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Across the pond


Flying to Europe is well within reach for many executive jet types.

By J Peter Berendsen
Contributing writer


OPF (Exec, Opa-locka FL) has US Customs and doesn’t charge landing fees. Fontainebleau Aviation operates 24/7 with full-service capabilities on site.

The Atlantic Ocean, affectionately called “the Pond,” is a vast body of water separating Europe and the Americas. Between Newfoundland and Ireland, the closest distance is almost 1600 nm. For centuries, ships were the only way to transport people, goods, and news between these 2 continents. Telegraph cables were laid on the sea floor in the 19th century. By 1902, however, Marconi discovered that he could transmit and receive radio waves between Newfoundland, Canada and Ireland.

The first successful flights by aircraft and airships happened in 1919, right after World War I. Charles Lindbergh famously flew non stop from New York to Paris in 1927, and commercial passenger flights started in 1937, with Pan Am and Imperial Airways operating flying boats from Port Washington NY to Shannon, Ireland, and on to Southampton UK. Today, crossing the north Atlantic is routine. Passengers don’t think about it much, and news travel instantly to our computers and phones.

Transatlantic routes

While safety is still the primary concern for pilots, today’s challenges are not so much the vastness and weather on this ocean, but traffic density and regulatory compliance. Modern executive jets have the capability to fly from the Americas to Europe. Some need technical stops in between, while others can make it non-stop.

Routings can be grouped into 4 main traffic corridors. The busiest is from the northeast US to Ireland, UK, and France. On this route, you have the shortest distances on the north Atlantic, but it packs the highest traffic density. This is where the North Atlantic Organised Track System (NAT-OTS) guides your flight planning. Even from Chicago or Denver, the shortest route via the great circle to Europe goes via Newfoundland or Labrador using the NAT-OTS.

Jet Nassau offers ground support services at NAS (Nassau, Bahamas), with 20,000 sq ft of hangar space and 300,000 sq ft of ramp space.

The second main traffic corridor is from Florida and the Caribbean to Europe. In many cases, you will fly straight out to the ocean, for example, from Miami FL to the waypoint SUMER east of the Bahamas, where you’ll enter the New York Oceanic Control Area (OCA). You stay over water as you pass Bermuda, the Azores, and Madeira until you reach Lisbon, Portugal, Spain, or France.

From South America, there are routings available from Recife PE, Brazil to Dakar, Senegal via Cape Verde. SID (Intl, Amílcar Cabral, Cape Verde) offers a long runway and is a good technical stop on this route. With the exception of Dakar, Senegal and Casablanca, Morocco, technical stops in northern Africa on the way to the Mediterranean and Europe should be avoided.

Even in Dakar and Casablanca, expect lots of red tape and a heightened security threat level. Unless you have an ultra long-range executive jet at your disposal, my recommendation is to fly via the Caribbean or the  US east coast to Europe when coming from South America.

Ultra long-range executive jets fly non-stop from the US west coast to Europe and back. Shortest routings will bring you to high northern latitudes of up to 75° N. Touchdown in Europe is planned somewhere between Scotland and Norway as you approach the Netherlands and Germany from the North Sea. On this route, THU (Thule AFB, Pituffik, Greenland) at 76.5° N and SFJ (Kangerlussuaq, Greenland) at 67° N) are some of the few diversion airports available.

If you have not crossed the North Atlantic before, it’s quite helpful to look at an actual globe and realize how far north cities like Frankfurt, Germany (50° N), London, UK (51.5° N), and Dublin, Ireland (53° N) actually are. The great circle route to these European destinations from Boston, New York, or Chicago will bring you to latitudes of somewhere between 55° and 60° N on the ocean.

However, planning your flight over the north Atlantic has to take the wind into account to achieve the so called minimum time track (MTT). Over the north Atlantic, we usually have to deal with the polar front jet stream. MTTs can vary quite a bit, depending how the jet stream is laid out on a particular day. As there is so much traffic, the NAT-OTS has been established in order to offer optimum tracks for most traffic, which means passenger airline traffic.

Operational peculiarities

The NAT-OTS is unique in the world, as it changes twice daily to provide optimum routes for the main traffic flows, with due regard to the winds and turbulence.

The North Atlantic is a non-radar environment. While there is military over-the-horizon radar, no radar has been developed for civil use that could cover the entire ocean and distinguish clearly between aircraft. So, for ATC planners, the task has been to create a structure that would accommodate safely large volumes of air traffic and, at the same time, be economical for the operators.

Oceanic control centers have been established – one of them in Ronkonkoma, Long Island NY, which controls the New York OCA. Others are Gander (Canada), Shanwick (Ireland), Bodo (Norway), Santa Maria (the Azores), and Recife (Brazil). These centers control vast areas of the ocean. They separate traffic without the use of radar, as the range of radar is limited and there is no land in between on which to build antennas. Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast/Contract (ADS-B/C) and Controller-Pilot Datalink Communications (CPDLC) are the backbone of the oceanic ATC system.

There are 2 main factors that influence the north Atlantic route structure – weather and traffic demand.

As the polar front jet stream meanders over the north Atlantic at altitudes of 28,000–40,000 ft, wind reaches speeds of up to 200 kts. With jet cruise true airspeeds between 400 and 500 kts, this has a big effect on ground speed, and therefore on cruise performance and efficiency.

The general direction of the  polar front jet stream is from west to east, but there are large variations from day to day. I have seen it go north to south, south to north, sometimes even blowing from the northeast or southeast. Also, branches of the jet stream separate and join again. In most cases though, you will see a meandering west–east flow. This means that it is to your advantage to join the jet stream on the way to Europe, while avoiding it on the way back.

The second factor is traffic flow. Most airline flights to Europe leave the US in the afternoon and evening, arriving in Europe the next morning. With a time difference of 5–6 hours, this seems to be the most popular departure time, considering passenger preferences and night curfews. On the way back, aircraft leave European airports in the morning, arriving in the US in the afternoon as they travel with the sun. Corporate and cargo operators will have different schedules, but need to consider this as it affects their flight planning.

BGR (Intl, Bangor ME) is a preferred tech stop for transatlantic flights. Here, BGR Aviation offers full FBO services for operators flying to and coming from Europe.

Flying back from Europe

Gander Oceanic in Newfoundland is responsible for the eastbound OTS. Minimum time tracks are calculated for the main traffic flows between the US/Canada and Europe. Then parallel tracks are published, with a lateral spacing of 60 nm (1 degree latitude) or 30 nm (0.5 degrees latitude).

The southernmost track is called Z, the next one to the north is Y, and so forth. The tracks are published at 1400Z and valid from 0100-0800Z at 30° W. Westbound tracks are prepared by Shanwick Oceanic in Scotland. They are published at 2200Z and are valid from 1130Z–1900Z at 30° W. The northernmost track is called A, the next one to the south in B, ans so forth.

These tracks are different everyday, and half of the day they create a huge one-way street to the east, the other half of the day is one way to the west.  The tracks are published as an Organized Track Message (OTM).

Aircraft operating in the NAT airspace are required to carry a copy of the OTM on board. This spells out each track and flight levels available on them. The NAT area is a reduced vertical separation (RVSM) area, up to 13 aircraft can pass a waypoint at the same time between FL290–FL410.

The OTM also contains the Track Message Identification (TMI) number. This TMI is just the day of publication in the Julian calendar, so the TMI of the February 1 OTM would be 32. The TMI number is important as sometimes you need to read it back after receiving your clearance via voice. If you do not have it, you will have to read back all waypoints of the cleared track in Lat/Long format. NAT clearance is normally requested, received, and confirmed via CPDLC.

Traffic separation

The OTS is the basis for separation of all aircraft in the NAT region – longitudinal, lateral, and vertical. Most aircraft are spaced 5 or 10 minutes behind each other, 30–60 nm lateral, and 1000 ft vertical.

Five minutes in trail separation and 1000 ft vertically is not a lot. This becomes very obvious when rumbling about in the contrail of a preceding aircraft 1000 ft higher ahead, or an opposing aircraft passing you just 1000 ft lower. The strategic lateral offset procedure (SLOP) tries to mitigate this. Pilots are encouraged to fly 1 or 2 nm right of track to reduce the risk of collision and wake turbulence. There is no good reason not to do that. Just remember to cancel the offset in your FMS as you leave the NAT area.

In such dense traffic in a non-radar environment, with few diversion airports which are far apart, you have to take special care if you need to deviate from your assigned track. You need to get out of the way safely, which means descending to an in-between flight level 500 ft lower as you turn. If you are diverting for weather, which luckily does not happen very often on the north Atlantic, you descend 300 ft if its toward the north, or you climb 300 ft if it is toward the south of your track. Always maintain a listening watch on 121.5 MHz (where you would also announce your own diversion to all traffic) and 123.45 MHz (NAT air-to-air).

For details on this and other NAT questions, read the ICAO NAT DOC 007, North Atlantic Operations and Airspace Manual. FAA publishes a north Atlantic Resource guide for US operators, also required reading before you go.

Technical and medical stops

In the US and Canada, BGR (Bangor ME), YQX (Intl, Gander NL, Canada), YHZ (Intl, Halifax NS, Canada), YJT (Stephenville NL, Canada), YYT (Intl, St John’s NL, Canada), or YYR (Goose Bay NL, Canada) are good technical stops. In Greenland, options include SFJ or UAK (Narsaruaq, Greenland), although both have difficult approaches over high terrain and limited fuel supplies.

FAB (Intl, Farnborough UK) specializes in business aviation, and has top-rated facilities and services, such as catering and VIP transport.

In Iceland, both KEF (Intl, Keflavík, Iceland) or RKV (Reykjavík, Iceland) offer all services. Further south Bermuda, TER (Lajes, Portugal) and PDL (Intl, Ponta Delgada, Portugal) in the Azores are good options. TER is a mixed civil military airport, and has the longest runway.

In Europe, SNN (Shannon, Ireland) is the first airport you reach with full customs and immigration services for the European Union. DUB (Dublin, Ireland) is also good, but busier.

For the UK, PIK (Intl, Glasgow Prestwick, UK) is a good option. LCY (Intl, London City, London, UK) is perfect for executive jets, but requires special permits due to the steep approach. LIS (Intl, Lisbon, Portugal) is a good option if you are heading to the Iberian Peninsula.

Medical diversions are a different story. Many of the listed airports have very limited medical facilities. Talk to your medical services provider or your remote telemedicine service, and ask them which airports are recommended for medical diversions.

BOS (Intl, Boston MA), YUL (Intl, Montréal QC, Canada), RKV, DUB, and LIS are probably the ones that you may want to go to, but this depends on the type of medical facility your patient needs.

I know of a case where an immediate landing was recommended by doctors on board an airline flight. The pilots landed in YFB (Iqaluit Intl, Baffin Island NU, Canada). The patient was taken out to the local clinic and then had to wait for hours until a King Air could fly the patient to Montreal. Of course, the airliner would have reached Montreal much faster. So be careful before dropping off passengers on some of these airports for medical reasons.

I think I have crossed the north Atlantic more than 1000 times. It is special and rewarding every time, with views of polar lights and the Greenland icecap. Medical or aircraft emergencies may cause you to divert to very remote places, with extreme weather. Precise navigation is a must, as other aircraft rely on your accuracy, just as you rely on theirs.

Jörg Peter Berendsen flies Boeing 747s as a captain for Lufthansa. He holds ATP and CFII licenses, and writes regularly for Pro Pilot on aviation-related subjects.