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To Dublin

posted Apr 17, 2011, 2:48 PM by George Finlay   [ updated May 27, 2011, 4:02 PM by Nathaniel Cauldwell ]

Beginning May 25 and ending May 31, 1999, I transported a lovely old green and white Cessna 180 K, N180BB, with a big Continental O-520 engine from Hayward Air Terminal near Oakland California to Dublin, Ireland. Enjoyed it immensely, and managed to avoid ground looping. There are said to be two kinds of taildragger pilots: those who have ground looped, and those who will. I am pleased to still be in the second category.

The last leg, twelve hours over the desolate and unforgiving north Atlantic, was the most memorable. I got a wake up call at 0400Z, 0130 local time for a 0230 briefing by the FSS at St. John’s, Newfoundland. For my crossing, they had arranged a nearly perfect day, with strong tailwinds and practically no significant clouds. The only flaw in the weather was a disturbance passing north of the field that was kicking up rather frisky breezes. I took off in the dark on Runway 20, with the wind at 260 degrees and 20 knots gusting to 30. Runway 29 would have been some help, but it is closed this summer for resurfacing. On the other hand, if I had to deal with a 20 knot crosswind in a taildragger, I would rather have it on the right. I got off ok, even at 25% over gross, and climbed into the arms of a lovely southwest breeze that carried me and my little craft safely all the way to Ireland.

I had ground speeds around 150 knots in the climb out of St. Johns, with the cold front bearing down on the airport and compressing the distance between the isobars. The crew at the FSS had given me the very thorough briefing typical of the Canadian weather service. I took their advice and flew southeast a little while down at 7000 feet until clear of the broken cloud layers circulating around the low, then turned east and climbed to 10,000 feet on course in smooth air. It wasn’t long before the stratocumulus layer ahead was lit up pink by the sunrise. That is a beautiful and heartwarming sight. I suppose one feels that if the sun still rises, then things are likely to go well. This is a line of thought that is not likely to occur to the average person, rising from their familiar bed to begin their familiar routine. It is more likely to occur to a pilot setting out alone over the ocean, acutely aware that he is entrusting his life to a mechanical device and to the whims of nature.

As the day brightened I saw that the stratocumulus layer below was nearly 100 percent overcast, with only occasional breaks through which glimpses of a forbidding gray ocean were briefly visible. Overhead a thin wispy cirrus layer gradually gave way to clear skies. For the first half of the trip, the ground speed rarely dropped below 160 knots, and the undercast gradually broke up to a scattered layer by 35 degrees west longitude.

My clearance was 48N50W, 50N40W, 51N30W, 52N20W, 52N15W, DOLIP, and then direct to Shannon (EINN), which is 52N08W. I had filed Dublin (EIDW) as an alternate, planning to go on if fuel was not a problem once I got near Shannon. I plugged EINN into the GPS, hit direct, and used that great circle for guidance, not about to zig and zag over the Atlantic to make precise waypoints prescribed by some clerk at Shanwick. As it turned out the waypoints were very close to the great circle.

A transatlantic flight quickly leaves both radar and VHF radio range. This is why HF radios, with their theoretically longer range, are a requirement, along with position reports. The HF radio which tested out ok on the leg from Bangor to St. Johns, turned out to have a very limited range. I was assigned the primary frequency of 5618 with backup 2899. For the first hundred miles of the trip, I could hear fairly clear conversations on 5618. Not understandable, of course, since the temporary installation straps it to the top of the ferry tank behind me with no connection to the audio panel. By the time I needed it for a position report at 50N40W, the frequency had fallen silent, and there was no response from Gander Radio.

The solution was to request relays from airline crews overhead on the air-to-air frequency, 131.8. The conversations often led to other topics like what kind of a Cessna was I, how much fuel did I have on board, what was the ride like way down there, how much did they pay me to do this, etc. But the initial conversation always went something like this:

Me: Any aircraft on 131.8, Cessna N180BB, relay request.
Them: N180BB, Air Canada 869, go ahead with your request.
Me: N180BB POSITION 49N46W 0730Z FL100 ESTIMATING 50N40W @ 0830Z NEXT 51N30W
Them: (readback)
Me: Readback correct.
Them: Let me pass this on to Gander. Call you back in a minute.
Me: Appreciate it.
Them: OK, Gander copies your report.

My position reports were passed on by Canada 3000 311, an Airbus 330; Elite 379, a B757; Air Canada 869, Speedbird 503, a B767; KLM 687, United 971, Speedbird 209, and United 905.

Strapped down to the rails where the rear seats normally are mounted was a temporary fuel tank made of aluminum sheet metal, about 3 feet square, full of 124 US gallons of 100LL. Added to the 84 useable gallons in the wing tanks, with the 12 gallons per hour consumption rate checked on the transcontinental shakedown flight, this bird had the capacity to fly for 14 hours with the required transatlantic 3-hour reserve. Thirteen hours at 130 knots would reach the closest Irish airport, Shannon. As luck would have it, that steady westerly wind shaved two hours off the 14 hours it would have taken to make Dublin, the final destination for this delivery flight, so there was still 5 hours of fuel left at landing.

Managing the fuel flow from ferry tanks is often problematic, and this one was no exception. It was installed by a reputable company, Telford Aviation at Bangor Airport in Maine. However, during the test flight from Bangor to St. John’s Newfoundland, when fuel was supposed to be flowing exclusively from the ferry tank to the engine, the digital fuel flow gauge began to show high and erratic rates of flow. A check of the engine analyzer showed no evidence that the cylinders were being flooded, so I concluded that the fuel flow gauge had lost its senses. A little further on, the gauge on the left wing tank began to show a pronounced decline. This was odd, since the main fuel selector valve, which controls flow from both wing tanks, was in the “off” position. There was also a faintly visible vapor plume streaming back from the vent under the left wing tank that I happened to notice while checking for signs of ice during a spell in the clouds.

When the engine suddenly began to starve, long before the 60 gallons in the ferry tank should have been depleted, the digital fuel flow gauge was exonerated. Switching the main fuel selector to “BOTH” restored the fuel flow. In a conversation later that evening with Telford, a plausible explanation emerged. The main fuel selector valve leaked in the “OFF” position, permitting the fuel from the ferry tank to flow both ways–toward the carburetor, and up into the wing tanks. As pressure built up in the wing tanks, the left tank began to siphon through the vent. The solution Telford proposed was to draw the wing tanks down substantially before starting the ferry pump, and then monitoring the wing tank gauges to be sure not to overfill them.

During the crossing, I flew for 3 hours on the wing tanks, then switched to the ferry tank with the pump off, and the main fuel selector valve off. Flow stayed at the normal 12 gallons per hour, and both wing tanks continued to show a decline, particularly the left, confirming the leak theory. When I was close enough to Ireland to risk more tampering, I opened the main selector and switched on the ferry pump. Gradually, the wing tank gauges showed a rise, which was encouraging, since I had more confidence in the gravity-feed from the wing tanks than in the pumps required to get the last one-third of the fuel out of the ferry tank.

I imagine pilots who do this all the time become quite expert at sorting out ferry tank problems. One little gadget I had along with me on the recommendation of the old hand who installed the tank was a manual pump to be used to build up pressure over the fuel in the ferry tank. This would help push fuel to the engine in case both ferry pumps failed. The thought of electric failure halting fuel flow was not comforting, but at least I had a tool to deal with it, however awkwardly.

With my three tastless Newfoundland-made sandwiches and my 1.5 liter water bottle, I was prone to Lindberg fantasies, especially since the flight was only a few days after the May 27 anniversary of his daring flight. A message from my one and only GPS about half way across brought Charles to mind when it said “no GPS position.” I kept on my heading, thinking in the worst case, I would eventually sight some part of Ireland, meanwhile marveling at Lindbergh’s chutzpa. After all, he navigated all the way from Long Island, New York, to Paris, with only a wet compass. About 20 minutes later, the GPS found its bearing again, and led me unerringly to Shannon, and then on to Dublin.

I wonder how Charles dealt with the awkward problem of urination on his 33 hour flight? I had along a collapsible plastic canister with some sort of chemical powder in it that was supposed to turn liquids into gel. Didn’t work. Furthermore, there was no reliable way to seal the thing up when it was filled. I managed to dig a plastic bag out that I had stored my wet bathing suit in, and wrapped the canister in that, tying it up tight. That did the trick. But getting your immersion suit and your jeans down and then back up while jammed between the yoke and the ferry tank behind you is no easy task. There were several uncommanded descents when my knees accidentally hit the yoke. Notice I made no mention of underpants. I left them out of my wardrobe to make this operation at least a little less awkward. I wonder how they manage in space?

There are pilots out there who deliver airplanes year round, often two or three times a month, to far off destinations in all kinds of weather. Among them are Hardy Kalitski, Don Ratliff, Ken Dawson, Denny Craig, Margaret Waltz, and the late John Carlson. The trip I describe here would be routine to any of them. If any of them read this, I hope they find I have captured some of the reality of their business.


Video of sunrise over Atlantic

Route map

An account by Sape Mullender of another transatlantic ferry flight