So we had a plan and the mission was a go. Cory had been getting
position reports on the boat from the U.S. Coast Guard. The Normin’s
crew had activated their emergency beacon and the Coast Guard was
receiving up to date location data via satellite. Cory called to get
the boat’s latest latitude/longitude position while I got the plane
ready to go.
As I was preflighting
the Cessna, Rocky, the owner of the local FBO, came up and offered me
the use of his hand held GPS. I immediately accepted because it was
brand new unit and much better than the old one I was going to use. I
mounted Rocky’s GPS on the yoke, punched in the Stormin’ Normin’s
coordinates. I tossed my old one into the glove box as a backup.
It was at that point
that John decided to come along to video the adventure. I told him no
at first because the added weight would cut down the Cessna’s speed
and range. And why risk another life unnecessarily? But then I
changed my mind. Because if it’s not on video it didn’t happen.
So with little fanfare, and even less preparation, we took off to
rescue the Stormin’ Normin.
The 300-mile flight
would take 2.4 hours one way and would require 62 gallons of fuel for
the round trip. Luckily this particular 182 had long range fuel tanks
that held 84 gallons. That gave me a reserve of just a hair over one
hour of flight time. Not as much as reserve as I’d like but there
As usual, it was a
beautiful day for flying in the Caribbean. The turquoise waters
surrounding St. Croix soon gave way to the deep blue water of the
Gulf. As we got farther and farther from the safety of the islands my
passengers became more and more nervous. Well, John at least. Cory
seemed oblivious to the dangers of being out over a great big ocean
in a small plane with only one engine. As a matter of fact, he fell
asleep shortly after takeoff. But John and I had talked at length
about just what we were getting ourselves into. We were not only
flying far from land, but far from any help. The Stormin’ Norman
lay smack dab in-between Haiti and Venezuela. The chances of getting
help from either of those countries if we ran into trouble were slim.
But hey, if we went down and ended up in the raft it would at least
be nice and warm. Kind of like taking a cruise. Sort of. Probably
should’ve brought some rum.
After almost two hours
of flying we arrived at the Stormin’ Normin’s location. I set up the
perfect bombing run on the boat, dropped the fuel pump right on
target and we were back home in time for happy hour. At least that
was what was supposed to happen. What we really found when we got to
where the boat was supposed to be was . . . nothing. Empty ocean.
I was mildly
disappointed, but not terribly surprised. The lat/long position I’d
entered into the GPS was at least three or four hours old by the time
we got there and we’d been told that the boat was drifting to the
east at about three knots. According to my monkey math, the Normin
could be up to 12 miles east from our current position. Problem was,
the visibility was near perfect and from our lofty perch the three of
us could see at least 25 miles in any direction. And we didn’t see
With cautious hope, I
turned the Cessna eastward and started searching for the lost boat. I
wasn’t too worried. After all, we were only hundreds of miles out
to sea with almost a full hour’s reserve fuel to play with. Kind of
makes you feel all warm and fuzzy having that kind of buffer between
you and King Neptune.
After 15 minutes of
searching for the Normin I really started to get concerned. With my
excess fuel rapidly running out, I needed to find her soon, or admit
defeat and head for the barn. Then something occurred to me. Cory had
received the boat’s coordinates from the U.S. Coast Guard. If I
could somehow contact them maybe they could give me a current
position report. I was too low and too far from land to reach the
Coast Guard station on Puerto Rico, but if I could get a passing
airliner to help it might be possible. I tuned my radio to the guard,
or emergency frequency that every plane is supposed to monitor and
put out a blind call for help.
A captain on a united
flight passing overhead immediately offered to help. I gave him the
details of what we needed then continued my search pattern while
waiting with crossed fingers. The minutes slowly dragged by, and just
when I was about to give up hope, a scratchy voice came up in my
headset. He’d done it. The captain quickly read off the fresh set
of lat/long coordinates for the Normin before he flew out of range.
It was a close thing because I lost contact with him while saying
thanks. I quickly punched the new numbers into Rocky’s GPS, hit the
GO TO button and looked at the results.
That’s weird. This
says the boat should be just north of us.
According to the Coast
Guard’s report, the Stormin’ Normin was less than five miles from
our current location. I pointed the Cessna north and told John and
the owner where to look while I put the new numbers into the GPS a
second time. Same result. No new heading and no fishing boat.
There’s no way we
couldn’t see it if these coordinates are correct. And knowing the
Coast Guard they’re probably correct. So what the hell?
I started at Rocky’s
brand new GPS and tried to think what might be wrong.
Wait a minute………New
coordinates are traditionally expressed in hours, minutes, and
seconds by pilots, sailors, and anybody who really knows how to use
them. But apparently thinking in terms of hours and seconds is too
hard for your average Joe, so somebody decided to make an optional
method using degrees. It was a simpler method for simpler people.
What if Rocky had his
GPS set to display the degree method instead of the traditional
minutes and seconds? That seemed unlikely. Rocky was a professional,
he wouldn’t do that. But then I remembered that the unit was brand
new and that he hadn’t even used it yet. I quickly brought up the
setting screen and sure enough, the damn thing was set to degrees.
Unbelievable! I changed the GPS to minutes and seconds,
brought up the navigation screen again and, voila! It now said that
the Stormin’ Normin should be 50 miles west! I swore to myself as I
banked hard over to the west.
I looked at the fuel
gauges as we flew to what I desperately hoped would be the correct
location and didn’t like what I saw. We’d burned up almost all of
our reserve screwing around in the wrong location and what we had
left was going to be uncomfortably low by the time we got back to St.
Croix. Oh, and the sun was starting to get a little low on the
horizon as well. Keep going or play it safe and head back now? Wasn’t
really much of a choice.
We’d been flying at
10,000 feet to give us better visibility and longer range. I
throttled back and started a slow fuel saving descent to what, I
hoped, was the disabled boat’s location. If it actually was in this
new location, then I’d be set up to make the drop right away. If we
got there and there was no boat, well…can’t say we didn’t try.
After a few minutes a
small white dot appeared on the horizon. The dot grew and grew until
we could tell it was what we’d been searching for. We’d finally
found the Stormin’ Normin.
I made one circle over
the boat so Cory could positively confirm our target then flew out to
set up the bombing run. My scan in the cockpit got busy.
descent rate, distance to target, fuel, airspeed, crew.
I turned around in my
seat to see if the bombardier was ready to make the drop and saw that
he was holding the dummy bomb we’d brought along so we could make a
“Put that down and
get the real one ready” I shouted. “We’re running low on fuel
so it’s going to be one pass and haul ass!”
I continued the
descending left turn I was in, and lined up on my target. It felt
like I was flying a WWII Dauntless setting up to dive bomb a Japanese
aircraft carrier at the battle of Midway. Everything was all set.
John was sitting on the floor with his back to the instrument panel,
video camera already rolling.
I yelled over my
shoulder. “You all set?”
I reached down and
pulled the locking pin allowing the in-flight jump door to swing up
and latch under the wing. The warm ocean air swirled violently around
the cabin as a few stray bits of paper flew around before being
sucked out the open door. The profile of the Stormin’ Normin grew in
the windshield as we raced across the water. I dropped down to less
than 50 over the wave tops, which was extremely hard and dangerous
because it’s difficult to accurately judge your altitude over open
water. Pulling back on the throttle I slowed the Cessna down as much
as I dared and bore down on my target.
altitude, airspeed, distance, target, crew.
I quickly glanced back
over my shoulder to see if everybody was ready and was horrified by
what I saw. I was expecting Cory to be up on his knees, styrobomb at
the ready with the long nylon rope neatly coiled in front of him.
Instead, he was sitting on his ass with the package in his lap and
the rope a jumbles mess, with loose coils and stray loops spilling
That was EXACTLY what I
didn’t want to see! If just one of those coils of rope caught on
part of his body or part of the plane when he tossed out the fuel
pump we’d be in the water before I could do anything about it.
No time or fuel to
close the door and go around.
“Get up on your
knees!” I yelled. “And get control of that damn rope! John help
airspeed, altitude, distance.
Watch what you’re
doing dumbass! Don’t get distracted and fly into the water!
Getting a little
slow, add a touch of power.
A quick glance back.
He’s up on his knees. The rope is sort of contained.
Should I go around
and make another pass?
No. Screw it. Keep
The ship is approaching
rapidly. Its antennas are taller than I anticipated. I pull up. Just
“DROP! DROP! DROP!”
I winced as Cory tossed
the jumbled mess of styrofoam and yellow nylon rope out the open
door. Moments later the Stormin’ Normin flashes by underneath.
Nothing snags on the plane, the package is on the way. Pulling up
hard, I bank the plane to the right as the three of us lean out to
watch the drop. The small bright orange comet with a long yellow tail
streaks over the ship just missing the mast and splashing down on the
far side. As I crank the Cessna in a tight circle, we see a crew
member dive over the side of the boat to retrieve the package. We
hooted and hollered at our success. High fives all around as I
slipped the plane hard to close the door and head for home.
I could go on and on
about how the trip back to St. Croix was fraught with peril as the
sun disappeared below the horizon. About how the fuel gauges were
bouncing on empty as the lights of the island came into view. Or how
our fuel ran out just as the wheels squeezed onto the runway. But I
can’t. Because it didn’t happen that way. I mean, it was close,
of course, but isn’t it always?