OK, just to keep everyone confused I’ve decided to post the entire chapter of my book entitled Pressure. What I posted yesterday was a, hopefully, exciting teaser/prolog to get the reader interested enough to keep reading. Chapter one covers how I got into ferry flying in the first place and Pressure takes place somewhere in the middle of the book. Everybody sufficiently confused now? Good.
“An adventure is misery and discomfort, relived in the safety of reminiscence.” Marco Polo
Millions of stars glittered coldly in the pitch black sky while a solid layer of clouds slid beneath my wings. I was sitting in the cockpit of a brand new Beechcraft Bonanza high above the Atlantic ocean, retracing the same path Charles Lindbergh made from North America to Paris 65 years before.
I glanced at the new handheld GPS duct taped to the glare shield and smiled. It registered that I was racing eastbound above the cold dark waters of the Atlantic at 210 knots and would arrive in Paris ahead of schedule. Having a GPS to navigate with was only one of the advantages I had over “Lucky Lindy” that night but probably the most important one. Without it I would be forced to use dead reckoning, a name that never sits well with me, as I made the trek across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
Sitting in a soft leather seat, another important advantage over the stiff wicker basket of a chair used in the Spirit of St. Louis, I felt a kinship to that pioneer of solo ocean flying. The technology in the 1994 Beechcraft F-33 Bonanza was light years ahead of what the Ryan Aeronautical Company used when it built Lindbergh’s plane in 1927. The Bonanza had a more reliable and efficient engine, a more aerodynamic airframe with retractable landing gear, cabin heat, and state of the art avionics. It even had that new plane smell.
The altimeter in the instrument panel read fifteen thousand feet where an unusually strong tail wind was allowing me to skip the normal fuel stop in the Azores and fly straight to Paris. Cutting a full day off my trip to deliver the Bonanza to its new owner put me in a good mood, getting to spend the time I saved enjoying the city of lights before catching my flight back to the States didn’t hurt either.
The stress and apprehension of taking off from St. Johns, Newfoundland on another solo trans-Atlantic flight had worn off hours before. Once aloft with the engine running smoothly and no weather demons to contend with, I settled into the pilot’s seat like it was a familiar old easy chair, comfortable but alert.
Four hours into the flight the dropping fuel gauges of the wing tanks said it was time to transfer some fuel from the ninety gallon ferry tank that had been installed in the cabin to give the Bonanza the extra range needed to cross the Atlantic. I turned the valve on the bottom of the steel tank mounted behind my seat and waited for an indication on the clear plastic fuel gage that the much needed fuel was indeed flowing.
A few minutes later I was rewarded by seeing the fuel level drop below the full mark. Satisfied that the engine’s life blood was indeed moving from the ferry tank out to the wings I went back to the book I was reading. My intention was to shut the valve off after the wing tanks were just over half full to avoid overfilling them.
When I checked the progress ten minutes later I was perplexed to see that the wing tanks had made only a modest gain. This got my attention because although I hadn’t really timed the transfer rate when I had tested the fuel system over land, I was sure that it had gone much faster than that. Hoping it was my imagination I took out a pencil, marked the fuel level on the steel ferry tank and sat back to see how fast it went down. It didn’t take long for the devastating reality to hit me…..The fuel wasn’t moving. The news hit me like a thunderbolt because the fuel remaining in the wing tanks was not nearly enough to complete the trip, or to get me back to Canada. I was screwed.
Denial was the first emotion to poke its head into the cockpit, “I must have not opened the valve all the way”….nope, the valve was as far as it would go and moved back and forth easily. I double checked the aircraft’s fuel selector and found that it was indeed where it should be to allow the fuel to transfer.
Amazingly I didn’t allow panic to join the party, but the seed had been planted and it took all the self-control I could muster to keep it from growing.
“Ok Kerry, stay calm. Think, what’s the problem and what’s the solution?”
I took a deep breath, sat back and tried to work out what might be wrong with the fuel system. I pictured the fuel system in my mind, trying to think where the problem might lie.
“The fuel level of the ferry tank wasn’t going down so it’s not a leak.” I said to myself. I looked down at the outflow valve located at the bottom of the big metal tank.
“Their might be something blocking the valve hole inside the ferry tank.” I thought about the possibility for a few seconds. “Maybe I can shake it loose.”
I turned back around in my seat, buckled my seatbelt and secured any loose items in the cockpit. I grabbed the yoke, flipped off the auto pilot then proceeded to put Bonanza thru a series of aggressive maneuvers trying to dislodge anything that might be blocking the fuel from flowing out of the ferry tank. Random items I hadn’t been able reach and secure floated around the cockpit in zero gravity as I nosed the Bonanza over again and again. When I finished my impromptu aerobatic routine I twisted around in my seat and stared hopefully at the plastic fuel gauge but the fuel level remained stubbornly fixed.
Disappointed that just shaking the plane up and down hadn’t fixed the problem it was time to start taking things apart to try and find an answer. I un-screwed the rubber filler cap on top of the ferry tank to make sure there was enough outside air pressure to force the fuel into the wing tanks, and….bingo, I’d found the problem. Or at least, “a” problem. With the cap off I should’ve been rewarded with a blast of cold Atlantic air and gasoline fumes. Instead I was greeted by the merest ghost of a breeze, not even enough to blow out a candle, if I had been foolish enough to have an open flame in a cockpit now filled with one high octane fumes.
The ferry tank was designed to be pressurized by ram air routed from a L shaped fitting mounted on the belly of the aircraft through a half inch rubber hose into the top of the metal tank. Normally the L tube is mounted to the aircraft by drilling a hole in the belly, sticking the fitting through it and screwing it in place. After delivering the plane I would just remove the L tube and stick a small metal plug into the hole we’d drilled in the belly, no one ever even noticed it was there. But the L tube wasn’t mounted like that on the Bonanza. Before I left on the trip my boss, Pete Demos, had shown me the difference.
“Take a look at this McCauley,” Pete said kneeling down on the hanger floor and pointing under the Bonanza, “we loosened the screws on an access panel, stuck the L tube through it sideways and taped it in place.”
I squatted down on my heels, looked under the plane and saw the L tube sticking out of the belly at an angle and what looked a half a roll of silver duct tape holding it in place. “Why in the world did you do it like that?” I asked, not liking what I’d seen at all.
“Do you know how much this plane is worth? I’m sure as hell not gonna drill a hole in the belly of a four hundred and eighty thousand dollar airplane.”
“Ok fine, but don’t you think you could find a better way to mount the tube?”
“Don’t worry McCauley, it’s not going anywhere. Feel it, it’s solid. Just make sure you check it out when you get to St. Johns.”
I grabbed the tube and tried to move it back and forth. It seemed ok but not nearly as secure as it normally was. Apparently I was right to be concerned because there I was over the middle of the Atlantic with my ferry tank system not working.
I grabbed a wrench out of the tool kit I always flew with, but never expected to use, and unscrewed a coupling in the ram air supply hose. The high-pressure jet of cold air, essential for the system to work, was AWOL. Nothing, not breath of air was coming out of the hose. The duct tape holding the L tube in place had failed, disabling the ferry system.
A quick re-calculation of the fuel remaining in the wing tanks confirmed what I already knew, there wasn’t enough gas to turn around and make it back to St. Johns or to stretch my fuel and make it to Ireland. I really needed that gas
I spent a few minutes kicking myself for being such a moron. If I’d checked the ferry tank after the first two hours I would have had enough fuel still in the wing tanks to get me back to St. Johns. But I’d been using the ferry system for two days before reaching the ocean and had gotten complacent.
“Stop beating yourself dumb ass,” I thought, “you’ll have plenty of time for that when you’re in the raft.”
I sat there holding the silent rubber hose, my eyes glazed over in thought as the challenge glared at me. How to pressurize the ferry tank and force the fuel into the wing tanks where it could be used. Then from the dark recesses of my mind I remembered a conversation with an old ferry pilot I had met in Iceland.
“If you’re ram air tube ever ice’s over and you need to move some fuel here’s what you can do. Descend to sea level, open the ferry tank to equalize the pressure and re-seal the tank.” the pilot said. “Then you climb back up to a higher altitude, where the air pressure is lower, and open the valve. The high pressure air trapped in the tank will force some of the fuel out of the ferry tank.”
“How much fuel will transfer?” I asked.
“I’m not really sure. I’ve never really had to do it myself, but I imagine you should be able to move five or six gallons each time you go up and down.”
“That sounds like a lot of work.”
“I suppose, but so is trying to get into your life raft wearing a survival suit.”
The procedure sounded like it would work in theory but I could see a few problems in my situation. Number one; I had flight planned to make the crossing by riding the strong west tailwind that was above twelve thousand feet. By repeatedly descending to sea level and climbing back up again I wouldn’t be in the strong tailwinds enough to make it to land, maybe. Number two; Just the act of climbing and descending multiple times was going to eat up a ton of fuel that I would need even if I could get it all moved, which I doubted. And number three; Dropping down through fifteen thousand feet of clouds and darkness, without a current altimeter setting, before hopefully pulling up in time to avoid crashing into the cold black ocean was, in a word, scary. So I needed to think of another way of pressurizing the ferry tank.