Max Conrad's exploits captured my imagination when I was a kid. But sitting behind one oil two mags, four jugs and eight sparkplugs with dry land perhaps 8 hours away, as he often did in a single engine Comanche was something I just couldn't imagine. Especially when a red light flashes on, has happened to Kerry McCauley.
I was having a great night. Reading a good book, listening to some music and munching trail mix from my snack bag as the Sahara Desert passed below me in the night. I was shaken out of my cozy routine by the appearance of a bright red light on the instrument panel. I leaned forward to see what it was and suddenly my night wasn’t so great.
It was 1991 and I was in the middle of my careered as an International Ferry Pilot flying for Orient Air out of St. Paul MN. In July of that year I was hired to fly a Cessna 210 from Duluth MN, to Dodoma Tanzania for Mission Aviation Fellowship, a company that provided aircraft to missionaries working in Africa.
After getting ferry tanks installed in St. Paul, my route took me to Bangor Main, St. Johns Newfoundland, Santa Maria in the Azores and then to Agider, Morocco. From there my next leg was to Abujan, The Ivory Coast, a distance of over 1500 NM.
My boss at Orient Air, the legendary Peter Demos, had told me to make the trip over the Western Sahara Desert at night to avoid the daily afternoon thunderstorms that pop up along the Intertropical Convergence Zone that runs along the Equator.
With that in mind I scheduled my weather briefing for 9:00pm local with a 10:00 departure. When I entered the dusty wood building I was not surprised to find no one there to brief me on the weather I would encounter on my ten hour flight over the Sahara. At least I thought it might take me around ten hours. With no winds aloft forecast for the route I had no idea exactly how long it might take me.
On a well used chalkboard I saw the N number for the plane I was flying written on it. Underneath were a few notes that apparently would constitute the weather briefing I had requested, the current weather in Agider, big deal, and the forecast for Abujan around the time I would arrive there, sometime early the next morning. The forecast called for scattered clouds at two thousand feet and calm winds. “At least that’s something,” I muttered to myself as I looked around the room in vain in search of something that might tell me what winds aloft might be.
Frustrated and not very happy about the prospect of flying across half a continent with no idea of how long it might take me, I walked across the ramp and filed my flight plan and get the hell out of Dodge. I sure hoped I had enough fuel in my wing and ferry tanks to make the trip.
After filing my flight plan and clearing customs I walked out to the airplane, and climbed in. Getting in to a Cessna 210 with two ninety gallon fuel tanks in it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. One of the tanks was where the right front seat usually was and the other was pushed up right behind the pilot’s seat, which was moved almost all the way forward to try and keep the center of gravity as far forward as possible. At that time when on a ferry flight you were allowed to be 25% over max gross weight with two inches of aft CG.
Getting in and out of the pilot’s seat, with it positioned that far forward, was a slow and awkward process, a fact that I had thought long and hard about while I had been flying over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean the last two days. I had been extremely skeptical of my ability to get out of that plane with my survival suit and life raft if I had been forced to ditch at sea.
I contacted the tower and requested permission to start my engine after receiving my IFR clearance from approach control. The control tower gave me permission to start and informed me that I would need to expedite my departure due to the fact that the airport would be closing as soon as I left due to an approaching sand storm. “That’s a new one.” I thought as I fired up the engine and taxied to the runway. I did my run-up and pre-takeoff checklist on the fly and informed the tower that I was ready for departure as I rolled up to the end of the runway.
At twenty five percent over max gross weight, the heavy Cessna didn't exactly leap into the sky, but I eventually managed to get airborne. I brought the gear and flaps up, reduced power and turned on course for the Ivory Coast. I looked out the window to the north and tried to see the sand storm tower had told me about but it was getting too dark to see very far. I could tell that there was a lot of dust in the air. Visibility was down to less than three or four miles and the lights of the city were already fading in the haze.
“N4942C, we show you off at 2245, cleared to climb to nine thousand feet, frequency change approved. The airport is now closed. Good night.”
“42 Charlie, good night.” I replied.
I looked back over my shoulder and watched the last of the city lights disappear in the gloom. “The airport is now closed.” It felt like a door being shut behind me.
I turned on the HF radio that was located on top of the fuel tank next to me. The High Frequency radio was held in place in top of the metal fuel tank with a few bungee cords and some duct tape. Contacting Morocco Control I gave them my position report that included my altitude, location and estimated time of my next report and endurance.
I leveled out, reduced power to sixty five percent and checked my ground speed. I was able to do this because this 210 came equipped with a panel mount GPS by Garmin. This was the first time I had used a GPS and thought it was closest thing to magic there was. When I started Ferry flying two years before the GPS system was just getting started and no one I knew was using it yet. Up until then I had been flying over the ocean, in a single engine planes mind you, with nothing to guide me but a compass for seven or eight hours. Once I started using the GPS in this plane it almost felt like cheating. Charles Lindberg, eat your heart out!
My ground speed showed that the upper winds weren’t very strong. I did some calculations and figured that I could stay at sixty five percent power and still have a three hour reserve to play with. I could always reduce my power to a more fuel efficient setting if I ran into strong headwinds later.
I trimmed the aircraft up, turned the heading bug to the course the GPS said would get me to The Ivory Coast and engaged the auto pilot. I made a few navigation notes that might come in handy later, such as, ground speed, compass heading, fuel flow and tank selected. All my housekeeping chores completed, I put my map and notebook on the glare shield and took out the Tom Clancy novel I was reading and tried to get comfortable. It was over two hours until my next position report and reading helped pass the time.
The flight was going great until three hours later a bright red light illumined on the instrument panel. I looked down and saw that the low voltage light was on. A glance at the Ammeter confirmed that the aircraft was using more juice than it was producing. I immediately stitched off everything I didn’t currently need; radios, Nav lights, overhead lights and unfortunately the auto pilot, eight of hand flying here I come. But the Ammeter still showed a draw, there was no question, I had lost the alternator.
That was not good news. That meant the only juice I had left was what was still in the battery. I would have to shut everything off and keep it off in hopes there would still be something left if I needed to shoot an approach at my destination.
I only had two things left that were still drawing power, the instrument lights I was using to fly the aircraft, turned down as low as they could go and the High Frequency radio that kept me in touch with the various control zones I was flying across that night. I could use my flashlight to see the instruments to fly and navigate by but I would have to turn off the HF radio after I called Morocco control and informed them of my situation.
As soon as I keyed the handset I knew I had made a mistake, all the lights that were still on in the cockpit dimmed immediately and stayed dim. The HF radio apparently used a ton of electricity to transmit. Damn, that was stupid.
I got out my Mini Mag Light and turned everything off I could find, I even took the cover off and unscrewed the Low Voltage light. The only thing I left on was the GPS, the manual said it had an internal battery, I just hoped it would last.
An hour after takeoff I had run into clouds at eleven thousand feet but didn’t think much about it, I was on auto pilot and my biggest chore was changing tapes in my Walkman. Now without the auto pilot, holding the flashlight in my hand and trying to keep my scan going in instrument conditions wasn’t working very well so I stuck it in a zipper in the headliner so that it illuminated the instrument panel. That seemed to work so I settled down with a very long night ahead of me.
After flying by flashlight for two hours I approached Bamako, the only airport along my route. I didn’t have instrument approach plates for this airport so I descended to what I hoped was one thousand feet above the ground to see if I could get out of the clouds and find the airport. No such luck, I could make out a glow in the clouds that must be a city but without an instrument approach to follow it was too risky, besides I had been told that Bamako had no services and if you landed there you were stuck. Oh well, on to the Ivory Coast.
The next problem I had was my flashlight was getting dim. I had spares batteries but changing them was going to be tricky because if I screwed up and dropped part of the flashlight I wouldn’t have any light to see the instruments and would lose control of the plane with no horizon to reference. I held the fresh batteries in my mouth, unscrewed the end of the flashlight, dumped out the old ones, put the new ones in and carefully screwed the end back on. That was the scariest part of the whole night.
The rest of the night wasn’t very fun. Hand flying in instrument conditions is very tiring and stressful and staying awake was tough, fear only keeps you awake for so long. I couldn’t even listen to my Walkman because I might need the batteries for the flashlight.
Despite my instrument scan getting sloppy the rest of the night was uneventful and when the sun finally rose in the east it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen!
The clouds were gone and I saw that the desert had given way to thick green jungle.
Shortly after sunrise my GPS gave out. I still had around three hours to go and I was faced with another problem. If I couldn’t see Abujan when I reached the coast I wouldn’t know if I was too far east or west of course and wouldn’t know which way to go. My choice was, either continue on the last heading the GPS had given me and hope I was close enough to see the city when I reached the ocean or I could intentionally alter my course too far east or west, that way when I hit the coast I would know which way to go. I looked down at the ground and saw that mist or steam was rising from the jungle. It didn’t seem to be moving very much so I assumed that there wasn’t any wind down there, a common condition first thing in the morning.
I decided to take a chance on the wind staying calm and dropped down to treetop level and continued on the last heading the GPS had given me.
Three hours later I saw a city in the distance with a large airport right where it should be!
I turned the master switch on and tried the radios, no luck, the battery was dead. No big deal, I started circling five miles out and waited for the tower to signal me with their light gun. After five minutes of circling with no response I moved in closer. Still no light from the tower so I moved even closer, about one mile. Still nothing. “Screw it!” I said, I buzzed the tower at about one thousand feet and started circling on the other side of the airport. Still nothing! So much for that, time to land. I found out later the light gun in the tower was broken.
I pumped the landing gear down, fifty six strokes if memory serves, checked carefully for any traffic and after over twelve hours of flying made a nice no flap landing.
I taxied to the ramp and killed the engine and squeezed out of the cockpit just as a young black man in an old Willies Jeep came flying up and demanded that I get in and accompany him to see the airport manager. Great, that’s exactly what I felt like doing after flying all night!
When I got into the manager’s office I was greeted by one very angry Frenchman. He demanded to know what I was thinking flying all night without contacting anyone. Did I think I could just fly across half of Africa and no one would notice? Did I know that four different countries had been out looking for me all night and someone was going to have to pay for all the search and rescue planes? And what did I have to say for myself?
When he was done with his tirade I explained what had happened and that I was very sorry but there was nothing I could do. That didn’t seem to make much difference to him but he was leaving for France that afternoon and didn’t have time to do all the paperwork that putting me in jail would produce. In the end he made me fill out a statement describing the events of the night and get the hell out of his office, which I glad to do after a very long night.
Two days later, after having a new alternator installed, on my flight from Abujan to Libreville Gabon, the GPS went out and didn’t work again for the rest of the trip. I was sure glad it worked on that long night over the desert.