From Chicago to Reykjavik in 7 thrilling stops
We did it!! We crossed the North Atlantic and are now in Iceland which we are both discovering. This was a very big deal for us, not just because of the flying challenge over freezing water and Greenland’s ice cap (!), but also because we are now in Europe. My plans to go to France and the Netherlands have been cancelled due to Covid for more than a year, now is the revenge. And the trip was thrilling! Here is what happened: (make sure you also check the new videos on Alex’ youtube channel, accessible by clicking “videos” on the home page of this journal).
Stop 1: Buffalo, New York (KBUF), May 10th
Buffalo was on our list thanks to Deborah Henshaw from Virginia. Deborah is an earthrounder-to-be who contacted us via this blog and introduced us to Ravi Bansal who went around the world solo in 2017 in his Columbia 400, similar to that of our Argentine friend Carlos Gonzalez (author of From Alaska to Ushuaia in a small airplane). Ravi, the first pilot of Indian origin to complete the challenge, lives in Buffalo and we really wanted to meet him to learn from his experience also. He made the journey to collect funds for the Rotary Ambala Cancer and General Hospital in India and describes it in his super-interesting book Cleared Direct Destination (which I had just enough time to read before our meeting), and on his website raviworldflight.com.
We had a great dinner with Ravi and his wife Pratibha and the next day we spent time together in the hangar of TAC aviation at Buffalo airport. We needed to cut some rings off the rubber collars of our Switlick immersion suits and Ravi brought surgical scissors which made the task very easy and precise! He also taught us how to make mirror signals, skill he had learned in the survival course he took before his trip, and shared lots of advice and anecdotes. For example, how his turtle pack full of fuel inflated on the passenger seat to the point of almost bursting when his plane climbed, or how Singapore ATC sent him back to Kuala Lumpur when he was unable to call them on his sat phone.
Meeting Ravi added to our final preparations which we had started in Chicago with the help of all the pilots I mentioned in my previous post.
Stop2: Burlington, Vermont (KBTV), May 11th
Although ferry pilots can enter Canada with a special exemption, the idea behind it is that they don’t really stay in the country or travel. In this spirit, we had planned to reach Iqaluit in the very North -almost opposite Nuuk in Greenland- in one day via Quebec (CYQB, point of entry) and Kuujjuak (CYVP, fuel stop), and exit the country the next morning. We had already contacted Frobisher Bay FBO and made arrangements for the night in Iqaluit which included a special permit from the Nunavuk health authorities.
To make our Canada crossing as short as possible (in time and distance), we chose Burlington for its strategic location: close to the border and on a straight line to our destination.
After saying goodbye to Ravi, and briefly touring Niagara Falls at 3000 feet, we flew to KBTV and went to Heritage Aviation FBO, also chosen by the New England Patriots Football team apparently!
We finalized our documentation that night at the hotel: filled out the ArriveCAN application to enter the country, called CANPASS to announce our itinerary and filed the EAPIS to exit the US, called the FBO to announce our arrival and the Canadian Border control service at CYQB to check the correct procedure: we were to stay inside the plane without opening the door until their arrival.
The next morning at 8 am, we took off to Quebec, me looking forward to speaking French again.
Stop3: Quebec City CYQB, May 12th, 9 am.
Apart from a beautiful rainbow around the shadow of the airplane under my right wing, the 1h20 minute trip to Quebec City was uneventful, although we had to call CANPASS in-flight because our ETA was about 20 minutes later than planned and they had explicitly mentioned that if it varied more than 10-15 minutes we needed to inform.
AvJet FBO was expecting us and upon arrival several Border Control officers immediately headed to the plane with a dog. They checked our papers, ArriveCAN Apps and asked us to unload our luggage so the dog could sniff it. We have a lot of bags distributed strategically throughout the plane for center of gravity purposes, so we offered to let the dog inside, but the officers were worried it would scratch the wings with its nails, great thinking! We ended up complying and it wasn’t too bad because each object has a fixed place in the plane so it was easy to put everything back again. We have found that fixed places really help maintain order on board, else it quickly degenerates in such a small space. Our organization is greatly inspired by that of the BAZflyers from New Zealand who shared their RTW pack-up list with us. The main difference between theirs and ours is that they seem to have more shoes and we seem to have more clothes😊
The BAZ flyers from New Zealand, 2019 earthrounders.
We checked the weather before departing to Kuujjuaq, found out that it was a little unstable in Iqaluit, but decided to press on anyway thinking we could always spend the night in Kuujjuaq if necessary. We knew we would get fuel there because we had called the fuel manager several times and he had promised there were 205-liter (about 54 gallons) drums available, we just needed to bring our own pump. Luckily, we had a pump: every single earthrounder had told us we needed one and we had opted for the model John Bone from Florida had recommended. It took Alex a lot of effort to buy and assemble it and we had never used it yet, but the 3 separate pieces of the pump were on board!
Unplanned stop 4: Mont Joli (CYYY), May 12th, 12.30 pm
Alex makes very detailed fuel consumption calculations and is very careful with the FOD (Fuel on Destination) indication, which is the plane’s computer estimate based on the flight plan entered and the current Ground speed. This means that if the wind and your airspeed stay constant, the FOD number is likely correct. If you get more tailwind, the FOD will increase as the tailwind intensifies and in the case of more headwind, the FOD will decrease even of you maintain your airspeed. In places like the USA where there are airports everywhere, it is not so essential to have lots of FOD, but in the North of Canada, there aren’t so many alternate airports and it is not guaranteed that they will have Avgas. Therefore, our absolute minimum to reach Kuujjuak was 15 gallons FOD. From Quebec to Kuujjuaq were 700 miles, i.e. about 65 gallons in theory but about 60 minutes into the flight we got headwinds of up to 25 knots and the FOD dropped to 18 gallons. That felt too tight given we still had 3.5 hours to go so we landed in Mont Joli to refuel. We knew about Mont Joli because our friend John had recommended it. We did not get to see the town but from the air we saw the surrounding rolling hills which make you want to walk around in them and beautiful lakes. We must go back some day. After refueling, we were approached by an airport employee who inquired where we were from and remembered that a few years ago a couple from New Zealand had landed there: he had met the BAZflyers who had waited for good Atlantic-crossing weather in Mont Joli! There are clearly still places where a plane from the Southern hemisphere is an oddity.
Stop 5: Kuujjuaq (CYVP), May 12th, 6 pm local time (GMT -4)
A little over 4 hours later, we landed in Kuujjuaq after having flown over empty large flat areas with sparse vegetation and frozen lakes.
The fuel manager was expecting us and brought a drum of Avgas on a bright red caddy. We unloaded the 3 pieces of our brand-new pump and when we told him that this was the first time we used it, the manager immediately started helping us put it together and even helped Alex pump. Together, they succeeded of channeling 53.9 gallons into the wings, meaning almost nothing was wasted. Our tanks now held 88 gallons, which is just 4 gallons shy of the maximum capacity (and obviously not worth buying another CAN $675 drum to top off – drum fuel requires a lot of math but in this case we were lucky: we could use the entire drum and the tanks were almost full).
The whole operation lasted only 30 minutes which was much less that other drum-pump refueling sessions we had read about, some lasting up to 2 hours. John Bone’s system rocks!
By 7 pm we were ready to go, but after checking the weather in Iqaluit again, Alex decided it was better to stay: the weather was closing in and it would be almost dark around the time we would get there, 2.5 hours later. Not a good idea for an airport you have never been to before. We asked for a ride to the nearest hotel and started preparing for the next day.
When Alex saw that Iqaluit would stay bad, we considered the option of flying directly from Kuujjuaq to Nuuk in Greenland. It was only 150 miles (one hour) longer and the forecast was good. We set our alarms for 4.30 am to get to the airport at 5.30, aiming for a 6:30 departure. Early departure was essential because:
- Due to Covid, we could not plan on spending the night in Greenland, so we needed to make it to Reykjavik in one day
- Reykjavik was 4 hours ahead of Kuujjuaq and we had 9 hours of flight (1390 nautical miles) ahead of us with at least one fuel stop which could take 1 to 2 hours
- Sunset was at 10.29 pm in Reykjavik and we wanted to keep at least an hour in reserve for unexpected delays (some kind of “Time On Destination” reserve, similar to that of “Fuel On Destination”)
When we arrived at the airport the next morning at 5.30 sharp, it was closed. We hadn’t checked that 🤦🏻♂️. By the time we could get in, it was already too late to make it to Iceland the same day. In addition, Kuujjuaq skies were somewhat overcast and we had found out that it was a holiday in Greenland, meaning that we would have to pay a special airport opening fee of about US$ 1000 at each landing. There were just too many obstacles…
Instead, we spent the day preparing some more. We tested the Satellite phone again (prompted by Ravi’s Singapore mishap), checked the weather about 10 times (using Kuujjuaq’s painfully slow internet), mapped out the route with all possible alternate airports and points of no return and laid out the clothes we would wear under our immersion suits. The instruction manual recommends various layers of thermal clothing, I wore 2 thermal leggings and my thin hiking pants with warm hiking socks, two thermal long-sleeve T-shirts and a down jacket. Better warm in the plane than cold in the water was my motto, especially since we have air conditioning!
We also filled out the forms required to enter Greenland and Iceland because we suddenly realized we would be arriving in the two countries the next day and with everything being so unpredictable we had waited till the last moment. In hindsight, filling and sending them with slow internet was not the best choice…but the health forms needed to be recent so it’s kind of a puzzle to predict what the best moment is.
After all that, we went to the airport and organized everything for the crossing: the immersion suits, life vests, survival bags etc… and contacted the airport manager to ask for a 5 am entry the next day. And that is when the trouble started.
Not only had we overseen the NOTAM that specifically mentioned that every landing in Kuujjuaq needed to be pre-approved even if it was just a fuel stop (CAN$ 1000 fine for non-complying), but we also did not have the authorization from the Nunavik health authorities to spend the night there. We only had that of the Nunavuk authorities to sleep in Iqaluit but of course that was a different jurisdiction. Alex underwent a full interrogatory on our whereabouts before and since our arrival and we were sent to do a Covid test in a special tent next to the clinic. It was all very well organized and we completely understood the need but we were not very worried about the result since we are both vaccinated and in addition, we were not in close contact with anyone in Kuujjuaq for the simple reason that we don’t know anyone there! Without doing it on purpose, our stay naturally had been quarantine in the hotel room and out in the open air at the airport the rest of the time. When the test came back negative everyone relaxed, so in the end I believe we will only pay CAN$600 for the early opening of the airport the next morning. Which occurred!
Stop 5: Nuuk (GBBH), May 14th, 11.30 am local time (GMT-2)
We got up at sunrise (4.11 am), left the hotel at 4.45 am and at 5am we were let into the airport. Phew! Just in case, we had made a deal with the hotel: check-out was at 10 am so technically we could go back to the room where we had left part of our abundant room service dinner in the fridge. If we were not back by then, they could throw it away, else we had a perfect lunch waiting for us. But we never got to eat it: we were inside the airport and once our external checklists completed, we quickly started the engine to let it warm up – it was -3 degrees Celsius outside- while we continued the preparations, including the challenge of donning our immersion suits. First me, while Alex was holding the brakes and then Alex with me holding the brakes. Getting into a suit like that takes several steps: first you need to put your legs inside until your feet are in the waterproof socks. This is best achieved sitting down, on the airport stairs for example (outside of course because the airport door is still closed). Then you need to put your shoes back on else the waterproof socks could be damaged when you stand up. Standing up, you place the suspenders on your shoulders, put one arm and then the other into the sleeves and finally you maneuver your head through the rubber collar without panicking because you can’t breathe. The last steps are to completely close the waterproof zipper that goes from one end of your lower back to the other, let out the air in the suit by squatting while opening the collar and finally waddling back to the airplane feeling like an astronaut, with the neoprene gloves and hood in the special pockets on the legs.
This is what it looks like (and in retrospect, they are relatively comfortable and we were not warm at all! Very happy we chose Switlick):
Once dressed in suits and life vests on top, i.e. 40 minutes later, we finally took off but had to head North instead of North-East to avoid a cold front of clouds over the Davies Strait which could cause icing on the wings. We got a call from the controller saying: “you know you are not headed to Nuuk, don’t you?”. But we knew: Alex had examined the front’s shape and knew that if we flew North first and then East, we would avoid it and might even get tailwinds all the way, a valuable ally in inhospitable “territory” (water in this case). We were not very worried because our route kept us closer to the Canadian land in the beginning and we could always go to Kangerlussuaq as an alternative if we didn’t manage to go back East in time.
We kept Gander Oceanic control informed of our progress at all times, negotiating route changes twice because the stubborn front kept pushing us North. We reported crossing “BERUS” 50 miles to its North…. oops…but what is 50 miles in the middle of the water?
Finally, we were able to turn East and have an incredible view of the Ocean which was a white ice platform to Alex’ left, crackled ice under us and blue on my right. Grandiose. Alex was amazed to be able to communicate so clearly with Gander on the VHF radio at each reporting point; they only came alive at specific moments but when they did the communication was crystal clear.
The flight was now relaxed and beautiful and soon we were able to talk to Nuuk while flying South over Greenland’s breathtaking East fjords. The controllers were super helpful and after just 3.9 hours, we set foot on Greenland, relieved as you can see by the smiles on our faces.
The image below is from our friends Luis Eduardo Cepeda in Panama and Luciano Lerzundi in Colombia who have been following our trip from the start and have been our team on the ground along with a few others during our crossing, helping us with weather info and other pieces of information that we exchanged in flight using our Garmin InReach messaging system. They filmed our arrival on Nuuk airport’s live stream.
The customs process in Nuuk was seamless (we had arranged it in advance with Hans at Mittarfeqarfiit, Greenland airports who had sent us the Covid forms to fill out) and happened while LV GQF was being refueled. They had prepared our next flight plan and gave us a paper weather chart (I had never seen one of those, just read about them. Everyone seems very happy with Windy these days). After checking the weather using Windy, METAR’s and TAF’s and using the bathroom (this takes me about 15 minutes with the suit, Alex is faster thanks to the strategically placed zipper in the front), we were taking off again on a plan to Reykjavik with Kulusuk (BGKK), on the other side of Greenland, as alternate airport in case the headwinds were stronger than forecasted, pushing our FOD under the level our nerves could tolerate.
As a final thought, it is interesting to note that Nuuk control explicitly mentions “magnetic” every time they give the wind direction. I guess in a place close to the actual “North pole”, where the declination from magnetic is -21 degrees, it is worth mentioning (as a reference, Paris is +1, Chicago -4 and Buenos Aires -9).
Stop 6: Kulusuk (GBKK), May 14th, 16.35 am local time (GMT-2)
Quoting here from Alex’ notes which say it all:
“As we took off from Nuuk, a strong whistling noise stopped us in our tracks, it was clear that one door was not completely latched so we communicated we were coming back to land. We were not going to cross the icecap with an open door and another landing into Nuuk was something we could savor even better than the first one, what a place!
In no time we were in the air again heading north to gain altitude inside the fjords before turning East for the icecap which must be crossed with a minimum of 12000 feet, what a landscape! It makes the trip worthwhile just by the beauty of this place. As we were climbing the controller asks us to confirm we had a sat-phone, which we did [and had tested it the day before, phew!], told us that we were soon going to lose radio contact [between ANVIS and ANTAR] and to report back at the waypoints via phone [starting at SOBVI]. Great to see that the system is embracing new technology and maybe one day they will let go of the old HF radios. We have an Iridium- Go router connected to my phone, and the phone has a Bluetooth connection with my headphones; the reporting call was so clear and efficient and reassuring. The only regret is that it lasted 61 seconds so I spent 2 full minutes of my credit 😂. The flight over the icecap is so humbling, huge white vastness in every direction, only slight whipped textured ice and the occasional depression and surfacing rocks. A few loyal friends acting as ground crew were communicating the weather conditions ahead, notably headwind strength for the crossing to Iceland; it felt so good to have these caring voices and messages all along, we were never alone. The new data gave Martijn and I a math puzzle: how much headwind component can we handle in the last 470 miles of the trip if we want to land in Reykjavik with an 18-gallon reserve? Nice way to check your brain oxygen after 2 hours flying at 12000 feet 😀
The equation results were not bad but nevertheless we decided to make a stop, prudence kills math. The Kulusuk approach is crazy! A gravel East-West runway on the north edge of a steep island. We thought we had it, we saw a dark grey elongated stain amidst ice and rocks on our left that could have made for an easy approach to runway 11. BUT, they were using the West 29 runway so we had to do the full circling of the island to attack it from the other end. Ok, that was something. But then the controller announced that the airport was closing in 25 minutes and if we wanted to keep it open for us we would be charged a 1000 US$ fee. How is that for a curve ball during a blind approach around an island in the artic??!!
Anyways, the approach is unforgettable, and the crooked and hilly gravel runway was not bad at all even for the Cirrus’ elegant wheel pants. The controller was also the airport manager and helped us out to speed up the fueling process so we were airborne again in no time and with no penalties, he even gave us two Danish rolls, in Denmark!
I have just two additions to make:
1. The ice cap looks like whipped cream and it also has mountains!
2. Prudence was not the only reason we stopped in Kulusuk. Biology was another: the idea of spending 3 more hours in the air, nervous about the FOD and also needing to go to the bathroom was just too much for me (because on top of everything, you should also stay well hydrated at high altitudes…). I love flying when there are options and alternate airports to go to, I have no problem with using the “traveljohn” (special bag with special powder that turns into gel) during a long flight but adding fuel stress to the imprisonment of the immersion suit considering my anatomy was just too much. The suits are supposed to be Unisex but sliding into the back seat and finding the right position with the traveljohn through the zipper feels harder than walking under a low limbo bar.
Kulusuk was a landing challenge, but I am so glad Alex accepted it as well as the Danish rolls because we had planned on buying food in Nuuk but there was none… BGKK will also stay on our record as the fastest fuel stop ever!
Stop 7: Reykjavik (BIRK), May 14th, 9.55 pm local time (GMT-4)
Quoting again from Alex’ notes:
“We went through so much that day that the final three-hour leg to cross the North Atlantic to Iceland seemed like nothing!
The headwinds were not that bad and at the end we had plenty of fuel but the toilet stop and Danish rolls had brought the best spirit on us. When we saw Iceland’s shape forming in front of us we got an extra shot of adrenaline that stayed with us until the landing. We requested an instrument approach to be smoothly guided to the runway, but Iceland people, true to their adventurous reputation, made the base leg to the final approach point aiming straight at a very imposing volcano, my eyes were jumping from the approach plate to the autopilot settings to the volcano outside the window, hahaha. But the Cirrus finally turned gracefully to the right into final and glided down into Reykjavik. We landed at 10pm and the sun was still shining on the horizon. A golden end for the greatest challenge. The crew at Reykjavik FBO were the best. So friendly, so welcoming. They helped us manage all the immigration and COVID protocols, that are complex but clear, and completed all the formalities. Paperwork done, we got rid of the tight immersion suits and I could finally completely relax, melting into the FBO sofa with a shot of Floki’s Iceland whisky. “
What a great adventure.
Thank you Gudni and Artur from Reykjavik FBO!
We did it!!