Five or six hours later I was sitting sideways in the Seneca’s cockpit reading a book and munching on bridge mix when a desperate voice came in over the radio. It was the young upstart pilot in the 172. His GPS had lost the signal while he was flying in the rain and even though he was currently out of the rain he was still flying under a cloud layer and couldn’t get it to come up again.
I slapped my head; this was just what Pete and I were talking about! Without a working GPS or an ADF backup he was screwed! Pete got on the radio and told him to maintain the course and speed he had flight planned for while we tried to think of something.
Pete called Gander Control, told them what the situation was and asked for an updated forecast for the Azores. The original forecast called for clouds and rain with five miles of visibility. Gander came back with the bad news, the forecast was unchanged. Trying to find one of those islands visually in good conditions during the daytime would have been hard enough but hoping to spot the faint lights on one of them at night with only five miles of visibility would take a miracle. The lost pilot might be able to get close using his compass and the winds aloft forecast but close just wasn’t going to cut it.
At the time of his first mayday transmission the pilot of the 172 was approximately fifteen or twenty minutes ahead of Peter Borberg, who was the same distance ahead of Pete Demos who was maybe a half an hour ahead of me; however having the fastest plane in the bunch I was steadily closing the gap. We’d launched in that order, slowest to fastest, in order to not only arrive at Santa Maria about the same time but to be able to provide mutual support to each other along the way in case one of us had an emergency, like now.
But what could we do? We could talk to him on the radio for hours and hours until his fuel ran out and not do him any good. The only way the lost pilot was going to be able to find Santa Maria was for one of us to spot his plane and guide him in. That was easier said than done. Spotting another plane in flight is hard to do, just ask any pilot who is given a traffic advisory about another plane from Air Traffic Control but couldn’t spot the plane despite having been given the bearing, direction and altitude of the target. What we needed was a landmark to meet him at; unfortunately landmarks are few and far between over the Atlantic Ocean.
On my first trip Pete and I had met up over Flores Island in the Azores when he’d lost his vacuum pump. But that island was under the overcast that covered the area. I was looking at the various cloud buildups trying to see if one of them was distinct enough to use as a landmark before he entered the solid area of overcast when I had an idea. What if he held his course until he reached what he guessed was the limit of the clear area and waited for us there? We were all on the same course and altitude and should hit the area of overcast at approximately the same point. When each of us reached the limit of clear sky we could start flying back and forth along the face of the clouds and try and spot the little 172. If nothing else we would all be buzzing around the same general chunk of sky, maybe we’d get lucky. I got on the radio and outlined my plan to everybody and they said it was worth a shot.
A little while later the 172 pilot called and said he’d gone as far as he could go on his current heading and was starting to circle. I noted the time on my knee board and estimated I would be in his area in under an hour. Peter Bourberg, who was flying a Piper Cherokee far ahead of me, would be there in fifteen minutes. I sure hoped it worked because even though he was a cocky young know it all, I’d gotten to like him while waiting for the winds to change with him in St. Johns.
Fifteen minutes later Peter Bourberg radioed that he had reached the clouds and was going to head south for five minutes before turning back north. Pete reminded everyone to make sure all of their lights were turned on to help us see each other. The minutes ticked by as Peter searched south of his course. Then just before the five minutes were up an excited voice blared out in my headset.
“I SEE YOU! I SEE YOU!” The 172 pilot yelled over the radio. “Rock your wings so I can tell that it’s you!” he said.
I shook my head at that one, who in the hell else would it be in the middle of the Atlantic? But I decided to cut the poor guy some slack, having just cheated death and all.
The lucky young man formed up on Peter’s plane and followed him all the way to Santa Maria. Later that night the four of us were having dinner at the hotel when one of us asked the 172 pilot why he wasn’t drinking.
“Because as soon as I’m done eating I’m going back to the airport and heading off for France.” he replied.
“Are you crazy?” Pete asked “You just got done flying a thirteen hour leg,”
“That you almost didn’t make.” I interjected.
“Exactly that, you almost didn’t make it. And now you want to leave on another leg without any sleep?”, Pete continued.
“It’s just ten hours to France and I’ll be there first thing in the morning, de-tank the plane and be on the way home that afternoon.” he said in-between the bites of the Paella, he was shoveling down.
“Didn’t you learn anything today?” asked Peter Borberg. “You almost died because you didn’t listen to more experienced pilots and now you want to take off for France in crappy conditions, fly all night when you’re tired and your GPS still isn’t working?”
“Finding France is a little easier than finding Santa Maria. And I’ve flown all night before, I’ll be ok.” he announced.
The three of us spent the rest of the dinner trying to talk him out of it, but when he was done the 172 pilot thanked us for our help that day and headed for the airport. We just shook our heads and wished him luck, some guys you just can’t reach.