I joined the Army in 1979 and back then we were fully expecting to go to war with the Soviet Bear. We knew that we had better equipment, men, and training but they had more of everything, except aircraft carriers, and as so often been said “quantity has a quality all its own” The Soviet Army planned to overwhelm the US and NATO forces in Germany with swarms of armor regardless of the cost. It looks like the Soviet navy had the same idea.
…a young second lieutenant…fresh from the air college, asked the senior navigator of the regiment, an old major: “Sir, tell me why we have a detailed flight plan to the target over the vast ocean, but only a rough dot-and-dash line across Hokkaido Island on way back?”
“Son,” answered the major calmly, “if your crew manages to get the plane back out of the sky over the carrier by any means, on half a wing broken by a Phoenix (ed. note: the name of a missile carried by the US Navy’s F-14 fighters) and a screaming prayer, no matter whether it’s somewhere over Hokkaido or directly through the moon, it’ll be the greatest possible thing in your entire life!”
Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, meant to eventually take wealthy passengers on brief rides into space, crashed during a test flight over southern California on Friday morning. One of its two pilots was killed, the other suffered serious injuries and remains hospitalized.
It’s a major setback for the space tourism effort, and a loss for the aerospace community. The deceased pilot, who has not been named, was like all his colleagues among the best on the planet. Virgin Galactic only hires the best, guys who tested planes for the Air Force or flew missions for NASA. The talent pool is limited because it has to be: Flying SpaceShipTwo is damn difficult. More:
While the recent crash of Spaceship Two was tragic with the loss of the pilot I’m sure there will be no shortage of highly experienced men willing to take his place. Men like know that the price you pay to fly high performance aircraft and cutting edge technology can sometimes be high.
Here’s a short video from my skydiving school showing us doing some angle flying jumps. Angle flying is where we form up on a leader who is flying a fairly steep angle. We typically reach speeds of out 200 mph and really move across the sky. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks because at those speeds even the smallest movement of an arm or leg has a huge effect. It can be very dangerous, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun! I’m in this video here and there and the final landing scene is a good shot of my school. Enjoy.
With all this in mind I concentrated on flying the Mooney and getting ready to land. When I passed through 1,000 feet the thick clouds slowly changed to a grey misty haze and I was able to see farmland and trees passing below. The controller told me the airport should be right at my twelve o’clock and to my great relief a runway appeared out of the haze in front of me.
I still had some altitude to burn off so I flew over the middle of the airport and started a left turn that I hoped would give me a good set up to make the runway. Suddenly the engine coughed a few times then started up with a roar. I had the engine back! Not sure that the engine would keep running, I continued the approach staying high and aiming to touch down on the first third of the runway.
Much to my delight the engine continued to make it’s blessed noise as I landed and turned onto the taxiway.
As I taxied to the ramp I saw a sheriff’s squad car with its lights flashing speeding toward me. “what the hell is this?” I said to myself.
The squad car turned in front of me and stopped, blocking my way and forcing me to hit the toe breaks. I sat there with my engine running as an overweight Sheriff’s Deputy struggled out of the car and motioned me to cut the engine. Frustrated and annoyed at this impromptu road block, I pulled the mixture control and shut the engine down.
With his Sheriffs Utility Belt bouncing up and down the deputy lumbered around to the right side of the plane as I opened the door and stuck my head over the ferry tank to talk to him.
“You need to clear the area! There is an airplane in trouble coming in!” Barney Fife said breathlessly after his long run. Apparently Boston Center had alerted the local fire department and the deputy was dispatched to help out.
“Kind of hard to do with your damn squad car in my way,” I thought. “Wasn’t I doing just that when you stopped me?”
I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when confronted with such incompetence, but he was there to help after all so I cut him some slack and explained that I was the plane that was in trouble and didn’t need any help. He didn’t understand at first, or didn’t believe me, but he finally figured it out. I then had to tell him the whole story before he would move his car and let me taxi to the ramp. He looked genuinely disappointed that he didn’t get to see an airplane crash.
By the time I got to the ramp the local volunteer fire department came roaring onto the airport, sirens blaring and light flashing. I think they took the last corner into the airport on two wheels. Then an ambulance arrived, followed closely by two more cars. As each vehicle skidded to a stop its occupants would pile out and come rushing up to my plane hoping to be of assistance of some kind.
Having squeezed over the ferry tank and out the door I stood on the wing and watched in amazement as cars continued to pull into the airport and onto the ramp. I’m pretty sure a minivan full of Boy Scouts showed up, each hoping to get his “Saw an airplane crash, poked a dead body, and identified human remains.” merit badge.
As each group of rescuers found out that I had made it they showed obvious signs of disappointment, I almost felt like setting the plane on fire just to make them feel better. The first responders milled about congratulating each other on their quick response time and wondering if they still had to go back to work or could they head to the local bar and celebrate a successful rescue. One by one the crowd got back in their vehicles and went back to whatever they had been doing before I disturbed their sleepy little town.
As I was pulling the cowl off the Mooney to check the engine for damage an attractive young woman walked up with a small notebook and pen in hand. Eagerly she identified herself as a local reporter and asked for an interview. I answered her questions as best I could while looking but not seeing anything obviously wrong with the engine, I guess I was looking for a big red switch that had inadvertently been turned to the “OFF” position.
The reporter thanked me and drove off with her scoop while I walked to a payphone to call the mechanic who installed the ferry tanks to see if he had any idea why I had just taken the ride of my life. The master of the monkey wrench thought that maybe when the ferry tank ran dry the air pressure flushed the fuel out of the system and prevented the fuel in the wing tanks from getting to the engine. By the time I shut off the ferry tank valve the fuel lines and boost pump were full of air and it took a few minutes for the fuel to reach the boost pump and then the engine. At least that was his theory.
“Gee, thanks a lot,” I thought. “I’m just going to fly this plane over the ocean to Italy is all, no big deal.”
With the mystery hopefully solved I buttoned the Mooney back up and took off again, hoping the mechanic’s theory was correct. I headed northeast to try and punch through the line of storms once again but it was getting dark and the storms seemed to have gained strength, or I’d lost some nerve, either way I decided to admit defeat and call it a night.
I landed at a nearby airport only 50 miles or so past Potsdam and taxied to the ramp. As I shut the Mooney down a fuel boy walked up and in response to my inquiries of overnight parking offered to lead me to the tie downs in the grass. My taxi light illuminated the man making “keep coming forward” motions as he walked backwards in the grass when suddenly the nose wheel of the Mooney dipped down sharply. I winced as I heard and felt the propeller hit the turf.
“SHIT!” I yelled as I realized what’d happened.
I shut the plane down and got out, royally pissed. My flashlight told the story, one of the blades had a small ding near its tip that would impossible for the new owner to miss. My ground guide was apologizing over and over, claiming that he never knew about the hole the Mooney’s nose wheel had dropped into. I kept my mouth shut, there was no sense getting yelling at him, it was my problem now.
The next day on the way to the airport I bought a metal file at a hardware store and spent two hours filing the ding out of the damaged propeller blade. I tried to take the same amount of metal off of the other blade to balance it out but had no way to check my work. When I was done the propeller looked good enough to pass a casual inspection. I hoped.
After I topped off the Mooney’s tanks I went inside to pay for the fuel and saw the airport manager sitting with his feet up on his desk reading a newspaper. Looking closer I was surprised to see that on the front page was a photo of me working on the Mooney in Potsdam with the caption “Close Call” under it.
“You want my autograph?” I asked laughing.
He was slightly confused until I told him my story, then he laughed as well and gave me the newspaper as a souvenir. I still have that paper in my scrap book; who said that job wouldn’t make me famous?
I flew forty miles south before I thought I could sneak through a gap between two groups of green dots. The controller consulted his crystal ball/radar and agreed that I stood a remote chance of not dying and wished me luck. I tightened my seat belt, cleaned up all loose objects in the cockpit and turned east into the dark wall of clouds.
The turbulence started immediately and was stronger than I expected, but tolerable, even fun. I was in my element and in control. The clouds got darker and it started to rain hard but the strike finder showed the way clear of lightning. Suddenly, bad things always happen suddenly, I heard a beeping sound coming from somewhere. I turned down my walkman, yes I was listening to music while flying in between two thunderstorms on an IFR flight plan, (don’t judge me, great battles always have a great soundtrack), and tried to figure out what was making that noise.
At first I thought maybe the new GPS I’d duct taped to the glare shield was the source of the beeping but since it was so quiet in the cockpit I could tell it was coming from the instrument panel.
Then it hit me, “why was it quiet? It’s not supposed to be quiet. Shit! The engine’s quit!”
The propeller was wind-milling. A quick check of the magnetos showed they were still on and the mixture was unchanged, I knew I hadn’t bumped anything. A scan of the engine instruments and I spotted the culprit, no fuel pressure! I hit the fuel boost pump and the offending needle might have quivered, but it was hard to tell. I was getting kicked around quite a bit and just keeping the plane on an even keel proved to be quite a challenge.
I slowed my airspeed down to best glide in order to give me more time in between full control inputs to work on the problem. I checked the 90 gallon ferry tank and saw that the valve was still open but the plastic tube sight-gauge showed the tank empty or nearly so. I checked the fuel valve to the almost full wing tanks and that was also still open, what the hell was wrong?
The rain seemed to be getting stronger and the sky darker, I decided it was time to stop screwing around and get pointed toward the nearest airport in case I couldn’t get the engine back. I put the plane into a shallow left bank while I tried to find an airport on the map. This was easier said than done. I was forty miles or more off my original course and while I’d been looking for a break in the storm front to fly through I hadn’t kept real close track of my position over the ground. I started trying to find my position by tuning in the VORs but the severe turbulence made it difficult. It was time to stop screwing around and ask for help.
“Boston Center, November four three six eight Quebec.”
“Go ahead six eight Quebec, Boston center”.
“Boston, six eight Quebec’s lost an engine, request vectors to the nearest airport.” I said trying to sound calm and cool, because that’s how a pilot with the “Right Stuff” handles an emergency situation. Plus sounding calm helped keep me from panicking.
“Roger six eight Quebec, I can give you the nearest airport but the weather is a lot better at Smith Falls, forty five miles west of you.”
Maybe I’d sounded a little too calm. “Boston I lost an engine in a Mooney, and by my count that leaves me with none. I don’t think I can make forty five miles.”
“Ok six eight Quebec, Potsdam airport is ten miles southwest and is reporting nine hundred overcast, can you make that?”
I was still in a continuous left bank going through 16,000 and descending at about 400 feet per minute. I figured I could glide ten miles easily and told center. There was no navigation aid on the field so the controller read off the latitude and longitude coordinates and I copied them on the back of my map. It was difficult to enter the numbers on my GPS while maintaining control of the stricken Mooney. When I hit the “GO TO” button the screen instructed me to fly a westerly heading for 1,434 miles, I would arrive at my destination in ten hours and thirty five minutes. I’d obviously done something wrong and was in no mood to try again. Flying the airplane was taking almost all of my concentration and the turbulence made it difficult to enter the numbers in the GPS.
“Boston, I’m having trouble entering the coordinates on my GPS, could you give me vectors instead please?”
“Roger six eight Quebec, fly heading two four zero, and stand by for corrections.”
Finally pointed toward someplace to land, I turned my attention back to getting the engine going again. The only thing I could think of was to turn the ferry tank valve off and isolate the original fuel system. The mechanic who briefed me on the ferry system in South St. Paul prior to leaving told me that it didn’t matter if I left the valve open after the tank went dry. The only caution he gave me was not to open the valve until I had run some fuel out of the mains to avoid overflow. I turned the valve off and waited, hoping to hear the engine spring to life, but nothing happened. The only sound was the air flowing over the aircraft as it fell through the clouds, and my heart pounding.
Resigned to a dead stick landing, I reviewed the procedures I would use and got ready. The controller, who’d become my new best friend, informed me that I was only three miles from the airport. The ceilings where still around 1,000 feet and the visibility was two miles, not great but not too bad. At least I wouldn’t have to make a low instrument approach to the airport.
I wasn’t looking forward to my third dead stick landing. The first one was really a partial power landing when I lost a piston in a Cessna 182 full of skydivers. The second was in a Piper J3 cub whose engine just stopped when I pulled the throttle back to idle. Both times I was close enough to the airport to make it back and both times I flew a good approach and landed fine. I was worried about this one though. With the poor visibility in the area if I didn’t see the airport as soon as I came out of the clouds I might get too low and come up short. That would definitely spoil my perfect record of not bending airplanes.
I know you all were disappointed that I didn’t get to fly the Cirrus to Berlin this weekend and entertain you all with the trip report. It was going to be too. I was going to see just how fast I could make the trip from Wisconsin to Germany and call it the Kessel run.
“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?…It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” Han Solo
Get it? I was going to make the US to Germany run really fast…….Call it the Kessel run………Well I thought it was funny.
I was going to finish up the trip with some good German beer and then run home in time for Number One Son’s Friday night football game, BING, BANG BOOM. But alas it was not to be. So to try and make it up to you I’m going to share another story from my distant past that can also be found in my Book when I finally get it published. So without further ado here’s the story
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Things were really starting to get busy for me in the summer of 1992. Pete was sending me all over the world delivering planes and I was taking a more active role in managing the dropzone in Wisconsin. All over the country skydiving was going through a metamorphosis and our little club was no exception. Teaching people how to skydive and taking them on tandem jumps was starting to become a profitable business. Where before a jump master or instructor taught students just for fun and to keep the sport alive, now you could actually make a living throwing strangers out of airplanes.
I’d taken the time to get all my skydiving instructor ratings so whenever I wasn’t flying planes I was jumping out of them. My favorite thing to do when I was working at the drop zone was to teach students how to fly their bodies in free fall as an AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) instructor. With the AFF program one or two instructors jump out of the plane holding onto the students in order to keeping them under control and making sure they did all the important things, like pulling their ripcord.
My personal life was starting to go through some major changes as well. I’d started dating a beautiful Finnish farm girl from the upper peninsula of Michigan named Cathy Rajala. Cathy was attending the University of St. Thomas at the time and although very serious about her studies she was just as much fun to hang around with as the other women I had been seeing but there was something about her that impressed me and made me want to spend more time with her. We both pretended to be just friends for almost a year before a kiss at a New Years Eve party ended up lingering a little longer than either of us expected.
As we saw more and more of each other Cathy started coming out to the airport to see me off when I left on ferry trips. It was great having her there when I was getting ready to leave, it reminded me that there was someone nice waiting for me when I got back. One thing always bothered me though; she never seemed very worried about the dangers of flying small planes across the ocean. I don’t know if she was putting on a brave front or if she didn’t really grasp just how dangerous ferry flying really was. Her perception of ferry flying might have been faulty because when I got home from a trip I tended not to tell her about the dangers and tended to make excuses when she overheard one of my friends asking about one of my close calls.
I had no idea I’d have one of my closest calls when Cathy dropped me off at the South St. Paul Airport on a beautiful sunny June day. I was ferrying a single engine Mooney to Rome, Italy and the first leg of the trip would be an easy flight to Bangor, Maine. It was an easy day of flying and getting to know a new aircraft until I was confronted by a large line of thunderstorms over the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. If God was trying to make me feel small and insignificant, the wall of clouds He had laid out in front of me was definitely working. From 19,000 feet the billowing white mass towered five miles above me and stretched 100 miles to either side.
I’d been talking to the professional weather guessers at flight service for the previous half hour, trying to get a good understanding of what lay in my path so the line of thunderstorms hadn’t taken me by surprise. The picture they painted for me wasn’t pretty, a line of thunderstorms marching eastward across New Hampshire and heading for straight for Maine, directly in my path.
After plotting the system on my map along with its heading and speed I was presented with two choices; land and wait for the storms to work their way across New Hampshire and Maine, which would mean spending the night somewhere, putting me behind schedule; or try and find a way through. Luckily for me, or unluckily as it turns out, the storms were not as strong as the giant thunder-boomers we often have in the Midwest.
The thought of stopping two hours short of Bangor, Maine didn’t appeal to me very much. If I stopped not only would it mean an extra two hours flying time tacked onto the next day but I would still have to stop in Bangor to clear customs. The extra flight time and customs would delay my arrival in St. Johns, Newfoundland until well after dark.
I liked to get to St. Johns early so I could get the plane fueled and ready, make an appointment with the weather briefers the next morning and get to the hotel in time to have a good dinner and relax a bit before the long trans-Atlantic crossing. If I got there in time to spend a little time at the local bar next to the nursing school so much the better, a little exercise in the form of dancing helps me sleep.
With nothing but the professional concern for the safety of the client’s plane in mind I pushed my oxygen mask aside and called center to ask them to help me find a crack in the wall. The controller suggested I fly south along the line of storms. He thought there might be a way through in that direction. As I flew in the clear sky along the trailing edge of the storm I monitored the storm on the strike finder that was installed in the plane. The strike finder showed lightning strikes as little green dots on the screen making it possible to identify where the thunderstorms were. When I looked at the dozens of green dots on the screen I knew I had my work cut out for me.