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 never is.
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 a thing.
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 GPS?
Latitude/Longitude 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.
Heading, altitude, 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 practice run.
“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.
Lineup, 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 out everywhere!
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 him!”
Lineup, airspeed, altitude, distance.
Watch what you’re doing dumbass! Don’t get distracted and fly into the water!
Lineup, altitude, distance.
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 going.
The ship is approaching rapidly. Its antennas are taller than I anticipated. I pull up. Just a little.
Not yet………Not yet………Almost there………
“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?