Atlantic solo pilot has a lucky escape
Israel Briggs was en route from Tønsberg in Norway to Iceland for the first of his scheduled three stops on the way to Sanford, Maine, in America when his twin engine aircraft began to lose oil at a dangerous rate, leaving one of his engines vulnerable to complete failure.
The father of four had to abandon an attempt to land at Vágar Airport in the Faroe Islands due to conditions, so headed south for 250-miles where he made an emergency landing in Stornoway.
Speaking to the Gazette from a hangar at Stornoway Airport, where he was working repairing his aircraft, the 52-year-old smiled: “I’m still unwinding from that flight and it seems that the entire island knows I'm here but it’s been lovely.
“My plane was designed in the late 1970s and the aircraft was intended to be really safe as it eliminates asymmetric thrust so if you lose an engine the emergency procedure is to pull the throttle and all levels forward on maximum power on the good engine and don’t worry about the bad engine.
“This aircraft is so light and the engine is so overpowered on it you could actually miss a runway approach and still be able to climb out again and have another approach.
“So if I was going to cross the Atlantic in a small twin engine plane this is the one I’d probably want to do it in as chances of having a swim is a little less.”
Mr Briggs bought the aircraft from some friends in Norway but due to the restrictions of the pandemic he had been unable to collect the aircraft until recently.
His planned flight plan return to Sanford was to fly from Tønsberg to Reykjavik in Iceland before continuing to Greenland and then the final stop in Canada before the final flight of the journey to his home state of Maine.
Stornoway wasn’t a planned stop – so it made his first ever visit to Scotland a memorable one.
“It's been an adventure and a lot hasn't gone as expected but I’m meeting some wonderful people and the adventure continues which is part of the reason I do this,” he said.
The aircraft holds an extended range fuel tank of around 32 gallons with support coming via two spare tanks on either wing which each hold around 50 gallons which gives Israel around nine hours of flight time.
The distance between Tønsberg and Reykjavik was around six hours but Israel reveals that doesn’t mean it was in any way simple.
“I measure range in terms of time which depends on how much power I am sucking out of the engine,” he said.
“I try to fly at a lower altitude to avoid icing conditions so the engines aren’t as efficient as they would be at a high altitude but in general I can get nine hours of endurance.
“In this case I got to the Faroe Islands and I had a problem there and this airport in Stornoway was 250-miles south so that's another two hours flying with an engine going south on me so you need to know you have enough capability with your aircraft.”
Although one of his two engines was leaking oil at an alarming rate it hadn’t lost power. Each engine holds eight quarts of oil but when checked in Stornoway there was just one left. This meant the engine was at imminent risk of failure.
He explained: “I would have lost the rear engine but what made the situation especially stressful in the Faroes was that I was at a lower altitude. The way the winds were there that day over the obscured mountains was difficult. I couldn't go up over them as I was on a visual flight plan so had to remain clear of clouds for flight rules.
" I wanted to be careful with avoiding ice so I had to stay low and couldn’t go above 4000 feet because of the clouds.
"I decided to go down low underneath them which wasn’t the best decision as the winds from the south were blowing 30 noughts west and as I was crossing north east the high winds over the mountain ridge were shearing across the top.
“At one point I ended up inverted over the ocean at about 2000 feet. My fuel tank was weightless so I pushed into a complete barrel roll, got the plane level and saw my oil pressure was really low on my instruments and were dangerous so I wanted to make a precautionary landing.”
He continued: “I called the air traffic control to advise of my engine issues to make a landing and they directed me to the one airport on the Faores which was suitable for this aircraft.
"Vágar that particular day wasn’t in good shape as it had big cross winds, obscured valley with low cloud and as I don’t have a lot of flight time in this aircraft, having only bought it last year with only a few hours flying time in it, so I wasn’t prepared to fly an instrument approach at that level.
"I needed more practice so I felt that even with a dead engine it was too risky and had I made a mistake I might have ended up in a mountain.
“So I aborted the Vágar attempt and asked for an alternate which was here in Stornoway and the weather looked great and I headed south for two and a half hours on a perfectly clear day with my engine pressure failing.”
Despite this being Mr Briggs’ first trip to the Hebrides, and Scotland, he laughs as all he has seen on his unscheduled pit-stop has been the hangar.
“I hope to see a little more before I am due to leave,” he smiles, “but I’ve been working on getting the plane fixed.