Tucson to London in a Beech D-18

Going to the University of Arizona in Tucson in the late 1960s I had a part time job at an aircraft maintenance and modification facility at Tucson International Airport. They specialized in modifying twin Beech D-18s for freighter service. The modifications included a wing spar mod to eliminate an FAA requirement for an x-Ray inspection every 50 hours, installing a cargo door to allow pallets to be loaded and an access hatch over the pilot’s seat so the pilot could get to the cockpit over the wing rather than through the passenger/cargo compartment when it was loaded with bulky freight.

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Beech D-18 by TVR Photography.

The company sold one of these modified Twin Beeches to an air freight company in England and when the owner came to pick it up he wanted a co-pilot to fly with him for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that since the airplane wasn’t equipped with an autopilot he wanted a relief pilot to share the flying duties with. Even though I only had a student pilot’s certificate at the time I could hold straight and level and that was all he needed.

More importantly, even with a 200 gallon ferry tank installed in the passenger compartment there was not quite enough fuel for the planned leg from Goose Bay, Labrador to Keflavik, Iceland. The solution was to get 10 five gallon Jerry cans, put them in the passenger compartment and have the co-pilot pour them into the ferry tank after it had been burned down. I met the qualifications for that task as well.

The navigation plan for the transatlantic portion of the flight was to use a high frequency (HF) automatic direction finder (ADF) with a long wire antenna that you reel out after you takeoff and reel back in before you land. This was in the late 60’s long before LORAN and GPS.

The flight was in April so winter frontal activity was a big consideration as well.

Tucson to London courtesy of ForeFlight

Tucson to London courtesy of ForeFlight

Our first leg from Tucson to Hutchinson, Kansas was a shakedown to make sure everything was working and it was uneventful. The next stop was Cleveland, Ohio before heading to Goose Bay where we planned to spend the night. When we landed there was six feet of snow on either side of the runway after an instrument approach at night. In base ops the weatherman told us a winter storm was approaching and if we didn’t leave for Iceland right now we would be stuck in Goose Bay for several days so off we went for a night transatlantic crossing. After we got airborne we were unable to get the HF antenna to deploy. That changed our plan for navigation.

Back in the 60s the U.S. Coast Guard maintained weather ships on static location throughout the Atlantic Ocean and each ship had a VOR station for aircraft navigation. Ocean Station Bravo was located half way between Canada and the southern tip of Greenland where there was another VOR and then Ocean Station Alpha was located half way between the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland. So the plan was to start tracking the outbound radial from Saint John’s in Newfoundland, Canada towards Ocean Station Bravo and dead-recon after we lost that signal until we picked up the VOR on Ocean Station Bravo, fly to that station and again start tracking outbound toward the southern tip of Greenland and again dead-recon until we picked up the VOR on the southern tip of Greenland. We did have to make some “minor” course corrections each time we picked up a new VOR, but the plan worked well.

The weather between Goose Bay and Greenland forced us up to 12,000 feet to stay out of the clouds and icing conditions.

The night flight was spectacular as the Northern Lights were very active with all the weather that was occurring. In fact it looked like we were flying IN the Northern Lights and we had frequent occurrences of Saint Elmo’s Fire on the windscreen.

A couple of hours into the flight it was time for me to start emptying the five gallon Jerry cans into the ferry tank. The first two cans went well but because we were at 12,000 feet I tired from lack of oxygen very quickly and had to take a break to catch my breath after emptying each can from then on. It took me an hour to empty all ten cans (50 gallons) into the ferry tank. Ironically, the engines were burning 50 gallons an hour so I was just able to keep up with the fuel flow.

As the sun came up and we approached Greenland we could discern an oil leak on the right engine propeller hub so we decided to land at Narsarsuaq, Greenland to check the oil. At that time Nasarsuaq was a Danish Air Force base that was available as an emergency stop just as it was during World War II when it was known as Bluie West One. If you have read Fate is the Hunter by Ernest Gann he describes finding this airport by finding the southern tip of Greenland, flying up the west coast, counting fiords and flying up the proper fiord which you can verify by the shipwreck at a bend in the fiord before you get to the runway and that’s exactly what we did.

On the ground at Nasarsuaq we again learned that the winter storm was chasing us and if we didn’t take off before sunset, since there were no lights on the runway, we would be stuck there for several days. The oil leak was not bad. We added a couple of quarts and then went to the transient quarters to get a bite to eat and sleep all day before heading back to the airplane for another night flight from Greenland to Reykjavik, Iceland. The Danish Air Force folks at Nasarsuaq were fantastic. When we got ready to depart they had complete forecasts with winds aloft, destination weather and satellite imagery of the current weather between Greenland and Iceland. I was really impressed and appreciative.

We were treated to another fantastic display of the Northern Lights but the flight was uneventful particularly since I didn’t have to transfer fuel on this leg.

Reykjavik was a simple gas and go and we were on our way to Heathrow Airport on the west side of London. The flight took four days and we logged 40 hours of flight time. After a great dinner and a much needed night’s rest I took a very comfortable BOAC flight back to the United States.

 

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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