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
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
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
After a grueling but very exciting and rewarding 12
hours in the air we just arrived in Sept Isles, Quebec.
We flew from Iceland
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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”!
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.