It is with a heavy heart that I’m forced to report the loss of not one, but two of my friends to the sky. A few weeks ago David Gibbs and two passengers were killed when the helicopter he was flying crashed in California while filming a new reality show for the Discovery Channel. I don’t have any details except that the crash occurred very late at night so I assume that he was using night vision goggles. I first worked with David last year while filming air to air videos for the TV show Dangerous Flights. He was the pilot of the camera ship and his job was to direct me across the sky in order to get the best shots possible. It was always a joy working with David because he just had knack for directing me across the sky. It was almost like he was flying the plane and I was just moving the controls. I last worked with David in January while he was filming SG and I in the Bonanza. We had a great day together dancing around the clouds and capped the day off with a formation flight back to the airport for an overhead break. It was one of my favorite days of flying ever.
Then a few days ago I received even more devastating news. John Driftmier was killed in a plane crash in Kenya while filming an episode for Dangerous Flights. Always one to strive for perfection after not being happy with the final shot of Mount Kenya John sought out and hired a local pilot with a light sport airplane to fly him close to the wreckage of an earlier crash on a section of the mountain ominously named Dead Man’s Corner. No one is compleatly sure what happened but local pilots think the two person aircraft encountered a down draft while flying too low and was unable to climb out of the bowl. John was the Cameraman/director for all four of my ferry flights last year and we became a very close team. I’ve lost a lot of friends in flying and skydiving accidents but losing John is one of the toughest to deal with. Sometimes living and working in the sky can be just too expensive.
When I prepare for an ocean crossing in a small aircraft I try to think of any problems that I might encounter on the flight and what I could do if they occur or to prevent them from happening in the first place. What do I do if I run into strong headwinds, icing conditions, or the airport closes due to low ceilings? What if the fuel in one tank won’t transfer or I lose oil pressure? These are the questions that make it hard to sleep the night before a crossing. Once you’re at the airport it’s time for final preparations. Pre-flighting an airplane you are about to fly across hundreds of miles of open ocean is extremely unsatisfying and unsettling. After checking the normal things like fuel and oil you walk around the aircraft nervously making sure that you didn’t miss anything that might become a problem in flight and potentially send you down to the cold water of the North Atlantic. The problem is that there is not that much to check because with the engine buttoned up all you can do is make sure you have the oil cap on tight and hope for the best.
Watching Marcio squeeze into his jumbo sized survival suit was something to behold. It was like watching someone trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. Once he was suitably encased in head to toe orange neoprene Marcio looked like a giant orange snowman. This was his first ocean crossing in a piston engine aircraft and he wasn’t really happy about it, especially the single engine aspect. At some point there wasn’t anything else to check and it was time to squeeze into the cockpit wearing our survival suits. It was difficult for Marcio to get in and out of the Cirrus in just his normal clothes watching him struggle wearing the suit made both of us question his ability to get out in a timely manner in an emergency.
We picked up our clearance, made one final engine run up and finding nothing wrong took off into the early morning sky. Once airborne and out over the ocean it was time for the routine of checking our actual ground speed vs. what we’d planned for, fuel consumption and nervously listening for any change in the engine. But the Cirrus performed great for the crossing and after three and a half hours we approached Iceland. Being in a turbo charged aircraft equipped with oxygen we’d flown at twenty thousand feet which had put us above the clouds and ice but you can’t stay up there all day, eventually you have to land. As we approached Reykjavik we descended into into the clouds and almost immediately began to see ice forming on our wings. If we’d been flying a plane without a anti ice system this would’ve been a real problem but once activated, the Cirrus’s TKS anti-ice system cleared the ice off perfectly and prevented it from re-forming. The Approach into Reykjavik went smoothly and we were soon shut down on the ramp with our first ocean leg behind completed. Getting Marcio out of the cockpit was probably the most difficult part of our day.
Morning in Scotland means it’s an ocean flying day. First things first, so it was down to the hotel dining for a pre-dawn breakfast with Marcio, and no he did not care to try the blood pudding thank you very much. While fortifying ourselves we compared notes on what weather forecasts for the route from Scotland to Iceland we’d been able to drag out of the horribly slow internet in the hotel. The general consensus was that the winds aloft would be generally favorable but the clouds/rain/snow/ice, that seemed to have taken up permanent residence over Iceland would make the end of our day a little exciting. Not to worry, I told Marcio, that’s why we’re here, for the exciting adventures. The look on his face was not one of agreement.
Off to the airport to receive the official weather briefing from Andrew which confirmed our earlier assessment, ice was forecast for the final portion of our trip. We could expect to pick up light to moderate rime ice from 18,000 feet down to 3,000 feet. That wasn’t great news, because ice belongs in drinks not on your wings. The good news was that the freezing level was at 3000 feet meaning that if we picked up so much ice that we couldn’t maintain altitude there was a slight chance that maybe some of the ice just might melt off as we plummeted through the warmer air, possibly before we crashed into the sea, maybe. Andrew reminded us that on average three pilots die every year because they don’t wait for the proper weather conditions before making the crossing. I assured him that the anti-ice capabilities of the Cirrus would be sufficient to see us through the scary weather and to the home of beautiful blondes.
Well, I think I’ve strung you along for long enough. I told you what we dream of, a day cat shot loaded for bear, a shack hit on a defended target, a MiG kill on the way home and an OK-3 wire (day) landing with maybe a bacon cheeseburger at midrats to help lull you to sleep. The bombing and the landing would almost be a matter of routine after a while, but the opportunity of a MiG would be something else indeed – no one ever comes out to play anymore. Put them all together, and that’d be a pretty good day.
You could write a book about a day like that.
But you already know how the story ends – and that I didn’t get my MiG. Trust me, if I had, you’d have heard about it long ago – I would have found a way to work it subtly in to every other post or so. Like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I flamed that Flogger? I did? Do you want to hear it again?”
Left Southampton behind and flew the Cirrus up to Wick in Scotland to pick up the survival suits and raft from Andrew at Far North Aviation. The flight was a fantastic one because of all the times I’ve flown in the UK the weather was the best it’s ever been. Coming into Wick ATC routed us out over the ocean to set us up for landing. I didn’t mind being a few miles out over the cold water until the engine started running rough, then I minded. I told Marcio to ignore the standard approach and point us directly at the nearest land. He didn’t seem to think the situation was that drastic until I reminded him that while the engines in the jets he normally flies almost never quit, piston engines sometimes do. We messed with the mixture and added a little power which seemed to make the engine happier. We then went and saw Andrew who took us to his gear room to pick out suits and a raft. When he asked me which raft I wanted, I told him “The biggest and best one you’ve got.” “Smart man” he said. “Because if you’ve ever seen one of the smaller ones inflated you wouldn’t feel safe in a swimming pool.” I know most ferry pilots take the smallest raft they can get but if they ever really needed to use it in the North Atlantic I’m sure they would immediately regret their decision. After pushing the plane into Andrew’s gigantic hanger we went out for some great Indian food, a few pints, and called it a day.
When the no-fly zones were first instituted following Saddam’s brutal suppression of the Shia in the south, Navy and Air Force fighters filled the counter-air lanes more or less continuously – a needlessly wearing pace of operations, especially after 1992 when the Iraqi Air Force stopped tempting fate by trolling around below the 32nd parallel. By the late 90′s, operations had become routinized, almost to a fault, with large force packages of anywhere between 8 and 20 aircraft assembling for fixed lengths known and “vul windows” and then returning either to airbases in Saudi or back to the aircraft carrier(s) at sea in the Arabian Gulf.
At first we used to have two dedicated lanes of defensive counter-air (DCA), plus a strike package of four to eight jets milling about in the middle supported by at least one EA-6B Prowler for electronic warfare support. To that Prowler would also typically be attached a two-ship of FA-18′s in close escort, while an E-2 patrolled just south of the Iraqi border to provide long range radar search and command and control. Bucket brigades of S-3′s came off mission searching the northern gulf for oil smugglers long enough to bring gas to thirsty mid-cycle fighters in Kuwait, while lumbering USAF tankers filled air refueling tracks in the gulf and KSA as well. In time we dispensed with the dedicated DCA almost entirely, since – apart from the closely protected Prowler – all of the TACAIR in country had a robust self-defense capability.
In the weeks and months immediately following Operation Desert Fox, above and beyond emplacing surface-to-air missile batteries in the southern No-Fly zone, Saddam had taken to randomly launching a fighter or two at the end of each vul window. They would trail the exiting force packages out of “the box” in order to give Saddam the propaganda victory of claiming that his invincible air force had once again chased away the “cowardly ravens” of the coalition. Much thought and no small amount of jet gas was spent pondering ways to catch these bandits in their poaching across the line, but to no avail – the MiG launches were not frequent enough to justify a level of effort operation, and having no real tactical or strategic impact were ignored by the heavies.
But not by us, we few, we happy few, we band of box hoppers. We avidly devoured the after action reports of these sorties with glittering eyes, imagining. Visualizing the tactics that would put us in position to shoot. Seeing the kill.