A long ferry flight: the Bermuda Triangle, icing, and more

The Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil’s Triangle, is a loosely defined area between Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico. There have been many cases of ships and aircraft along with their crews mysteriously disappearing with no trace. There have been theories from plausible to ridiculous, including it being occupied by aliens from outer space. The following account is from personal experience.

In January 1987, I was asked if I would ferry a 1948 model Ryan RA-1 Navion from St. Croix, where I lived, to Boone County Municipal Airport in northern Indiana. I agreed to do it for no remuneration, except expenses, as I could move several hundred pounds of my personal belongings back home to Tamassee, South Carolina, and spend a few days there. An air traffic controller accompanied me, as he could get home to Evansville, Indiana, for a few days.

The route of flight would be: St. Croix–Isla Grande, Puerto Rico–Borinquen, Puerto Rico–South Caicos, near Grand Turk–Georgetown, Exuma, in the Bahamas–West Palm Beach, Florida–Perry, Georgia–Anderson, South Carolina–somewhere in Kentucky–Boone County Municipal Airport, Indiana. All would be fuel stops. Approximately 2,200 miles—what an opportunity for adventure.

Bahamas
Flying in the Caribbean before GPS was a serious navigational challenge when clouds covered those beautiful blue waters.

Landing at South Caicos required full cross-controls to keep the aircraft straight on the runway—full left aileron and full right rudder. The crosswind was that strong. There was a radio link to Miami Flight Service on 118.4 MHz, where I could get a weather briefing, file a flight plan, and check Notices to Airmen. We fueled up and filed an IFR flight plan to a radio fix south of Exuma. The aircraft did not have a LORAN receiver and GPS was not available to civilian aircraft yet.

Estimated flight time was two hours, and after an hour the Great Inagua homer was out of range, as was the Grand Turk VOR. We were now dead reckoning, compass and clock. After two hours, Nassau Radio should have been loud and clear, but both radios were stone dead—nothing heard.

We had been on top of an overcast and after descending below it and breaking out about 700 feet above the ocean, all we could see was gray ocean in every direction and huge whitecaps coming from the west. We were off course due to the 50mph winds aloft. Two questions came up: where were we and how much fuel was left? The good news was we had about two and a half hours left.

The worst enemy is panic, which didn’t happen. We made an immediate left turn, directly into the wind, and after about 45 minutes of flying at 500 feet, an island was spotted. We located and identified it on the WAC chart and we could hear Nassau Radio. The weather was VFR, as forecast, so we canceled the IFR flight plan. We have been overdue, but don’t ask, don’t tell. Exuma was only 30 minutes away and there was enough fuel. We were about 100 miles off course due to the winds aloft. Similar circumstances may have befallen some of the missing aircraft.

The flight to West Palm Beach was normal, along with the usual rude and arrogant reception from US Customs. After all, I was re-entering my own country. Refueled and with a VFR flight plan filed for Perry, Georgia, we took off again. The view at night was spectacular along the Florida coast. As far as you could see: lights, rotating airport beacons, other airplanes. If you fly near Miami and find your intended destination, you can fly anywhere. It’s like being in a gigantic pinball machine. Passing Cape Canaveral, out of restricted airspace, we could see the Space Shuttle on a launch pad.

It had been a long day, not to mention our jaunt through the Bahamas. Perry, Georgia, was a welcome sight.

The fun was not over… yet

My friend decided to fly the rest of the way home on the airlines from Macon, Georgia. The next morning it was very cold and overcast, and rain was forecast for the area. I filed an IFR flight plan to Anderson, South Carolina, and departed. The route was to Macon, Athens, and the non-precision instrument approach to Anderson. I worked for the FAA there for over 11 years and was very familiar with that area, and there were no reported weather hazards.

At Macon, the windscreen had gone opaque. No big deal, but near Athens, it became a big deal. It was solid IFR and a thin white film formed on the wing leading edges. A weather update showed no significant weather, but the airspeed indicator went to ZERO! I turned on the pitot heat and an agonizing 20 seconds later, airspeed came back to normal. If it didn’t, depending on your level of experience, you should still be able to fly the airplane, but you had better land as soon as possible.

Ice on wing
Ice can ruin any flight.

The windscreen defroster was useless but there was visibility from the side of the canopy. Ice pellets began to come off the propeller tips, striking the wing leading edge and windscreen. Climbing would not solve the problem.

Anderson, my destination, was the closest airport to land. Cleared for the approach, I managed to find the airport and land safely—thank heaven the gear doors were not frozen. There were no noticeable effects on the performance of the engine or flight controls over the entire route of flight. Exiting the aircraft, I noticed there was about 1/2 inch of clear ice over the airframe and the air induction below the propeller was completely blocked with ice. The Navion was equipped with an alternate air source and it opened automatically. The local FBO manager came out with his camera. Just what I need!

If you embarked with me at Perry and claimed to be an atheist or agnostic, you would now be an avowed convert to Christianity. My guardian angel had been on duty and working overtime. I hope I can make it up to him/her someday. No other aircraft landed there that day.

Are we there yet?

After a few days the weather was CAVU, ceiling and visibility unlimited. The flight to Boone County, Indiana was uneventful… except for the last ten minutes.

ATC flight following is a good deal. You are under the veil of radar control and receive advisories regarding other aircraft near you and weather. The entire area around Boone County was under a blanket of 12 inches of fresh snow. I was looking for an airport but couldn’t find it, and the controller was getting inpatient. He was in a cozy room with a radar screen and headset; I was flying an antique airplane looking for an unshoveled runway somewhere in a snow covered field.

“Airport 12 o’clock, quarter mile. Do you have it in sight?”

“Not yet, looking.” What does he think I’m doing up here?

Finally I saw a small single engine aircraft parked in what appeared to be a snow covered field. I thanked the controller very much for his patience and landed.

The owner of the Navion was there waiting as I proudly gave him the keys and expense records of the flight. I made no mention of the events in the Bahamas or in South Carolina.

Epilogue

You do something long enough and “something” will eventually happen. Most every pilot has a flight bag. In it are the headset, two D-cell flashlight, current charts, “Gedunks,” CS-G mechanical “Prayer Wheel” or electronic equivalent, etc. If you are doing any flying, single pilot IFR or night VFR, I would like to recommend one additional piece of equipment: a pair of rosary beads. No, you do not have to be Catholic to be in possession of them. If you get into a tight situation you may say you will not have any time to use them. True, but you may have a passenger who would love to borrow them. You don’t know how to use them? Not a problem. You will learn very quickly.

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