Berlin to Reno in a Single Engine Airplane

 

August 28 – Sept 3, 1998

 

A Trip Report by George Deeter and Philippe Goetschel

Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved

 

Berlin to London

 

Ever since I obtained my private pilot license in 1984 I had been dreaming of flying back to Europe in a small airplane. I had read several books on the subject and my home office walls have been covered with European and American airplane charts to fuel my dream.

Through a friend of mine in the Bay Area I was introduced to George Deeter of Los Gatos who owns a 1970 Beech Bonanza and had been to Europe in 1991 and Latin America in 1993. He asked me earlier this year to fly with him to Europe. Because of my limited vacation days I signed up for the return trip. George had come over in early August and had been touring Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. We met up at the Berlin-Tempelhof on Thursday morning.

Tempelhof's vast hangars were the headquarters of Hitler's Luftwaffe. They are easily as tall as Boeing's 747 plant in Everett and form a half circle with a radius of about mile around the runways. We were surprised that such a strategic site was largely left untouched and were told that we did not bomb the airport during the W.W.II because our US Air Force knew that they wanted to use it as its headquarters after the fall of Berlin. In the early 1950s Tempelhof had been the site of the Berlin airlift, a huge effort to save the Berlin population from starvation when the Russians cut them off. Ups to 7000 DC-4 airplane were used to supply Berlin with everything from coal to potatoes at a rate of 1 landing per second 24 hours a day for 2 years.

We took off to the West towards Wolfsburg and quickly climbed to 8000 feet and were subsequently cleared to 12'000 feet. We flew on top of a broken cloud layer over Minden, Braunschweig, and Osnabrueck all the way to the Dutch coast over Rotterdam and the English Channel. Southern England was clear and we landed after a little over 3 hours at a the quaint general aviation Biggin Hill airport which is located right between Heathrow, London City airport and Gatwick about 15 miles SE of downtown London.

Flying procedures in Europe are significantly stricter than in the US; however, traffic is an order of magnitude lighter. We flew the Duesseldorf-Amsterdam-London corridor in the middle of the afternoon and traffic seemed much lighter in the Seattle area except maybe for high altitude jets. One wonders what such strict procedures are for.

 

London to Inverness

 

We left Biggin Hill around late morning planning a low altitude VFR sightseeing trip along the West Coast of England. Our route took us directly over Farnborough airfield, Bristol, along the eastern boundary of Wales and abeam Liverpool towards Prestwick, Scotland. High pressure dominated the British Isles at a setting of 1022 Hecto-Pascals (about 30.18 inches) affording a rare opportunity of “California” weather. The forecast was to remain this way to the north and we planned on entering Lehnny Fjord to its end where it becomes Loch Ness, therefore allowing us to assist in finding "Nessie" from the air. In reality there did break. These gradually became solid overcast and just south of Prestwick we had to climb on top of the clouds, obtain an IFR clearance and complete the trip in solid IMC conditions performing an approach to Inverness.

 

We saw countless numbers of castles and mansions from the air as well as golf courses dotting the countryside. Agricultural field sizes are much smaller than on the continent. Its boundaries are neatly marked with man made stone walls.

 

We spent last night at a Bed and Breakfast in the Center of Inverness which has a population of 60,000 doubling in the summertime when tourists come to look at the Highland and hoping to catch a glimpse of "Nessie"- the Loch Ness monster. Inverness’ main industry is tourism built on the Loch Ness tale. What an amazing PR success it is to build an entire industry on a tall tale alone…

 

We will be leaving this afternoon for Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

Inverness to Reykjavik

 

Invereness is as far North as Juneau, Alaska. I have always wondered what motivated people to move to faraway places like the islands in the Puget Sound, Faroe Islands and Iceland. There are few agricultural opportunities. There are no minerals in the ground. Tourism is a relatively recent pursuit and there were no obvious religious or political persecutions. Pure adventure does not seem to be a sustaining motivator alone.

 

We took a brisk walk through the old town of Inverness as its population was slowly awakening and took a taxi to the airport. This next flight was going to be the beginning of the long over water legs. Climbing into our wetsuits and going over emergency water landing procedures in detail reminded me how dangerous our adventure could be if things went wrong. Each year roughly 300 small airplanes cross the North Atlantic; most of them are airplane deliveries. Before GPS about 5 planes ended up ditching in the North Atlantic's cold and stormy waters every year of which about 4 were rescued. GPS has reduced ditching to less than 1 per year. It is rewarding to see such an example of truly useful and effective modern technology.

 

The meteorological forecast called for a cold front over Iceland moving south. We took off at 1pm and were cleared to 8000 feet. A broken cloud layer covered the Scottish Highlands. We climbed to 10,000 feet over a calm ocean surface as the cloud layer turned to scattered. We were able to catch glimpses of the sparsely populated Danish Faroe Islands. Over the next 2 hours the cloud layer turned solid and started a determined climb until we were completely covered by it. Heavy rain knocked on our windshield and wings, visibility decreased to 0 and we watched the freezing level apprehensively as it slowly crawled up to our current altitude. An airplane of our size has no de-icing equipment and freezing rain can build up to ice on our wings and destroy its flying ability in a matter of seconds.

I started visualizing the news I heard this morning on TV. A hot air balloon had detached itself from its base in Ontario, Canada and was floating towards Iceland.  Canadian and British jet fighters had unsuccessfully shot several thousand rounds into to bring it down. One errand round could easily seal our faith. The very rough accent of the Icelandic controller accompanied the heavy weather like the violins in Beethoven's Pastorale. One of the few comforts was the familiar American accent of US commercial pilots crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I pictured them sitting in their roomy and comfortable jumbo jets - probably sipping hot tea poured to them by beautiful flight attendants in flawlessly pressed dark blue uniforms. A big air bump that shook the entire plane brought me back to reality in an instant.

 

We finally reached the rugged Icelandic coast after 4 hours in the air over the ocean. As we descended through 4000 feet the solid cloud layer started breaking up. George took over the controls and very competently followed the instrument landing procedures. We broke out of the clouds completely at 1500 feet and I was relieved to see the familiar red and white runway lights greeting us as we descended over the brightly colored rooftops of Reykjavik.

 

The population of the independent Republic of Iceland is only 270,000 people most of which live in Reykjavik. The principal industry is fishing. Except for some building materials and basic food everything else gets imported. The water and the locally grown meats and fish taste exquisitely since the use of any chemicals in food are outlawed. Local chefs are held in very high esteem. The Icelandic race is still very pure and Icelander have one of the highest standards of living as well as one of longest live expectancy in the world. Typical winter days last from 11am to 4pm. This might explain the high birth rate of 18 per 1000. Much of the economic growth is recent and interestingly coincides exactly with the expansion of Iceland’s fishing limits from 12 to 200 miles in 1975.

These are plenty of good reasons to take a rest on Sunday in Iceland before we continue for Greenland on Monday morning.

 

 

Reykjavik to Sept Iles

 

After a grueling but very exciting and rewarding 12 hours in the air we just arrived in Sept Isles, Quebec.  We flew from Iceland to Canada in mostly bad weather and are completely

Exhausted. Flying in such conditions requires a lot of concentration and we are both looking forward to a good night’s sleep in this cute little Canadian town that is exclusively French speaking.

 

Knowing that we would have a long day in front of us we got up at 6am and preflighted the airplane at the desolate Reykjavik airport in pouring rain. All over Europe you pay dearly for middle man services that add no real value to the pilot but provide an income for “marshalls”, “handlers”, “airport managers” etc. After paying our $200 “handling fee” we took off in zero visibility and pouring rain. This is the time when we are asking ourselves if we did not temporarily lost our judgement when we decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a single

e engine airplane. Luckily there is not much time to contemplate these thoughts. It is bumpy and you have to scan your instruments with a lot of concentration. Once we are over the Ocean, turbulence subsides. What motivated us to leave Iceland in these conditions is the rule that when the weather is bad in Iceland it is usually good in Greenland. The forecast calls for a high over Greenland. After 2 more hours in this potato or cauliflower soup, take your pick, we start to question the forecast. To get over the Greenland icecap we will have to climb to 13,000 feet from the current 8000 feet and if this low does not lift over Greenland we would definitely have to fly into freezing clouds which is deadly without de-icing equipment. Our alternate plan is to stay below the freezing level, fly around the Southern tip of Greenland at Hans Christian Sound and attempt to land in Narssarsuaq which is often fogged in. If that fails we would have to go up the coast of Greenland and land at Soderstrom AFB which is, according to forecast, in VFR conditions. After another 30 minutes of uncertainty we start seeing cloud layers and a very bright layer of clouds in the backgrounds.

We are in luck. The bright layer turns out to be sunshine and we climb over the glacier-covered icecap. The views are spectacular. Fiords are speckled with bright blue icebergs and we see glaciers that seem to calmly flow into the Ocean. It is about as hard to imagine a major airport here as it is to picture an airforce base next to the Matterhorn. However, in a matter of minutes the icecap turns into sloping green hills and we are asked perform a step descend into the airfield of Narssarssuaq, which is pronounced by locals with a rolling “r” to the pitch of M-60 machine gun.

On the approach we see a Greenland airline Boeing 757 land ahead of us. In the final leg we fly over a Danish warship and land safely at this desolate airfield. We climb out of our plane, the sky is blue and the temperature is a warm 14 degrees Celsius. We have a little chat with the local Danish Navy helicopter crew. Most professional pilots have a lot of respect for what we do and often admit that it probably takes a better pilot to fly single engine IFR than it takes to fly a 747 around the world.

After a short coffee break we continue our trip to Goose Bay, Labrador which is 5 hours away and in solid IFR conditions. The ocean is very rough. White caps 40-foot waves and gusting winds. We joke about what it would feel like to be sitting in our little life raft: “Philippe, another hot coffee refills please and make it with 1 Equal and 2 creams, please. Thanks”

Gander Oceanic is a major reporting point for Atlantic commercial flights and we kill time by trying to identify the nationality of the pilots based on their accents. Germans, French, Dutch, Danish and Israelis are the easiest. Whatever the British say always sounds so sophisticated and competent – no matter what the content. In my next life I want a British accent.

As we descend into Goose Bay, a major NATO AFB in northern Canada, ceilings drop to 800 feet. The very young voice of the controller as well as the news we hear on the radio does not instill a lot of on confidence. A German tornado fighter jet declares an emergency due to the loss of engine; a Puma helicopter is lost and 10 fighters are about to land – ahead or behind us – we do not really know. As usual, our fears are unfounded and we land safely at the competent hands of Captain George Deeter.

Goose Bay is littered with German, Dutch and British fighter jets and helicopters. It is an amazing sight to see so much equipment hundreds of miles away from civilization in the middle of the Canadian Tundra. George convincingly argues that staying in Goose Bay is like spending an overnight in Camp Muir and so we continue to what he claims is a sophisticated French Canadian town of Sept Iles. We fly over beautiful lakes and small trees for hundreds of miles with no signs of human civilization. No roads, no power lines and most depressingly no radio or radar contact. If our engine quits we are probably much worse off than over the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly, on top of that our turn coordinator quits and with it the autopilot it drives. For IFR flying we now have to exclusively rely on the attitude indicator and we are both very tired.

After dozens of attempts we finally make contact with the French speaking controller of Sept Iles who announces that the weather there is nice and sunny.  Exhausted after flying over 1700 miles we land and check into a nice little hotel in town.

 

Sept Iles to Niagara Falls

 

Sept Iles is an interesting city. Its charming French Name translates into seven islands and George informed me that it is a famous cruise ship stop. We were looking forward to a good meal and a nice walk in the old town of Sept Iles.

However, in reality, Sept Iles is a 20-year-old industrial town on the St. Lawrence River with two iron ore mines. No restaurants were open and the town looked deserted at night. It has the feel of a Siberian town with no town center at all. It should really be renamed Sept Iles de Siberie in order to        not mislead tourists.

 

To our surprise, most of the in-flight communication is in French Canadian since we are in the heart of the Province of Quebec. ATIS is offered in French and English. It sounds like French with a heavy Icelandic accent. However, this is the very last bastion of the French language in aviation. The controller admitted regretfully that not even Air France pilot crews landing in Quebec communicate in French anymore.

 

We took off to the west and climbed to 3500 feet. The sky was overcast at 4000 feet and we were able to fly VFR. As we got closer to the Quebec City area, the hilly terrain became mountainous and we feared that the growing mountains and the solid overcast would force us to file IFR. Luck was on our side and we were able to sneak through the mountains and the cloud layer safely and within legal limits. We continued our bumpy ride 40 miles north of Montreal, flew over Ottawa and South of Toronto over the gigantic lake Ontario. During our approach we could see the rising mist of the Niagara Falls and after 4 hours and 670 nautical miles we touched down at the Niagara Falls International Airport.

 

If there is something that really hurt George’s feeling during the entire the entire length of the trip, it was the fact that the refueler in Inverness called his Bonanza the “WEE ONE” – the little one. Compared to the surrounding Metroliners, PC12s and Learjets our loyal plane was indeed little. Beechcraft Bonanza owners are a very proud bunch who think of them themselves as the elite among single engine aircraft owners similar to Rolls Royce and some Mercedes S model drivers. The plane is indeed a wonderful machine and its owners are used to be the king of the hill at every general aviation airport. So, never insult them by calling their plane the “Wee One”!

 

George must have spent over an hour on the phone to get US customs to let us land back in the United States. He had to place 7 phone calls including two calls to Washington, D.C. Many printed phone numbers were not valid anymore and the customs procedures that were given to us were contradictory. We finally managed to get some help but they warned us to land there at exactly 4:30pm. We landed 13 minutes late and the young female customs agent reminded us of that when first thing we met.  Other than that, she was very friendly once we started talking to her and she cleared us efficiently in 15 minutes.

 

We had one of our better meals of the entire trip in a small restaurant next to our motel. It was certainly the cheapest. Just about any service or product is cheapest in the US and most importantly no “airport handlers”, “agents” or other middlemen that charge dearly for their services.

 

Niagara Falls to Sioux City

 

To our big surprise it had rained overnight and the forecasters on the Weather Channel predicted thunderstorms over Western New York and Ontario. Icing conditions in clouds and thunderstorms are about the only thing even a Bonanza has to avoid and the prospect of staying another night in the run down city of Niagara Fall was unappealing.

 

We killed some time visiting the nearby Niagara Falls. The height of the falls and the amount of water that pour over them are very impressive. We took a ride on the "Maid of the Mist" boat that took us right between the falls on the Canadian side of this spectacular tourist attraction.

When we returned to the FBO one of the few Beechcraft Starship 2000 airplanes left on the market had pulled up. The Starship 2000 is a neat looking business jet that was supposed to revolutionize aviation in the mid 80s but turned out to be a big technical and commercial failure. It has 2 turboprops in the back and looks more like a futuristic starship than a business jet (see picture for more details). The Starship 2000 had been based on a model designed by Burt Rutan but never achieved the performance touted early on by the Beechcraft marketers. It barely matched the performance of the slow Beechcraft King Air but its cost were an order of magnitude higher. Only 41 Starship were sold over its product life and Beechcraft has been buying most of them back to minimize embarrassment.

 

In the meantime the thunderstorms were no longer a factor and we took off over the Niagara Falls and Toronto. The clouds were broken at 4000 feet and we had a very bumpy 4-hour ride. We crossed Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago before landing in the world capital of general and experimental aviation: Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the site of the yearly EAA airshow in August which attracted 470,000 visitors this year. The adjacent museum of the Experimental Aircraft Association is a site you must see if you are ever in the area. It easily rivals the Smithsonian and the Boeing Museum of Flight. We saw the Johnson Carnuba Wax airplane whose sole mission was to transport fresh Carnuba Wax from Brazil back to the US in the 1930s. The museum also features a display of the Voyager, Burt Rutan's motorglider with gigantic wings that circumnavigated the globe in 7 days nonstop and without refueling. Its flight plan was quite simple: Edwards Air Base to Edwards Air Force Base. The quarters were so crammed that he went on record to say he would never do it again. No wonder that he and his copilot/girlfriend broke up shortly after the flight.

We wanted to spend the night in a typical midwestern town and picked Sioux City. The 3-hour flight was very smooth but the headwinds were strong. A layer of haze reduced sideways visibility to almost 0 but we were able to admire this vast corn chamber of the world from above. The size of the US continues to amaze me. We flew for hours over towns none of us had ever hear of such as Mansion City, New Lisbon and Leicester.

We landed in Sioux City right around sunset and our patient driver told us that Sioux City with a population of 70,000 is spread over North Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. We found an elegant steakhouse right next to our hotel and I had one of the tenderest sirloins of my life. They forgot to serve glasses with our beers but we quickly understood that everybody was drinking of the bottle in this elegant restaurant: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".

 

Sioux City to Reno

 

The Swissair tragedy shook both of us up this morning. Not just because it involves a carrier from my home country of Switzerland but primarily because we practically flew over the site of the crash in Newfoundland 2 days ago ourselves. The Search and Rescue team members from Goose Bay, Sept Iles and Narssarssuaq probably helped us pump gas 48 hours ago.

 

The few thunderstorms along our route had just passed Sioux City earlier this morning and we played with the idea of flying all the way to the West Coast if weather and our endurance would let us. The bulk of general aviation accidents today occur because of  “getting-home-itis” and involve VFR pilots getting caught in deteriorating weather when they are up against a deadline.

 

We climbed out of Sioux City to an altitude of 4500 feet, which we gradually increased to 10500 feet as we got closer to the Rocky Mountains. Green pastures turned into hills and farmland turned into desert along the 4.5 hour long flight. This is really unique about the US. You can encounter just about any style of terrain in this country. This is certainly not true in most other countries or continents.

We finally approached Utah at an altitude of 13,500 feet. The Ogden airport just North of Salt Lake City is 6000 feet high. Once I had crossed the mountain to West of Ogden I had about 4 minutes to fly down a narrow valley, loose 7,500 feet and land at an unfamiliar airport. My landing was so ungraceful that George apologetically mentioned to the gas attendant that I am a “new pilot”. He could have at least said I am new to flying the Beech Bonanza instead. I do not think there was a need to discredit my entire flying career; but then again it was only the gas company attendant. Gas prices in Ogden are the cheapest I have seen anywhere: $1.79 per gallon. There are three FBOs that fiercely compete which keeps prices low. This is what America is all about! No handlers, no marshalls, no agents, no landing or handling fees and no artificially inflated prices; just competition that benefits the end consumer.

The combination of temperatures that approached the nineties on the ground and the high ground elevation made our climbout very slow. I am sure we scared some drivers on the road just beyond the runway.

Nevada is made up of endless mountain ranges that run perpendicular to our flight path. George knew from past experience that 10,500 feet would get us over all of them easily and I had no reasons to doubt him. Well, the Ruby mountain range just beyond the huge salt lakes felt like it was exactly 10,499 feet high. In retrospect, I am glad the Bonanza has retractable landing gears. If not, we might have caressed that very unfriendly looking mountain ridge with our wheels.

 

After another 2 uneventful hours over the Nevada our journey suddenly came to an abrupt end since I took a commercial flight from Reno to Seattle while George continued on to San Jose.

 

After an entire week of spending every minute of the day with George – we also shared a hotel room -, after flying over 6500 nautical miles together, after sharing many risky moments – we were separated just like that. I will miss the spectacular views we shared. I will miss the good fortune and great weather we enjoyed during this experience of a lifetime. I will miss the early mornings that started for me at 5am in the bathroom where I typed up these trip reports to avoid waking up George, and I will miss flying the loyal “WEE-ONE” Beech Bonanza N3704A or “NovemberThreeSevenZeroAlpha” that never gave us any trouble during the entire trip.

 

P.S.: The authors can be reached at gsdeeter@aol.com and philipg@microsoft.com.