Proficient Pilot

Getting my feet wet

November 1, 2011

Barry SchiffThe old Piper Apache was anything but a muscle machine. Its pair of 150-horsepower four-bangers could barely lift it into the sky. Yet there I was pointing down Oakland, California’s longest runway with a full load of fuel. And I mean full. In addition to burgeoning wing and auxiliary tanks, the cabin was stuffed with a humongous ferry tank also filled to capacity.

The beleaguered Apache broke ground after using what seemed like miles of runway and showed little inclination to climb. I prayed for both engines to continue running. The failure of one would have been disastrous. There is no way that I could have continued flying because the single-engine ceiling of the seriously overweight Apache was way below sea level. This is why Charles Lindbergh said that he’d rather fly to Paris in a single-engine airplane because all a twin could do was offer twice the possibility of failure. The “twin-breasted Cub” finally cleared the Golden Gate Bridge. The Oakland Center controller breathed an audible sigh of relief and offered his congratulations. Really. I gingerly turned southwest and headed for 2,327-mile distant Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. This was to be my first oceanic flight. The largest body of water I had ever crossed before then was the Colorado River. My sigh of relief would have to wait another 16 hours.

I passed over California’s Farallon Islands, a cluster of rocks of which the largest barely accommodated the radio beacon installed there. It wasn’t long before Off flags appeared in the course-deviation indicators. My calls to ATC went unanswered, and I was beyond sight of land. This is when it first hits a new ferry pilot that he is going to be very much alone for a very long time.

This was before Loran C, Omega, or GPS. The only en route radio aid to navigation was Consolan, a powerful low-frequency station on the California coast. (There also were Consolan stations in Nantucket and France to assist trans-Atlantic pilots.) The pilot’s job was to listen to the station for a minute, carefully count the number of dots and dashes that he heard, and then convert them to a crude bearing from the station. It wasn’t very accurate, and you couldn’t hear the signals during daylight from very far out.

I take that back. There was another radio aid, a low-frequency radio beacon floating halfway between California and Hawaii. Well, it wasn’t floating in the conventional sense. The 335-kilocycle signal was transmitted from Ocean Station November, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter stationed at the midpoint of the route. Navigating to Hawaii involved dead reckoning to within ADF (automatic direction finder) range of November and then homing in on the ship. The cutter could not, of course, maintain a fixed position in the middle of the ocean. It was required only to remain within a designated grid centered on 30 degrees North, 140 degrees West. A pilot was provided with the position of the ship within that grid so that he could plot his own position on a chart when passing overhead. (There were other such ocean stations scattered about the world.)

Getting a positive fix in mid-ocean after hours of monotony provided great relief, especially because it corrected for unanticipated drift. It was entertaining as well to exchange off-color jokes with some of the Coast Guardsmen. It was not unusual for passing pilots to be asked to relay messages to family and friends in Hawaii or California.

The most enjoyable such chatting for me occurred years later when flying the polar route aboard TWA’s Boeing 707s. There was a U.S. military communications and radar station called “Sob Story” in the middle of northern Greenland, in the Middle of Nowhere. It’s not difficult to figure out how this lonely outpost got its name. Since most of the traffic passed well south and beyond VHF range, having an airplane pass overhead was almost a cause for celebration on the ice below. I recall one trip where our flight engineer copied lengthy messages for almost the entire time we were within radio range.

After passing Ocean Station November and taking up a new heading for Hilo, I resisted the temptation to use the ADF to track outbound from the ship. While this might have been satisfactory on short flights, doing so on such a long leg could magnify unanticipated drift over the course of hours and be the cause of a serious off-course excursion.

I instead fiddled with the ADF tuner in an attempt to pick up a commercial broadcast station in Hawaii. After so many hours of flying and watching the fuel gauges slowly heading for their lower limits, I seriously began to wonder if there really was land at the end of the long line drawn on my chart. I began to imagine hearing Hawaiian music breaking through the static. No such luck. I was still too far from Hilo. But just then I heard a news broadcast. Why didn’t the ADF needle point somewhere? It just wandered aimlessly around its compass rose. I was shocked to discover that the station identified itself as KNX in Los Angeles. Had I allowed the airplane to turn around in the Pacific darkness? (You really can find yourself thinking like that near the end of such a long flight.) Before long, though, incredibly beautiful Hawaiian music did find its way into my headset. Hours of apprehension and anxiety rapidly dissolved into relief and fatigue.

Visit the author’s website . Barry Schiff is a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society.