From the archive: round trip to Europe in an Aero Commander
Air Facts Journal

Editor’s Note: Flying over the North Atlantic presents a multitude of challenges that make it a daunting task for pilots and aircraft alike, but can you imagine making this trip 70 years ago? That’s exactly what Bob and Ruth Fisher, of Keokuk, Iowa, did in 1954 in their Aero Commander to attend the convention of Rotary International in Paris. This is the account of their leg from the US to Greenland.

Roamin’ Holiday

by Ruth Fisher

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Roamin’ Holiday originally appeared in the May 1954 edition of Air Facts.

ANY TIMES over the past years, Bob has said that he would like to fly to Europe over the former North Atlantic ferry route. I’d counter with “That would be fun.” The conversation would lapse for another year.

One evening last spring a friend called looking for Bob. Since he was out of town, I took the message that he had been elected Vice President of the Keokuk Rotary Club, which automatically made him the delegate to the next convention of Rotary International to be held in Paris. Then and there, a brain flash made the future plain as day. When Bob returned, I told him of his new office but did not mention my brain child.

About two weeks later at noon, he said, “I have just had the most wonderful idea. How about flying the Aero Commander over to the Coronation and the Rotary Convention ?” I think I completely deflated him, for instead of the expostulations that he must have expected, I merely said, “I wondered how long it would take you to think of it.”

Pronto, things began to hum. Maps, manuals, and things too numerous to mention began pouring in. The walls of the ping-pong room in the nether regions of our home were plastered with maps of the entire route, including all Europe. It was such fun to follow the course from point to point,’ shivering with the cool drafts blowing up from the icebergs and glaciers of Greenland, or feeling warm with the thought of the sunshine in Spain. Meanwhile, we had asked our friend, Henry Huiskamp, who owns an Ercoupe, if he would like to go along, and, without any hesitation on his part, we had a third crew member.

Many recent ocean flights more spectacular than our own have been completed: Odom’s Bonanza jaunt from Honolulu to Teterboro; Max Conrad’s two round trips across the North Atlantic in a Piper Pacer ; Gluckman’s round trip over the same expanse in a 90 horse-power Luscombe ; and, most recently, Marion Hart’s sensational trip non-stop from Torbay to Shannon in her Bonanza. These trips, however, may be classified as aerial feats accomplished against severe odds, and, with the exception of Hart and more particularly Gluckman, by professional pilots with untold hours.

The uniqueness of our trip lay in its actual purpose, which was solely to utilize a convenient and independent mode of travel in order to visit Europe while attending the Coronation and the Rotary Convention. Bob held the firm conviction  that much mountain and weather flying, daily encountered by private pilots in our own country, offered greater hazards and required greater navigation skill than this trip. Subsequent events proved his judgment to have been substantially correct.

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Bob and Ruth Fisher with their Aero Commander “The Kernel” after completion of their round trip flight to Europe.

A Helping Hand

One day early in January, we had a pleasant and informative visit with Max Conrad, who had twice flown his Piper round trip across our intended route. We had dinner with him in Minneapolis, after which we went over maps, plans, and all manner of material. As he talked with utter simplicity and chatted very matter of factly about water in the gasoline, lead on the spark plugs, and ice on the wings, I jotted his suggestions and bits of informa. tion. It was a delight to talk with him, and we are grateful to him for the time he spent with us and for all the helpful advice he gave us.

In February, we went to Washington and spent two days there obtaining the necessary clearances from the Department of State, the Air Force, and the National Aeronautic Association. From the Department of State, one must obtain passports and permission to land at Iceland. This, by the way, was the only country on our entire trip where prior permission to land was rerequired other than by filing a flight plan from the country of departure. A form 32 and a form 33 were obtained from the Air Force. These permit landings and refueling at the Air Force bases in Labrador and Greenland and are an absolute must. The National Aeronautic Association furnished us with a Customs Carnet, without which it is impossible to enter a foreign country without posting a cash bond in the amount of one-third the value of the aircraft. In addition to the above, we obtained international fuel carnets from both Esso Export Corporation and the Shell Oil Corporation.

After fortifying ourselves with these credentials, we turned our attention to the Aero Commander, in which we had installed the following radio equipment: A Collins Simplex 180 channel VHF; an ARC Omni and ILS; a Collins 20 channel Simplex 18S4 MHF; and a surplus Bendix ADF. These radios were in addition to the Lear LTR6 and Orienter, which are standard equipment on an Aero Commander. we then had a de Havilland Dove 60 gallon auxiliary fuel tank installed in the baggage compartment, with an electric fuel pump for transferring fuel into the wing tanks. Subsequently, we purchased four Mark IV anti-exposure suits from the International Latex Corporation, a surplus six-man life raft, Mae West life jackets, and a Gibson Girl radio, and were ready to go.

Destination Europe

We left Keokuk, Iowa, on the morning of May 5, cleared U. S. Customs at Wayne Major Airport, Romulus, Michigan, and spent the first night at Montreal. It had been raining when we left Keokuk, but a big high centered near Detroit enabled us to fly into rapidly improving conditions, and by the time we reached Montreal it was a beautiful afternoon. Customs officers at both Detroit and Montreal were helpful, courteous, and cooperative.

Not having many pleasure flights of civilian planes bound for Europe, they were slightly nonplussed by the Customs Carnet, particularly since all the instructions for its completion were in French. However, with the aid of a pocket French dictionary, we finally managed to get all the signatures, stamps, and seals in their proper places.

We were up early the next morning, had the thermoses filled with coffee and milk, and out we went to the field. Our driver was so affable, as was everyone in Montreal, customs men, porters, and all with whom we had contact. They have an approach to people which is warm and friendly. We were having a foretaste of France and could have boned up on our French. French and English are spoken here, one about as much as the other, and both are taught in all schools. Signs saying “Ne stationnez pas,” “Arretez,” Voie privée,” almost made you think you might already be in France.

Another hour with forms and then off for the Air Force base at Goose Bay, on the great wooded peninsula of Labrador. We went through the best stuff for winter sports! Snow and plenty, then rain and soup. I kept my usual vigil for ice and you know that uncertain feeling of now you see it, now you don’t. Soon there was no question There it was, so we started coming down from 9000′, finally getting underneath the clouds at about 4000′, and eventually flying out of it. We had no equipment against ice other than the preparation called Icex, and this was its first test. The antenna never quavered—Vive Icex!

On Your Own

The flight to Goose Bay was over the most rugged terrain I have ever seen, especially northeast of Seven Islands. During this part of the trip, there was some sort of magnetic electrical disturbance which made us think something was wrong with the compass and the radio. Comparing notes later, we found other pilots had encountered this same strange phenomenon. Four and three-quarters hours after leaving Montreal, we landed on the Canadian side of the field at Goose Bay. While Bob was going through his routine, we brought out the remnants of our lunch and ate it in the large but empty waiting-room of Trans-Canada Air Line.

Cold Oasis

We always seem to encounter the happiest people. The driver of the Canadian oil truck, that was servicing the ship, said it would be no trouble at all for him ‘to take us over to the American side. How we all managed to pile into the cab of his truck, I can’t imagine, but it seemed to have been successful because before too long he was delivering us in grand style before the portals of the world famed Hotel de Gink. After considerable maneuvering, permission was granted to bring the ship around to the American side and it was parked on the ramp almost directly in front of our window. This was to be our headquarters for the next seven days, but little did we know it at the time. The housing in this Air Force Hotel was 75 cents a night for Henry in a room with three others, and for us in a room on the next floor it was $1.25. We ate at the officers’ mess at 65 cents for dinner, 50 cents for lunch, and all other prices were in that proportion so we figured we could not be “weathered in” at a better place.

It is quite cold here in winter, the temperature sometimes going as low as 35 below, and the snow falls in abundance, the record being 185 inches in 1943. Last year there were 145 inches, and they say when a ship lands on the plowed runways it looks as though it were disappearing down a long tunnel. There were still some remains of piles of

snow here and there, we noticed, as we walked about. At that time of year, it was dark from about 8:00 P. M. to 3 A. M. , though on the return trip there would be only one hour of darkness from 2:00 A. M. to 3:00 A. M.

Form 32 seems to be the magic wand. Wave that in front of anyone and the world is yours ! When that was produced, they were willing to do everything for us and everyone was certainly very helpful. They recharged the battery, put air in the strut, fixed the door, looked at the radio and did many other favors for us.

The ship on the ramp caused infinite curiosity and almost any time we looked out there were two or three people looking at it. All the pilots were enthusiastic and would have given anything to have gone along, but the ground personnel, for the most part, merely shook their heads sadly, as if to say, “Will that make it?” Colonel Weaver came up to us one evening and introduced himself, as did a Mr. Clyde Herreld of Allison Motors, who was here working on the jet engines. People were interested in the Commander and in the trip and were eager to know about both. Captain Russell was so nice to us, but he must have grown weary of bidding us goodbye. Every evening, it was the same story. Good night— Goodbye—Good trip. And then in the morning, “You still here?”

The climate is healthy and invigorating, but the geographical location of the base is definitely removed from the hustle and bustle of this work-a-day world. There is no highway leading to this spot, no surrounding towns, no railroads, in fact no roads going any where, so that fact obviates anyone having a car and the only passenger cars on the base are used by the officers of the higher ranks. All supplies brought in in quantity are delivered by boat—powdered milk, dry mix ice cream, and the like. Occasionally, there would be fresh eggs brought in by air. Oh, happy day! Every activity known to man is provided for the men and they seem not to lack for distraction. They can even go on with their studies. The University of Maryland gives courses for credit and there are innumerable subjects from which to choose.

Sitting it Out

And what were we doing all this time? Going to the weather bureau. That seemed to be our point of radiation. Meal – weather bureau; movie – weather bureau; church – weather bureau. This went on for seven days, morning, noon and night. The first few days, there was, fog in the fjord at Greenland, which was our next stop, at the end of our first Ion over water hop. On May 11, the fog had cleared and we were up dressed in our monstrous ‘suits at 3:00 A. M., but a terrific wind with a velocity of 75 knots, had closed the Greenland strip.

A squadron of 20 jet planes was set to make the jump and they were likewise delayed, as were numerous other craft, several navy ships, 2 DC3’s, to mention a few. As the jets carry but slightly more than two hours gas, the weather has to be way above par for them to start.

I should say here, that the approach to the field at B. W. 1, in Greenland, is the bottleneck. It is 75 miles inland from the coast and it is a continuous descent to the field, which is set at the end of one of the numerous fjords of the land. There are many such fjords, all but one being ecdead end” and running into a mountain. It is like descending in a trough, lined with cliffs and ridges. Because of its deadly characteristics, a fair amount of visibilityto must be had before permission take off is granted. The Army gives a thorough and wonderful briefing, consisting of movies and detailed explanations with a We cemock were upgiven the entire terrain. We were given the same briefing as the Army pilots, and we were appreciative their generous assistance and cooperation.

From Where?

After being delayed by evil spirits in the fjords, we were next beset by demons in Goose. The most terrific wind and sand storm began howling in the middle of the night. We looked out of our window and saw the Commander rocking in the breeze. Gales reached such proportions that Bob hoisted himself out of bed and braved the elements to face the ship into the wind. Somewhat later, at about 4:00 A. M., he was called to the phone. The wind had continued to increase in severity and the poor little Commander was getting light on its wheels. The Air Force, fearing for its safety, offered hangar space for it. This was particularly solicitous, as they did not have enough available space to house their own squadron of jets. These high winds continued for three days, wafting tons of dirt through the air and somersaulting trees, small buildings and other accessories through space. The sand was in your teeth, hair, clothes, and food. It came in our room by the shovelful because there was no weatherstripping.  Intermittent rain came down in torrents,and everyting was just dandy.

Misery loves compnay, and there were enough in this waiting line to cure anyone of any shooting pains he might be acquiring through this whole deal. Over a bridge game, one of the jet pilots said, “Listen to that wind !” and the retort came back, “What did you expect—chimes ?”

Whenever a flight is to be made by the jets, two amphibians precede them and rendezvous at a point halfway between Greenland and the weather boat. These amphibians, beside serving as radio homing beacons, are also part of the Air Force’s Search and Rescue Service, which gives aid to all persons, aircraft, and ships in distress. Units are trained for survival on the water, or in any wild or desolate or unusual terrain. They are responsible for the safe return of many crews that might otherwise have perished for lack of knowledge of how to help themselves. There have been many illustrated articles of these men on maneuvers in the National Geographic and other magazine, and it was interesting to see the class-room equipment in use in Greenland before the men go out into the mountains for actual experience.

Weather of every description persisted. Like jumping jacks, we had bounded in and out of bed at all hours of the night. The weather was so perverse that you could seldom tell just what the morrow would bring.  But one thought was bracing. Going the same day the jets did and having the amphibians, would be an additional safety factor for us. Ultimately, the good word came and we were at last given our clearance. Goose Bay was so sorry to see us go that big tears were drenching the airport as we took off. However, we knew that at the end of five hours of flying, Greenland’s fjords, like great outstretched arms, would be welcoming and enveloping us in their voluminous folds of glorious sunshine.

Eight Hours’ Gas

We took off for Greenland at 5:15 the morning of the 13th. Of course, there was a head wind most of the way and so the trip took us longer than we anticipated—5 hours and 50 minutes. We were over an overcast most of the way, flying in and out of snow storms, a few cold rain showers, and other evidences of nature’s wrath. We were never actually out of radio contact on this or any other part of the way. After the on-course signal of the Cape Harrison beam began to fade, we tuned in on the weather ship. After plotting and checking, Bob said, etWe should be just about over the boat.” In a matter of seconds, as if by magic there was a sizeable break in the clouds and there below, the little ship rolled in the giant waves of Mid-Atlantic. Henry will never get over that. He thinks Bob is Houdini. But what a thrill that was to see and how good it made you feel. The many moments like this made all the delays and disappointments seem so trivial. We had some welcome and necessary conversation with the forecaster on the ship. He verified our position by radar and soon he was swallowed up in heaps of billowing clouds. On and on we droned, now in, now out, now above the masses of clouds till we soon reached our point of no return. All bad weather was now in back of us and we were flying under the heavenly blue arches of a cloudless sky. The last two hours of the trip were worth the long days of weary waiting.

Landfall

The coast of Greenland, the world’s largest island, loomed in the distance. Mountain peaks covered with snow, rising above the ice cap, were visible from over two hundred miles. The nearer we approached, the more majestic and awe inspiring it became; glaciers, the ice cap, icebergs dotting the great sea, and such blue, blue water. The coast is heavy with high mountains and is indented with glaciated fjords, extending deep into the interior. The fjords bite their way through the mountains till suddenly they are blocked by enormous glaciers. The glaciers from the interior ice cap disgorge great chunks of icebergs which gradually drift to the sea, float out miles and miles further, then melt away.

Now the coast is reached, and B. W. 3, the point at which the start of the descent is made down into the 75 miles of mountainous, watery lanes to Narsarssuak Air Force Base, B. W. 1. over B. W. 3—Keep right to Sugar Loaf, there is the tiny town at the mountain foot; then the sunken ship gently keeled over; bear left past the three capes; gear down; and there’s the strip. Such a maze! I almost fell out of the window looking at all the check points and marvelling at all the glory around us. We climbed out of the ship in our space suits and the O. D. in his staff car came out to greet us and take us through the proper channels.

Looking up at the gigantic hangar, there was a huge sign painted above the cavernous doors,  “Welcome to Sunny, Southern Greenland.” What could be nicer? We disengaged ourselves from the outer envelopes of our suits, then went to the officers’ mess for lunch. I felt extremely ridiculous in my conspicuous costume. We didn’t change clothes because we thought there might be a chance of our continuing the same day. As we slunk into the mess, all eyes were riveted upon us. The men were accustomed to seeing the jet pilots in these outfits, but not a vision like me—a female, no less, with gray hair. Later, a lieutenant told us that when I walked into the dining room.

The post From the archive: round trip to Europe in an Aero Commander appeared first on Air Facts Journal.