Flying adventure: Crossing the Atlantic on your first ever solo in an M600
PUBLISHED: 16:12 26 March 2019
A pilot more used to traversing oceans in commercial jets sets out to cross the Atlantic in his first flight in command of a single-engine turboprop | Words & photos Sean Brown
I’ve just flown the Atlantic in a light single and I’m aware that to many of my former colleagues on the British Airways 747 fleet that statement would indicate that I’m stark raving mad. Until recently I’d have seconded their opinion.
The way to fly the Atlantic−and I’ve done it more than four hundred times−is with four big turbine engines, an inertial navigation system the size of a small car, a cockpit full of experience, and the backing of a major airline.
The pilots who shoot dice with death in the high latitudes ferrying tired old singles leave me impressed, but concerned. I’ve heard them down there, watching the needles swing on NDBs and VORs, fighting to talk to somebody on scratchy HF radios. I’ve relayed their messages, and I’ve been saddened to hear of those who didn’t make it.
But what if there was a propeller-driven light single that in most respects was better than any airliner of the last century, that had systems and capabilities that made the 747-400 I used to fly look like a DC-3… what then?
What if you could cruise at 28,000 feet in pressurised comfort, with real-time weather on synthetic vision, augmented satnav, satellite communications, and cascading safety systems that in case of a failure left you with nothing to do? What if somebody had built the Piper M600?
I must admit, I still wouldn’t have considered the flight had I not taken a phone call that began with the old line, “it looks like we have a problem”.
We had sold a customer a brand-new Piper M600, and he really wanted to fly his aircraft back from the Piper factory in Vero Beach, Florida, to Wycombe Air Park. The ferry firms we’d spoken to had CRM (cockpit resource management) concerns about having owners on board.
“Okay,” I said. “We’re used to flying with customers and owners−I’ll do it myself and make sure the customer is happy.” I put the phone down wondering if I’d just done something unwise. But there was no going back. I soon found myself on a flight to Orlando, having had to squeeze FAA medicals, a CRE (class rating examiner) course and PBN (performance based navigation) training into a very packed schedule.
I went straight into an FAA M600 type course at a local school, with theoretical training, tests, and what turned out to be the simulator for the wrong aircraft! However, at British European Aviation we are used to finding solutions and, given that we’ve decided to set up our own training courses for staff and customers, I took the time to get as much in-depth knowledge about the aircraft and systems as I could squeeze out of the course.
They teach you what happens in case of failures, but not much of it involves the pilot! If you had a pressurisation fault in the 747-400, the two of you would be working flat out to overcome it. But the M600 introduces an automatic system of back-ups, with one fallback supporting another.
If the generator fails, it automatically falls back on the alternator. If that fails, it defaults to the battery and the computer sheds load as necessary−no diving for checklists and taking kit offline piece by piece. It tells you what it’s doing, but you can leave the job to the systems.
On the Saturday I began transatlantic planning in earnest and collected the data I needed to plan for the problems I could encounter en route. By Sunday night I had also collected the survival gear and completed my combat survival training course.
It was as I was being taught how to kill a polar bear armed only with a penknife that I became aware of some of the less obvious challenges of this kind of flight! Another of those unexpected challenges was trying to get hold of actual paper charts, as most pilot shops had stopped offering them. Fortunately, Piper Aircraft’s chief pilot Bart Jones was on hand.
“Why do you want paper charts?” he asked. “Because I am old fashioned and can mentally prepare better on paper.” It turned out to be the right answer. He gave me a full set of charts and patiently answered my queries.
Monday started brilliantly−not. One of the most powerful hurricanes in years had hit the west coast of Florida on Sunday night and was tracking right up the east coast of the USA where I had planned my route. So landing at First Flight airfield at Kitty Hawk and seeing where it all began with the Wright Brothers went out the window.
Tuesday was the big day for the new M600 owner. Piper prepared a full factory tour, and lots of the people who built his specific aircraft attended a fabulous handover ceremony which included presentations, goodies and a wonderful atmosphere. John and Mickey from the Piper team had done a superb job in organising it for us.
Wednesday dawned with a perfect sunrise in Vero Beach. The M600 looked awesome, sitting fully prepared on the Piper apron with the heat haze shimmering off the tarmac.
After a thorough preflight we said our goodbyes to the nice Piper people and let the flight-following team in the UK know we were about to depart. In GA, ‘range 1,680nm’ isn’t something you often have to brief your ops team on before departure.
Pre-start checks were completed, but as it was all so new I was very slow and methodical in my checks, and the temperature had risen quite high in the cockpit. We were both relieved when I started the engine and the air conditioning came blasting on.
With a deep breath, I accepted the ATC clearance and was ready to depart into the crystal blue Florida sky. As I moved the power lever forward the ‘safe taxi’ chart flashed up on the MFD (multi function display), showing my route to the runway.
I found myself at the runway holding point feeling calm and ready for flight. The owner being a passenger for this trip, I lined up ready for my first solo takeoff in the M600, which also just happened to be for a flight across the Atlantic.
I was not committed. I had told the owner that if I wasn’t one hundred per cent happy we were going to fly home scheduled from New York, and the M600 could follow later. But the aircraft was purring like a kitten, almost willing me to go.
I was given a takeoff clearance to “climb straight ahead to 3,000 feet and depart the zone”, and with a jet on short final it was time to ‘punch it’, as they say. Full fuel, two big chaps and all the gear did nothing to hold the M600 on the tarmac and I rotated at 85kt.
The airspeed climbed rapidly to 100kt and I raised gear and flaps, then completed the after-takeoff checks. I was about to call ATC when they said “N8007K cleared to contact your en route frequency… good day”. And we were off.
To add more pressure, following a callsign mix-up with ATC, our earlier flight plan had to be re-filed from the aircraft after takeoff. Not the departure I had meticulously planned for several days beforehand! Don’t panic, just engage the autopilot with heading hold and altitude select.
I got in touch with Orlando ARTCC, who secured the airways clearance I wanted. Turning left to ORL, following the climb instructions given and keeping track of local traffic, the cockpit workload was high, but the systems at my fingertips made it easy.
Soon I had the chance to relax and take stock. I reflected that I was in a private general aviation six-seater cruising over Florida at FL240 doing 280kt TAS. Surreal or what?
“N8007K you have weather up ahead−confirm you are still requesting flight level 280?”
“Standby,” I responded.
I remembered from the course that the weather radar could scan both horizontally and vertically. Which button? It was simple and logical. Weather, Radar, Horizontal, Vertical. The vertical scan showed the weather eighty miles ahead topped out at FL260.
“Atlanta, I will take flight level 280.” I sat and watched the autopilot level the aircraft off at FL280 with an OAT of -31 degrees and a TAS of 275kt giving a ground speed of 390kt. This is one awesome aircraft.
We passed into the clear blue skies of Kentucky where we started our descent 65 miles before Lexington for fuel. GA pilots normally start a descent from ten miles out, but this machine is a real airliner and it doesn’t want to come down. If you lost the engine at FL280 you could glide 75nm!
After touching down at 75kt in a ten knot crosswind we borrowed an old police car to go to the nearest café, which sold BBQ everything. Over lunch I had time to reflect on our flight. How can a wing fly so well at Mach .441 yet land at 75kt? My confidence was building.
We filed for Bangor in Maine, anticipating a cloudbase of 1,500ft, light rain, twelve knot crosswind, and my first night landing in an M600.
Up and away, we encountered increasing cloud below our cruising altitude of FL260. We were above it all as I heard the familiar BA callsigns as they approached the end of the NAT track system at LOACH and other familiar reporting points. I set up the STAR and ILS while the owner considered the eerie sight of the sunset and moonrise at the same time.
The autopilot flew a superb approach, capturing the localiser bang on the point of the star. Glide path live, gear and flap down and we settled into cloud and a serious amount of ice, as we were cold-soaked from flying with an OAT of -51˚C. The weather was deteriorating sooner than forecast and we broke out at 1,000ft with crosswind gusting up to 16kt.
I gave my eyes time to adjust to the dark before taking out the autopilot at around 500ft. A remarkably uneventful touchdown followed, considering the conditions and my experience. By the time we tied down we were battered by a wind gusting 45kt.
Dawn came on Thursday and so did the gales, with headwinds and snow at key airfields. We decided to leave the following morning, skip Goose and fly direct to Narsarsuaq.
We needed the winds to be as forecast to have enough fuel to divert to Sondestrom with reserves. As far as decision-making went, the trip had been easy so far, but this part was tough as I was up against Mother Nature, and there are few alternates in this part of the world.
I’d read stories of pilots who had to ditch due to fuel shortages and had been in sight of rescue but died of hypothermia because they hadn’t zipped up their survival suits. Others had perished after running out of fuel due to loss of electrics, which compromised navigation.
I had my trusty Garmin D2 watch programmed with ‘direct to’ Narsarsuaq as an ultimate back-up. Strangely, engine failure is not a major cause of problems on the North Atlantic. I’ve had four failures in my career, two precautionary shut-downs and two actual failures and, apart from making you work, it’s a non-event if you have four. But the PT-6 in the M600 has an excellent reliability record, and failure was one of my lesser concerns. A far more important enemy was the potential for bad decision-making.
Ready to go, I settled into my seat, began the pre-start checks and suddenly felt calm once again in the comfort of the M600. My first ever cold start procedure, and the PT6 fired up and purred like a kitten.
Clearance obtained, and we were off. Gear and flaps up, and we climbed to FL 260 with an OAT of -51˚C. I monitored fuel against progress, and we were looking okay.
‘Point of no return’ means exactly that – you commit to getting there. Go any further and if the weather is worse than expected, you’ll be swimming in Arctic waters. The headwind started to increase, but the fuel burn was less than predicted. It was going to be close.
After 2.4 hours we reached our point of no return, just past the coast of Newfoundland, and we were just two pounds lower on fuel than I had planned. We turned around and headed back to Bangor. In thirty years of decision-making, this was one of my best.
The weather at Goose Bay had opened up so we diverted there. With the charts, information and functionality of the M600, we had all the information we needed, and loading routes and approaches in-flight was easy. We broke cloud at 1,200 feet, and the shock of seeing a vast snow-covered tundra took a second or two to overcome.
“N8007X you are cleared to land, wind 330/12 braking action poor, poor, poor. Ice covered.”
Well, that focussed the mind! With enough fuel for one approach and go-around before having to divert to Bangor, 21 degree adjustment for the wind to account for magnetic, twelve knot crosswind, and an ice rink to land on, we turned final. Following through the autopilot to get a feel for the approach, I took control at 300ft. It all felt right, so I took landing flap.
The flight school had tried to push side-slipping all the way down a crosswind approach, saying it was too risky to leave it until the flare to kick off the drift. The trouble was I had several thousand hours of flying the 747, and you can’t cross-control as there is a fair chance you’ll scrape an engine pod on landing.
Without knowing it I reverted to type and crabbed, gently reduced power, flared, kicked off the drift and levelled the wings. The M600 settled on the mains and I held the nose off briefly, then lowered it gently. As soon as the nose touched, I selected Beta range on the power lever then, as we were tracking straight, I selected full reverse. We slowed rapidly to taxi speed without braking at all.
For a brief second it all seemed a non-event, but then I tried to turn off the runway. The wind was blowing across the tail and I was trying to turn the opposite way with a nosewheel on sheet ice. Needless to say, we missed the turn-off and had to gingerly continue to the next one, where I inched the M600 around the corner and crept to the parking area. There’s no doubt in my mind that without reverse thrust we would have gone off the runway.
Tanks filled, weather in Greenland looking okay, and if not we could reach Reykjavik… but what about this icy runway? I asked the handlers when they thought conditions would improve. “Well, usually the ice melts around March.”
More snow was forecast so we made preparations for a rapid departure. You often read about hot and cold weather operations in the POH, but in the UK pilots rarely get to try them out. However, in the space of a few days I had gone from starting in +33°C to starting in -16°C.
Once again the plane performed flawlessly and I was soon creeping out onto the ice, trying to line up before the snow flurry that was just beginning to turn into the promised snowstorm. Takeoff was less dramatic than I thought despite the torque effect of a 600hp turbine opening up−the M600’s rudder is highly effective at low speed.
We lifted into the clag with the warm air de-icing boots cracking off the rapid ice build-up on the wings, broke cloud at 11,000 feet and by 18,000 feet the OAT was below -21 degrees, so I gave the surface de-icing a rest.
As we cleared the Newfoundland coast and settled into the Atlantic crossing, I reviewed the actual winds. Had we continued past the point of no return on our original flight, the headwind we were now encountering would have led to our running out of fuel thirty miles short of our destination!
I was pleased to have completed my PBN course at Booker Aviation, which prepared me well for planning the GNSS approach into Narsarsuaq. This approach is tight, with little margin for error, but I was comfortable that I knew how to perform all the verification checks required to ensure the GPS system was accurate and fully operational.
We were in beautiful clear skies at FL200 and could see the snow-covered mountains of Greenland, but unfortunately the airfield is in a fjord and had heavy cloud cover, 300ft above minimums. I rechecked my fuel and, although I had plenty, after obtaining the latest Sondestrom weather I decided I would shoot only one approach then go straight to Sondestrom with plenty of reserves, in case I had problems there.
The autopilot flew the approach beautifully, bang on the numbers, and as we approached decision height I fully appreciated the marvel of synthetic vision. I did a double-take when the runway appeared on the synthetic vision, as despite carefully studying the approach plates, I hadn’t fully appreciated how far offset the approach track was from runway alignment.
Straight ahead is ‘Tail Hill’, so-called for the number of empennages sticking out of it. How the pilots in the old days ever got into Narsarsuaq with dead reckoning and an NDB is beyond me.
The people at Narsarsuaq were marvellous and very helpful. We were planning to night stop, but the forecast was for several days of heavy snow and the locals advised us to get out while we could.
The weather in Reykjavik was forecast as poor but improving, so we decided to push on with a full tank of fuel for a night stop in Iceland. In-flight came the bad news: the weather at Reykjavik had not improved, and we were looking at landing in heavy rain and 65kt of wind at night.
In my planning back in Bangor, using the best aviation web site ever−windy.com−I had seen that if I could get a southerly routeing, I could drop into 100mph tailwinds down to the Faroe Islands or even Wick. I was talking to the Reykjavik controller, whose name I wish I knew in order to thank him personally.
“Reykjavik, this is N8007K. Are you busy?” Then came the immortal words you rarely hear: “N8007K, no: how can I help?”
He approved my plan and dropped me further south into the tailwind. Our groundspeed began to increase and the ‘circle of death’−the G3000 constantly computes your endurance to minimum reserve and dry tanks, and displays the information as two circles on the MFD−began to expand. The nice controller confirmed the Faroe Island airport would stay open for us, so the full crossing was on!
An hour passed, the tailwind was up to 135kt and the circle expanded to show we could make Wick with a comfortable reserve, so I put in another call to the controller, asking him to see if Wick would stay open and, if so, to cancel the Faroes. Again, this superstar arranged it for us.
We were now going for gold: Greenland to Scotland in one go. Unbelievably, at FL280 and despite a high power setting, the M600 was still burning less fuel than published in the flight manual! We were gaining range, and could now make Glasgow.
Again I asked a favour from ATC. He came through, and routed us close to the NAT tracks to keep us in the tailwind. We turned south and picked up even more wind on the tail. The reserve circle was now touching on Birmingham, with tanks dry at Oxford. You could have cut the air with a knife in the cockpit as we tensed up at the thought of making England.
But the fuel burn on the M600 just kept working in our favour, and as the minutes ticked by, the arc showed we could make Oxford with reserves intact and several viable alternates.
“N8007K, one last favour! Can you re-plan us to Oxford and see if they will stay open? Also please can you call our wives and tell them to meet us at Oxford instead?”
“Roger N8007K, I will arrange. Would you like me to make you dinner reservations?” I knew I had pushed my luck. But it was game on! I checked and re-checked my fuel calculations, loaded the airways over the UK into the route and said our goodbyes to the wonderful Reykjavik controller.
As we cruised over the lights of Glasgow, I reflected on the capabilities of this amazing machine. A PPL could buy a Piper M-series aircraft for $1.3m and own a private airliner capable of transatlantic flight!
The people at Oxford had offered to extend opening to accommodate us, but with the increased groundspeed we landed within normal opening times. ‘Landing’ was a loose term for the arrival−I think the M600 actually landed itself, after 5.3 hours and 1,639nm at 275kt TAS.
Would I recommend flying the Atlantic for fun? Certainly not. It will take you to the limit and beyond. If you are going to do it, take a pilot who has done it before, and fly in a pressurised modern aircraft, not some old plane you found cheap in the USA. It is a very dangerous undertaking, and frankly not worth the risk.
What do I think of the aircraft? Well, my company British European Aviation is the UK Piper distributor, but I tell it like it is. Every figure Piper publishes about this aircraft is very conservative. The M600 exceeds all expectations.
It managed every extreme weather condition thrown at it, and handles like a dream, even in the hands of a pilot inexperienced on type.
It looks great, and its operating costs are astoundingly low when you consider its capabilities. Come and see us for a demo because they are having trouble prising me out of it; any excuse and I am straight up to FL240.