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How an L-39 Finally Came Home

By Richard “Mongoose” Hess

Okay, okay, I know. I’m a little crazy. I ferried my first L-39 to Europe from the United States at the end of June 2010. The owner liked that one so much, he bought another that I ferried in early September 2010. Well, a new client from Russia called. We made a deal for a 1984 L-39 ZA, and he wanted it right away. You know what they say: Three’s the charm! So, sit back and enjoy adventure number three, because I did it again. I ferried my third L-39 in mid-November 2010.

It seems appropriate to tell you a little about the new owner. Sergey is 35 years old, the mayor of a small city near Kaliningrad, and a very successful businessman. He has homes in Kaliningrad, Prague, and Cyprus. This Albatros (and possibly a second one to follow) is currently hangared at the Aero Vodochody Airport (LKVO) in an Aero facility. Think about how cool that is. After 26 years this Albatros has finally come home to roost at the place where it was made!

L39a
Richard Hess with Harold Cannon's L-3.

As usual, the plan to ferry this aircraft came together very quickly, almost too quickly to get all the details arranged in time for the scheduled departure. My biggest concern was weather in the North Atlantic in late fall. However, the contract for this aircraft had to be changed at the last minute as Sergey was forming a new company to own his aviation assets. That process simply couldn’t be rushed.

As I’ve described before, the process to send an L-39 out of the United States is involved. If you’ve never done it before, there’s a multistep process to become a registered exporter with the U.S. State Department. The aircraft must have an FCC radio license. If the aircraft is to be flown in N-registration as an experimental aircraft, every country along the way must give permission for landing or overflight. Finally, the flight itself must be planned with utmost precision as the North Atlantic area offers precious few options between Goose Bay, Labrador, and Wick, Scotland. As an example, the nearest usable paved alternate for Narsarsuaq, Greenland, is Sonderstrom, over 400 nautical miles to the north!

I started watching the weather about 10 days before departure. Five days before we left home, Goose Bay was forecasting minus 12°C and snow. On the day we arrived it was above freezing and mostly clear skies. Just shows you the weather in that part of the world can change quickly. Most of the rest of the route actually looked good with partly cloudy skies and temperatures between 0°C and 6°C. Once again I used Skyplan for flight planning and handling services. With the L-39 performance data loaded in Skyplan’s system, I loved receiving a detailed and accurate flight plan and weather briefing every day. That alone is a real confidence builder.

To add to my weight of responsibility, Sergey wanted his pilot to come onto the ferry and be trained as we go. We made plans for Simon to arrive ATL four days early so we could conduct ground school. Because of other commitments, Simon didn’t show up until a day and a half before. It turns out Simon is a very competent pilot and quick study, but with 400 hours total time and no jet experience, he was relegated to the back seat for the crossing. No worries as this aircraft had full instrument flight rules (IFR) capability in both seats. During these days before the ferry we had a technician and an engineer from Europe come to do a full technical and administrative review of the aircraft as this would be the third L-39 we would put in standard airworthiness once the ferry was completed. Needless to say the last week leading up to departure was very busy indeed!
As a side note, the front cockpit has dual Cheltons, a Garmin 430, and a TruTrak autopilot. I’ve flown a number of aircraft with Cheltons, but it wasn’t until this trip that I truly began to use all their flight plan and navigation features. While no longer state of the art, these glass units truly impressed me with what you can do and display on them. We installed a new European navigation data base before departure, and Simon and I made full use of its capabilities.

Day 1

L39b
Day 1 finished in Quebec, Canada.

Simon and I drove to Gadsden early Monday morning, November 15. International Jets’ Igor and Marti had been working to make this aircraft ready for the ferry for about two weeks. I appreciated their diligence as Simon and I would be in their hands. I gathered all the required paperwork, flight gear, and personal luggage, and packed everything in the nose compartment. Being a ZA model, we also used the room in the old 23-millimeter cartridge rack and radio altimeter bay.

Heck, we had room to spare. That should have been a red flag for me. Turns out I left the Mustang survival suits on top of my locker. We were in Quebec, two legs later, before it dawned on me. We checked with FedEx, but there simply was no way to ship them in time. So we ended up renting the dry suits available at Goose Bay. It was a stupid mistake on my part. Lesson learned: Make a list and check it off as you go. There are simply too many details to remember them all.

We left KGAD with overcast skies. The first hour or so to KAGC in Pittsburgh was in clouds with just some trace ice in the climb. About an hour from Allegheny County Airport the weather started to break up, and we arrived with beautiful visual flight rules (VFR) conditions. After shutdown we discovered we had a small nitrogen leak while pressurized. It was one of those minor issues that we managed by arranging to have the system topped off at many of our stops. Not critical, but it’s what fills the canopy seals. The issue along the way wasn’t getting nitrogen but having the right fitting to mate to a U.S. standard Schrader valve.

We took off for the shortest leg of the trip to Quebec (CYQB). The flight was VFR and very uneventful. Add a 60-knot tailwind and it was also the shortest time. If you’ve read my previous articles, this time I remembered to call CanPass before departure and arrived within 15 minutes of the schedule, taxied to the passenger terminal, and was met by Canadian customs. They were very nice and cleared us in record time. We towed the aircraft to the fixed base operator (FBO) and put it to bed in a hangar. After a little fuel, nitrogen, and a nice dinner at a cute little family restaurant near the hotel, it was time for bed. One day down, three to go!

Day 2

L39c
We got an early start in Quebec as I wanted to quick-turn in Goose Bay (CYYR) and reach Narsarsuaq, Greenland (BGBW) before sunset.

This time of year, all the North Atlantic destinations are dark by 1630 local. Quebec was cold with a thin, low overcast that was breaking up as the sun rose. We climbed quickly to FL230 and then FL250 where clear skies and a strong tailwind were waiting to greet us.
The flight to Goose was quick and uneventful. It was about 2°C on the ground with an inch or two of snow covering all the ramps. We taxied to Irving Aviation, fueled up, and dressed up in what can only be described as ridiculously clumsy Gumby suits! As on my first ferry, we wore them to the waist; the gloves are far too bulky to allow precise selection of buttons on the navigation and autopilot panels.

L39d

There’s very little general aviation traffic this time of year, so we received a quick clearance with favorable routing for the longest leg of the trip (680 nautical miles). With Simon along, I decided to use a GPU at every stop so we could talk through air traffic control and aircraft starting procedures without wearing down the battery every leg. Also, it gave me time to program both navigation systems, a time-consuming task.

We climbed to FL250, again with clear skies above an undercast and a nice tailwind. The winds died down as we traveled east and there were breaks in the clouds revealing choppy, uninviting waters below. However, unlike the last ferry, all our GPSs had great signal coverage, and we sailed across to Greenland with no problems.

L39e

The arrival below FL195 is uncontrolled airspace. That means you’re your own controller while keeping Sonderstrom Control updated. It turns out a twin turboprop was scheduled to arrive within one minute of us from the east and a helicopter would arrive two minutes after us from the south. BGBW was about 5,000 overcast, and sunset would be in 30 minutes. As I said before, this isn’t for the faint at heart. I set up for the nonprecision straight-in approach and broke out into a white wonderland. With both of the other aircraft in sight, we maneuvered for a VFR overhead approach and shutdown with dusk fast approaching. Four down and four to go!

Greenland Air operates turboprops and helicopters all over Greenland. I knew that night would be cold (about minus 5°C) but no precipitation forecast. They were great. We fueled, serviced the nitrogen, and towed the aircraft into the hangar for the night. We caught a ride with the weather observer to the Narsarsuaq Hotel, just a mile down the flight line road, and had a nice, quiet meal. Not nearly as many people here in November compared to June!

Day 3
The hotel served breakfast at 0600 and we were waiting for the doors to open. Every day I reminded Simon to eat a good breakfast as there wouldn’t be time to have lunch. My wife Rosann made us a big bag of cookies and I metered them out at each stop.

We pulled the aircraft out of the hangar, did our preflight, checked weather, and gathered the flight plans. The ramp guys work very strict hours, so it was about 0800L before we could get a GPU and start the engine.

The climb out was just awesome with snow-covered peaks in every direction. Once again providence was on our side. We had a nice tailwind, very direct routing, and smooth sailing at FL250. We arrived in Keflavik, Iceland (BIKF) with clear skies and light surface winds. That made two out of the last three times there with cloudless skies. Talk about luck!

L39f

So, there had to be a catch, right? Sure enough, the tower controller advised us the taxiway and ramp surfaces were covered in ice with poor braking action reported. We made it safely to the parking spot by keeping our taxi speed to a bare minimum, careful use of the differential brakes, and large-radius turns. Heck, you could almost skate to the FBO!

We fueled, topped off nitrogen, and grabbed some cookies from the FBO for a very efficient quick turn. Scotland lay ahead and the weather there was going to be the biggest challenge of the trip. We were forecast to have 30-knot headwinds on this leg as there were three low-pressure systems converging in the 650 nautical miles from Iceland to Scotland. Not only that, the wind was just short of a gale on the surface, gusting to 46 knots right down the runway!

It turned out we actually had 50 knots of headwind at FL250 as I started carefully recalculating fuel reserves. The winds started dying down about an hour into the cruise portion, so we started relaxing. We cruised in and out of thin cirrus clouds the whole way across the Norwegian Sea. About an hour out of Wick (EGPC) the sun was quickly setting. That was when it hit me. Here I was, in a single engine aircraft, at night, IFR, over the ocean in November. What was I thinking?

Simon shot the VOR approach from the back seat. The winds died down a little at sunset. They were only gusting to 33 knots now! The approach was night VFR with a very uneventful landing. Andrew Bruce from Far North Aviation was there to meet us. I taxied to an old WWII hangar and literally pulled in with engine running and shut  down. Whew! Six down and two to go!

It took us a while to fuel and service the aircraft. Andrew had a line break on his nitrogen bottle that got everyone’s attention. Then he realized his bottle pressure had dropped with the line break. We would have to wait until morning to get another bottle. Off we went to McCay’s Hotel and another gourmet meal and great scotch. God, I love that place! However, the winds increased to just short of gale force during the night, and my bedroom window rattled like Satan himself was trying to get in!

Day 4
Up early, we had a great breakfast where we met our waiter, a young lad from Southern Mississippi. With Scottish blood in his veins, he decided to check out the old country and never went home. Off to the airport we went, and we found the winds still blowing strong down the runway. We finished servicing the nitrogen while the wind made a hellish noise blowing through the rafters.

Takeoff and climb-out were uneventful. This was a long leg across the North Sea. Even though we had already turned in our survival gear in Wick, I felt like it was one leg too soon! Once again we had a stronger headwind than forecast. Amsterdam and Brussels Control in turn worked well with my requests for direct routing. An uneventful ILS approach and landing in Liege, Belgium (EBLG), and we were only one leg from destination.

The folks at Signature have always been so gracious, and they didn’t disappoint. All servicing was accomplished in short order, we checked our flight plan and weather, had a coffee, and walked out for the last leg of this ferry. Takeoff and climb were smooth as Belgium and German controllers cleared us toward Swiss airspace. It’s amazing how close the peaks of the Alps look even at FL250!

We performed the letdown into northeast Italy in the dark, as again sunset happens early this time of year. Our planned destination was an Aero Club in Rimini (LIPR). This is the port of call for San Marino State where the aircraft would be processed for customs and new registration. I taxied into the tight confines of the Aero Club where the club’s instructor pilot, Dominico, used a TowBot to lift the nose wheel and tow us into the hangar. Eight legs done, we had completed the ferry exactly as planned. What a great feeling!

Days 5 to 9
The ferry was now behind us, but there was still much to do. Simon’s training started in earnest with him now moving to the front seat. However, before that could happen we needed most of days 5 and 6 to clear all the administrative hurdles of Italian customs and San Marino CAA registration requirements. Finally done, Simon and I planned for “the rest of the story.”

We left Rimini on that Saturday afternoon for a flight to Bautzen, Germany (EDAB). Many of you may remember that Bernd Rehn operates a company from Bautzen. He was the Chief Engineer for the former East German Air Force fleet of L-39s. We needed to install a new fire bottle as the old one was timed out and there wasn’t enough time to prepare and ship one prior to our ferry. As an old “Cold War” U.S. Air Force pilot, I was very interested to see Eastern Germany.

L39g

Again, Simon performed a long RNAV approach into EDAB after dark. The weather was cold but clear. After landing we taxied to the ramp and shut down to a small welcoming committee. Bernd, his wife, and Donny were waiting to do the work immediately. The fire detection system checked out good, the bottle was replaced, and a couple of other small issues were corrected.

Once complete, the aircraft was put to bed for the night and Bernd drove us “downtown” to the local Holiday Inn and a great German restaurant. The city is beautiful. Bernd took the time to play tour guide that night and show us some of the architectural sites. The morning revealed a beautiful countryside. However, it was cold and wet enough to bring in a very thick fog which didn’t burn off until midday.

While waiting in the airfield tower for the weather to clear, I had a chance to explore an East German bunker under the tower. Kind of weird thinking these new friends were once waiting for the balloon to go up between Warsaw Pact and NATO forces.

L39h

Simon and I finally took off for Prague for the aircraft’s final home, LKVO, the Aero Vodochody Airport, home of this aircraft’s manufacturer. Only 160 kilometers away, it was a very short flight, so we did multiple ILS approaches. After landing, a “follow me” vehicle led us into the Aero facility where we shut down and put the airplane to bed in a paint hangar. Since this aircraft is painted in authentic Czech L-159 colors, it was pretty cool to walk over to a freshly overhauled L-159 and see the exact same gray camo scheme.

The rest of the days were spent training Simon in Prague and back in Rimini. I learned a lesson: Fuelers in Italy do not accept credit cards. You must use cash, a handler, or make special arrangements. On the last day before I flew home, I flew two demo rides with Sergey and a Czech friend of his. The LKVO tower controller did a great job briefing me on special-use airspace surrounding Prague, so I reserved the Aero Vodochody test area to the northeast of the city.

Conclusions
Overall, this was both a challenging trip and an educational one. I was a military pilot for 28 years, and I’m still an airline pilot for over 23 years now. Worldwide, everywhere I had or have a very complete support staff to handle many of the administrative needs. It’s not quite as simple as “show up and fly,” but compared to this, it seems that way.

That’s why I really appreciate the skills of a company like Skyplan that can make all arrangements and provide all services and permissions. Surprisingly, Austria was the only country out of 14 to deny us overflight in experimental registration. I was glad to have a handler to do all these tasks and make a work-around plan when needed.

I can’t say everyone should do what I’ve done. It’s challenging with little margin for error. There are definite risks, not the least of which is the cold ocean below. Having said that, I would say most pilots are risk takers. Imagine the exhilaration of such a mission completed successfully. I have 35 years and over 22,000 hours of experience flying worldwide, and these missions use all I’ve learned to plan and execute precisely.

If you have an opportunity to experience an ocean ferry for yourself, I say go for it. Alan Cockrell, a dear friend, says everyone should get to do this once in his life. So, you can take from that Rich Hess is crazy, or he’s hogging all the fun! Either way, feel free to contact me if you’re planning your own ferry. I’d be honored to offer my experience.

Fly safe, and always remember to check six!

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