FLYING ADVENTURE

Falklands’ Islander

Mark Eddleston couldn’t resist the challenge of a ferry flight taking him to the Falkland Islands, via South America, delivering a spanking new Britten-Norman BN2B-26 Islander…

I started flying with my father aged 12, earning my licence by the time I was 17. I am now 36 and have built up around 11,000 hours of weird and wonderful flying. Anything unusual or piston twin and I am all over it – flying is my passion. I am fortunate to have travelled all over the world due to my career, but the majority has been to Africa, the US and the Middle East.

In ‘normal’ times, I fly three regular, and around 12, new aircraft a year. On top of this, I usually undertake 10-15 ferry flights. Last year I flew 1,200 hours, 500 of which were transatlantic ferry flights. Ferry flights are a passion of mine. I have ferried most piston twins and singles, seizing the opportunity to fly uncommon or unusual aircraft and challenging routes.

I jumped at the chance to ferry a new Britten-Norman Islander through the US and South America to its new home in the Falkland Islands. Despite my extensive pilot experience, I had hardly touched South America, so this job appealed immensely! I knew the ferry flight would be difficult due to the coronavirus restrictions, but I can’t resist a challenge.

Late arrival into Daytona Beach International Airport for maintenance

Heading to a new home

The aircraft was a brand new Britten-Norman BN2B-26 Islander for the Falkland Islands Government Aviation Service (FIGAS). I have flown several Islanders throughout my career but have not been in the pilot’s seat for more than 15 years! Islanders have been in production for more than 60 years, and Britten-Norman remains the UK’s only civil A2 approved aircraft manufacturer.

FIGAS is Britten-Norman’s southernmost operator and has employed Islanders since October 1979. The service has gradually evolved into what will be a six-strong fleet of Islanders by 2022. The aircraft are essential in keeping the Falklands as well as some of its more remote communities which remain connected. In addition to commuting flights, regular missions include air ambulance, postal carrier, freight, environmental monitoring and scenic flights. The Islander’s performance as a high-frequency and short-flight platform make it an ideal aircraft for hopping to 32 destinations in the Falkland Islands’ east and west mainlands.

Leaving Fort Lauderdale

I learned from the FIGAS team that one of the reasons for extending its fleet is the increasingly busy tourist season. In recent years, passenger numbers have risen from 5,800 to 8,800. Visitors to the Falklands enjoy experiencing the stunning scenery and abundant wildlife away from the crowds – often there will only be penguins to keep tourists company on the miles of white sandy beaches! Despite some initial Covid-19 disruption, the team remains confident that these numbers will continue to increase.

Considering all the aircraft I have flown worldwide – and I have flown an awful lot – I have never received this level of interest. In the US, wherever I landed, people were snapping photos and asking me questions about the aircraft. It was also quite amazing that in Chile, some 7,400 miles from the UK, many people recognised the Islander. Lots of questions were asked about the aircraft’s registration. The new Islander honours Sir Miles Clifford who, as a former Governor of the Falkland Islands, was responsible for the launch of the air service in 1948. His name has been inscribed above the pilot’s door.

The start of the journey for this Islander, at Lee-on-Solent (Photo by Britten-Norman)

Leaving North America

Robert, the first ferry pilot, flew the aircraft from Lee-on-the-Solent, England, to Montreal, Canada. Flying into the US in a private aircraft requires a standalone visa. As the US embassy was closed, Robert’s journey ended, and I was called in to complete the remaining 7,705nm from Montreal to Port Stanley, approximately 64 hours flying.

“Montreal to Daytona was a long, but brilliant day flying 17 hours”

Beautiful views over the Andes

Flying from Toronto to meet the aircraft, I remember turning and looking out of the window, captivated by the thick white carpet of snow below. All I could think was, ‘I hope that this aircraft has de-ice capabilities’! I was relieved once I saw the aircraft, and discovered that it was equipped with absolutely every possible option I have ever seen on an Islander, including full de-ice capabilities!

I left snowy Montreal around 0700 on the 23 November 2020, heading straight for Bangor, Maine. Flying out of Montreal there was an incredibly strong head wind. The treacherous conditions continued all the way down towards New England. The windspeed remained fairly constant but thunderstorms began to rattle their way through the air. Fortunately, once I had passed Baltimore glorious smooth skies emerged, increasing the visibility and making for idyllic flying all the way down to Daytona.

During the initial part of the journey to Daytona there were lots of planning changes. Originally, the 50-hour check was going to take place by specialist FIGAS engineers in Fort Lauderdale. However, Covid-19 once again acted as a disrupter and restrictions, combined with the closure of ESTA, meant the engineers were unable to board their flight. Fortunately, the team arranged for the check to take place in Daytona, so that was where I headed. Overall, Montreal to Daytona was a long, but brilliant, flying day totalling 17 hours – and the day showed the capabilities of the Islander in a variety of conditions.

The ferry flight was an unexpected journey of self-improvement… I noticed during the longer flights that my back had never been better! The aircraft seat does not recline, therefore, my posture was brilliant, and pains subsided. I was very lucky that a fantastic planning team organised crew meals for me, but I didn’t eat a single one. I find ferry flights to be the perfect opportunity to lose weight. I have no time for popping into a local shop and grabbing my favourite snacks and at this point, just before Christmas, I thought it was a wise move.The aircraft then entered maintenance for five days in Daytona, as the Thanksgiving celebrations delayed the essential checks. On 1 December 2020 I left Daytona Beach and headed to Fort Lauderdale, my port of exit from the USA.

South American adventure

The leg from Fort Lauderdale to San José’s Juan Santamaria International Airport in Costa Rica was the longest at 10.5 hours. Although this may sound like a long stint, these are my favourite kind of flying days. My idea of a nightmare workday is a short 45-minute route from, say, London to Belfast, then being grounded for 10 hours before flying again. I thrive in a busy interesting situation where I can experience new situations, constantly challenging myself.

South Chile

Over long distances, I like to make sure I stay busy and alert. On this journey I spent a lot of time ‘fuel planning’. The cabin seating had been removed and replaced by the ferry flight fuel system consisting of four fuel tanks and associated valves and fuel supply pipework to give a flying time well in excess of 10 hours for the flight. This meant that every 45 minutes I checked the speed, endurance and wind to make sure the figures aligned with the flight plan.

The scenery from Florida to Costa Rica was nothing short of incredible. As I headed down towards the Keys, then flying over the water coasting out towards Cuba, I was mesmerised by the beautiful turquoise waters glistening in the sunlight. I was intrigued to see Cuba, as this was the first time I had flown over the airspace or had been in that part of the world. If I could have changed the flight plan at all, I would have done, just so I could have stayed the night in Havana. I would have loved to see the 60,000 classic American cars in their bright pastel shades set against the azure sky. South America, as a whole, is largely undiscovered for me. I have only been to Mexico on a private tour with a family some years ago. It was fantastic to venture into Costa Rica and see it properly for the first time. The rapidly shifting scenery between hills, valleys, forests, mountains, volcanoes, wetlands and plains was unforgettable. I am adamant that one day I will learn to look out of the window and appreciate the view, as opposed to adding to my 70,000 strong gallery of clouds.

Punta Arenas Chile, prior to departure to the Falklands with the internationally-recognised elbow 'handshake'.

“The Andes mountains often soared much higher than I was flying…”

The next part of my South American adventure was through Ecuador and onto Peru. It was fascinating seeing the landscape dramatically change once more. The sapphire waters and dense vegetation rapidly transformed to a somewhat barren, desert-like landscape on the outskirts of the northern Andes. Flying between 9,000-13,000ft meant that the Andes soared much higher than I was flying,  giving me an incredible view of the mountain ridge line, glaciers and snow as I journeyed into the cooler climate.

I experienced challenging weather conditions during this section of the ferry. Mountain waves affected the aircraft severely. Although I had experienced this a few times before, predominantly in the Alps, I had never had forces this strong. I felt very fortunate to be in a twin-engine piston! I immediately recognised the condition to be mountain wave, which meant that I would be unable to keep the planned altitude designated by air traffic, and I informed them of the situation. Mountain waves are oscillations to the lee side (downwind) of high ground due to disturbance in the horizontal air flow caused by the high ground. As a result, I had to approach the ridge line at an angle of around 30-45° to allow downdraughts to escape. However, where I had to go head-on I was getting strong up currents and down currents, making it difficult to maintain the desired altitude. I really enjoyed this challenge and found it quite exciting. I videoed my experience and sent it to a number of WhatsApp groups, aiming to raise awareness of how to deal with the situation for pilots who have not previously encountered mountain wave.

Departing Peru

That said, the aircraft was phenomenal and had the best equipped panel of any Islander I have flown. The avionics were also brilliant, serving me well during the more challenging moments. The Garmin G600TXi is integrated with the Garmin GTN650Xi  and GTN750Xi, providing a great user platform, and the touchscreen integration was intuitive. The platform allows the pilot to have the whole screen as the primary flight display but also can add a map function, meaning you can watch what the aircraft is doing with exceptional situational awareness in all sorts of weather.

This section of the ferry flight made me release that if I could turn back time, I would have learned Spanish. The English education system generally teaches French or German. For me, Spanish certainly would have been more useful. I experienced a huge language challenge specifically in Peru. I realised how limited my skills were when asking where the facilities and fuel were – and it required a lot of hand signals! I also became aware due to lack of phone signal, quite how much we tend to rely on modern technology in difficult situations. Where was Google translate when I needed it?

The glaciers of Laguna San Rafael National Park in south Chile

Next, I headed for Chile. Flying the entire length was a phenomenal experience. The scenery changed rapidly, evolving from UK-style vegetation to almost Greenland-like glaciers. Then, 20 minutes later I would find myself gazing out over canyons resembling the landscape of a 1970s western film. It was a completely fascinating journeying, with totally different extremes in short periods of time.

Ferrying during a pandemic

The virus has caused significant disruption for all industries, but perhaps for aviation most considerably.

This year, I have completed far fewer ferry flights than I would have liked. Ferrying in such different times has been an interesting, albeit unusual experience. Wearing PPE when disembarking the flight has been an odd experience but one which I have adjusted to. My first, ‘Covid-19 ferry’ was back in May. I took a Beechcraft from the USA to the Philippines. Flying the long way round, during a strict lockdown, made for a memorable trip. Pausing only for fuel, I was unable to enter any country I stopped at. The quaint but comfortable aircraft became my bed, place of work and dining room. Ironically, the absence of hotels and modern luxuries made this the quickest ferry flight I had ever done, completed in just 76 hours.

The glaciers of Laguna San Rafael National Park in south Chile

This South American ferry flight was also interesting. Throughout this journey I maintained a vigilant eye on legislation, assessing the situation, as every country I was passing through had their own individual rules and regulations. Navigating the different rules was a challenge. From Daytona I entered ‘permit country’, which meant I had a lot more to consider. For example, in Ecuador I had 12 hours, if I had been delayed at any point, it would have affected the entire delivery schedule, all permits would have had to have been reissued, which could have taken weeks. Adding the requirement for a negative Covid-19 test result into the mix made it stressful as the chance for error and delay increased.

I have never had so many PCR tests and thankfully they were all negative, allowing for the timely delivery! I felt like a conductor in an orchestra making sure every element was in time.

Reaching the Falkland Islands

The final leg of my epic journey was flying from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Port Stanley Airport, my destination on the Falkland Islands. I flew south-east for 170 miles from Chile, before going north-east towards Stanley. Remarkably, at this point I was just 450 miles from Antarctica.

Port Stanley hones into view, a fly-by was obligatory!

I found this part of the journey quite interesting because contrary to my expectations there was very little shipping traffic and the ocean seemed curiously calm for such rough waters.

Soon after having left Punta Arenas one of the VHF receivers went down and I lost two-way communication. Fortunately, when flying I always carry my Garmin Explorer (satellite phone), so I managed to communicate with air traffic control and inform them of the situation. Although carrying a satellite phone is not a legal requirement, I like the extra layer of safety it gives. It’s great for my friends and family back home to check where I am on my journey.

Seeing Stanley on the horizon was a fantastic feeling. As I started to approach the airport, I spotted at least 80 people, including the local press, cheering and looking out for our arrival. I was overwhelmed, suddenly aware of how important these aircraft are to this remote population.

I flew west to east down at low level along the harbour, allowing people a fantastic view to welcome in their new Islander. Everyone was so pleased to see us arrive, and a great boost to the country at such a difficult time.

Straight to work… the newly delivered Islander explores the Falklands

Barry Rowland, Chief Executive of the Falkland Islands, said that it was an historic moment, with it being the Falkland Islands’ first new aircraft since 1994. FIGAS now has a second aircraft on order which will bring the fleet to six. I believe the plan for FIGAS now is to gradually replace its entire fleet in the ‘post-Covid-19 world’… whenever that may be.

Any pilot who has the opportunity to complete this epic journey is one fortunate individual.

It is a ferry flight you could not – and would not – want to forget.

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