The Amelia Earhart moment
Flying from Wichita, Kansas, to Cascais in Portugal – nearly 8,000 km – in a Piper Seminole, the most common multi-engine trainer aircraft in flying schools
Text & Photographs: Raunaq Singh Panwar

Hey, can you fly a Seminole?” my friend asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Okay, you have got to ferry one from USA to China. Contact the ferry company now.”

This is the conversation I had with my friend before I headed out for Wichita, Kansas. This ferry flight was a Piper Seminole, the most common multi-engine trainer aircraft in flying schools the world over, and this one had to be delivered to a flight school in Wuhan, China. I was in for an amazing and adventurous flight.

I began my journey by flying out to Newark, New Jersey, by United Airlines and throughout the 15-hour non-stop flight I was thinking about the route, flipping the screen on the on-board entertainment system. This plane was going at a speed of  800 km an hour and I would be doing around 300 km/hr in the Piper Seminole. From Newark, it was Southwest Airlines to Wichita via Chicago Midway airport (the best thing about Southwest was that they offer two free check-in bags and it is still a low-cost carrier. If someone from Indigo or SpiceJet is reading this, please take inspiration and try it out). In the second leg from Chicago, we were only 20 passengers as it was the Easter weekend. I was told there was a huge storm which struck Kansas and Missouri a day before I arrived and took out power lines and uprooted trees and road signs. I landed late at night;  the next day I was slated to meet the people at the ferry company.

 Next morning, I met the wonderful couple from the ferry company and as they drove me to their office, we could see the huge amount of destruction that the storm had caused. Their office was next to a grass airstrip. At the office I was handed over the documentation, the aircraft bag and briefed about the flight. Then I headed out to the airport for a test flight before I departed. In the airplane, I was amazed to see the ferry tank (extra fuel tank) which was at the co-pilot’s seat! This is going to be interesting, I thought! What more could I have asked for in this brand new airplane with a glass cockpit fitted with G1000 avionics.

The test flight was good and I was ready to depart. The airplane was fuelled and I planned for an early morning departure with an endurance of 13 hours. My only concern was how to fit my baggage with the ferry tanks inside the cabin. I had to leave one bag behind and loaded the rest. I finished the grocery shopping early as this was going to be an eight-hour flight to Bar Harbour, Maine. This flight of 2,600 kms took me over Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Detroit and Michigan, which was the first big city en route. Just as I entered the Canadian airspace, within 20 miles, there was icing. While I was flying over Lake Erie, there was a slight ice built-up, but as I went above the clouds, things improved. Around Rochester, NY, I looked outside and checked for ice on the wings and the propeller hub. It had accumulated quite fast. I descended to 3,500 feet, but still encountered ice. The problems I encountered were because there was no weather radar in the plane and I had to judge from what I could see.

The best thing about US airspace is that you can ask for weather over the radio to the briefer, who advised me to re-route via Watertown, NY, and then via Vermont to Maine. I flew over White Mountain National Forest, a very pretty sight with everything covered under snow. The temperature outside was -22 degrees C and it was very cold inside, even with the heat turned on. As I approached Bar Harbour, the sight was unbelievable – beautiful islands all over with the Acadia National Park to the east of the town. The snow had been cleared from the runway and was piled 8-10 feet high on the sides. I headed to the small town of Ellsworth to spend the night.

This part of the country is known for its seafood, specially the lobster, and the beautiful Acadia National Park. Next day, the airplane went under maintenance before it could leave USA. I had to wait another day there as the life-raft (survival equipment for flying over water)was expected. I ate a delicious lobster sandwich roll at Jordan’s snack bar while it snowed outside. Then I came to know that the raft was now routed to Bangor as it would have taken another day to reach here. So, the next day, I flew out to Bangor, a 15 minute flight, where I had to clear the customs before going to Canada.

Bangor is a town with a population of 30,000 and a major refuelling stop for airplanes crossing the Atlantic. I got a call from the ferry company, advising that fuelling in Egypt and India will be through barrels so I better get a pump and hose before leaving Bangor. I bought the pump and hose along with the grocery and had a tough time fitting it in the already full baggage compartment.

For flying around the world, you do not need a visa for each country you land in; only a general declaration form is enough. The next day, I flew for St John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, which was a five-hour flight covering 1300 kms. I entered Canada near Fredericton, New Brunswick, and flew over Prince Edward island to St John’s. It’s interesting that the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon belong to France; they are an overseas collectivity of France. The islands are right next to Newfoundland and Labrador and the only remnant of the former colonial empire of
New France.

A storm was approaching as I neared the airport and suddenly the weather deteriorated. I managed to land with the winds at 60 km/hr. There were C-130 Hercules aircrafts parked on the ramp of the RAF and the Royal Canadian Air Force. The customs and immigration officers drove right till the airplane. It is also called Torbay airport and is another major fuel stop for airplanes crossing the Atlantic. Everyone at the terminal was shocked to see an Indian flying this airplane. I met the crew of the RAF C-130 Hercules, who had landed just before me, and they said, “Mate, we were concerned for you once we got to know a Piper Seminole was landing here”. As I left the terminal, snow flurries started and at night it began to snow heavily. The airplane was not parked inside the hangar and I knew starting it up in the morning would be a challenge. Tomorrow was a big day for me. I had to cross the Atlantic solo in a PA-44.

 I arrived at the airport only to see the airplane covered in snow. I started removing the snow, but it was -11 deg C and the plane wouldn’t start. The hangar owner saw me in the terminal and said, “Hey, I want to have a look at your airplane before you depart. Have you checked the weather en-route?” I said, “Yes, it’s only the first 200 miles which I have to dodge and then it’s all clear”. I was glad he was there to offer his assistance.

As the sun came up, I started cranking the engine again, but it won’t start. The gentleman then gave me an air starter, which blew hot air. I stood with the hose aimed at each engine for 5 minutes. The Seminole was then all set and raring to fly. The staff wished me luck and I departed for the Azores islands, at a distance of 2,600 kms, which are in the middle of North Atlantic, belonging to Portugal. The initial couple of hours I encountered some weather problems, but after that it was a smooth flight all the way to Santa Maria island in the Azores. I passed my time by listening to music on my mp3 player with the earphones under the aviation headsets, making and eating sandwiches.

On such long flights, the VHF radio transmission is lost. So, we communicate via HF and it was a tough time getting in contact with Gandor radio. I had to relay my position through an Air Canada flight. However, contacting Santa Maria was not a problem; perhaps their range was better than Gandor. First land mass after eight hours of flight was Horta. Then, on the right, I saw the island of Pico with a volcano. Towards the left was Ponta Delgada, a major town in the Azores. The beauty of these islands cannot be expressed in words.

After 8 hours and 20 minutes, I landed at Santa Maria, half-an-hour after sunset. The ground staff was anxiously waiting for me to arrive. When they saw this tiny plane, they asked me how I managed to fly all the way here. But once they saw the 600-litre fuel tank inside, they were satisfied.

After a good night’s rest, I departed the next morning to Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon, which caters to only chartered flights. Just after take-off, I could see the beautiful landscape and lush green farms with very few houses and then the ocean. Hearing the odd KLM or Avianca flight on the radio makes you feel there is someone else also flying along with you. “Portugal 1260 relays my position to Lisboa,” that is how they called on the radio. To the south, a few hundred miles away, is Madeira Island. The weather throughout was good and after 5 hours 30 minutes, covering 1,400 kms, I arrived at Cascais in the afternoon. It was a great feeling to have crossed the Atlantic solo and I felt extremely happy and thankful to God.

The town of Cascais is very beautiful. It is situated on the Atlantic coast and in the evening I ventured out and walked along the coast, admiring this beautiful part of the world with turquoise water and clean beaches. A few enthusiasts were surfing as the sun went down; it could not have been any better. (Continued in the next issue)

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