Like Lindbergh, only in reverse

Anyone who thinks flying across the Atlantic is just a movie, a nap, and two meals hasn't read the Federal Aviation Administration's operations manual on the subject. It's a sobering view of one of the most challenging places to fly on earth.

"Because of the harsh climate, lack of ground-based radio and navigation aids, as well as the immense distances involved, a transatlantic flight is a serious undertaking," states the FAA document.

How serious? "There is almost no room for error..., so plan accordingly, then recheck," the manual says.

Arthur Hussey has done plenty of planning for our trip in his single-engine Cessna - two years of consulting with experts in Europe and North America. He has checked and rechecked the plane's airworthiness, installed an extra fuel tank to give us "longer legs" should we need to detour, and stowed aboard some 150 pounds of survival gear (not including the hefty, full-body immersion suits we rented for the long over-water stretches).

"The North Atlantic is one of the rougher stretches of real estate," says the man who's flown as a bush pilot in Southern Africa and is headed for more flying in Alaska. It's not just the freezing waters of the Atlantic, but the miles and miles of harsh, uninhabited geography.

"We are talking boondocks here," says Ed Carlson of Nashua, N.H., who's made more than 200 crossings himself and runs a special course for transoceanic pilots. "You will be flying over some of the most remote, rugged, desolate, and beautiful terrain in the world."

Andrew Bruce, head of Far North Aviation in Wick, Scotland, is one of the last experts we spoke with before heading out across the Atlantic. He specializes in providing fuel and services (including life rafts and other survival equipment) to transoceanic pilots.

"The No. 1 consideration has got to be the weather," says Mr. Bruce. "The rates of change and extremes of patterns are quite prominent and unique to that route." This includes strong headwinds, icing, and poor visibility at landing fields - especially in Greenland, where some of the approaches are up narrow fjords.

But there's something else here that compounds the challenges of flying.

"It's not the weather, it's not the condition of the airplane, it's stupidity," says Bruce, an intensity in his Scottish burr. By this he means pilots ignoring warning signs, hoping for the best and pressing on, flying when they should sit it out for a day or two if necessary. When I was flying in the United States Navy, we called this "get-aboard-itis" - trying to land on the aircraft carrier when the smarter, safer thing to do was head for land and a nice long runway.

Because of the weather challenges in the North Atlantic, regular transpacific commercial flight opened up years earlier - even though there was more of a market for passenger travel between North America and Europe. These days, airliners cross the North Atlantic all the time. But they do it far above the worst weather and without having to land along the way.

Smaller aircraft - particularly those like Arthur's Cessna 182 - are less typical. It's the single engine that makes the difference. Stopping over in Reykjavik, we meet two American pilots ferrying a twin-engine corporate plane from Europe to the US Midwest. "I like to have two of everything, especially engines," says one of the pilots.

Still, flying light aircraft "across the pond," as Ed Carlson puts it, is not unheard-of - even for planes smaller than Arthur's. It just requires extra caution and preparations.

Along with the requirements for special things regarding our engine, radios, and navigation gear (an extra, hand-held GPS, for example), there are the things that seem mundane but could be key to a successful outcome.

"My North Atlantic dress code is long-johns, wool socks, wool turtleneck, jeans, a lightweight shell, wool ski sweater, and a ski jacket," advises Ed Carlson, who seasons his serious seminars with humor. "Waterproof matches are in my pockets. The emergency location transmitter is tied around my neck. Don't forget wool mittens, all-weather boots, sunglasses, Avon's Skin-So-Soft for mosquitoes and piranha, suntan lotion, and your camera."

Our list includes 22 pounds of vacuum-packed raisins and nuts, a fishing net, tent, sleeping bags, and two sets of snow shoes. No wonder our Cessna's tail droops a little when it's on the ground.

Charles Lindbergh, by comparison, carried a sack of sandwiches on his first-ever solo flight from New York to Paris.

"In the event of a water landing," as airline flight attendants delicately put it, our bright-red immersion suits will be essential garb in water that warms to no more than 38 degrees F. this time of year. And as Andrew Bruce says, "unless they're uncomfortable, they're not the right suits." Ours are definitely the right suits,.although I would have preferred something in a 38-long Harris tweed.

There's one other issue that many have asked us about. As the FAA manual states:

"You will want to make provisions to eat, drink, and take care of all necessary bodily functions (we don't know of any delicate way to discuss this). Desperately needing a restroom ... has been the foundation for countless comedy routines. But if you suddenly discover you failed to plan for this inevitable need, it won't be funny at the time - although it may be later."

We are having fun, but that's one area of humor we intend not to experience.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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