Thursday, March 19, 2015

Across the Atlantic in a Caravan!

To some, 5 days and 51 hours of flying across half of the globe in a single engine aircraft seemed like a silly idea. But it was an exciting journey flying across the Atlantic Ocean, diverse land forms and even more diverse countries.
By Raunaq Singh Panwar
Ferrying a new aircraft is one thing which most pilots would love to do, but when you tell them that you are crossing the Atlantic in a single engine aircraft , then they start asking, “Are you okay? How will you manage to fly a Caravan for 12 hours?” But, we are talking about a brand new aircraft, the latest addition to Auric Air’s fleet, here in Mwanza, Tanzania. I was fortunate to get this chance of ferrying a new aircraft from Wichita to Nairobi, Kenya, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity.

So here we were in Wichita, Kansas, in the United States, the ‘Air Capital’ of the World. Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Learjet, you name it and Wichita has it. I could see new, shiny planes, all over at Mid-Continent Airport. Our journey to Nairobi would take us through Cincinnati and Bangor in USA, Santa Maria Island and Azores in Portugal, Luqa, Malta, and Luxor, Egypt. That sounded exciting!

Let me first familiarize you with our aircraft, which was a Cessna Caravan, model C208B. It is a single engine turboprop airplane, which can fly non-stop for six-and a-half hours and can cover 1,800 kms. It is the most successful single engine turboprop ever made. It can land and take off from short airstrips, especially in the bush.
Well, I was at Wichita with Alex Haynes, my fellow ferry pilot, who would accompany me till Nairobi. We departed at 0900 hrs for Cincinnati, Kentucky, which would take us 4 hours. We over flew a lot of cities and small towns and each one of them had an airport or at least an airstrip. No wonder aviation is way ahead in the USA than India. While overflying St Louis, Missouri, I could see the Gateway Arch, and it looked beautiful from above. A couple of hours later we landed at Northern Kentucky International Airport. We had a quick bite and then after an hour we took off for Bangor, Maine, our final destination in the US. 

This leg takes about 5 1/2 hours. Some bad weather was forecast enroute, so it was going to be interesting. Downtown Cincinnati was amazing and I saw a couple of stadiums that were quite big. Instead of flying straight to Bangor, we diverted a bit towards Washington DC and then north towards Maine. We were about 150 km away from New York City and I was amazed to see the city lights so far at night. I knew New York was a huge city, but truly felt it at that moment. The day was coming to an end and finally we landed at Bangor, a small town with a population of about 35,000, but an important refueling stop for planes flying across the Atlantic. 

The next two days we stayed in Bangor to get our ferry tanks installed inside the aircraft, with them we could fly for 14-1/2 hours nonstop. The D-Day came and Alex briefed me about our trip across the Atlantic, and showed me our survival kit and the raft, “in case we need it!” He told me that once he was ferrying a C172, and had to ditch in the Atlantic due to engine trouble. He was obviously preparing me for such a situation. We departed before sunset so as to reach the middle of North Atlantic Ocean – Santa Maria Island our next stop in the Azores, Portugal, in the morning. This leg would take us 11 hours. Maine is a beautiful state during Fall. After take-off we saw the beautiful fall colours all around. 

Ferry tanks installed in the Grand Caravan.

An hour later, we crossed into Canada and then a few islands later we were over the Atlantic Ocean. I was ecstatic, after all I was flying over the Atlantic. I saw a sunset over the Atlantic and that was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever witnessed. We flew over the middle of the ocean at night. There was no one around, just me and the other pilot, and I was enjoying every bit of it. Once in a while, we heard an airliner talking to New York Control over the radio; other than that, it was quiet. We got into the clouds and now and then through the break in the cloud cover we saw a ship or two. As we were cruising at 13,000 feet, which is not very high, we could make out the ships. It was a long flight but exciting. 

The excitement mounted when we were about to reach Santa Maria Island in the Azores, 1,500 km west of Lisbon and 3,900 km from the east coast of North America. And then we saw it in the horizon, breaking the vast expanse of water all around. It was a welcome sight as it meant landing after a long trip and getting to refuel! Ours was the only plane at this tiny airport, which usually sees private jets of various businessmen and aircraft of heads of states, flying between Europe and North America. We got the plane refueled and decided to sleep for five hours to get enough rest for our next leg of 12 hours of flying. We headed out to Vila do Porto town to take the much-needed nap. The island was extremely scenic with a population of around 6,000 people. Their main occupation is fishing and agriculture. 

Santa Maria Island, Azores.

After the much needed rest we were back at the airport for another evening departure to Malta. The flight plan we had filed from Santa Maria to Malta was routed through Lisbon, Madrid, Valencia, Palma, Cagliari, and Palermo to Malta. Instead of what Brussels gave us – via South Portugal, Seville, Malaga, Algiers, and Tunis to Malta. This route was shorter but would have meant flying over Algeria. Any country you overfly in Africa, you have to get prior permission. Alex was not too comfortable with this route as we didn’t have the permit. One of his friends who did the same route without the permit was intercepted by Algerian fighter jets and had to stay 2 days in jail in Algiers. But he said, “Let’s try it as it is shorter and if the control asks us, we say we didn’t ask for this route but was given to us by Brussels.” Already this leg of our trip was becoming interesting for me. 

Finally, we took-off from Santa Maria after a lot of debate. The island was so beautiful that I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Soon it got dark and I was communicating with Lisbon Control. After around 5 hours we successfully crossed the Atlantic. Alex shook my hand and said: “Buddy, we made it across!” I was excited and could see lights all over south Portugal. We continued and entered Spain and first flew over Seville and then Malaga, a big city with lights all over. The name Malaga had always sounded exotic to me, and then I heard an Iberia plane communicating on the radio with Malaga Control. I just loved the pilot’s Spanish accent. After an hour we were over the Algerian Sea and were with Algiers Control. Before entering their airspace they asked us a few questions but cleared us to enter Algeria. “That was smooth” said Alex. Algiers was another huge city and looked pretty at night. 

Crossing the Atlantic in a Grand Caravan.

After Algiers, it was quiet and by the time we were over Tunis it was almost dawn. Tunis was looking extremely beautiful and one thing you can clearly see while flying are the stadiums. I was excited to see the El Menzah stadium of Tunis. Soon it was time to descend into Malta. We flew a bit over Valetta, the capital city, and took some pictures. The landing at Malta International Airport ended our longest leg of 12 hours of flying. After 2 hours, we were back in the air for our next leg of 8 hours to Luxor, Egypt. Just after takeoff I saw the Rotunda of Mosta. It is the third largest unsupported dome in the world. 

Raunaq in Malta.

Over the Mediterranean Sea now, we saw a lot of ships and could make out how busy the Suez Canal route was. On this leg, I heard all of the major airlines of the world communicating. Emirates, Qatar, Turkish, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Continental and Saudi Arabian. But the best was American Airlines; their call sign is ‘Cowboy’, which sounded refreshing on the radio! There were not many small aircraft on this route and once even the controller made fun of us: “Traffic, Lufthansa Airbus 340, 25,000 feet above you.” I replied, “Will look out for the traffic, as if we can see 25,000 ft above us.” We all were laughing on the radio. High humour indeed! 

Now we entered Africa via Egypt. As soon as we were over land there was sand, sand and more sand! I had never flown over sand before. Some may find it boring, but I found the sight very beautiful. At Asyut, we crossed the Nile and this was my first look at the river that had given rise to an ancient civilization. We landed at Luxor after sunset and during our descent, Alex showed me the Valley of the Kings. We planned to go there the next day, surely another high point in my journey.

Entering Egypt
The next morning we visited the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple. I was awed by the immensity of the monuments that gave me a true sense of the ability and power of the Egyptian civilization. At night we started the final leg of our journey to Nairobi which would take us about 11 hours. We flew over Aswan and Abu Simbel and I wished it was a day flight. Soon we entered Sudan and it was pretty quiet there, other than the odd Kenya Airways or Egypt Air flight on the radio. Over Sudan, Alex switched off all navigation lights. “I don’t want a new plane to be the target of a teenager’s rocket launcher,” he said. We chatted about the situation in Sudan and how the people are going to vote for the referendum. Surprisingly – maybe because of our threat perception – Sudan seemed like a never-ending country! 

We entered Kenya at dawn over the highlands. The towns of Eldoret and Nakuru seemed like flying over Indian hill stations of Mussourie or Ooty. Soon after, we got in touch with the Nairobi control. I didn’t want this flight to end, but then as they say, all good things must come to an end! While descending into Nairobi Wilson Airport, I saw the giraffes in Nairobi National Park. I was back in Swahili-land after 5 days and 51 hours of flying!


Monday, March 2, 2015

New Jump Pilots, let's have a SAFE and fun 2015!

Most of the Jump Pilot hiring is done between now and the end of April and I have been reminded of that this past week. A lot of emails from newly hired Jump Pilots with tons of questions about their new job and the industry. 

I love helping younger pilots, so keep the emails coming. As I told them, I will repeat here... you will more than likely be pressured to fly a load of skydivers when you know that you should say no. SAY IT! If you don't, it might be more than your license that you lose. 

In my years as a Jump Pilot I have refused to fly in marginal weather and/or quickly approaching crappy weather. I have refused to start the engine until everyone was seated the correct direction and wearing their safety belts. I have refused to start the engine after noticing that an extra skydiver boarded. They thought it was funny. It is not funny and those silly games can kill us and a respectable DZO will have your back everytime. If he/she doesn't back you as a Jump Pilot.... leave. 

Here's to a SAFE and fun 2015!