I suppose That Was You, VI

I suppose That Was You V was posted April, 13.

Every ferry pilot has thought of and has his own opinion of ditching in the ocean. We’ve all seen the two diagrams in the back of the pilot’s operating manual that depict your two options when it comes to landing in the water. According to the experts you’re either supposed to land parallel to the swells or on the back or downhill side of a swell. The manual always has a picture of what not to do, land directly into a swell.

Of course drawing a picture on a piece of paper is a lot easier than breaking out of the clouds at four hundred feet and trying to time your impact point while flying a disabled aircraft that’s on fire.

When the Mooney broke out of the clouds the pilot saw he was already set up parallel to what appeared to be eight to ten foot swells. Dropping the flaps to reduce the stall speed the pilot held the flaming aircraft in the air as long as he could before the plane hit the water, skipped once then nosed in violently.

Both men quickly released their seat belts and scrambled out onto the wing as the smoking plane bobbed in the waves, slowly sinking. The pilot pulled the lanyard that inflated their raft and both men were able to step right in without even getting wet.

Once in the raft the former pilots turned sailors got the bad news, good news, bad news routine. The first bit of bad news they discovered was that the light weight survival suits they both were wearing didn’t keep them very warm at all. The suits they had were a thinner kind that were made of rubber and nylon versus the thick neoprene “Gumby” suits that most ferry pilots wear. Another weak point of the light weight suits was that they just had rubber cuffs around the wrists, ankles and neck as opposed to the thicker suits that only exposed your face.

The good news was that the raft they were sitting in was a good one that had the most important feature you could have in the North Atlantic, a cover. Once zipped up, a cover kept them out the wind and waves and kept the occupants from being knocked out of the raft in the event it got flipped over by large waves.

The next bit of bad news came after they got the cover up and the pilot got out his ditch bag. In the bag he had a few things that would be useful in the event of a water landing; a small flare gun, space blanket, water bottle and most important of all a portable Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT).

An ELT is a small radio transmitter that broadcasts a strong emergency signal that search planes can home in on. In the business of finding a small raft in the huge expanse of the North Atlantic search and rescue teams will tell you an ELT is the single most important piece of equipment you can have.

When the pilot pulled the ELT out of its case he noticed the battery cover was cracked and leaking battery acid. He opened the cover and was dismayed to find the batteries old and leaking and that the insides were corroded and ruined. The ELT was useless.

With nothing else to do the two men huddled together for warmth and waited while their raft rode up and down the swells.

They didn’t have long to wait. After less than three hours in the water the castaways heard engine noises approaching. They un-zipped the raft cover and were overjoyed to see a big grey Canadian Air Force C-130 rescue plane heading almost right at them. The pilot quickly grabbed his flare gun, fired into the air and was rewarded by seeing the rescue plane bank its wings and head for the raft. The two men yelled for joy and waved their arms as the big four engine turboprop overflew them and banked steeply to circle back. On the second pass the C-130 made a lower pass and dropped a line of flares into the water to mark the raft’s position. The pilot of the rescue plane did such an accurate drop that the men had use one of the raft’s oars to fend off one of the floating flares that got too close.

The C-130 circled a few more times then made a pass where they dropped what appeared to be a torpedo close to them. Not knowing what it was they didn’t bother to try and retrieve it, a decision they came to regret because they later found out that it was a well-stocked fifteen man life raft that had everything in it but a mini bar and a hot tub.

The two pilots continued to watch the circling rescue plane for quite a while until the cold ocean spray reminded them that a C-130 is not a seaplane and although they had been found, actual rescue was still some time away. When the men tried to put the cover back up they discovered that they’d made a huge mistake by leaving it down for so long. The zipper for the cover was coated with frozen sea spray and their bare hands were too cold and numb to clear it. The cover was rendered useless and the pilots were now exposed to the relentless cold wind and spray.

Reduced to wrapping themselves up in one flimsy silver space blanket and taking whatever shelter they could under the un-zipped cover the two men waited for rescue. With no radio to talk to the C-130 they had no idea how long a wait they were in for.

After flying at 180 knots for three hours the pilots in the Mooney had covered over five hundred miles before the loss of oil pressure had forced them into the ocean, far beyond the range of any rescue helicopter. Their only chance of being picked up was by ship. Unfortunately ships are much slower than planes and even the fastest Coast Guard vessel launched from Newfoundland would take well over forty hours before reaching them. With the cover on the raft stuck open it was unlikely the pilots could last that long under those conditions.

The crew of the C-130 knew that without a cover they had to get help to the men as soon as possible so they put out a call on the maritime emergency frequency channel asking for assistance from any ships in the area. Miraculously a fishing vessel responded that they were in the area and could be there in eight hours. In terms of ocean speed and distance they were practically next door.

True to their word the crew of the fishing boat hauled their latest catch of two very cold and miserable pilots aboard eight hours later, cold but alive.

The ferry pilot telling me that story said the crew of the fishing boat did a great job of hauling them aboard despite the large swells and the poor condition of the pilots. They cut their fishing trip short and headed right back to St. Johns, a trip that took them four days.

We talked for a few minutes more, both agreeing that he was extremely lucky to be alive. Before we parted ways I tried to get as much information from him as I could about the ditching and time spent in the raft. Any information I could get about surviving in the North Atlantic could only help if I ever found myself in that situation.

After leaving St. Johns for the Azores I spent a lot of time that day staring down at the waves far below, imagining myself sitting in a small raft and waiting for rescue. I’d been told by the airport manager in Wick, Scotland, that on average three ferry pilots a year die crossing the Atlantic. That figure alone sent shivers up my spine but what I couldn’t shake was the image of being in a raft at night slowly freezing to death as the waves tossed me about like a toy. It wasn’t one of my more enjoyable flights.

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