Waalll, here’s another story. Sorta long, no danger. Well, not much. It’s about a ferry flight we made with two helicopters. We flew from New Jersey to our base out west.
First off it was funny because the chief pilot, a big blow hard, was making fun of us. See, the machines we were to fly across the country were ex-TrumpAir airliner helicopters and they carried a full load of electronic navigation gear, same as the TWA folks used. Except our machines had been sitting for two years. We other pilots figured the electronics would be full of bugs and wouldn’t be reliable. So as the chief pilot waved his arms and explained in patronizing detail how he was going to lead us home in glory using only the fancy navigation electronics the rest of us spread maps on the floor and drew a pencil line from New Jersey to our western destination.
The next afternoon we took off. It couldn’t have been scripted better. Five minutes into the flight the last navigation radio died and our leader—literally, he was in front leading us through the thick air traffic of the greater New York area—looked at me with saucer eyes and squeaked out those immortal words, “Oh, shit.”
We swapped aircraft positions in the group and the pencil line guys took the lead. The chief pilot continued to flip switches and spin dials on the dead nav radios, these damn s.o.b. traitor black boxes mumble mumble. We flew only two hours that day because of the late start. One more full day, maybe a bit more, and we’d be home. The next morning we woke up to fog. Hey, no big deal, we’d just fly low and slow, we’d be careful, and we’d bust into clear weather as the sun burned the fog off. Yea, right. A few days earlier while riding to New Jersey on a commercial jet we had noticed, way below, solid overcast from the great plains extending to the eastern seaboard. We would slowly figure out this morning that what we had been looking at then we were flying into now. As we chugged along at 250 feet altitude and 60 mph, fog too thick to go higher and faster, we did the math. With the extra fuel stops and a zig-zag route of flight needed to keep airports within reach we would get home next week.
You know how much fun it is to drive the freeway in the fog, right? There we were, flying right above you, doing whatever it took to keep you and the road in sight. We kept track of our position on the map with a sliding finger. If we lost track of which corner in the road we had just drifted by we would resort to pilotage to get our position. Pilotage is navigation at its most basic. It’s like this: we’ve been flying the pencil line at 60mph for 32 minutes so we have moved 32 miles. That puts us here on the map. Or if the road curves too far away from the pencil line we use the same method in reverse. We’ll think like this: the road curves back to the pencil line 41 miles away so if we fly the direction of the pencil line at 60mph for 41 minutes we will intersect the road again right there. If you fly a disciplined compass heading at a constantairspeed and moniter the clock it is amazing how accurate this Kentucky windage method of navigation is.
We continued in the fog all day. Along the way we saw a lot of Ohio and Indiana hog farms up close and personal, but none more than a mile away because that was as far as we could see in the fog. You’re flying inside an inverted opaque fish bowl. Here’s the ground and there is the side of the bowl in front of you. It looks like you’ll soon overtake the side of the bowl and get into serious trouble but nothing happens. Instead the side of the bowl moves right along with you, staying a mile away. It’s eerie. You have to stay alert for thickening fog, which gives the same visual effect initially, after which you really do fly into it. Flying into thick fog is deadly. You quickly lose spatial orientation and crash.
We finally called uncle and holed up at a Holiday Inn in Indiana waiting for the fog to lift. One day turned to another. The chief pilot entertained us with the telling of his life story and his ongoing battle with the IRS. His position in the IRS saga was that if one chose to ignore income tax laws completely then one could legally keep all personal income. Extended loud speeches, accompanied by flapping arms and spicy adjectives, were his medium of entertainment. The venue was mostalways a crowded restaurant. After four days the rest of us could mouth the speeches like Rocky Horror fans speaking the parts at their 34th viewing. We decided the fog had lifted and launched the following morning.
I think the fog was thinner. It was hard to tell because, mixed with the falling snow we were now running into, navigation was getting brutal. Our snow-covered roads were blending in with the corn fields. We were lost half the time. We continued to fly heading, airspeed and time. Oh, I forgot. Our cockpit heaters blew only cold air, a great feature for January in the Midwest. The two years of inactivity had put the bug in them, too. So our side windows were forever fogging up. We could have been in an old VW beetle but the smell was wrong. Luckily our front windows were electrically heated so they stayed clear and we could continue to fly. Here we were, piloting a couple of $3 million helicopters across the USA, following a pencil line on the map and pressing our bundled hands to the windshield to keep our fingers warm.
A week had passed since New Jersey. We pressed on, mile after mile into the fog, 60 mph and 200 feet above the ground, dodging radio towers, trying not to spook every farm animal around. Imagine farmer Bill and the wife sitting at the kitchen window when two black helicopters, big as buses and loud as a train, appear out of the gloom and cruise over the roof. They cast a shadow on the yard even though the sun has been hidden for three weeks. What would you think?
Another day passed. Over western Iowa the helicopters started to ice up in a snow squall. This was bad. The wind was howling, throwing us around. Visibility dropped to 1/2 mile at times. We slowed to 40mph and 40 feet elevation to keep the ground in sight. Landing wasn’t much of an option because then we’d be stuck on the ground, lost in a blizzard. We continued to fly heading, airspeed, and time. The four of us were alert like our lives depended on it. Navigation by map was impossible. We were able to find Beatrice, Nebraska, by using our ancient ADF navigation radio to home off a local AM radio station, the only thing we could pick up this low. Led to safety by the voice of Paul Harvey. We stayed in the motel all the next day, licking our wounds.
The second morning felt different. For breakfast I ordered a waffle, continuing my search for the perfect example of this food staple. The waitress brought a beautiful Belgian specimen that tasted as perfect ashoped. I ate a second. A beam of sunlight came through the restaurant window. We were through the fog! We got to the airport and fueled up the helicopters. The man with the fuel concession gave us six frozen Omaha steaks for our $2500 of business. Life was good.
We made it to our company base in two more days. Some mild dust storms in Wyoming, a blizzard in Utah, much colder temperatures, nothing there a good case of get-home-itis couldn’t handle. The day after I got home to Oregon I called the boss. “Hey, Mike, I left something in the helicopter. See, we had a long trip so I forgot about the bottle I peed in when we were over Iowa somewhere. It’s sitting with the soda pop bottles by the flight attendant seat. Will you ditch it please before some unsuspecting mechanic who is disassembling the helicopter grabs it?” The last loose end taken care of, I could now rest easy. The trip was Officially Over.
Not a bad story, eh?