• The Slowest Blackbird

As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the question I'm most often asked is "How fast would that SR-71 fly?" I can be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend. It's an interesting question, given the aircraft's proclivity for speed, but there really isn't one number to give, as the jet would always give you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35 miles a minute. Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it run out to any limits of temperature or speed. Thus, each SR-71 pilot had his own individual “high” speed that he saw at some point on some mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way, and max power was in order. Let’s just say that the plane truly loved speed and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn’t previously seen.

So it was with great surprise, when at the end of one of my presentations, someone asked, “what was the slowest you ever flew the Blackbird?” This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was reminded of a story that I had never shared before, and relayed the following.

I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England , with my back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71 fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot, and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem, we were happy to do it. After a quick aerial refueling over the North Sea , we proceeded to find the small airfield.

Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze. Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we were close and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw nothing.

Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from 325 knots we were at. With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said we were practically over the field—yet; there was nothing in my windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile, below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the tower in order to get a prime view of the fly-past. It was a quiet, still day with no wind and partial gray overcast.

Walter continued to give me indications that the field should be below us but in the overcast and haze, I couldn't see it.. The longer we continued to peer out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart stopped and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full forward. At this point we weren't really flying, but were falling in a slight bank. Just at the moment that both afterburners lit with a thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was) the aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower.

Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of fire-breathing titanium in their face as the plane leveled and accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of ultimate knife-edge pass. Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall without incident. We didn't say a word for those next 14 minutes.

After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that some of the cadet’s hats were blown off and the sight of the plan form of the plane in full afterburner dropping right in front of them was unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of “breathtaking” very well that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our low approach.

As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight suits, we just sat there-we hadn't spoken a word since “the pass.” Finally, Walter looked at me and said, “One hundred fifty-six knots.
What did you see?” Trying to find my voice, I stammered, “One hundred fifty-two.” We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, “Don’t ever do that to me again!” And I never did.

A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officer’s club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71 fly-past that he had seen one day. Of course, by now the story included kids falling off the tower and screaming as the heat of the jet singed their eyebrows. Noticing our HABU patches, as we stood there with lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, “It was probably just a routine low approach; they're pretty impressive in that plane.” Impressive indeed.

Little did I realize after relaying this experience to my audience that day that it would become one of the most popular and most requested stories. It’s ironic that people are interested in how slow the world’s fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it’s always a good idea to keep that cross-check up…and keep your Mach up, too.

• Glider Tow

(All photos and video from iPhone, believe it or not. I'm constantly amazed by that thing. Click to enlarge.)

Another day towing gliders/sailplanes at SkySailing. For a guy who loves sailing and flying--both an incalculably valuable inheritance from my Dad--soaring is the nexus.

The commute from Carlsbad (poor me, in perhaps my favorite all time airplane, a friend's E33 Debonair) suggested the weather would be an issue. SoCal forecast predicted doom and gloom, but usually it's sunshine and happiness despite their warnings. Not this time. Think they got it right. Gonna be an interesting day, as this picture circa 8:15am suggests (click to enlarge any picture).
"Three instructors have students at 9, so best be here ready to go then", she said. Boss Lady knows wherefore she speaks after 20+ years doing this, so I was there with bells on and ready.

And at nine o'clock customers are lining up. Note the clouds in the background.

This Grob 103 was 'boxing the wake', you can just see the towline if you look carefully and click to enlarge.
It was a busy day, and at one point I was #3 to land behind two gliders. But with full flaps and a little power the Pawnee can easily fly slower than they do in the pattern.

Speaking of slow, some pilots, I'm told, are a bit freaked towing the trainers at 55, when the white arc ends at 60 (supposedly stall speed). But the aircraft is entirely happy with or without one notch of flaps at that speed (and the pilots is too, if you pull the stall warning circuit breaker). Keep in mind, this is a bird that's designed to carry 1250 pounds of chemicals, and fly at 5 feet between hammerhead turns. It's honest as the day is long. Sure, it'll kill ya, something not to be forgotten. But, like a Cub, just barely.

The mostly boring, but for the record, video in the pattern.
 That little white spot in the distance is a glider. Really. Use your imagination?
As the day progressed the 200 knot jetstream way up high started to drag some of the air below along, and when it hit the mountains it made waves.
Towed 26 gliders, and added 7.8 hours to logbook, including the commute! Yeah, baby! Makes up for the days when I'm happy to get three tows.

I'm paid the princely wage of $2.50 for each thousand feet (vertical) towed, but was too tired to add them up at the end of the day--and worried about getting home.

On the east side of the mountains, looking toward home 32.9 miles away to the west (according to the GPS), it looked pretty bad. (Those weird black scimitar-like lines are the prop. At certain RPM the iPhone sees them, at others they're invisible. Go figure.)

In any event, ATIS at CRQ said, "Visibility greater than 10, scattered clouds at 2,500, overcast at 10,500." Works for me!

Weather forecasts for tomorrow is for gale force winds and bizzard conditions above the snow level, floods below, rain starting tonight. Didn't want to borrow a car and drive home, and--worse--leave John's lovely Debonair tied out in the mountains where 70knot surface winds, rain and snow are forecast for a week, maybe two. Had some thoughts about pressing on and shooting the ILS, if it came to that, even though I'm not officially IFR current. Glad I wasn't forced to make that decision. (I know, based on history I would have opted for the most conservative, and legal, option. But . . . .)

These clouds, crossing the ridge at 6,500 on the way home, suggested the forecast is right.

And we did get wet on the descent, proving their point. Nevertheless, traffic was light, but we were #2 behind a Hawker on the ILS, winds calm. So I approached high and landed long to avoid wake turbulence.

Another day, another dollar.

• Freight Dogs

A friend sent me this via email. Don't know, who wrote it, but I like it a lot! Love to give credit where credit is due.  This article was written by freelance journalist Michael Walker for Men's Vogue in 2008, and is an outstanding piece of writing. I loved it and I think you will too,

Let’s say you’re the captain of a Boeing 747 out of Anchorage for Chicago.  Except no self-respecting cargo pilot calls himself—or, rarely, herself—anything so leaden, so utterly earthbound as “captain.” You are instead, proudly and defiantly, a “freight dog,” a nom de guerre freighted, so to speak, with many connotations, not all of them positive.

As you pull your 747, or “whale,” onto Runway 6 Right at Anchorage and advance the four throttles to maximum power, air traffic control advises there’s a welter of severe turbulence on your climb-out. A passenger airliner might give it a wide berth, but you, with a load of time-sensitive cargo, barge right on through. Then the turbulence hits and all hell breaks loose. Your 747 is batted about the sky like a shuttlecock. “Shit, hang on guys,” your flight engineer says. Then: “Whoa ...we lost something.” The radio crackles, “Ah, four-six-echo-heavy, Elmendorf tower said something large just fell off your airplane.”

Something large? (The National Transportation Safety Board will later determine that your whale performed “an uncommanded left bank of approximately 50 degrees” along with amusement-park pitches, rolls, and yaws that ripped the No. 2 engine clean off the wing.)  While all of this is actually happening, perhaps you, the captain, flash to Ernest K. Gann’s classic Fate Is the Hunter, beloved among freight dogs for its vainglorious pilot prose: “We have merely nodded to fear. Now we must shake its filthy hand.”

In any event, you manage to keep the crippled 747 flying long enough to dump fuel and return to Anchorage for a harrowing landing. And as you taxi the jet with its mangled wing, missing engine, and smoking brakes—but the cargo still snuggled safely in the hold—your flight engineer declares: “Buddy, I don’t care how many beers I owed you in the past. This one I’m going to pay off, okay?”

The above incident actually occurred several years ago. It was a 747-121 freighter, but the whole misbegotten adventure, from disintegrating airplane to coolly averted tragedy, would be recognized by freight dogs the world over. Freight dogs famously fly decrepit, “clapped-out,” analog-only hand-me-downs from the passenger airlines, and brushes with the reaper, duly embellished, make for great table rants over pitchers of Watney’s at dog hangouts like the Petroleum Club in Alamaty, Kazakhstan; the Cyclone in Dubai; Sticky Fingers in Hong Kong; and the legendary Four Floors of Whores in Singapore, which, according to the dogs who frequent it, is a model of truth in advertising.  It’s an article of faith among freight dogs that George Lucas based Star Wars’ famed cantina scene on the scuzzed-out cargo skippers at Bryson’s Irish Pub, a flyboy Rick’s Cafe adjacent to Miami International Airport through which generations of pilots have passed in a sort of demented finishing school. “We tend to be the rogues of the airline world,” Tony Baca, a 747 cargo captain, told me recently. “The airline pilot is all prim and proper. We’re not. It’s a whole different culture.”

It’s a culture that represents the last gasp of the butt-kicking, globe-trotting, hell-for-leather pilot worldview. Brutal labor relations, increasingly automated aircraft, and the dispiriting post-9/11 environment have torched whatever adventure and romance remain in aviation. But freight dogs never got that memo. Yes, they gripe endlessly about the hours, the food, the lack of sleep, the death-trap airports of Asia Minor and West Africa .

But talk to true dogs for more than five minutes and they betray themselves as hopelessly, permanently, passionately in love with flying and the particular esprit that hauling cargo allows. “All I ever wanted to do is fly,” says Tom Satterfield, an MD-11 freighter pilot.  How much? Satterfield worked as a successful chemical engineer for 20 years before chucking it to become a freight dog when he was 41.  Who among us can declare without a trace of irony that we absolutely love our work?  I wanted to know why freight dogs did.  So I flew to Florida and hung around Miami Springs, the honky-tonk ’hood near the Miami airport that has been a freight-dog stronghold for more than 50 years.

My guide was Mike Yannacone, a DC-8 cargo captain. The DC-8 was introduced during the Eisenhower administration; the last one rolled off the Douglas Aircraft line in Long Beach , Calif. , in 1972.  Yannacone—who drives a Ram pickup, sports a huge wristwatch, and wears a flight jacket emblazoned with FREIGHT DOG—doesn’t waste time worrying about the DC-8’s age. “I get to fly an airplane,” he marveled when we met up at Bryson’s, which gloriously lived up to its rep, with a barmaid who cackled, “What’re you drinkin’, boys?” and a jukebox blasting Mungo Jerry.  Every few minutes the walls rattled as another whale rumbled skyward a few blocks south. Yannacone took a pull on his bottle of Sam Adams and shook his head  "And they’re paying me.”

By volume, air cargo accounts for 35 percent of the value of total shipped goods, nearly $3 trillion a year. Which means that in today’s thin-inventoried, we-can-get-it-for-you-wholesale world—where a wayward shipment of turn-signal stalks from Taiwan can cause a Nissan assembly line to seize in Tennessee —air cargo is often the last, best hope to keep world trade trading merrily away.  So freight dogs are under blinding pressure to maintain schedules that must go off with military precision, laid down daily at dispatchers’ desks in Miami or Ypsilanti or Dayton or Memphis: Get the cargo there on time.  With the global-economic corollary: And as cheaply as possible.  The players include behemoths UPS and FedEx, air-cargo’s alpha specimens..  (With 669 aircraft, FedEx is the world’s largest airline.)  But there’s still room for hand-sewn, niche-filling outfits shuttling car parts and canceled checks—even a carrier that specializes in rushing fresh donor organs from morgues to operating theaters via Learjet.

The cargo itself comprises incomprehensible quantities of the mundane—160,000 pounds of roses, 25,000 wiring harnesses for Chevy Malibus, 5,000 pounds of Grand Theft Auto videogames—but also a full-size armored truck filled with 4 tons of Euro banknotes; a Sikorsky 76 helicopter for the Sultan of Brunei’s nephew; 120 tons of Beaujolais Nouveau; enough condoms to choke a specially chartered 747 to Rio for Carnival

Then there is the livestock: whales; thoroughbred racehorses; rhinos; dairy cattle; giraffes; elephants; crocodiles; piglets (which escaped and got behind the captain’s rudder pedals); ducklings (ditto); and a daily shipment out of Brisbane of live crickets destined as feed for the world’s zoos.

Airline passengers make much of plunging service standards and fewer frills—of being treated, they whimper, “like cargo.” Freight dogs upend the comparison. “If you’re Joe Shmo, who cares if your flight leaves or not?” Tony Baca told me.. “Grab another flight—it doesn’t really matter. But when I’m hauling 100 tons of Nintendo Wiis, it starts mattering. That’s millions of dollars of revenue. You have people waiting at Target for that. One time I ended up hauling 130 tons of Happy Meal toys. And the reason was, a container ship sank in the middle of the Pacific.. If a huge shipment has just sunk, you can’t dispatch another ship. So you start hauling Happy Meal toys on a 747.”

Seth Brady, a 747 cargo pilot, recalls being initially mystified when a former employer dispatched a Learjet out of Toledo to meet a British Airways flight at JFK because General Motors had come up five seatbacks short at its Corvette plant. “They flew in the extra Corinthian leather from England,” he told me, “put it on the Lear at JFK, ran it up to Pontiac, made the new seat backs in three hours, put them back on the Lear, and took them to Bowling Green, KY in time for the production line not to shut down.” Brady wondered “how anyone could afford to fly all these airplanes around”—until he was told that the cost to shut the assembly line was $42,000 ... per minute.

So the dogs fly, usually at night, when the world’s cargo moves, in odysseys taken up on a moment’s notice—say, Frankfurt-Dubai-Nairobi-Entebbe-Lahore-Taipei-Hong Kong. Many are on call 24-7, meaning they can’t touch so much as a beer or risk violating the FAA’s eight-hour “bottle-to-the-throttle” rule. Meanwhile, cargo carriers are notorious for pushing everything—aircraft, pilots, and the regulations—to the absolute limit.

An investigation published by The Miami Herald depicted an industry fraught with decaying aircraft, shoddy maintenance, flagrant safety-rule violations, and 69 fatal crashes of U.S. cargo planes since 2000 that have killed 85; in a quarter of fatal crashes there were mechanical problems that had not been corrected before the planes were dispatched. The regulars at Bryson’s still talk about the Fine Air DC-8 freighter that crashed on takeoff at the Miami airport in 1997. The cargo, improperly loaded, shifted to the tail, causing the plane to stall and plunge into a parking lot. The pilot’s last words were, “Oh, no”

All those voyages that start with a beeper call and end four weeks and 100,000 miles later take a toll, of course. Among the afflictions is what the dogs call AIDS—aviation induced divorce syndrome. “There was a Wife No. 1,” one told me, “but there will not be a Wife No. 2.” There’s also strict observance of “what happens in Hong Kong-Dubai-Singapore-Amsterdam-Taipei stays in Hong Kong-Dubai-Singapore-Amsterdam-Taipei.” But a fraternal code is only partial compensation. Baca, who is married to a flight attendant, admitted to me that the life of a freight dog sometimes falls short of glorious even mid-assignment. “There are days where I get to my hotel room and feel like crying,” he says, “because the family is going to do things and I’m stuck in Gambia .”

By necessity, those feelings stay in the hotel. “I can’t worry about the kids and the water heater when I’m shooting an approach in a snowstorm at 3:30 a.m. in Kazakhstan ,” he says. “It weighs too much on your head. You will make mistakes ... and kill yourself.”

• Powerless

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.