Crossing the Atlantic by Private Plane
by Thierry Pouille
My first Atlantic crossing was in April, 1974 in a King Air C90. My second crossing was in August of 1987 in a Piper Cheyenne 1 from Texas all the way to Geneva, Switzerland. Not a single cloud along the way. From Reykjavik to Geneva was the longest leg ever in a Cheyenne 1 – six hours and forty-two minutes nonstop. And we still had enough fuel at altitude to reach Rome before fuel exhaustion.
But I had to wait until this past month, August 2018, to cross the Atlantic through the route that we have all heard of from initial crossings during the heydays of transatlantic flying. A time when piston aircraft were used for commercial flight via the Azores.
I was escorting Air Journey to Africa with a total of 6 airplanes. Three of them were joining in the U.S. and three others in Europe. The three coming from the U.S. are HF-equipped which launched the idea of crossing via the Azores.
The first leg was to meet the participants in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada on August 25. I had the opportunity to fly a CJ3+ from Tampa nonstop to Newfoundland (over 1,900 nautical miles) with a slight tailwind at FL450. At engine shutdown, we still showed 890 pounds after doing the full approach into sunny St. John’s. The briefing was the same evening and then the next day, we launched toward Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
On the map, it looks pretty impressive. There’s only the color blue in between the destinations. The total distance from St. John’s to Ponta Delgada is only 1,340 nautical miles, a pretty short distance for a well-equipped CJ3. This not only gave us plenty of fuel but also options to land at any of the islands if need be.
The route itself was pretty straight forward. After departing St. John’s, we were clear to FL450 with only one restriction given to us by Gander Oceanic – to be at the position West 050 at our flight level of 450, which is about 110 nautical miles from departure. This can be accomplished with a CJ3+ if ISA temperature is within acceptable range which was our case on the day of August 26, and we were requested to be above flight level 430 by the West 050 border. We did it with no sweat.
The reason for this request is that when you look back on the Atlantic crossing through an application such as Foreflight, you will see the tracks which are used by the airlines from Europe coming to the United States. These tracks can be as north as the middle of Greenland and as south as the northern part of the U.S., and that’s based on the dominant wind in order to give the most efficient route for the airliner. So, our departure out of St. John’s definitely had to cross the track, and since we were still under radar control that made that climb a lot easier.
Reaching Gander on the HF was pretty easy. It is very similar to a VHF communication. We were given two frequencies – the main one and a secondary in case we lost communication on the first one. We were asked to report on the next crossing which would be West 050 and also, strangely enough, they gave us a backup VHF frequency which was based on an oil platform somewhere below us.
At West 050, we were put in contact with New York Oceanic, one communication only. They again confirmed the primary and secondary frequency, telling us to contact the Santa Maria Oceanic HF radio at position West 040, which we did.
Almost immediately, our Santa Maria Oceanic HF communication gave us a backup VHF radio and asked us to switch to it. So, while HF is mandatory to cross the Atlantic on this routing, there is a substantial VHF backup along the way.
I like to point out too that the airplane needs to be equipped with a working HF radio. Any communication through Iridium satellite telephone is not accepted.
The arrival into Ponta Delgada was a straight forward arrival like most airports in Europe. Since most of the islands are volcanic islands, they requested if we have runway 30, to do the full ILS approach. And if we have the wind coming from the east, then we have to do the full RNAV 12 approach.
The runway was in excellent shape – about 7,600 feet all together. The airport is served from a number of commercial flights from Europe as well as Azores Airlines which flies on a regular basis to Toronto, Boston and New York. You might have seen in travel publications that the Azores is starting to become a more popular faraway destination for the public.
Fuel in Ponta Delgada was only $4.84 per gallon and the only fee by the agent was around $500. The whole experience was pretty straight forward, easygoing, efficient and they even allowed us access back to one of the airplanes to secure one of the bags.
Overall, with the weather we had and a little bit of tailwind, it was an uneventful flight, good communication along the way, and a little over three hours of flight time together, with plenty of reserve upon landing. That’s when I finally realized that the CJ3+ is the ideal aircraft to cross the Atlantic nonstop.
Believe it or not, after our takeoff from St. John’s and reaching our cruising altitude of FL450 and speed of Mach 0.72, our range on the G3000 was showing us that we had enough fuel to cross over Spain and reach the island of Mallorca. Amazing!
On the body, it was also very easy because there is a one-and-a-half-hour difference between the east coast of the U.S. and St. John’s. Then it’s only two-and-a-half hours from St. John’s to the Azores, and the remaining two hours when you go to mainland Spain.
If you are interested, for next year’s Atlantic crossing/Africa journey, look at Air Journey – for the first time, we will be offering a nonstop crossing of the Atlantic toward Europe.