I think I might have mentioned once or twice that I’m an international TV star. OK, “star” might be a bit of an exaggeration. I was, for a brief span of time, on the DIscovery Channel series “Dangerous Flights”. And as a result of my handsome mug being broadcast to millions of homes all over the world I am from time to time mobbed by fan. Yes, “fan” singular, as in once every few months some random aviation geek will recognize me and say something like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that show.” High praise indeed.
Once they finally compose themselves and decline my offer of an autograph or photo with me, (no matter how much I insist) they often ask how much of the show was fake or scripted. Now I understand why a fan might ask that question. Most TV documentaries (reality series) have a reputation for, shall we say, “exaggeration”. Especially Airplane Repo. That show is BS from stem to stern. And I get it, most of the time nothing happens on reality shows so they have to make mountains out of mole hills. And if they can’t do that they make shit up. But not us! Well . . . mostly.
Soon after we started filming, Pixcom (the TV production company that produced Dangerous Flights) found out that when you follow real ferry pilots around the world on real ferry flights you don’t have to make stuff up. The action and drama never stop. And actually they ended up with so much great footage they ended up having to cut some truly amazing stuff from each episode. Of course they didn’t come to this conclusion until after forcing me to fake something. But that’s a story for another day.
The next question I usually get is “what was it like when you (insert dramatic situation I found myself in on the show)” Then I would end up telling the fan all about the episode he was wondering about and fill in all the missing pieces that the show didn’t have time to cover. That was the main reason I wrote “Dangerous Flights”. The trips we took while filming the show were so amazing and action packed that I felt the entire story needed to be told. That, and the fact that it’s just a rip roaring good tale!
One of the episodes I get asked about a lot is a dark night in Russia when I was the co-pilot on a Phenom 100 business jet. The trip started in Sydney Australia and our route took us up through the south Pacific, Japan and Russia. we pick up the story in Petropavlovsk one of the last legs in Russia before we cross over to the US. Marcio Lucchese and I are being helped by a beautiful but grouchy russian named Natasha. (No, I didn’t make her up).
Natasha took us up to the weather office where an actual smiling young woman printed out the weather forecast for our next leg to Anadyr. Anadyr was located in far northeast Siberia and was our last stop in Russia before crossing the Bering Sea to Alaska.
The weather girl told us that the weather en-route to Anadyr was good but the forecast for the airport called for low clouds, very poor visibility and high winds. If the forecast was accurate, the cloud base would be right at the two hundred foot limit when we arrived. The trend only got worse after that. Much worse.
Both Marcio and I looked at the forecast and said “Nope, not doing that.”
It wasn’t worth the risk because Anadyr was located way out in the middle of nowhere Siberia, hundreds of miles from the next nearest airport. It was one of those “Point of no return” routes that committed you to making a press on or turn back decision hundreds of miles from the destination. Once you crossed that line you wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to your starting point and were committed to landing successfully at your destination or crashing. It was definitely not a situation you wanted to get into with a terrible forecast at the destination airport. It looked like we’d be spending the night in Petropavlovsk.
“There is one thing you should know. This time of year when the low clouds and fog move into this area from Central Siberia it can sometimes last for one month, or more. I’m not telling you what to do. It’s just that I’ve seen this pattern many times and thought you should know.”
Natasha, always a ray of sunshine.
That little bit of information made a big difference. It was one thing to spend a day or two relaxing in some small town in central Siberia, while you wait for the weather to improve. It would be another thing entirely if we were stuck in that little town for a month or more. We all had lives and families to get back to. I also had a dropzone to run, Marcio had to go back to work at Delta and John had another trip he needed to film. Plus, I didn’t want to spend a month in Siberia! Of course if we went for it and got killed . . . well, that wouldn’t be very productive either.
“Get home itis” has probably killed more pilots than all other factors combined. The desire to “get there” regardless of the conditions is something that pilots are cautioned about from the beginning of their flight training. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the saying “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you’re in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.” Unfortunately that attitude doesn’t go along well with being a ferry pilot. A ferry pilot doesn’t have the luxury of waiting on the ground for nice weather. His job is to get the plane to its destination as quickly and as cheaply as possible. That means you’re expected to keep pushing on unless you think you will die in the process. And even then you’re supposed to go take a look.
Marcio and I looked at the forecast, checked the distances to Anadyr and the only other airport in the area and did fuel calculations. No matter how we looked at it, the answer was the same. If we went for it, it would be close. The point of no return was almost five hundred miles from Anadyr and the only airport we could divert to was hundreds of miles west in the direction the weather was coming from and not much help.
Then much to my surprise, Marcio told me to make the call. He said that flying jets had never put him in that situation before and he would defer to my experience.
So much for my vacation from hard decisions.
Fighting my own case of “get there itis,” I suggested a compromise.
Let’s take-off and head that way and we’ll keep getting weather updates for Anadyr as we go. When we approach the point of no return we’ll decide what to do then. If the weather looks good, we’ll keep going. If it looks like shit, we’ll turn back.”
Marcio liked that idea so we scrambled to take-off as fast as we could. Drifty had been filming the entire briefing and decision making process and wanted to take a few minutes and interview each of us about how we felt about the situation. I nixed the idea telling him that every minute we delayed meant a greater chance of us not making it. John persisted though and I almost had to grab him by the belt and throw him in the plane to get us out of there.
Once we were in the air and moving things didn’t look so bad. The skies were sunny and bright and the updates from Anadyr were good. It was starting to look like we’d been all worked up over nothing. The first report had a cloud ceiling of eight hundred feet and five miles visibility. The conditions were unchanged thirty minutes later. Then ATC called us and reported that the ceiling had dropped to six hundred fifty feet. Still not too bad, but the downward trend had started.
Decision time. The point of no return was fast approaching and we could stall no longer. The cloud base at Anadyr was holding at a little over six hundred feet which was acceptable but we still had two hours to go. I looked at the moving map on the instrument panel and pondered. The Phenom’s navigation software had an amazing range feature built into it. A maximum range circle was constantly displayed that showed us how far we could fly based on our remaining fuel, power settings and winds aloft. It was perfect for our situation. As I looked, the edge of the range circle behind us moved a little closer to Petropavlovsk. As soon as Petropavlovsk was outside the circle we wouldn’t have enough fuel to return.
“What do you think Poppy? Keep going or head back?”
“I don’t know. It looks Okay. What do you think?”
“Well, if the trend continues we should be able to make it in. But if things get worse we could be in trouble.”
Marcio was silent, waiting for me to make a decision.
“Let’s go for it. We still have Pevek airport as a possible alternate.”
With the decision made things were less stressful in the cockpit. It’s amazing how much better you feel once you’ve made up your mind and picked a course of action. Five minute later the range circle passed over Petropavlovsk and we were committed. Twenty minutes after that we were screwed.
“I called for an update. It was six hundred fifty feet, it’s now three hundred ninety feet. It got pretty bad in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes huh?” Marcio said, not liking the rapid change and trend.
Then ATC called with a weather update for Anadyr. (That’s never good)
“November 777 Bravo Foxtrot. Anadyr now overcast at ninety Meters.”
Both of us heard that and I did a quick conversion. “That’s two hundred ninety feet.”
“That’s pretty low.”
“And the trend is dropping fast.”
“I’m thinking about going somewhere else. That’s not going to work.”
We had an alternate airport in our flight plane so I called ATC and told them that we’d like to divert.
“November seven bravo foxtrot, Aerodrome uniform hotel mike papa is closed.”
“That’s just great. Just close our alternate airport. Nice.”
To be continued.