Most of the lessons that ferry pilots passed on to one another were written in blood sweat and tears. So it’s frustrating to run into a young or inexperienced pilot who didn’t want to listen to what the old timers had to say.
Pete and I ran into such a pilot one winter while stuck in St. John’s. Pete was taking a turbine Cessna 206 to a skydiving school in Switzerland while I was taking a beautiful twin-engine Seneca III to a wealthy businessman in Rome.
Flying another plane on this trip was one of Orient Air’s oldest pilots, Peter Bourberg. Peter was a cheerful old German who’d served in the Luftwaffe in World War II as a mechanic and was now delivering planes for Pete on a part-time bases. I think the crazy old kraut was flying small planes over the ocean just for kicks and to get away from his wife for a week or two every now and then.
The three of us had been stuck in St. Johns for two days due to strong headwinds over the Atlantic. The plane I was flying had the range to make the crossing to the Azores despite the high winds but I was also waiting for a new ADF (Automatic Direction finder) antenna for my plane. The antenna broke on the way to St. John’s and even though I had a handheld GPS with me I wasn’t leaving land without it.
The introduction of the GPS was having a dramatic effect on the ferry business at the time, and not all in a good way. Where ferry pilots once had nothing but a compass to navigate with, now we had a newfangled contraption that would tell us exactly where we were, how fast we were going, and when we would arrive. We’d been using the GPS system for about a year at that time and although a wonderful device, they had not proven to be one hundred percent reliable.
That was the reason none of the pilots at Orient Air would attempt a crossing without a trusty old ADF in the instrument panel to help us find our way, especially when going down to the Azores with the powerful NDB beacon located on the Lajes Air Force base. The beacon at Lajas could be picked up three hundred miles out which effectively gave you a six hundred mile wide target to hit, a good thing because if you missed the Azores your next stop was Africa, far out of reach.
It took four days for the winds to change but finally Pete, Peter and I at the airport getting ready to make the 1500 mile crossing the Santa Maria Island in the Azores.
While waiting for the fuel truck to finish topping off my plane I wandered over to a small Cessna 172 sitting on the ice covered ramp next to me. The plane was being ferried to France by a young pilot we’d met the night before at our hotel’s bar. When I looked inside the cockpit I noticed that there wasn’t an ADF receiver in the plane. Concerned, I went back inside the pilots’ lounge where he was doing his flight planning and asked him about it.
“Do you have an ADF in that 172 out there?” I asked, pointing my thumb over my shoulder out at the flight line.
“Nope, plane didn’t come with one.” the young pilot replied, “No big deal though, I’ve got this new GPS last month and it’s been working great!” he said holding up the new handheld unit.
Pete looked up from across the plotting table covered with maps, computer printouts, coffee cups and the ever present over-flowing ash tray. “Ok, smart guy, what are you going to do when your fancy new GPS craps out on you?”
“Not a problem, I haven’t had any trouble with it so far.” he replied rather smugly, “the only time it doesn’t work real well is in clouds and rain.”
Pete and I looked at each other in dumbfounded astonishment.
“Didn’t you get the same route forecast as we did?” I asked reaching for one of the blue weather packets each of us had received less than an hour before. “The whole second half of the trip is going to be in clouds and rain!”
“I’m not worried, I’ve always managed to get it working again every time the GPS has crapped out on me.” he said
Pete and I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince the young pilot that he was making a mistake. I pointed out that I was flying a much more capable aircraft than he was and there was NO WAY I would fly to the Azores without an ADF. But try as we might the young headstrong just wouldn’t listen. Having flown the Atlantic it once before seemed to make him an expert in his opinion, and nothing a bunch of washed up old has beens could say seemed to matter. A typical cocky young know-it-all who didn’t want to listen to the advise of more experienced pilots. He reminded me of someone but I couldn’t think of who. As he gathered up his maps and walked out to his plane Pete and I shrugged our shoulders and told each other that at least we’d tried.
To be continued: