A playground for the world’s rich and famous, the small Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy is known for its beaches, gourmet dining, and high-end designers. But it is also home to Gustaf III/St. Jean Airport, widely regarded as one of the most dangerous and challenging airports on the planet. So naturally when I had the opportunity to explore the Caribbean with a few friends for spring break, I jumped at the chance to land at St. Barts.
The sound of the engine at takeoff power was like music to my ears after the years of flying jets and, after lift off, Waldo said “you have control and climb to 700 feet.” In flight, the controls were light and responsive and the roar of the engine described what flying was all about – simple, basic airmanship in a real flying machine.
I never knew Bruce David Pollock. I wish I had. More than likely, we crossed paths numerous times in 1973 or 1974, but for some reason we never met. We were close to the same age. He passed his last third class medical on June 26, 1973, just two days after I passed my private pilot checkride in the same Cessna that would claim his life less than two years later.
My brother Hugh and I were in the process of flying a Beech Baron from Calgary in Canada to New Zealand the long way. It had been a bad start to the day and the journey into town the previous evening had been hair-raising. Enroute to Ankara, we had encountered a military roadblock and had been forced out of our taxi at bayonet point by some very uptight soldiers.
In this beautiful and heartbreaking article, Mark Fay shares the story of an emotional day. It involved plenty of flying, from a night IFR takeoff to a gusty landing. But the real lessons have a lot more to do with family, grief and decision-making under stressful circumstances. It’s a reminder of the unique perspective flying can give you on life and loss.
AS FIGHTER PILOT. NOT REQUIRED STANDARD.
Sixty four years after that assessment was penned into my pilot’s log book by the CFI of No. 2 Operational Training Unit at RAAF Base Williamtown, I still have a twinge of shame and regret.
It was a rough flight. One of those flights where you think to yourself, I should have taken up boating. It started as a routine mountain departure. Typical go now in the 30-minute window between snow, sunshine, and the rapidly approaching rain clouds. After clearing mountainous terrain, I picked up my instrument clearance and looked at the broken cumulus build ups in front of me. Be a good chance to use my new Avidyne IFD440 in some real IFR I thought. And then the fun began…
About a year after buying an already-built Van’s RV-6 and spending a very hot July earning a tailwheel endorsement, I thought I knew the airplane well enough to attend a formation flying clinic being hosted by the Ohio Valley RVators at the not-too-distant Parkersburg, West Virginia, airport. As interesting as it sounded, the very idea of it caused me quite a bit of stress.
The closer we got to the airport the lower the sun was on the horizon and the longer the shadows became. The haze was really getting thick and hanging close to the ground. It seemed the more we strained, the less we could see. We knew the airport was right out there somewhere.
As we crossed into Michigan, the satellite downlink picture beyond Lake Huron showed an irregular line of large thunderstorms stretching on a 35 degree angle from right to left across our path. I had been warned about scattered thunderstorms across Ontario leaving Green Bay but this looked more than scattered and I could not tell if there was a gap at least 50 miles wide for us to go through.
A flight from LGA to JFK was normally nowhere near as short as you might think. Although the direct distance between the two airports is less than 10 miles, the flight itself often involved a tour of Long Island nearly out to Montauk to fit into the arrival pattern at JFK. It was not uncommon for the off-to-on time of this ferry flight to exceed 30 minutes.
“It’s snowing in Chicago and Indiana, and there won’t be any open roads or airline flights to Chicago until next week” – a prediction which turned out to be absolutely correct. This announcement tended to make it seem somewhat difficult for the groom to get to the suburban Chicago wedding by Saturday night – two days later.
After a few more minutes of discussing the round dials and radios, my wife began to ask about the clouds in front of us. I did my best to be nonchalant about the approaching wall of smooth, white clouds, but in the back of my mind was the thought that this was the first time in over 10 years that I would be in actual “hard” IFR. I could feel that my smile lacked some sincerity when I joked about the weather.
There was some apprehension as we approached the terminal as we could see a lot of military personnel and when we parked, I left the No. 3 engine running until I was assured of an airstart as we had no APU on DC-8 aircraft. I opened the forward door to be met by a six-foot Ugandan soldier holding a rifle at me.
I lined up on the centerline and advanced the throttle. The aircraft accelerated rapidly and broke ground. This was my fifth solo takeoff in this aircraft, a North American P-51D Mustang. I raised the landing gear, and the climb speed reached about 175 knots. Approaching the airport boundary, the engine began shuddering and vibrating.
An earthquake struck Ecuador on April 16, with catastrophic consequences for the province of Manabi. On April 19, I received a call from the owner of the FBO where I keep my Cessna. He had organized at the hangar a collection center for food, water, tents and medicine, and was asking for help to transport by airplane the collected goods and doctors to the quake zone, as the roads were badly damaged.
At Ripon, I put the 182 over the railroad tracks and motored on at 1,800 ft. MSL and 90 knots toward Fisk, now listening to the Fisk Approach controller giving directions to aircraft ahead of us. Then it was my turn. “High wing aircraft with the landing light on the left wing, rock your wings.” I did. “Welcome to Oshkosh!”
I started my descent from 1500 feet to 1000 feet. Everything checked good. Wait a minute, why is the prop slowing down? Fuel gauge says there is fuel. Electric fuel pump is on. RPM is at the bottom of the green arc and falling. Got big problems!
George gave me my first hour of dual instruction that day. Flying over a world covered in the flat white of a fresh snow, I was lost from the moment the wheels left the ground until the engine was shut down an hour later. I knew right then that I was never destined to fly. How in the hell did anyone up there know where he was? I was truly discouraged and downhearted.
One of my goals since I got my Private ASEL has been to own and fly a flying boat amphibian. About two years ago, I purchased a Coot Amphibian in need of repair and currently have that airplane in my workshop. I had been looking to train for my seaplane rating in a hull-type seaplane, but the nearest location was some distance away. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to find an advertisement for seaplane training at Shannon Airport (KEZF), where I keep my Cherokee 140.