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Global Reach Aviation
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EBAN asked its readers about the most unusual things they had done in an aircraft. It seems that there is nothing too bold or challenging that you won't attempt and we have reproduced some of these stories here for a bit of light summer reading. We had so many that the feature will continue in our October issue.
Operation Polar Express
Stratajet founder and CEO Jonny Nicol trained as a fighter pilot with the RAF before joining the British Army, where he served as an officer for ten years and covered three major operational tours; experience he drew on one December when he agreed to fly a terminally ill teenage girl at an altitude of 300 ft across the Atlantic.
For medical reasons the girl was not able to fly commercially, nor indeed at an altitude greater than 2,000 ft. Emergency treatment meant she had missed the boat she was originally booked on and, having spent seven years in hospital enduring countless operations and endless rounds of chemotherapy, she desperately wanted to get to Florida for a once in a lifetime Christmas trip to Disney World. A number of pilots had refused to fly at such a low altitude but Nicol said yes.
Together with first officer Cecilie Øyås he would fly the girl and her companion from Fairoaks airport in the UK in a 1983 PA-31-350 Navajo Chieftain. It has a maximum range of around five hours and 20 minutes, but this time is reduced when flying at low altitude due to increased fuel burn due to higher air and wind-resistance. Thus the trip would have to be flown via the Arctic Circle and broken into a series of refuelling stopovers in Iceland, Greenland and northern Canada. The final stop would be Montreal, from where the passengers could get a train to Orlando.
During the initial flight from London to Wick, Nicol wanted to test the girl's maximum altitude but found that she was in pain even at 1,500ft. From that point forward it was effectively a 'zero foot' mission and they had to stay as low as they could. Weather in the Arctic Circle is highly unpredictable and it worsened as they headed towards Reykjavik. Not only that, flying at low altitude requires continuous alertness. Nicol and Øyås were flying in difficult conditions for over four and a half hours at a time and it started to take its toll early on in the trip. "We had to physically fly the plane the whole time," he says, "and that constant state of alert wears you down. It meant that our exhaustion levels were already high."
The next day's flight had to be aborted on the runway as snow blizzards were forecast, and at four o'clock the following morning the girl's condition had worsened to the extent that she needed urgent medical care. Plans were changed and Nicol found himself having to divert to Boston, home to a hospital with paediatric neuro-surgery facilities.
Critically, flying a Chieftain at less than 1,500 feet above sea level, with minimal radio contact and unreliable weather reports, requires the ability to see where you're going. Flying over the northern Atlantic in midwinter there is minimal daylight so Nicol had to precisely time the team's next departure.
A couple of factors were in his favour. The rotation of the earth and the direction of travel would extend the daylight as they flew through time zones and, when sticking close to the coastline, it would be possible to maintain radio contact and receive weather updates. Flying in the dark would be possible provided that contact was available, but should this be lost, it would be imperative they could see where they were going.
After reloading the Chieftain the team left Reykjavik before first light, intending to cross the boundary between night and day at the same time as losing radio contact. This would allow the maximum amount of daylight for their arrival in Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland.
Proceeding west, the weather was significantly worse than forecast. The group experienced severe turbulence and, with the cloud base at only 100 ft above sea level, Nicol had to skim over the water. Turbulence was, however, the least of their problems.
Fitted with deicing boots, which can be inflated in flight to crack and dislodge ice, the Chieftain had a mechanism to ward off basic icing but, with the weather getting steadily more and more severe, Nicol and Øyås had to avoid excessive exposure to such conditions. They could not climb above the clouds to prevent the ice forming, nor descend because the ground temperature was below zero. Their only option was to simply evade the conditions where possible. Nicol says: "We had to concentrate on flying the plane around these horrendous icing conditions. With-out weather radar or access to communications we were completely reliant on hand flying and watching out for the weather. But of course that requires being able to see and unfortunately there wasn't a lot of daylight."
At one point Nicol had to perform what he describes as the aviation equivalent of a handbrake turn. As the storm closed in quickly in front of them he manoeuvred the aircraft through 180° and they found themselves flying with one wing pointing skyward and the other towards the ocean below. Tracking back and looking for an alternative route through the weather presented the dilemma of burning excess fuel and wasting precious daylight.
Flying between weather cells they pressed on and finally established radio contact with Greenland. Nicol explained his concern over the aircraft's fuel levels and the local search and air rescue service was put on stand-by. While edging the Chieftain along the carefully plotted route, after four and a half hours of hellish conditions the weather cleared as if by magic and a route through the fjords presented itself.
The next stop, after a further four and half hours in the air, would be Goose Bay in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Reports of snow blizzards threatened to make the flight uncomfortable but the team were unaware of the extent of the misery to come. "That leg was destined to be one of the hardest from a point of view of physical sustainability," says Nicol.
Shortly after leaving Narsarsuaq two significant things happened. The outside air temperature dropped severely and the aircraft's heater packed up. They could not turn back, but going to Canada would present outside air-temperatures as low as -40°C. They pressed on.
Word had reached transatlantic British Airways and Air France flights that were flying overhead at cruising altitude, and they were able to communicate with the Chieftain through the International Air Distress frequency 121.5 MHz. Nicol and Øyås could transmit their position to these aircraft and it would be relayed back to mainland Canada, in particular Gander International airport, where progress was being monitored.
None of the commercial pilots could believe the little Chieftain and its team were flying at only three hundred feet over the water. "Despite our predicament it was actually fun at times," confesses Nicol. "They thought we meant 30,000 ft or 3,000 ft and it happened every time we spoke to another flight. We began to quite enjoy it and look forward to the next conversation. And the transatlantic flights loved just staying on the frequency and chatting to us, which was a small bonus given our situation.
"Most importantly it helped our morale," he continues. "Those guys were looking out for us, even though they were 35,000ft above us and travelling at around 600mph. That feeling of not being completely removed from the world made a difference."
Such is the remoteness of Goose Bay, which doubles as an air force base, that the winter months render the outpost an Arctic-esque wasteland, and it was in these conditions that Nicol had to refuel the Chieftain. Landing late into the airport, Øyås and the two passengers sought warmth in the airport terminal while he, battling brutal elements, set about preparing the plane for the next leg.
A quick examination of the heater revealed burned-out wires. There was no engineer on hand due to the late hour so there was no chance of repairs. Refuelling and topping the aircraft up with oil proved highly challenging in the mind-numbing sub-zero temperatures. "Putting a bottle of oil in the engine took me about half an hour," Nicol says, "firstly because I couldn't unscrew the bottle wearing emergency mittens and secondly because the oil in the bottle had become like treacle. After I managed to squeeze it out, it wouldn't flow through the engines properly. Getting one engine started eventually provided enough power to turn the second motor and warm up the oil, allowing it to pass through the engines and get them both running properly."
Eventually Nicol set course over the Canadian mainland, plotting a route that would avoid any obstacles higher than 1,500 ft. By this stage night had fallen and Nicol and Øyås were reliant on assistance from all sides to keep them informed of the weather conditions, even though the Chieftain kept dropping out of contact because of the altitude.
Flying in the dark was sapping the last of Nicol's energy reserves and the cold was proving a major challenge to his physical capabilities. It was the third flight without a rest in these conditions and, faced with the prospect of hypothermia, Nicol resorted to doing push-ups on the armrests of his chair to attempt to keep warm. Beside him Øyås was fading in and out of consciousness and hallucinating.
They finally reached Saint John airport, just a few flight hours from Boston, where Nicol's exhaustion hit a new low as the relief of knowing that the team had survived the worst of the weather conditions brought with it a dip in his adrenaline levels and a deep lethargy; another symptom of hypothermia. Fighting off the temptation to quit they re-boarded the aircraft and managed to keep in constant radio contact with the mainland. Nearing Boston Logan International airport he was too exhausted to work out which of the six runways he should head for. Understanding their plight, Boston Air Traffic Control held commercial airliners in circulation above the airport so the little Chieftain could land anywhere he was able to touch down.
The young passenger was transferred to hospital and after two days did get to Disney World in time for Christmas. In the meantime Nicol and Øyås transferred to a local hotel and, while Øyås crashed into a deep sleep, Nicol lay awake experiencing flashbacks of the trip: "I experienced similar situations in the military. Having been in a gun battle for 36 hours, when you get the chance to sleep you can't actually do so because you keep reliving the experience. It's the ebbing of stress. In a way the trip had hit the same parts of my subconscious as war."
Flying at such a low altitude, for so long and in such bad weather conditions in a propeller-powered 1983 Chieftain was an unprecedented feat of aviation. The broken heater almost cost the lives of the passengers and Øyås describes the trip: "By far the hardest but most exhilarating and rewarding experience of my life."
ASL Belgium's Troll success
While South Africa-based Safair has been flying seasonal missions to Antarctica for many years in a civilian Hercules, last November associate airline ASL Airlines Belgium operated a B757 Combi delivering scientists and equipment to the Norwegian polar base in Troll.
An enormous amount of work and preparation went into this adventure. The flight crew was composed of three pilots, three cabin crew, three engineers, one loadmaster and one ground support person, and a group of 55 passengers were waiting to board in Cape Town.
Despite last minute changes, group director corporate affairs Andrew Kelly says the team managed to get the necessary permits just in time for a successful landing. Instrumental to the success was the availability of SATCOM, set up by the technical department. Ground support at site was excellent although refuelling proved to be a challenge, both in terms of volume available and the way fuel had to be loaded. With only 200 litre barrels available the contents had to be transferred to a truck that could then start filling the aircraft. But as ever the right combination of good preparation, competence and some improvisation on the ground did the trick.
I liked it so much I bought the company
It has been known to happen that a passenger has enjoyed a flight so much that they go on to buy the aircraft. But for Turkish FBO Bilen Air, it wasn't the aircraft that caught the eye of a passenger but one of the chairs in the departure terminal.
On this particular occasion aircraft owner Hubert Bertsch was resting in the lounge pre-flight when his wife decided she liked one of the chairs there so much she asked her husband to buy it for her. Corporate business director Ayça Kocabas recalls how the company arranged for all necessary paperwork to be completed quickly so that the couple could take the chair away with them onboard that very flight. Bertsch has since written to let the company know how happy they are with the chair, which they have placed in their drawing room at home.
Flight inspection duty
Aguenar airport, also known as Tamanrasset, is located at 4,544 feet above sea level in the south of Algeria and boasts a runway of 3,600 m. Between April and October the temperature can reach 37°. At the Etablissement National de la Navigation Aerienne (ENNA) air traffic controller and aircraft accident investigator Feth el Nour Gacem has been using the company's Hawker Siddeley HS-125-700B for difficult hot and high operations to calibrate navigational equipment for instrument landing systems. He describes the aircraft as a 'great bird', but to use it in these conditions presents quite a challenge.
"You need to be extremely vigilant and alert at this airfield due to air density," says Gacem. "It can affect aircraft performance, sometimes critically, and you can get engine surges, the fuel can overheat, altimeter indications can deteriorate and occasionally the aircraft might need more length for lift, which can make takeoff extremely difficult if one engine becomes inoperative."
The Hawker Siddeley has been flown all around Africa, Europe and the Middle East in order to verify the precision of ground instruments, sometimes flying for up to eight hours at a time at an altitude of between 3,000 to 10,000 feet, and often over airfields requiring high angles of descent and climb.
The aircraft received regular maintenance in the UK but after many years of service it ended its days in the hangar; recurrent failure, maintenance costs and old age had taken a toll. Now ENNA is using a Cessna XLS of which Gacem says: "It's awesome to see it flying. It gives a reliable and high quality flight inspection service and its system fully complies with ICAO standards as well as OAP, FAA and NATO requirements. It's a fast and flexible bird."
To Africa: in and out of Chinko
Shaun Morris has been with Johannesburg-based National Airways Corporation for the past 17 years and is currently a full-time pilot for the helicopter division based at Grand Central airport in Midrand, South Africa. NAC is contracted to supply a Bell 407 on the Chinko Project, and Morris flies the heli-copter on a six-week rotational basis.
"When I was asked if I would like to fly for an anti-poaching group in the Central African Republic my first thoughts were of a poor, landlocked, politically unstable country in the centre of Africa with civil wars, Anti-balaka militia, the Lord's Resistance Army, other rebel and terrorist groups, religious cleansing, genocide and the UN," says Shaun Morris. "All in all not the kind of place you would want to take your wife."
But then he was told about Chinko, a little known African Park in the north east of the country; a unique 18,000 km2 savannah and tropical forest reserve. Asked to fly a Bell 407 to drop rangers and supplies around the reserve he was assured it would be safe and told not to worry.
"Chinko is actually a beacon in one of the world's darkest corners," says Morris. "It has a lot to offer, from the diversity of the landscape to the people and from sweat bees to flying ants, which are strangely tasty, like the brown crispy edges of a fried egg."
With no visa or return ticket, and armed with nothing but a passport and a letter of invitation, he struggled to get through Kenya Airways' check in. But once he told them he was a helicopter pilot he was rushed through and found himself on the red-eye to Nairobi. There followed a stopover in Entebbe and then on to Bangui, from where a Cessna 206 had been chartered to take him to Chinko.
The majority of the food and supplies for Chinko are flown in on the 206 and after Morris had climbed over the pilot and taken his seat he was entrusted with eight dozen eggs to hold. "Four hours later, through bad weather and strong headwinds, we made it to Chinko and the eggs were still unbroken on my lap," he recalls.
His first flight was with the director general for African Parks David Simpson, a familiarisation flight combined with a standard mission to drop supplies and rations and to pick up and drop off rangers. He had his flight bag and all the requisite bush flight accessories: a Delorme personal satellite tracker, NAC's own IndigoSat tracker, a handheld VHF radio, a satellite phone, his own cell phone, power banks, extra GPS and water. Weather conditions were CAVOK and it was a beautiful day. "I am given the all clear and lift the 407 into the African sky," he recalls. "It's the first time I get a sense of where we are. Below me is true wilderness, the Chinko river basin, it is a paradise of dense jungle and grassy plateaus, a place where open savannahs and tropical forests collide. It's breathtaking and I can see why people come here."
It was dry season, where it's usually hot and humid but occasionally unpredictable. Visibility is reduced in the aftermath of the haboobs – sand storms from the Sahara in Sudan – and huge thunderstorms with erratic winds uproot trees and flood the tents.
Refuelling, and particularly the ground transportation of fuel from the capital Bangui, is a logistical nightmare. It can take a couple of months to arrive, only to find that half of it has been lost to various rebel factions along the route. To save fuel the pilots would operate the heli-copter at 120 kts, no more than 70 per cent torque and with an average fuel consumption of 240 lbs/hr.
A couple of days into his Chinko experience Morris received a mission detail. He worked out the flight navigation times, including all the landings, drop-offs with time on the ground, the weight and balance and fuel loading with the required reserves, and then added a measure of additional fuel for his own peace of mind. He explains: "My personal reserve requirement, if you can call it that, came about from my early years at NAC as an engineer when I experienced first hand what impact fuel starvation has on Baron 55 engines at 2,000 ft. Just to clarify I was the passenger. The pilot fittingly got the nickname 'Crash Gordon', but from that day on I have always ensured I have a personal fuel reserve."
Morris was into the second leg of the mission and had been looking forward to landing on a little island in the middle of the Chinko river. He touched down and the rangers jumped out and secured the area. After the two minute cool down period he shut the machine down, but the instant the rotors came to a stop the cockpit was engulfed with African killer bees. "As I am climbing out I grab the spray which is stored behind my seat and calmly persuade them to exit," he says. While waiting for them to disperse he noticed the perfect spot for fly fishing at the water's edge; a chance to catch the elusive Goliath Tigerfish or the Nile Perch. He was about to wander over when a giant crocodile emerged from beneath the calm waters so he beat a hasty retreat to the helicopter and, bees gone, started up and got on his way.
All was going well until he felt a tingling sensation on the back of his neck telling him something was wrong. He cautiously scanned the cockpit and saw a spider; bigger than his hand, each leg the width of a finger and sporting some vicious-looking fangs. It was perched on the far end of the chin bubble, behind the blower, but it came closer one hairy leg at a time until it was just behind the standby compass. "Then I lost sight of him," says Morris. "I'm frantically looking around, panic sets in, and I feel this tug on my flight suit just above my right boot. I kick and shake my leg so violently that I am sure my shoe will come off." Finally the spider dropped to the floor and Morris restored calm with a swift stamp of his foot.
On routing back to base he encountered what was later described as the worst storm to hit Chinko in months. At one stage he contemplated landing and waiting for the storm to pass; the advantage of a helicopter. But eventually it dissipated enough for him to find a gap and make it back to HQ with plenty of personal reserve fuel and 15 minutes to spare before sunset.
A last minute detour
Swiss operator Global Jet Concept had reason to be thankful for the resourcefulness of its crew recently when its Airbus ACJ was flying extra-long range from the east coast of the US to Asia, calling at Alaska for a fuel stop.
The aircraft landed at Anchorage in the middle of the night, only for the crew to be informed that the onward flight would be delayed by eight hours due to extreme weather on route. The clients would then face further delays to their trip due to duty time and rest period requirements for the crew.
An eight-hour delay could have passed slowly but the lead flight attendant had the idea of taking the passengers on a night tour of the city. This would not only keep them amused but would allow the remaining crew sufficient rest for the mission to continue smoothly.
VIP flight attendant and inflight instructor Mallory Mortier says: "There were few resources to hand but the lead flight attendant borrowed a car from our handling agent, did a few quick online searches on what to see and do in Anchorage, then took our clients on an unforgettable improvised adventure." They were taken for a drive along the coast, continued on to Chugach National Forest, past the fjords, and then enjoyed breakfast in a local diner.
UK-based Midlands Air Ambulance Charity (MAAC) is a helicopter-led emergency medical service that funds and operates three air ambulance helicopters. Covering six counties of the Midlands, it has undertaken over 50,000 missions since 1991 making it one of the largest HEMS charities in the UK. Two EC135 helicopters are based out of the Strensham and Tatenhill airbases, and one H145 helicopter has operated from RAF Cosford since February of this year.
But what makes these aircraft uniquely fit for purpose is the bespoke interior fit. Air operations manager Ian Roberts explains: "Most pieces of equipment in our EC135s can be moved if required, including the seating and stretchers. This is important not only for in-air treatment but also after a mission, when each air ambulance requires extensive cleaning."
The configuration of equipment is only altered when undertaking pre-organised critical care transfers if extra equipment is being carried. The configuration of equipment in each of the helicopters enables the crew to work quickly and efficiently, and the fit has been purposely standardised across the fleet, which is ideal for multi-aircraft responses and for when crews are working at alternative bases.
The company is in the fortunate position of being able to be part of the design process for its fleet interiors with Babcock International. "While designing the onboard treatment area we were able to think about the best possible position for our equipment and the stretcher as access to the patient is of paramount importance," says Roberts. "Not only can we position the stretcher to suit each patient's condition, but we have a number of ways to load them via the side or rear of the aircraft." For the majority of its airlifts the side door is used as it is better for both patient and aircrew.
Kazakhstan rescue service
Global Reach Aviation is a Danish owned company that flies on ProAir's German AOC.
Recently it was hired to travel to Kazakhstan to collect a group of young soccer players from Edinburgh who were stranded in the middle of nowhere. The girls had been playing football at a training camp but when the time came to leave it transpired the airline that was due to bring them back had gone bankrupt. With just a very short lead time GRA was approached to organise their 'rescue', a request they managed to organise in only a few hours.
GRA sent its CRJ-200, nicknamed Charlie, to pick up the team from its base at Billund airport. It can seat up to 50 passengers and has a good range, but Kazakhstan is eight hours from Edinburgh so it made a fuel stop in Moscow on the return. "In Russia, or in general outside of Schengen, you need to be quite competent and know about the different rules," says CEO Jacob Rasmussen. "GRA operations management planned the trip so that the aircraft flew direct between Kazakhstan and Edinburgh, and not from Kazakhstan to Moscow to Edinburgh. By making Moscow just a fuel/tech stop meant that we didn't need a visa."
He remembers that when the aircraft touched down for fuel in Moscow the team could see all of Transaero's stranded 747s sitting on the tarmac at the airport.
The footballers were relieved to see the GRA crew and Rasmussen escorted them through security and onto the aircraft. He says: "It was as close as we'd been to an Indiana Jones mission."
Circumnavigation is trip of a lifetime for crew
In 2017 UK-based Xclusive Jets received a request for an 80-85 sector trip for a Swiss family who wanted to make a nine-month trip around the world. In August last year a Falcon 900 took them from Geneva and went down one side of Africa and up the other. It then flew to the Middle East, on to India and then the far East and Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. "We were supposed to go to Indonesia too," says COO Andrew Wood, "but we couldn't because the volcano in Bali was erupting at the time and we had to steer clear of that."
From there they came back to Europe for Christmas, but set off again in the middle of January with a flight from Switzerland to New York, then down to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, round to Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile in South America, and from Santiago in Chile west across the Pacific to Easter Island. "That was an unusual stop in that we needed special permission from the CAA to go there," says Wood. "Because of its remoteness, once you are about four to four and a half hours out of Santiago you are committed to landing at Easter Island, there are no alternates within the range of the aircraft."
From Easter Island the aircraft went further west again to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Brisbane and then north to the Philippines and Japan before making around eight to ten different stops in China. Thence to Mongolia and back through Russia to Moscow and St Petersburg. Finally they returned to Geneva in May.
Overall the Falcon 900 was well suited to the mission. Its tri-engine meant there were no ETOPS concerns, and while it would have been possible to use a smaller aircraft for some of the shorter sectors, Wood explains that the clients wanted the same aircraft throughout so that they could make it into a home away from home. To mark their ownership of it for the trip they asked to have a Swiss flag decal by the door.
A year long trip is an enormous commitment for a crew to take on, and Xclusive Jets arranged for there to be two full sets of crew, with two captains, who worked on the basis of three weeks on duty and three weeks off. The family had a good time, but the crew were also able to enjoy some of the destinations while they were with the aircraft. "At the lost city of Petra in Jordan the crew went to Machu Picchu," explains Wood. "They also went on safari in Tanzania, so from a crew point of view too it was the trip of a lifetime."
Talking of branding
UK-based Zenith Aviation is operating the summer tour for Dutch superstar DJ Hardwell, with over 60 hours of flying and 40 stops around Ibiza, Norway, the Greek Islands and eastern Europe. Chartering a Learjet 75 allowed Hardwell to maximise his tour dates and fly home to rest in between as well.
Managing director Stuart Mulholland says: "With the delivery of our latest Learjet 75 we were able to dedicate an aircraft to DJ Hardwell for his entire summer tour, offering something bespoke by having it branded with his logo. The superstar DJ is effectively getting his own aircraft for the summer and the branding allows for lots of cool posts on social media. We had a very specific catering request that M&Ms, Oreo cookies and Fanta Lemon always be on board, but no outrageous 'riders' so far."
EBAN will be sharing part two of these unusual missions and tales of derring-do in the October issue of the magazine. If you have any stories you would like to share, please get in touch with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.