The longer I worked on that hose the worse I felt. It took forever to do the math required to estimate my arrival time at the next position reporting location. And when I made the position report to Gander ocean control I noticed I was slurring my words. When I’d finally transferred enough fuel to make it to Shannon I was just about done in.
From the beginning of my ordeal I had been praying that the weather in Ireland had improved from when I had taken off. The forecast had called for dense fog until late morning the next day. I could have called Shannon control earlier that night but I’d been afraid that if I heard bad news I might just give up. I just didn’t know if I had the stamina to keep up what I was doing all the way to Paris. So it was with great trepidation that I radioed Shannon for a weather update.
“Shannon control, Shannon control, foxtrot, Golf, India, Foxtrot, Mike.”
“Go ahead Fox Mike, read you five by five.”
“Yes sir could you give me the current conditions at Shannon please?”
“Roger, stand by.”
The short wait was unbearable.
“Please, please, please be good!” I said, hoping for the best.
“Current conditions at Shannon, sky obscured, fog, runway visual range fifty meters. The airport is closed at this time.”
My head sank into my chest as I listened to the controller confirm my worst fears. The large area of fog that was forecast was not only still covering the coast of Ireland but was worse than they predicted.
“Roger Shannon, are conditions any better further east? Like in the London area?”
“Negative Fox Mike, the conditions don’t improve until you cross the channel. Le’ Bourget is currently five hundred overcast with one mile visibility and light rain showers.”
“God,” I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this for another four hours.” But my options were few. I could declare an emergency and ATC would be forced to allow me to attempt a landing at Shannon. My thumb hovered over the push to talk button. It would be so easy, just push down on the button and declare an emergency.
“Do it!” the little devil on my shoulder said, “Just declare an emergency and this will all be over in just a few minutes. You’ve got enough fuel so you wouldn’t even have to blow into the damn hose ever again!” God it was tempting. I was so tired and with the airport and a possible end to my flight only forty five minutes away I was sorely tempted to give it a try. But attempting a landing in zero visibility conditions was something that the big airlines don’t even do. For me to try it in my current state would be suicide. Resigned to my fate I thanked Shannon for the update and continued on into the night.
The last three hours to Paris were the worst. With the ferry tanks getting close to empty the transfer rate was down to a point that barely kept up with the demands of the engine and I was forced to blow into the hose almost continuously. I was getting so tired that I knew why they used sleep deprivation as a form of torture. I was also flying through the multiple airspaces that surround London and Paris. It never failed that when I was in the middle of blowing into the hose, ATC (air traffic control) would call and I would have to stop what I was doing, tape up the hose and answer them. At least it was late at night and there wasn’t that much traffic in the sky to deal with.
As I crossed the English Channel I encountered intermittent heavy rain showers but my fatigued numbed brain hardly noticed. The end was in sight but I was starting to get concerned about my ability to fly an instrument approach because even simple tasks like reading the map were starting to become difficult.
The trip was almost over but the most challenging part was still ahead of me, a night approach in the rain with low clouds over the airport. I just hoped I would remember to put the landing gear down. When I finally had the wing tanks full enough to make it to Paris with a little reserve I capped the pressure line for what I hoped was the last time and got ready for the approach.
Paris ATC cleared me to descend out of fifteen thousand feet and as I passed ten thousand the thicker air started to clear my head like I was coming out of a dream. I realized that I should have dropped down and started flying at a lower altitude as soon as I didn’t need the strong tailwinds to make Paris anymore. The lower altitude would have made pressurizing the tank a lot easier and would’ve helped me think more clearly.
Starting the approach to Le Bourget I felt better and better as the increased oxygen and adrenalin of the approach cleared my head. The ceilings were reported to be at four hundred feet and the runway lights appeared out of the gloom right on schedule.
Twelve hours fifty minutes and over two thousand five hundred miles after leaving Newfoundland the wheels of the Bonanza thumped down at Le Bourget airport. Following ground control’s directions I taxied to the ramp, stopped the plane and pulled the mixture knob to shut the engine down. As the gyros spun down and silence descended on the cockpit I looked out at the deserted rain soaked ramp and realized I was utterly spent. My whole body ached, my chest hurt, my throat was sore and dry and I still had a hell of a headache. The events of the long night seemed like a hazy dream that I was having trouble remembering.
I climbed out of the Bonanza like an old man, swung my backpack over my shoulder, grabbed my flight bag and headed to the only lit doorway in the terminal. As I walked across the deserted ramp I wondered where everybody was. After all I had been through that night I half expected there to be a cheering crowd eager to see the pilot who just pulled off one of the greatest feats in aviation history. Lindberg got a huge crowd when he landed and all he had to do was sit there all night, I had to work. Instead all I found was a sleepy customs agent who stamped my passport and went back to smoking his cigarette and watching his portable TV without saying a word. He didn’t seem impressed at all.