it into the 12v adapter of the truck and fuel the plane. In Iqaluit, you have to buy the entire barrel of gas whether or not you use it. On the taxi over, I felt grinding in the nose wheel and thought for a second that a tow bar might be connected although I knew it was impossible because we just flew for 4 hours with the gear up. After shutting down, we saw the problem. It appeared that the bearings failed for the nose wheel and the bearings were grinding on the spacers. Iqaluit is not the place to have issues or get stuck. It’s only slightly better from Greenland because in winter, all flights to Greenland go through Denmark. The operations at the airport are not prepared for small planes, and there isn’t a Cessna part or tug within thousands of miles. After troubleshooting, we determined the best course of action was to have parts shipped up from Cessna in Kansas. Overnight shipping is about 3 days at the earliest if the weather is good enough to get flights into those regions. After talking to the customer, we decided to wait it out until parts arrived. However, our window of good weather for the ocean legs was closing off but it was worth a shot at waiting.

Everything in Iqaluit is expensive. The city runs off of generators and satellites for communication. At one point, I wanted to download the new GPS database for the GTN 650 and it took all night to download 7 MB. At the time, the region was also experiencing solar flares causing periodic communication outages. Even a fast food meal was $50. The town was very small but also very interesting, rich in culture. Everywhere we went, we saw parking lots with rows of plugs for customers to plug their cars in as the engines might not start after being shut down. Some people would leave their cars running all day and night as another alternative. It gets incredibly cold in this region, unlike what anyone could possibly fathom who lives south of the arctic circle. This was truly the edge of the earth, with only small Inuit villages and military bases existing further north.

Marcus and I decided to make the best of our situation. We explored the town and even booked a dog sledding tour. Dog sledding is a large part of the Inuit culture. Upon walking over to the dog team, you could hear huskies howling for miles in excitement to go running. In these regions, the dogs were purebred Canadian huskies who are more than well equipped for the cold. Their fur was often 6-8 inches thick and these dogs live for the most part in the snow. In fact, being above 0 in Fahrenheit this particular day, these dogs were overheating on the run and were trying to cool themselves off with snow along the way. Dog sledding was an incredible adventure, and we went where there were not trails out into the arctic for a true Inuit experience.

When the parts arrived, we got right to work. We pulled the plane over with a truck and had 2 mechanics hold down on the tail while we removed the tire and then rested the fork on a block of wood out in the cold, windy snow. Upon disassembly, the problem became immediately apparent. The nose wheel was missing the axle completely, and somehow we made it 2000 miles into the arctic circle without issues. In the Cessna 210 nose fork assembly, the axle normally goes in the middle through the bearings. 2 spacers are attached from the fork to keep the tire in the center, followed by caps on the ends. It is very possible to have the spacers ride on the bearings and there would be no way to see that there wasn’t an axle. The mechanic in Oklahoma found the axle in his hangar, and we were all grateful that we found it on the ground and didn’t have a bigger issue along the way. After all, there was really nothing holding the wheel on other than pressure from the spacers. We re-assembled the nose wheel assembly and were on our way the next morning.

The next morning involved another painstaking pre-heat and de-ice in the cold. We had ice all over the plane and used the heating vent to try and melt parts of it off the wings and all over the control surfaces. Putting it in the hangar for the night would have cost $1500, so we braved the cold instead. After getting the plane ready, we got our oceanic clearance and headed over to Kangerlussuaq. This time of year, the ocean between Iqaluit and Greenland was almost completely frozen, with ice shelfs miles long below us on the way over. Kangerlussuaq features some of the best weather in all of Greenland and was specially built by the US military so that planes could be ferried to Europe in WW2. In fact, in Kangerlussuaq there is still an old US military hangar with the old WW2 logo that you can often see on vintage warbirds.

After fueling up in Kangerlussuaq, we launch to Iceland. We would be flying about 300 miles over the Icecap and then another 400 over the water to Iceland. From Iqaluit, we move forward 5 time zones, so no matter how early you start from Canada, you end up getting into Iceland quite late. The weather was amazing and there was just about no clouds in the sky on the way over, so we pushed late into the night and arrived just before 11pm in Iceland. There was a full moon which prevented us from seeing the northern lights but we could see the ocean and island in great deal. The arctic moon is very bright and really lights up the sky.

After arriving safely in Iceland, we checked to weather only to see our suspicions confirmed: bad weather. An occluded front and storm system had developed in between Iceland and Scotland, with prognostic charts calling for moderate icing up to 15,000ft along a good section of our route. Considering the plane was not turbocharged, we couldn’t safely climb above the front. After waiting an additional few days for weather, the decision was made to come back 2 weeks later to complete the trip. The FBO in Keflavik, South Air, only charged us around $1-2/per night for leaving the plane on the ramp, which was a great deal in the interest of safety and cost.

About 2 weeks later, I returned solo to pick up the plane. Although the forecast had been rapidly changing up to that point, the morning I launched featured some of the best weather I had ever seen from Iceland to Scotland. In fact, it was nearly clear skies for most of the way and I actually saw the ocean for a good majority of the flight, which is especially rare in winter. After a visual approach into Wick, Scotland, I fueled up at Far North Aviation and launched to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was a very uneventful flight over, and I once again got to experience clear skies over the English Channel. You could see the windmill farms off the coast of Britain and the offshore oil drilling platforms. The ships were lined up waiting their turn for the ports in the U.K., and dusk began to take over northern Europe as I descended into Rotterdam. Although I started the approach, I ended up making it in visually. The customer was excited to have his plane and everything ended up working out.

Ferrying piston planes across the ocean in the wintertime is a different beast. It’s challenging but also incredibly rewarding. As an oceanic ferry pilot, I have experienced some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, in places most people will never see. I have met some of the nicest people along the way. Something about remoteness and harsh conditions brings people together, and I’ve learned an incredible amount about people, history, and aviation. However, crossing in the winter is a lot of work and I’ve decided to stick to summer crossings in piston aircraft going forward. It’s was the journey of a lifetime, and the memories will last forever.

Sarah Rovner holds an ATP certificate with B-767, B-757, B-737 and CL-65 type ratings and is currently an FAA Safety Team Lead Representative, Master Instructor, and pilot for a major U.S. Airline. Since changing careers after years as a senior network engineer for the oil and gas industry, Sarah obtained her ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI and has flown about 5000 hours. As the owner and chief pilot of an international ferry pilot company, FullThrottle Aviation LLC, Sarah has flown over 117 different types of general aviation airplanes in 15 different countries, including oceanic crossings in small aircraft. She continues to stay involved in general aviation through mentoring and education; volunteering at many different events and presenting original seminars on aviation safety and human factors. Although much of her flying is now professional in nature, she still enjoys flying her Super Cub on her days off.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s