In the spring of 1997 my boss Pete Demos and I were ferrying 2 Piper Seneca’s from St. Paul Minnesota to Cairo Egypt. Along the way I got the opportunity (If you want to call it that) to perform a zero ceiling, zero visibility takeoff. It was many years ago and I’d almost completely forgotten about it but once something jogged my memory I had to add it to my book. Here’s the story.
After a brief stop in Iceland Pete and I took advantage of some unusual good weather over the British Isles and pushed on to Jersey, one of the channel islands off the coast of France. After a forgettable english dinner the two of us retired for the night without the usual three or four nips from our travel bottles. We hoped for an early start so we could get into Rome early enough to enjoy a nice Italian dinner with Ricardo.
When we left the hotel the next morning our hopes for a quick getaway were dashed. A heavy fog had rolled overnight and the weather office threw out comments like persistent and mid-afternoon. The two of us went to the airport cafe for some coffee and sulking. If we were stuck on the ground until even late morning our gourmet meal and an evening in Rome would be replaced with Spam and crackers and Pete in his saggy whiteys.
As we sat and stewed there was one topic that we both failed to bring up. The possibility of a zero zero takeoff. The wet blanket of fog that hung over the Channel Islands was so thick and low that landing in those conditions would nearly impossible and highly illegal. On the other hand there was nothing that said that we couldn’t attempt a take off. OK, there was something that said we shouldn’t takeoff. Common sense.
A zero zero takeoff, while legal, was pretty damn dangerous. It wasn’t the takeoff part that was difficult. (Any dummy can follow the dotted line down the runway.) It was what happened immediately after you broke ground that was the tricky part. Because the second you left mother earth you had to go on instruments, and if you so much as sneezed and dropped the nose for a moment you’d find yourself back on the ground, with predictably unfortunate results. What if you had some sort of problem that would normally require you to return to the airport? Well good luck. Hope you can keep you disabled aircraft in the air long enough to make it to an airport where a landing might be possible. it could be a long way. And then there’s the worst possible situation, engine failure after takeoff. Normally if a pilot finds himself in going down shortly after takeoff he at least has the luxury of seeing what he’s about to crash into. Not so with a zero zero takeoff. With the fog right down on the deck you get to see what you’re going to hit about one second before actually hitting it. Exciting.
So yes, a zero zero takeoff was dangerous, foolish and unnecessarily. We’re ferry pilots not bomber pilots. And we’re delivering expensive toys to rich boys, not saving the world. So there’s no reason to take such a risk. Except for the fact that I really wanted to do it! But I couldn’t tell Pete that. I couldn’t even hint at it. Because to do so would challenge my fellow pilot’s courage. And that’s not cool. I wouldn’t want to influence Pete into doing something beyond his comfort level. But Pete’s no wilting flower, he’ll do what he wants to do. I took another sip of coffee and for Pete to make the first move.
“What do you think McCauley?”
Aha! I told Pete that I could maybe be persuaded to possibility go out to the airplanes and have a look see. I pointed out that we were both pretty damn current on instruments and that our planes had been performing flawlessly. I told him casually as I could that yes, I’d be willing to give it a whirl. For the sake of the team mind you. Not because I had some personal dragon to slay. And certainly not because I wanted to go to dinner in Rome. Pete agreed that he too could be persuaded to go have a look.
The man in the weather office raised an eyebrow when we informed him that we were leaving but accepted our flight planes without comment. Pete gave me the honor of going first. “After you” I believe he said. I lined up on the runway as straight as I could using the only two runway center line markers I could make out over the nose of the Seneca. There might have been a momentary hesitation in my hands before they shoved the throttles forward but soon I was speeding down the runway. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I could barely make out the edge of the runway and the centerline stripes came at me faster and faster. My feet danced on the rudder pedals as I fought to keep the plane going straight down the runway. If things started to get away from me I’d have to jam on the brakes quickly to avoid running off the side of the runway. But I had it. The centerline stripes were coming at me faster and faster, straight and true. As my speed increased I lifted the nose of the plane slightly prior to takeoff, but when I did that the nose blocked the few centerline stripes that were my only visual cues to keep going straight. I was speeding down the runway with my main wheels still firmly planted on the asphalt blind as a bat. Crap. I hadn’t thought of that. I was going too fast to stop so I locked onto the directional gyro compass and used that to hold my heading. An odd sense of calm came over me as I roared blindly down the runway. It was as if I just accepted the situation as unchangeable and could only do what I could do. Instead of trying to haul the plane off the ground early I let the speed build up normally and smoothly rotated into the air. I didn’t feel the plane hit any runway lights so I assumed I’d managed to keep the plane going straight enough for government work. When I saw the altimeter start to climb I raised the landing gear and let out the breath I’d apparently been holding. Dinner was excellent.