Proficient Pilot: Waiting for the go

April 1, 2009

Barry Schiff has held five world aviation speed records, one taken from the USSR.

Our new Piper Aztec lifted off from John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Runway 31R on a May morning in 1972. After turning right and setting

course for Gander, Newfoundland, we settled in for the long flight. My friend, Hal Fishman, a news anchor for Los Angeles television station KTLA, was in the right seat checking out the HF transceiver and preparing for his first live broadcast, the first of many that would enthrall his audience as we progressed across the North Atlantic Ocean, over western Europe, and through the famed Bückeburg-Berlin Corridor that led across Soviet-occupied East Germany to West Berlin.

West Berlin was one of Los Angeles’ sister cities, and we carried onboard a proclamation from Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty that was to be presented ceremoniously at Tempelhof Airport to West Berlin Mayor Klaus Schütz, who later became an ambassador to Israel.

Following the festivities, Fishman and I were to return to West Germany through the 19-nm-wide corridor and deliver the airplane to the Piper dealer in Hanover. A lot was riding on the successful outcome of this flight.

Some hours later we passed over Nova Scotia and pointed the nose across the inlet to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I tuned the ADF to the Ramea NDB on the southeast coast of Newfoundland. The identifier, RZ, came in loud and clear, but the ADF needle wandered aimlessly. Beyond the compass and the clock, the ADF was our primary source of navigation. This was before the advent of Omega, Loran C, and GPS. The ADF obviously would require attention before we could launch across the ocean.

The avionics technician at Gander, however, could not isolate the problem. “It’s a lemon,” he declared.

We contacted Piper and were promised a new ADF, but two days passed before it arrived. In the meantime, ominous weather conditions began to develop. Imagine an equilateral triangle over the North Atlantic situated with one corner pointing north. Over that corner of the triangle (situated over northern Greenland) place a ridge of high pressure. To the high’s southeast and southwest at the other corners of the triangle, tight and intense low-pressure troughs were forming. One low was near Gander while the other was southeast of Iceland. The resultant isobars formed a wind pattern shaped like the Greek letter, Omega. “This is what we call the Omega Block,” intoned the forecaster in the Gander weather office. “Many flights were ‘blocked’ from crossing the pond when this happened during World War II. You will encounter strong crosswinds en route to southern Greenland. These will consist of a warm and very moist flow containing significant icing in the low and middle levels.” (When flying the North Atlantic, “warm” is obviously a relative term.)

“Between Greenland and Iceland,” he continued, “the air will be drier but the crosswinds will be even stronger.

“If you have the range, you might want to try for the Azores. You’ll still have significant crosswinds but relatively clear air most of the way.”

Considering the additional fuel in the cabin tank, we had the range. But the thought of searching for an island in the middle of the ocean while dead reckoning in strong crosswinds without radio aids left me colder than the snowstorm that began taunting us beyond the windows of the weather office.

The new receiver arrived the next day and was quickly installed. No luck. The ADF needle still refused to point at nearby stations.

Piper promised to send yet another unit to the avionics shop in Gander. In the meantime, the Omega Block was tightening its grip, and the U.S. Air Attaché in Germany responded to our notice of delay by advising that our permit to use the Berlin Corridor would expire in two days. A new permit would have to be obtained, and the reapproval process could take two weeks. A response to our delay from Mayor Schütz’ office indicated that the presentation of the proclamation from Mayor Yorty would have to be cancelled if we could not arrive during the next two days.

Our spirits were sinking, and we were getting bored silly. There was nothing to do in Gander during a snowstorm except walk to the confection machine at the Irving Oil gas station across the street from our motel.

We did drive to the airline terminal at the airport for most of our meals (hot dogs and caribou burgers). The terminal was a marvel of architecture but seldom used. It was built during the last of the piston days when airlines made routine fuel stops there. But the dawn of the jet age left the facility lonely and ignored in the wake of jet exhaust.

The third ADF arrived and was installed. You know the result. It didn’t work either. The technician said that there was something about the airframe that somehow interfered with the ability of the loop antenna to sense and align with received signals.

We could have tried to dead-reckon our way across the Ice Route to Europe. After all, I had done it before, but not under these conditions. We instead cancelled the flight, left the airplane for Piper to retrieve and repair, and ignominiously purchased tickets for the airline flight home.

If the success of a flight is measured by the quality of decisions made along the way, then this was one of the most successful flights I never made.