A light of salvation: flying freight in a Cessna 310

I guess it’s the idealism and invincibility we exhibit in our youthful years that really keeps this old world spinning with unpredictability. Some things I did when I was young would never, ever see me repeating these many years later.

In the early 1980s, aviation jobs were not plentiful – just pick up a copy of Trade-A-Plane from that period to verify the pronouncement. If you aspired to fly for even a newly-emerged commuter airline in the early 1980s, unless you knew someone in a high place, you needed several thousand hours of experience before you were allowed to warm the right seat of a Beech 99 airliner. Therefore, if one had his sights set on an aviation career, one had to join most any (questionable) outfit promising a lot of flying that came along. The job I had when I took the following flight was with just such a stellar employer.

Fog on runway
A great day to be a freight pilot.

I was on duty this dreary day in early March as an on-demand charter freight pilot with a company located in the north-central U.S. We operated just-in-time auto-freight charters all over the eastern half of the country both day and night. We were so busy, in fact, that we had pilot duty periods – usually twelve hours at a stretch – where we’d relax in the lounge area waiting for a call to go someplace worthy of urgency. Back then the calls came frequently; we rarely spent more than a few hours in the lounge at any one time.

As I said before, this day was ugly. Light rain fell steadily, and the fog hung on the ground like the thick smoke in the country bars we spent all our money in on Saturday nights. It was cold and miserable; it was a good day for watching movies under the blanket with my girlfriend on the couch in front of the fireplace. Just about the time the picture in my mind was getting really interesting, the phone rang in the office; I was going flying. Back to reality, Davy boy.

The mission that day was to pick up some wiggling pins and wobbling rods in some tiny Mayberryish town in Tennessee and deliver them to the assembly line in Lansing, Michigan, as soon as possible. I had no idea where this bucolic little hamlet was, but that didn’t matter. Anything I needed to know would be given to me over the radio by the dispatcher, Rodney, before I took off. My job was to get to the airplane (a Cessna 310), without hesitation, start it up and get to the runway within minutes. This I did most efficiently.

Our airplanes were always topped off with fuel and preflighted, so they were kept ready around the clock for flight. Additionally, while sitting standby in the hangar, we were constantly updated on the weather situation within many hundreds of miles of our home base; the management said we needed to be “on the step” when it came to being ready to fly. So we always knew what the weather was doing; I suppose it was a good policy. After receiving the information I needed from the office and the IFR clearance from the ground controller, I pointed the airplane into the wind and launched from my home base into the mist and cloud. The ground disappeared within seconds.

The first indication I had that something was amiss was the anemic whine of the landing gear motor as the wheels came up. It lacked its usual spunkiness in the retraction process. The next was the departure of a function-response light on the transponder; the little green light stopped blinking like it normally did. Perhaps the most significant, ominous clue I had that told me I was suddenly in a pickle was the silence from the radios. There was nothing further from the tower controller after he cleared me for takeoff. Alas, there was no help on any frequency.

Within seconds, I realized I had lost all the electricity in the airplane very suddenly. If it needed electrons to operate, I no longer had it at my disposal. And I was in solid cloud. And the sun was going down. And it would be dark very soon; did I remember to pack my flashlight? And it was cold; there was ice up here; and I no longer had anti-ice capabilities of any kind. And unless I restored electrical power I wouldn’t be able to land anywhere, as there was nowhere within four to five hundred miles that was reporting VMC weather. I guess I was “on-the-step.”

Cessna 310
The Cessna 310 is a great airplane, but it prefers electricity.

I did what I could, according to the airplane flight manual, to restore the electrical system, but there was no use in it. I would have to continue as-is for the remainder of the flight. That meant no auxiliary fuel to the engines; it needed the aux pumps to get to them. So my range would be cut down considerably. I had no de-ice or anti-ice systems; fortunately, I had climbed to my filed cruise altitude (7,000 feet) and found clear, sunny skies on top of the ocean of thick cloud. I couldn’t communicate with anyone or navigate to anyplace; I didn’t know with any degree of certainty where I was going, nor where I would end up when I didn’t get there. And there were many other airplanes up there with me that didn’t know the same things. Along about then I realized how the sole mosquito in a dark room full of people who are aware of its presence feels…

To make a long story short, I knew the geography of the region below me, and I realized that the only chance I would have of living through the misadventure would come if I could descend to ground level (approximately 600 feet in elevation), without hitting anything first. In what direction could I fly that would allow me to do that? “Northeast.” What could be that flat, that large? “Lake Erie.” How will I know when I’m there? “You know your speed, you know the winds aloft, you know about where you are now, and what you’re probably over. Fly the heading for the lake, time it conservatively, then descend; there’s nothing else you can do.”

It was starting to get dark because the sun’s corona had already disappeared behind the undercast in the west. I turned to the northeast, waited just a few minutes, began my descent into the dark clouds, and opened my flight bag praying to God Almighty and the waxing stars in the eastern sky that my flashlight would be in there. If it wasn’t, I would most certainly be dead in less than one and one-half hours; and not everyone I knew would be happy about it.

Sometimes I think about my unenviable flight in that doggy Cessna 310 so many years ago when I’m flying over Lake Erie at 36,000 feet in my plush Airbus cockpit. I look down on the shimmering water so many miles below and reminisce about what could have been while my partner in the other seat rambles on frustratingly, in broken sentences, about his seniority number and its control of everything in life from his retirement account to his choices of boats to buy. He may occasionally ask my opinion about one thing or another and where I decided to invest my considerable earnings over the last 26 years. I do try to sound interesting and knowledgeable, giving credence and deference to his obvious uncertainties and keen fiduciary prowess, but, usually, my lack of sincerity escapes the charade. Halfway through his oratory I almost always lean over slightly toward my side window and gaze with much more deference and credence to that beat up old EVEREADY flashlight I carry in the bottom of my flight bag while his voice blends into the background slipstream noise.

… I knew I had broken out of the clouds when the windscreen in front of me turned from a flowing gray river to a stationary jet black ink. The altimeter read 900 feet when I leveled out over the waters of Lake Erie. It was pitch dark outside, and there were no lights anywhere, in any direction. I must have been reasonably close to the middle of the lake. Yes, I had been blessed to have my flashlight in my flight bag, and it now was the only illumination in my world. It would be my very salvation.

By flashlight I flew via air-driven instruments only. I turned north – skimming over the rain-swept waters of the lake – by how many hundred feet I knew not. It had been well over an hour since I received an altimeter setting, and it had been falling all day. I continued northward. After a few minutes I spotted two street lights ahead in the mist. With shocking speed they zoomed past beneath me by what seemed to be only a few feet. They illuminated a tidy front yard with a curved brick walkway leading to a driveway with two vehicles parked on it: a station wagon and a pickup truck.

At that time, for the first time, I began sweating profusely. I hadn’t really been nervous until then. The estimated visibility was no more than one-quarter of a mile in light rain and the ceiling was no higher than two-hundred feet. I was over the flat farmland of southern Ontario, Canada, but any man-made object rising to an elevation of more than 200 feet AGL out ahead of me potentially spelled disaster. Holding the light on the instruments with my right hand and flying the Cessna with my left, I held an extremely intense stare through the windshield for something out there in the dark and rain I knew I’d never see before I hit it.

Highway 401
Follow the yellow brick road.

God must have been with me and kept me from hitting anything, and in only a very few minutes I spotted the heavily-traveled Highway 401 – the main arterial thoroughfare between Windsor and Toronto – and followed the cars’ bright headlights westward to Windsor and its airport. They had all lights on the field turned up to their highest intensities – they knew I was out there, searching in the night for them. The rotating beacon was on top of the tower, so I headed for it and began to circle it at two to three-hundred feet – just at the base of the clouds. The tower controller couldn’t see me out there in the dark, but I knew he could hear me; I caught several glimpses of his green light gun as he stabbed for me in the darkness. He was telling me to come home – come down to where it was safe and dry. “Get out of the sky and give me some peace, please…”

I decided to land on Windsor’s shorter runway because, if my gear collapsed while landing on their instrument runway I’d shut down the airport for most of the evening before they could remove my miscreant machine; with no electrical system I had no way of knowing if my gear was down and locked after I cranked it down by hand. Fortunately, the gear held and I rolled out without further incident, turning off at the end. I parked the airplane at the base of the tower and shut down. Shortly, a young man dressed in a smart police uniform approached the airplane and asked if I was from ABC airport. I said yes. He replied, “Very good. Your boss is on the phone and he doesn’t sound pleased.” With that he turned abruptly and walked back inside. The second half of the ordeal was about to begin, but the FAA never said a word to me. Bless them…

9 Comments

  • Damn!

    Your story reminds me why I have carried my Sporty’s handheld with a VOR receiver in it since I got my instrument ticket back in 1999!!

    Nice job!!

  • Dave,

    It’s interesting, your story here, and some others posted before about the life and times of low rent air freighters. One gets the impression from such stories that the air freighters were and are really unsafe. Yet, the commercial aviation safety record is much better than that for private aircraft operations. The FAA and safety organizations like AOPA Nall Report, however, don’t break out air freight ops from other types of commercial operations like charter flights.

    Any insight into the overall safety record of the air freight ops here in the USA?

  • Duane,
    I’m glad you liked the story; however, I am no longer in a position to render a plausible assessment of air freight operations. I’ve been out of that line of work (for the most part) for over thirty years. Nevertheless, I would assume one could come to a reasonable conclusion of a particular company’s level of safety and reliability by ‘following the money’. Appearances can be deceiving, but word of mouth, taken with a grain of salt, can give much insight as to whether or not a particular company is operating within FAA and OSHA standards. If you’re thinking of going this route (not as much freight/checks be moved this way today as compared to years ago), get to know as many people in the industry as you can. Listen to what they have to say. Good luck.

  • Great story, and I liked the sidebar about cruising in the Airbus over Lake Erie nowadays. Whatever was the problem with your electrical system? Loose wire? Bad connection?

  • Hello Ethan,

    Thanks. I seem to remember the cavalry bringing two alternators, a battery, rosary beads, and some incense and Holy water to Windsor so many years ago. However, between the airport’s city manager’s and my boss’s ranting and raving about a piece of junk airplane and me not knowing how to fly, I could have missed something…

  • Capt. Dave –

    Just now putting two and two together, nice to see you back at it. I’ve missed reading your fantastic stories the past few years.

    Now — when is that book coming out?

  • Hey, Matt. Haven’t seen you around in a while. I wrote that one book, The Gift. But I don’t advertise it. No plans to do another one right now. You gonna stay in Phoenix if you can, or are you eyeing another crib someplace?

    • Riveting story. Thanks for sharing your experiance with us. I’m going to look for your book too. I had an instructor in the early 80s who flew freight out of KPTK and invited me along at times. What a thrill for a 100 hour pilot. His name was Jake Oliffe. Wondering if your paths ever crossed.

      Pat Hendren

  • Hello Pat,

    I don’t remember anyone named Jake, but after I left the company I tried to forget everything about the debacle and the whole experience of being with that company. It was, nonetheless, a tremendous learning experience… If you will send me your address I’ll send you a book. I don’t charge for them. My email address is A320DSandy@cox.net Happy flying, my friend.

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