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Help from aboveHelp from above

There probably are few general aviation pilots who haven't ridden in the back of a jetliner, secretly hoping that they could save the day by taking over the controls after the crew had somehow become incapacitated. This fantasy apparently originated with a Doris Day movie in which the heroine (a nonpilot) did the same after the pilots had contracted food poisoning.

Airline pilots also have fantasies. Mine was the result of hearing single-engine pilots on the VHF air-to-air frequency during numerous airline flights across the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The fantasy involves hearing the voice of desperation on 121.5 MHz and then deviating from track and altitude to effect a rescue — barely in the nick of time, of course.

Little did I know while engaging in such daydreaming at Flight Level 350 that one of the most incredible rescues in aviation history had been the result of a similar situation. Although this happened 20 years ago, I was only recently made aware of it, thanks to Jane Garvey ("the one who flies an airplane and not a desk," as she likes to say to distance herself from the FAA administrator). Although this story proves the obvious, that no pilot can know too much about aviating, I am retelling it here because it also is a classic example of remarkable, life-saving ingenuity.

During December of 1978, Jay Prochnow was ferrying a Cessna 188 AgWagon from California to Australia. He had departed Pago Pago, American Samoa, on the 1,475-nm leg to Norfolk Island, which is several hundred miles north of New Zealand. Toward the latter portion of his flight and after a period of dead reckoning (before the advent of loran and GPS), Prochnow received the low-frequency beacon at Norfolk and began to relax when the ADF needle pointed straight ahead. He was in the home stretch.

But Norfolk Island failed to appear at the allotted time. Assuming that the wind was more adverse than anticipated, he pressed on. As more time passed, the ADF needle began to roam and drift without conviction. Prochnow tuned in other beacons, but these provided irrational bearings. The ADF had failed. Fear began to gnaw at the ferry pilot's confidence, and he had to admit that he was lost and had no idea which way to turn. He sent a distress message to Auckland ATC on his high-frequency transmitter and then utilized his training as a navy pilot to initiate a square search. This procedure involves flying a pattern of ever-expanding squares with the intention of finding a "target" before fuel is exhausted. (Square search is used also by search-and-rescue pilots to locate downed aircraft and ships in distress.)

In the meantime, Capt. Gordon Vette was in command of an Air New Zealand DC-10 en route from Nandi, Figi, to Auckland. His aircraft was estimated to be closest to the AgWagon, and he agreed to divert, with the hope of being able to provide assistance. Vette established voice contact with Prochnow, but considering the extended range of HF communications, this offered no indication of how far apart the two aircraft might be. (Upon learning of the plight of the Cessna single from Captain Vette, passengers aboard the DC-10 were enlisted to keep a sharp lookout for the diminutive airplane, which they did with concerned enthusiasm.)

It was then that Vette's experience as a navigator came into play. The captain asked Prochnow to head directly into the sun and state his magnetic heading. Prochnow advised that it was 274 degrees. Vette did the same with his DC-10, which resulted in a heading of 270 degrees. This meant that the DC-10 had to be north of the Cessna.

Vette then asked Prochnow to use his extended arm and fingers to measure the height of the sun above the horizon. The Cessna pilot advised that the sun had an elevation of "one foot and four fingers." Vette did the same, using the same arm extension as Porchnow, and found the sun to be only "two fingers" above the horizon. This meant that the Cessna was "closer to the sun" and farther west than the DC-10.

In other words, Vette could conclude that the AgWagon was southwest of his position. While heading in that direction, Vette finally established VHF contact with Prochnow, which meant that the two aircraft were now about 200 miles apart. He then asked the AgWagon pilot to head east to more quickly reduce the distance between the two aircraft. Intercept should have occurred 18 minutes later, but visual contact could not be established even though the DC-10 was made more conspicuous when Vette created a wake of kerosene mist by dumping 24,000 pounds of fuel. (The jet was not creating any contrails.)

The sun was about to set, and Prochnow had grave concerns about remaining airborne much longer and having to ditch in high seas at night.

Prochnow was then asked to note the exact time at which the upper arc of the sun's disk slid beneath the horizon. Vette did the same, as did personnel on Norfolk Island. From these times, the known position of the DC-10, and the altitudes of both aircraft, calculations were made that established the location of the Cessna 100 miles from Norfolk. The fatigued pilot — who had been aloft for 23 hours — was given a heading toward the island and while en route was intercepted and escorted by a search-and-rescue aircraft. Prochnow landed eight hours late, with little more than fumes in his tanks and gratitude in his heart.

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years.

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