Ferry Tale – C172 from USA to Russia

 

The email from the ferry company read – “Brian - What is your availability in the next 10 days?  I have some interesting work, so please let me know ASAP. Now how could I resist? I took the bait immediately.

 

It transpired that the company had won a bid to deliver 12 brand new C172s, equipped with Garmin G1000s, to St. Petersburg, in Russia. I was flattered to be asked to deliver the first of these, which would be on its way to Bangor for tanking in the next few days. A quick check on my other commitments in that timeframe showed that there was nothing that could not be rearranged. So – I said “Yes”.

 

I was asked to collect the aircraft from Bangor, once it was tanked, fly to St. John’s, then to Keflavik, thence to the UK, where the aircraft would be due for a 25 hour oil change – Prestwick was suggested. With a couple of days to spare, I looked at the overall routing, and considered going the southern route instead, because there were some nasty depressions forecast to affect my flight to Iceland, AND from there to the UK.

 

Trying to keep the flight cost-efficient, I looked at the possibility of landing in the Channel Islands, where fuel was cheapest of all, so I emailed a pal of mine who lives and works there, to see if he could ask around, see if it was feasible. In the end, I decided I would go to Leeds/Bradford, where there was a Cessna approved maintenance organisation, who were also FAA authorised, and had given me good service in the past. One phone call to Multiflight confirmed that they would be happy to do this, and they just required an ETA, and they would jump on the aircraft as soon as I taxied in. Since I had no charts for the last part of the route, I phoned Aerad in the UK, told them the charts I needed, and asked for them to be sent to Multiflight, so that I could pick them up on arrival.

 

My question about the need for a visa was answered by a statement from the customer, saying that “Crew visas can be issued on arrival, no problem”. Hmmm. I remembered the time that I flew a King Air, with another pilot, from the USA. The ultimate destination was Almaty, in Kazakhstan, but I didn’t have a visa, whereas the other pilot “had one organised on arrival”, so I jumped ship in Kiev. The pilot did not have a problem entering the country – he really was issued a crew visa. His problem came when he tried to catch a flight back to the USA. He was denied boarding, because – “If you enter with a crew visa, you must also depart as a crew member”. It took 3 days of wrangling to get him out of the country.

 

Day One

 

A couple of days later I was in Bangor, having driven up in a rented car collected from Boston airport the previous evening. The aircraft was physically ready to go, but we were still awaiting the Canadian clearance, because the tanking makes it non-standard, cancels the Certificate of Airworthiness, which would normally allow a trouble-free transit. That allowed me time to drive to the nearby supermarket to buy groceries for the trip – bread, sandwich material, bananas, apples, water, fruit juice, energy bars, and the like.

 

The HF radio and accessories were waiting to be installed. The external antenna was routed from the left wingtip, to the fin, then forward to the baggage door and into the tuner. The 24V/12V converter was spliced into the ferry fuel system pump, and the whole thing powered up. The frequency last used was still in the memory, and some transmissions were being received, albeit with terrible quality, so that was good enough.

 

The Cessna C172S, waiting for a pilot.

 

Rear seats removed, 124 US Gallon ferry tank installed, together with HF antenna.

 

Ferry tank still empty, since the tail is not sitting on the floor.

 

I got a briefing from the usual source, by dialling 1-800-WXBRIEF, and was advised there were no NOTAMS to affect me, the weather was going to be IMC for the most part, and the winds at my chosen altitude of 9000 feet would be slight headwinds, but nothing out of the ordinary. The US Customs guys were satisfied with my export documents, I had phoned the Canadian customs unit (CANPASS) with my ETA for St. John’s, and I set off. It was still daylight, but not for much longer.

 

The flight started out rather strangely, but nothing compared to what was to come. I was cleared to 9000 feet, but the wonderful G1000 showed that as I climbed, the headwind component was increasing. Not unusual, except that it was passing 35 knots, and getting worse – how could the forecast be so wrong? I called ATC and told them I wanted a lower level, because of the very strong north easterly wind. They obliged, and kindly asked other aircraft what were the winds aloft in their bit of airspace. The picture soon arose that if I could get above 6000 feet, the winds would actually reduce drastically. So, I told Boston that I would try it, to see how it went. Sure enough, there was one point in the climb where we passed through a strong temperature inversion, AND the headwinds dropped to single figures. And I thought I understood meteorology?

 

Continuing into the night, and well into Canadian airspace, we finished up in more and more cloud, initially with slight icing, then a very rapid buildup, causing the autopilot to pitch up to a progressively higher attitude, and the airspeed to drop off very rapidly. Enough. I told ATC I was descending, due to ice, I guessed a level that would be below the freezing level. Nice try, but I forgot about the inversion. The temperature rose for a while, but then dropped again, so I had to descend further than I originally thought necessary. Out of the frying pan…..

 

Below the inversion, the winds were still very strong, and getting pretty violent, so progress was down to 75 – 80 knots groundspeed. ATC kept giving me very useful info about temperatures and flight conditions along my route, by asking other aircraft. It was very clear that I was trapped at about 1800 feet, with a temperature of plus zero, for many hundreds of miles to come. Again, ATC were looking after me, and advised me that I would soon be below minimum radar vectoring altitude as I approached some of the islands. He would feel much happier if I started to follow some of the published airways, rather than route “direct” – which had been accepted, albeit at an intended altitude far higher than 1800 feet.

 

During the next hour or two, the turbulence became pretty violent, in very heavy rain, and I have to say a word about the excellent autopilot. I never had to take control, but it did come close on a couple of occasions, when the pitch and bank attitudes were getting bizarre. Now. I like a challenge, I am “go-minded”, but you can have too much of a good thing. I asked ATC if the airport ahead on my screen, CYQY, was a customs airport. He said – yes, but it is not 24 hours – and customs may refuse to come out, and I may have to spend the night in the plane, on the ground. Also, I know that they can charge hefty fines, callout charges, overtime, etc. so there was a strong likelihood of being a few hundred dollars lighter, if I did go in there. I told him I’d had enough for one night, and I was going in there anyway, and I asked him if he would inform CANPASS on my behalf, so that they could think about what they were going to do about it.

 

The controller sounded greatly relieved! He told me he would give me radar vectors for runway 07 at Sydney, and they would be expecting me. Once I confirmed established on the localiser, he handed me over to Charlottetown radio, who asked me to report when I was on the runway. This seemed a bit non-standard, but I did it anyway. I realised afterwards that Charlottetown was about 130 miles to the west, on Prince Edward Island – they just had a remote radio outlet at Sydney, so everything was done remotely, without proper ATC on the field.

 

A pickup truck was waiting to guide me to suitable parking, and the driver gave me a call on the radio to follow him, and I would be parking on the eastern apron. I positioned exactly where he wanted me, and it could not have been worse. The aircraft was perfectly tail into wind, and with the wind at 30 – 40 knots, it was no-go. “I can’t park the aircraft in this direction. I have to be parked into wind!” To which he replied “Oh – I know – follow me to the western apron then”.  Which I did, and he gestured me into the spot – perfectly tail into wind again.

 

“Look – I still can’t park here – I must have the aircraft facing INTO wind on a night like this”

 

“Oh – do you want tie-downs then?”

 

He then lead me to a grass area, with tie-downs. The orientation of which were all … tail into wind. Another go at trying to get the message across, and I finished up parking facing the wind which seemed to confuse him, since all the other resident aircraft were tied down in the opposite direction. The trouble was, the centre of gravity with the 80% full ferry tank was so far aft, it was almost inline with the main wheels, and gusts of wind would send the tail crashing down into the ground. So, we drove round looking for something to help secure the aircraft – in the end, I found a concrete barrel-type tiedown weight, which we manhandled to the tail of the aircraft, and fastened the rear ring to that, with lots of protective packing material. To be fair to the driver, he was not part of a handling agent organisation, he was a “commissionaire” – his job is to provide security for the airport, look after the car park, etc, so he was not to know the finer points of airmanship with regard to mooring aircraft.

 

It was raining so hard that I was already soaked to the skin, but to get my bag out of the back would have meant pulling out all kinds of other stuff, so I thought – sod it, I am going to the hotel in what I am standing up in, and will come back in the morning – expecting to find the aircraft had sunk up to its axles anyway.

 

My first phone call was to Canpass – were they going to be hard-nosed, and tell me to stay in the aircraft until they called someone out? No, they knew all about me, and entered me into their system as having landed in Canada – no callout, no fines, nothing. I am pretty certain that ATC had told them I was diverting, and I’d had enough of a hard time, without them getting on my case.

 

I next phoned a hotel in town. As per usual, the restaurant would close before I could get there (but the bar would be open, if I needed a drink), giving me no chance to get a meal. However, I asked to speak to the restaurant, and persuaded them to prepare a club sandwich which I would pick up in the bar, in about half an hour. A taxi duly came to take me to a hotel, but when I asked if he took credit card, he said – negative, but he would be happy to take me to a cash dispenser. Three good credit cards, all of them refused. He said – don’t worry, the hotel will give me cash to pay him, and put it on my bill – which they did.  In the bar, the good news was that the sandwich was waiting for me, and the really good news was – they served Guinness.

 

 

Day Two

 

The day after landing at Sydney.

The rain had stopped, and the aircraft had not sunk into the mud overnight, after all.

The first two legs.

Normally one 6 hour flight, Bangor to St. John’s, now two flights, 5 hours and 3 hours, spread over 3 days.

 

The next morning I checked the weather, and the cyclone was still going to give me grief, so I decided I would stay another day. I had chance to get a cab to the airport, check for damage (none), retrieve my bag of clothes, toothbrush, razor, and make preparations for the next day. Asking the cab drivers about the town of Sydney, it transpires that it used to be very busy with local industries, namely fishing, steel manufacturing, and coal mining. All three have gone, leaving it very much an employment black spot, with just a little tourism to help out now and then.

 

The other thing I did was to talk to Halifax Flight Briefing, about the current and forecast weather conditions. I had to ask him about the phenomenon that I had experienced on the previous journey, because nothing in my met knowledge could explain it. He said – that’s not a mystery. You were in an LLJ. “I don’t understand. What is an LLJ?”

 

In a few minutes, I was very much wiser. LLJ stands for low level jet(stream). Every pilot knows about jetstreams – they occur near the tropopause, where there is a very strong pressure gradient, giving high velocity winds. What I have never heard of, is jetstreams at ground level and above, caused by strong pressure gradients, and also an inversion. He faxed me some of their standard briefing charts, all of which were excellent, and one of which was clearly marked with an area “LLJ”. From this day on, I will always call the Canadian weather briefing service before leaving Bangor, such was the difference between the quality of theirs versus the US met information.

 

Day Three

 

The weather had vastly improved for the hop over to St. John’s, still some headwinds, but manageable, giving a quick 3 hour flight. The fixed base operator had the fuel truck waiting for me, so I filled it to capacity, having first obtained 3 tyres to put under the tail bumper.

 

Inside the office, I looked at the Atlantic charts for the next few days. The low pressure that had caused me the problems on the first flight was now tracking towards Iceland, and was perfectly positioned to give very strong headwinds and turbulence all the way to Keflavik, and then just as bad, if not worse, routing to the UK. It really seemed to have my name on it. It had got me once, but was not going to do so again. I filed a flight plan to go direct from St. John’s to Shannon, for very early the next morning, and fully expected to get the benefit of the strong westerly winds to the south of the low, to help me on my way. Another low pressure system was going to be waiting for me on the last 4 hours of my journey, into Irish airspace, that I would have to fly straight into.

 

I checked into the airport hotel, and booked a wakeup call. “What?? You are going to get up at 2 am? It’s not worth going to bed!” Oh yes it is. The flight is a long one, and I like to get to Shannon in daylight, if possible, and that means getting up very early, considering the short days, when transiting west to east. I phoned Halifax to ask them to fax the weather info to the hotel in the morning, so that I could do my planning in comfort.

 

Day Four

 

The hotel courtesy bus dropped me off at the handling agent’s, who were expecting me, and the show was quickly on the road. Working Gander Radio, they asked me to confirm that I was HF equipped – I said yes. They gave me the primary and secondary frequencies of 2899 and 8891, which I duly wrote down, and read back. At this point I should confess something. I have no intention at all of USING the HF radio – I don’t even turn it on. The reception is always lousy, the transmissions are generally unreadable, and the whole thing is a waste of time. However, there are two reasons why I go to the trouble of installing it and testing it. One is because it is a legal requirement to have HF radio on the direct crossings, and the second one is for additional safety – in the very unlikely event that both VHF radios stopped working, and my hand-held radio also didn’t work.

 

Gander told me that I was about to lose two-way VHF contact, and that I should report every hour, on the hour, “Operations Normal”, using HF, or relays from other aircraft via VHF. At this point, box 1 is set to 123.450, the air-to-air chit-chat frequency, and box 2 to 121.5, the international aviation distress frequency, which all aircraft are required to guard. So, every hour, I am heard making the call on box 1 -

 

“Any aircraft, any aircraft on 123.45, this is N51795, request radio relay to Gander”.

 

Usually it takes 3 or 4 calls before getting a response, but it generally works. Virgin 24 answered my first call, and passed all the necessary information. After that, there were two occasions when there was no reply at all, so we then change to plan B.

 

“Any aircraft, any aircraft on 121.5, this is N51795, request radio relay to Gander”. Even that can take several goes, but on this occasion, a Speedbird came online, and said “Yes, hello, can we help?” At that point, I said I had tried 123.45 several times without response, but now he was within range, let’s continue on that channel, rather than tie up 121.5. Usually some polite chit-chat takes place, once the position report or ops normal report has been acknowledged, and then the big guys are quickly out of range.

 

Setting a nominal 75% power (good for the engine, when new), the TAS was around 110 knots, but the ground speed was showing generally between 135 and 145 knots, so the plan was working well.

 

L

 

The Long Crossing

Showing the route, and the reporting points, to be relayed to Gander, later Shanwick.

The Primary Flight Display

Just passing 50N 30W (see inset)

 

The route I had chosen was a simple one, to ride along 50 North until it was time to break left to Shannon. At which point I started to get into the low pressure that had been patiently waiting for my arrival, and started to throw its worst at me. Radio relays via Speedbird confirmed that Shanwick were happy for me to descend out of the icing to a lower level, and we were back into the very strong turbulence. This time the autopilot was well out of its comfort zone, so I had to earn my keep for once. The weather did not improve as we approached Shannon, where the wind was 310 degrees at 20, gusting 30 knots; the runway in use was 24. The Cessna was as good as gold for the crosswind landing, and could easily have managed a few more knots from the side, despite its “max demonstrated 15 knot crosswind limit”.

 

After landing, and parking the aircraft into wind, just one gentleman asked to see my passport, then there was no-one in the customs hall, so I walked outside to the airport hotel, promising myself the best grilled steak their restaurant could manage, and I would go to sleep content. The steak was awful, but I slept well anyway.

 

Day Five

 

Off to Leeds the next morning, and after 3 hours, the autopilot delivered me to short final in very poor vis, in rain. I met up with the engineers who were waiting for me to arrive, and wanted to drain the oil while it was still hot. In the planning room, I was asked “Where will you sleep tonight?” I said that I had no idea at all, which seemed to puzzle them. The truth is, I needed to draw a line on the chart, find out how far I was prepared to fly, then pick a 24 hour airport within range. The one I chose was Roskilde, near Copenhagen – from previous experience, friendly, efficient, minimum hassle. A couple of phone calls later and I had arranged a room in a modest hotel, and confirmed that the airport were happy to accept me. For me, part of the appeal of ferrying is the excitement of the unknown.

 

The MFD, with 18 minutes to run to Leeds. Clearly showing all the airport surroundings, and all the required nav/com frequencies.

The straightest line I could make, en-route to Latvia. Shannon – Leeds – Roskilde.

 

Once the bill for the oil change and 250 litres of fuel had been paid, it was off into the night again. More headwinds, slow progress, very little traffic around. ATC and I took it in turns to check up on each other, after every 15 - 20 minutes of silence. Into bed around 0130 local, with a wakeup call booked for 0530, to allow time to get the weather and notams for the penultimate major leg, before calling a taxi for the airport.

 

Day Six

 

No fuel required, I should have enough to make it to Riga with an adequate reserve. The flight plan that I submitted was changed slightly to allow me to work around Copenhagen airport, but apart from that, the flight was uneventful. Except I wish I had taken on a bit more fuel, since the headwinds were stronger than forecast. The ferry tank was used up, then on to the mains, and the regular half-hourly “howgozit” checks showed that the ETA to Riga had crept up by 15 to minutes to 1100, but the ETA for dry tanks was 1200, so all was well enough.

 

Another ILS to break cloud, and a follow-me car to a hard standing, left over from the cold war days. It was important to now fly the aircraft to another grass airfield nearby, so that it could be put into a hangar, and the FAA certified mechanics could de-tank it, ready for the morning. That was a short “VFR” flight, and after meeting the owner of the field, I was shown around. He has the first, and so far, only private airfield in Latvia. In another hangar was an Extra 540, which was his pride and joy. I asked him about his background, suspecting it was Russian military. It was, to some extent, but he impressed me greatly when he admitted that he had 41 (and a half) thousand hours of flight time, most of which was as a test pilot. He had the house that most pilots could only dream of – adjoining his own hangar, on his own airfield.

 

 

 

The Penultimate Leg

Roskilde to Riga (International), then VFR to EVPA

Ferry tank out, seats in

Ready for the hop over to Riga again

 

The hotel nearby had a pleasant restaurant (but no Guinness), where I at last enjoyed some good beef – in Stroganoff form, but that was OK. On picking up my emails, I was told to be at the main Riga airport at 0730 Z the next morning, to pick up the boss of the Russian Cessna dealership, so that he could join me on this “historic flight”. It was the first time a new Cessna C172 had ever been imported into Russia, and he had just flown down from Moscow to be part of it. I had to reply that it was not going to happen like that. The aircraft was being worked on, not guaranteed to be ready by early morning, and the forecast was awful anyway, so the chances were less than 50/50 that the flight could be made, at any time, the following day.

 

Day Seven

 

I had my wakeup call, logged onto the internet to find what the weather had in store, and drafted out an IFR flight plan, then down to breakfast. The airfield owner picked me up, and thankfully the aircraft was now back to its original certified state, minus ferry tank and HF antenna, and rear seats properly installed. The main tanks were filled to capacity. Voldemars, the owner, let me use his phone to call the flight plan office, for a “VFR” flight to Riga. Since the cloudbase was 200 feet in rain, I had to negotiate a method to ensure that I could change to IFR when airborne, outside the controlled airspace, climb to the minimum level of 5000 feet, then pick up radar vectors for the approach.

 

That all worked well, and once on the ground, I was taken to the VIP lounge where my passenger was waiting. Over a cuppa, I told him that the freezing level was at 5000 feet, the minimum flight level for crossing the border into Russia was FL110, so I was prepared to try it, but he should understand that if I said we had to turn back because of the weather, then he had to accept that. He did, so the flight plan was filed, fees paid, and we were taken to the aircraft for the final leg. (Since the sponsor for the 12 aircraft was the Russian government, we were assured of minimum political bureaucracy.)

 

Initially, there was no problem with ice, since we finished up just between layers, so I briefed him on how the icing would typically form. The early warning is the windshield, which frosts up on the outside. After that, it would be seen to grow on the leading edges of the strut and the wings. We were not in a bad situation if that happened, since it would only be necessary to descend to 5000 feet or below, to positive temperatures, and it would disappear. My trigger for taking that action would be when the autopilot started pitching to a progressively higher nose attitude to maintain the decreasing lift, and the indicated airspeed started falling significantly.

 

Well, the ice did start shortly afterwards, but I said I wanted to hang on until we crossed the border, if at all possible, before going down (because of the required FL110 crossing level). It worked, and once we were over the wall and talking to St Petersburg ATC instead of Tallin, I felt comfortable that I could insist on going down, for safety reasons – there was no way they could send us back to the border then.

 

The next thing we encountered was snow, and very heavy at that. I reassured Alexander that I didn’t mind (dry) snow too much, since it was very light, frozen crystals that would just flow over the airframe without sticking.  It was when the RPM dropped by about 250, and unable to be restored using more throttle and changes in the mixture, that I remembered that there was a little more to it than that. The air filter gets completely blocked with the stuff, and the power drops accordingly. Since there was no alternate air control on this model of C172, I have to assume that there is an automatically operated door that opens with the suction from the manifold, to allow air to continue flowing.

 

The final journey

The welcoming committee

 

Finally, the aircraft picked up proper icing, and my criteria were met, with deciding to descend. No problem at all with ATC, they cleared me down to 2100 metres, then 1500 metres, where conditions stabilised, the ice started to break off, and we were getting close to final destination. Alexander was extremely impressed with the G1000 and the autopilot, and how it brought us down the glideslope, seeing intermittent ground contact, then approach lights at 250 feet, then 2 reds and 2 whites on the PAPIs, until I took over and landed.

 

The reception committee included customs officers, who wanted to see the aircraft, and the invoice for it. All this was done under the wing, sheltering from the rain, until I asked him if we could please do it in his nice warm car, instead of out in the cold. I had someone take my customary photo at the end of such flights, that is me shaking hands with the new owner, handing over the keys. A handling agent took my passport and a spare passport photo that I had, and did the necessary, such that when we went through immigration, my one-time visa was already waiting for me.

 

All in all, a very satisfying ferry trip, with some new interesting airport entries for my logbook. I took the opportunity to go round the city, but could not possibly do it justice in the time available. The booklet about the city, that I bought as a little present for Eileen on my return, was well received. So much so, that I am now told it is a place we must visit together, on holiday, sometime soon.

 

(Expensive book!)

 

 

Brian Mellor     October 2009