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Portland to Azores

Leg 5. 31 July. Portland to Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. 1 hour 56 minutes.

The front we had just flown through was coming our way so we decided to push on without delay. There are usually no formalities on leaving the U.S. but since we had special I94 entry and departure forms which had to be turned in, we rang customs who told us just to mail them. The friendly young woman at Northeast Avionics took care of that for us and we were soon back in the air. There was only some light rain as we flew under the clouds at 11000 feet. Beneath us was a rural scene of forests and lakes with a few roads and villages. The sky cleared and the sun was shining as we flew into Canada an hour later. It was at Moncton airport that we would be checked out for the Atlantic crossing. We had already booked an appointment with an official from the Canadian Aviation Authority Department of Transport. We ate lunch while he was busy with an American couple who were taking the northern route to Germany. When it was our turn to go through the paperwork with him, the official told us that although several small planes are ferried across the Atlantic each year by professionals, only a handful of the pilots he meets are doing it for pleasure.

Leg 6. 31 July. Moncton to St. John's, Newfoundland. 3 hours 7 minutes.

The front was still trying to catch up with us so - the formalities completed - we decided to remain in the lead and push on to St. John's. Since we would be flying for an hour over sea we thought we would do a dress rehearsal for the long flight to the Azores and try out our immersion suits. As I pulled up the zipper I noticed that a whistle was attached to the end of it. I assumed it was for signaling to your mate when you're up to your neck in water in a thick fog. On this, our third flight of the day, we almost cursed the fine weather. The sun was shining into the cockpit and, encased in our suits, we felt hot and sticky. Also, the feet were too huge to fit between the rudder pedals, so there was no way we could stretch out our legs. Our spirits revived, though, when we passed the half-way mark of our journey home as we flew over the small French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Leg 7. 1-2 August. St. John's - Santa Maria Island, Azores. 8 hours 18 minutes.

We had originally planned on staying a couple of nights in St. John's before setting out over the ocean, but the front was still trying to catch up with us. Light rain had already set in by the afternoon and heavy showers were due to arrive by midnight. The met office told us there would be no significant weather all the way to the Azores if we got away in time, so we made up our minds to leave early in the evening and fly through the night. Azores time - which is the same as zulu time - was two and a half hours ahead of Newfoundland and we wanted to arrive at our destination in daylight.
The prospect of setting out over that vast stretch of water had given me butterflies in the stomach all day but, mercifully, I felt more confident when the time actually came to say good-bye to the American continent. We flew between two cloud layers for the first one and a half hours until the sky above us cleared shortly before sunset. A thin moon made a brief appearance behind us before it fell below the horizon and it was soon pitch black outside in spite of the stars.

We had flown out of the VHF radio's range an hour after take-off. Now Flemming had to make regular position reports over the HF. Our routing was direct to the westernmost island of Flores and took us through Gander, New York and Santa Maria oceanic control areas. The reporting points were every 5 degrees longitude. Two frequencies of the North Atlantic A series were initially allocated but eventually we were using a third lower one as well. Position reports are initiated by the pilot and according to a pre-determined format. As a safety precaution, they are read back by the controller. A typical position report would be as follows:

HBDVN: Gander HBDVN. Position.
Gander: HBDVN Gander. Go ahead.
HBDVN; HBDVN position four seven north, zero five zero west at time two two four zero, maintaining flight level one one zero. Estimating four five four zero north, zero four five west at time two three five six. Next four five north zero four three west. Go ahead.
Gander: (Reads back complete position report).
HBDVN: Gander HBDVN. Readback correct.

This procedure went smoothly through Gander and New York areas as the frequencies were not too congested early in the evening. But later, from about 0200 zulu when we entered Santa Maria OCA, it became a nightmare. Due to the large number of airlines above us heading for Europe, Flemming often had to wait as long as 10 minutes to find a break.
We had 30 knots on the tail for most of the way and as a result, we were only 5 hours out when we picked up the first beacon - a powerful NDB - from the island of Flores. The transponder came to life again an hour later as we flew over the island. It was still black outside but the lights of civilization beneath us were a very welcome sight. In another hour we
were over the central group of islands. The tailwind had carried us so fast that we knew we would be landing in Santa Maria before daybreak, which meant there were to be no photographs of the historic moment! When, on arrival, we stepped out of the plane and divested ourselves of our cocoons, we were delighted to feel how warm the early morning air was. We looked forward to our first swim.
The airport was open but it was deathly quiet and ours was the only aircraft on the apron. We were greeted by a solitary marshal, who informed us that the customs official hadn't arrived yet, but it wasn't important since we both had EC passports - just as long as we paid the customs fee of about $70. Formalities completed, he happily left his office unattended while he drove us to the island's only hotel a couple of miles away. The hotel was almost as quiet as the airport. Little did anyone know then that dinner would have to be provided that day for 250 people - passengers from a New York-bound TWA Lockheed Tristar that had to put down on Santa Maria due to engine failure. We were congratulating ourselves on having reserved our room before the big invasion until we learnt that the hotel could not accommodate them all anyway so they were going to camp down at the airport.

We spent the next fortnight visiting the islands. Flores, with its sheer cliffs, waterfalls, crater lakes and abundant wild flowers, was known to be the most beautiful of them all, so we decided that we would just have to visit it although that meant backtracking for about two hours. Ours was the only small plane we saw on any of the islands we visited. Clearly the local controllers were unused to VFR traffic because, although we filed a VFR flight plan for Flores, we were given an IFR clearance and flight level 100. However, as we approached Flores, Flemming was granted permission to fly around the island to take pictures and the visibility was good enough that day to make a visual approach. The air in the Azores is quite humid and the hills are frequently shrouded by clouds. Even the airports - located near the coast - were seldom totally in the clear, so it made sense, after all, to be flying IFR.
Airport fees varied: Flores and Faial charged about $20; we paid $40 at São Miguel and $50 at Santa Maria. Apron control assistants were, without exception, most friendly and helpful. At Flores, the man gave us a list of local dishes to try; at Horta (Faial Island), all the hotels were full up due to an annual festival, so the assistant arranged for us to stay at his mother's house; and in São Miguel, the young man drove us 20 km to our hotel and then spent his two days off giving us a guided tour of the island. Car hire costs about $100 a day in the Azores - three times the amount we paid in the U.S. - so we were particularly grateful for our friend's generous hospitality.

Even if you don't have a sufficient range to fly your own plane there, we would unreservedly recommend these relatively untrampled islands for a summer holiday. It's best not to wait too long, though. They have plans to expand the tourist industry.

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Dressed up in bulky immersion suits in St Johns

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São Lourenço beach on Santa Maria island
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Flores island coastline
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Flores island
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On final Flores island
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Flores island lives up to its name
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Angela surrounded by hydrangea
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On final Horta, Faial
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Pico island
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Arrival in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
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Sete Cidades, São  Miguel
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Cooking in hot soil, São Miguel
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