Pelican's Perch #26:
No Pisco Sours for Me, Thanks!
There are two kinds of pilots: those who sheepishly admit to having done some incredibly dumb thing while flying, and those who are liars. AVweb's John Deakin, who is decidedly in the first category, recounts the closest he ever came to killing himself in an airplane (during a ferry flight in Peru nearly 40 years ago), and examines some of the lessons he learned the hard way from that experience.
I am not proud of this all-too-true story. It demonstrates incredible stupidity and poor judgment on my part, and it is the closest I shall ever come to dying without doing so. I have told the story to only a very small handful of people, and I am certain that some of those probably don't believe it, as you may not. Nearly 40 years later, it is still enough to make me sweat thinking of it, and I shall probably not sleep very well for a night or two after putting this on paper for the first time.
In my early years, the siren song of flying to strange foreign lands was strong in my blood, and I was always alert for opportunities to fly internationally. By 1961, at the age of 21, I had a total of about 1,600 hours logged, had survived about 600 hours of flying cargo-converted North American B-25s all over Central and South America, first as co-pilot, then as captain (solo), and had just flown for a year as personal pilot to the Secretary of State of Florida in his brand-new Cessna 310D. I had been officially checked out in a TF-51D Mustang and had done some minor test work in them, I had blown an engine and made a deadstick landing in one, and I had flown the Grumman F8F Bearcat.
I was, of course, as cocky and immortal as any young pilot has ever been, and this played a large part in what follows here. I must have been really insufferable in those days. (Some will say I still am.) I was also broke and out of work, for scandal and political pressure had forced my boss to dump the 310 rather suddenly. As I had done before between jobs, I reverted to freelance flying, and landed a couple of really neat assignments, which led me to wonder if I might find what I was looking for simply by freelancing. One was flying a family on a magical tour of the entire United States in an Aero Commander, and also serving as their driver in rental cars along the way. This lazy trip went from Florida to the West Coast via the southern U.S., then back across the northern plains. Wonderful trip, I enjoyed it thoroughly and even got paid for it. (Frankly, I've always been just a little surprised when people pay me to do something I'd do for free.)
Within days of getting back from that, I was called to take several B-25 trips to South America to bring back live tropical fish from the Amazon. Fantastic trips, real adventures themselves. Today, as I fly over Colombia in air-conditioned comfort at FL 370 and hear position reports there, I wonder if Leticia has changed at all, and if Mike Tsilikas is still there, still capturing snakes, fish, and animals for zoos all over the world. There is still no known airline service there, although a VOR has been installed for many years now. VORs were unknown there in 1961, in fact the NDB worked none too well.
Then I heard about Aircraft Ferry Company, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and learned they were in the business of flying all manner of airplanes, all over the world. With the instinct of a homing pigeon, I soon found myself in their office, being interviewed by "Bob," the boss at that time. He spun fascinating yarns of deliveries to Yugoslavia, the Far East, Australia, and Africa, and I was hooked. I think I got the job by being a good listener, for his stories were endless, and some of them may even have been true.
He made a couple of quick phone calls to check my references and to verify that I had time in the 450 Stearman, for he had two to be ferried to San Jose, Costa Rica. He was short a pilot, I was slavering for the job, so there was a meeting of the minds. I met Ken Start, the other pilot, that same day, and we test-hopped the airplanes from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. Neither had a radio, so we just used light signals. Yes, from Miami tower! Try that today! Both had just been converted to sprayer aircraft, and had the spray booms from wingtip to wingtip, a prop-driven pump mounted under the belly, and a huge hopper in place of the front seat. From memory, I think it held something like 110 gallons of insecticide. We would fill those hoppers with fuel for the longer legs, and use a hand wobble pump in flight to move the fuel from the hopper to the normal tank in the upper wing. It never occurred to me that I'd be sitting in an open-cockpit flying bomb, or that a hose might break loose, or the pump might fail — all I knew was we were going to Costa Rica, where I had never been before, and in an unusual airplane at that.
We first flew from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, turning back once for low oil pressure in one of them (no, that didn't faze me, I was immortal, remember?)
From Key West, we did the long over-water leg to Cozumel, Mexico, taking 6+10 to do so. I think that's roughly 420 nm, for an average ground speed of about 70 knots. No radios, no gyro instruments, just ded reckoning all the way. We did check the compasses against the section lines, and we had a good idea where the sun should be. Ken was much more experienced than I, so I figured if he thought it was okay, I certainly wasn't going to wimp out.
Lesson: There are times to wimp out, even in the face of great ridicule.
Note that's not a lesson I learned on that flight, but on the one I shall describe below, in another airplane.
Lesson: Sometimes lessons are not obvious until later.
From Cozumel, the next fueling stop was Belize, then British Honduras. But I had a little legal matter pending in Belize from my B-25 days, and insisted that we skip that stop, so we filled the hoppers again, and headed for Tegucigalpa, then Spanish Honduras, 5+45 down the coast. I liked Belize and enjoyed the time I spent there, but in this case, I was happy to see it drift slowly (and safely) under my right wing from several thousand feet up.
From there it was only a 3+15 hop to San Jose, and the whole trip was rather uneventful, except Ken's airplane was pumping oil overboard for the last 30 minutes, and he ended up with almost no oil when we landed at San Jose. We shrugged that off, as it was now someone else's problem, and hopped the next airline flight home.
This somewhat bizarre trip did nothing to deter me from the idea of becoming a ferry pilot, and I thought I'd found a happy home with Aircraft Ferry Company.
A lesson, which I did not learn at the time: "When you get away with something dangerous or stupid without cost, your perception of stupidity and acceptable danger changes a little bit."
Florida to Buenos Aires
Immediately upon return from that trip, I learned the company had a contract to ferry four airplanes to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I was scheduled to fly one of them! I had hit the Big Time! There was also talk of ferrying a bunch of DC-6s to Africa, and a hint that I might get a co-pilot seat on one or more of those flights, an opportunity for which I would have given my thumbs!
On August 23, 1961, four of us met at the Fort Lauderdale airport to begin this saga that was to nearly cost me my life. Bob was to lead the flight of four, my new friend Ken Start was the second pilot, I was third, and the fourth was a small, cheerful, long-time ferry pilot named "Charlie" who was an ardent and vocal Communist. Not that I knew what a Communist was, or cared, in those innocent days.
Bob, being "President of the Company," "The Boss," and "The Flight Leader," appropriated for himself the brand-new Piper Super Cub that sported a turn-and-bank and a Narco Super Homer radio. He suggested the rest of us draw straws and choose our mounts from among two Piper Tri-Pacers (both with radios and a turn-and-bank) and a Piper Colt. I got the short straw, and ended up with the Colt, the only airplane that had no radios at all, no gyros, not even a turn-and-bank, and to cap it all off, a non-sensitive altimeter. You may have heard of a "sensitive altimeter" from the IFR requirements in the FARs, but have you ever seen a "non-sensitive altimeter"? There is no Kollsman window, no way to set it accurately for pressure variations, and this one had only one hand which showed from zero to 10,000 feet with one circuit around the face. I assume it would show higher altitudes, provided the pilot kept count of the turns. Airspeed and oil pressure completed the impressive array of instruments in my little two-place, 108-hp LV-PGR, which was brand-new and already registered to the flying school in Argentina. Someone else had ferried it from the factory at Lock Haven, Penn.
The left side yoke had been removed and a 30-gallon fuel drum strapped into that seat, leaving me barely enough room to sit in the right seat. Yes, I was much slimmer, then! Again, my old friend the wobble pump was all mounted, ready to transfer precious fuel from the barrel to the wing tanks. Since no one else seemed to think there was anything strange about all this, neither did I.
"When all the fools in town are on your side, that's majority enough."
The first day was fine, giving me unwarranted confidence in the operation. We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Great Inagua for fuel (6+20), then on to Kingston, Jamaica (3+05). There wasn't much time to see anything, nor were any of us inclined to do much sightseeing after the nine-hour day. A ferry pilot was paid a flat rate for the trip, so the sooner he can get it done, the sooner he can take another trip, and besides, those DC-6s were waiting, never far from my daydreams.
The next day we flew to Panama City, Panama, taking 6+40 to do so. I got my first taste of trouble to come, because we had to fly an end-run around some very heavy weather over Panama, and then had to sneak into the airport in heavy rain, low visibility, and at altitudes well under 50 feet, over stormy seas. Having no radio, and no means of communicating, all I could do was hang in tight formation on Ken, who was in turn hanging tight to Bob in the lead airplane. This was really my first-ever taste of serious formation flying, and I was not happy about being so busy just staying with the others that I had absolutely not the slightest idea where we were, or what we were trying to do. I was very, very glad to see an airport. That night, I heard for the first time the term "ITCZ" for "Intertropical Convergence Zone," a near-permanent band of foul weather that moves back and forth across the equator with the seasons. Gee, thanks for telling me, guys.
Single-Engine, Over-Water, No-Gyro IMC ...
The next morning I learned for the first time that "we" were planning a direct flight from Panama City to Guayaquil, Equador, a route almost entirely over the Pacific Ocean. Since we had no life vests, no rafts, and no survival gear, I plaintively suggested we might be better off following the coast down, but Bob dismissed that as "too long," also saying that "the weather is always terrible down the coast, we'll be out in the clear," and "we always do it this way." End of discussion, he was in charge, and he would selecting those DC-6 crews.
Lesson: "Just because you're a junior puke, with less experience, don't let others talk you into something you don't like."
Lesson: "It's far to easy to get talked into something you want to do, that you shouldn't, to risk doing what you don't want to do."
We launched, and Bob promptly led us up through the clouds for several thousand feet, giving me my first taste of formation flying while fully IFR. I found it a distinctly unnerving experience, and the only reason I managed it was because the clouds were not too dense, and I could see the other two airplanes ahead of me most of the time. I had a lot of trouble keeping up, as mine was also the poorest performer. It is customary in formation flying to put the weakest airplane in the lead position, but Bob wasn't about to let someone else fly a Super Cub while he flew a Colt, nor was he about to let someone else lead. It's an ego thing, you see. I spent most of the trip at wide-open power, trying to catch up. It was a welcome relief to break out on top, and we had a beautiful flight at 9,500 feet, lasting 9+15 (about 655 nm, 450 nm over water, most of it more than 120 nm offshore). This was the longest flight I'd ever made, by far. I tried hard not to think of that cold Pacific Ocean beneath that pretty white layer of clouds. In retrospect, not only would no one have ever found me, no one would have even looked.
But Bob was quite smug about the whole thing, and reminded me several times of how I had not wanted to do this lovely flight “direct.”
I have flown that identical route in the 747 many times in recent years, and I can only say we were very, very lucky to find that nice weather that day, because there is foul weather there more often than not, including lots of thunderstorms!
The next day we flew several short legs, from Guayaquil to Talara (1+55) and Lima, Peru (5+50), then to the small coastal (and smelly) fishing village of Pisco (1+50), from which the name of the little-known drink "The Pisco Sour" comes. A certain unnamed Chief Check Pilot for the Confederate Air Force often whines over how difficult it is to find an American bartender who knows how to mix the Pisco Sours he loves, and little does he know the unintended results of his mention of the that drink.
Pushing on from Pisco
The weather in Pisco the next morning was dull and foreboding, low ceilings and about two miles visibility in fog. This did not deter the fearless Bob, for he claimed he'd done this many times, and the weather inland was "always beautiful." The WAC charts I had showed nothing but big white areas labeled "Unsurveyed." During one break in the clouds before we took off, I spotted blue sky out over the ocean, and mentioned that it sure looked better that way to me, but again, Bob overruled me. He was the boss, and the expert, and there was the prospect of those DC-6s if I did the job, so I caved in again, one of the worst decisions I have ever made. I didn't know it then, but I was deep in the hole, and digging hard.
Lesson: "Just because a fool is right once, that's no reason to follow him again."
We took off in loose formation, Bob first (of course), Ken, me, and finally Charlie, each stepped down to the left of the preceding aircraft, as we had been for all previous legs. Recall mentioning once or twice that it would be much fairer if we swapped airplanes a bit, but being the youngest, most junior, and most stupid, this didn't get me anything but chuckles and needling.
We never got more than 200 feet agl, working our way beneath the ceiling inland over a rocky, barren desert, around small hills, looking for better weather, or the promised (by Bob) break in the clouds. The weather rapidly got worse, and we were down to within fifty feet of the ground, perhaps a half-mile visibility in fog. At this point, DC-6s or no, I wanted out, and whipped around to look at Charlie, flying the fourth aircraft. He was stuck so tightly to me that I was afraid to turn left into him, and I was so close to Ken, I couldn't turn right. I couldn't go down because we were too close to the ground, and I couldn't pull up because I didn't want to enter the cloud base. The whole situation really went down the tubes in seconds, if we don't count the few minutes at 50 feet. Before I could ease the power off and fall back enough to turn right, we lost all contact with the ground. Bob, then Ken poured full power on, and we were climbing away from the ground, obviously trying to repeat the IFR climb we'd done successfully the day before. Before I could do a thing, we were solid IFR, and I figured I'd better just stay with them, so I jammed on the power, too, hoping there were no hills ahead.
I learned later that both Bob and Ken, in the heat of the moment, had forgotten they had more performance than I did, and at full throttle, they started leaving me behind. This was also unlike the previous IFR climb, because the clouds were very dense, and visibility was less than 100 feet. I watched in horror as they faded away in the gloom, leaving me solid IFR, with no instruments. An oil pressure gauge is not much comfort at a time like that, even if it is in the green. I looked back for Charlie, for I knew he had a turn and bank, but he wasn't there. He told me later that he'd seen me take that quick look around at him, figured out what I wanted to do, and he instantly broke off hard left, pulled up, and climbed out IFR on his own, to the West. Smart man, communist or not.
I was suddenly all alone, and I have never been so scared.
I had read all the accounts about a pilot's inability to remain upright without instruments. My instrument instructor, a fearless old Navy pilot, had vividly demonstrated vertigo to me several times, and at that moment, I absolutely knew I was dead. Further, I knew that not only would no one ever find me, no one would even look, because they wouldn't know where to look. My bones would be picked clean by ants and buzzards. I cried out aloud in utter fear, and I learned the meaning of "bowels turning to ice water." I do not believe I shall ever fear anything so much again.
I looked long and hard, hoping to catch a glimpse of my friends, but quickly gave that up, for there was no hope. I knew that any attempt to climb through the heavy, turbulent clouds would result in certain loss of control and a high-speed crash with no hope of survival. Figuring I might minimize the impact, and perhaps survive the inevitable crash, I pulled the power almost all the way off, trimmed the airplane full nose up, and deliberately placed one foot so that it spanned both rudder pedals, preventing me from pushing either one. Then I took my hands off the yoke, clasped them together in my lap, and waited. And waited. It seemed like hours, but it could only have been a minute or two, when I became aware that the color of the clouds was "different" below, and I realized I was looking at the desert again, from only a few feet above it. I nearly touched down before I could add power and level out.
I was literally skimming the surface, flying as slowly as I could, but within ten feet of the hard, rocky, uneven ground, still in heavy cloud. I had to concentrate so hard on the ground that I was unable to even take a peek at the compass to determine which way to turn, and my big fear was that I might come upon a tree, or a hill. Or even a low bush.
This lasted for some time, perhaps minutes, when I realized that I had to add more and more power to keep flying, and that I was flying up a slope! It steepened rapidly, and I was at full throttle when the airplane stalled out, and hit the ground. The impact was very hard, and I thought I'd lost the gear, or worse. Later, I would pull debris from between the tire and the wheel. But the gear held, the airplane bounced, and apparently it bounced right off the very top of the hill, because I found myself flying again, once again in solid IFR!
Having no better idea, and figuring it had worked once, again I cut the power, trimmed full nose up, and blocked the rudder with one foot, and once again, I sank hopelessly toward certain death. The second time was almost exactly the same, except this time I touched down briefly and rather gently on the moonscape of the Peruvian desert before I saw the ground, and added power again. Again I flew with the terrain only inches below my wheels for some time, hoping for any area that gave me enough visibility to land, or find better weather.
Sometimes the gods smile upon fools, and so it was with me, for the third time that day. I happened into a small area that allowed me to climb to 50 feet or so, to turn ever so gently northwest, and to pick spots ahead that looked a little lighter. Eventually, I was able to work my way back to the Pisco airport, and a landing. I logged just 30 minutes for that flight, and the sole remark in my log is "Hairy flight."
Getting It Back Together
I do not remember how long I sat in that airplane, trembling. I finally climbed out, pulled the debris and brush from the landing gear, and inspected the abused little airplane for damage. There was none visible, and so I began wondering what to do. Had there been anyone there to run me into town, to catch a bus to Lima and an airline flight to the United States, I might well have done that, but the airport was abandoned, for we had been the only airplanes there for weeks.
By this time, the weather to the west over the ocean was breaking nicely, so I took off again, and resumed the flight southward, this time blessedly alone, able to follow my own course on the charts, and happy not to have to worry about keeping up with others. For the entire flight, I reveled in the clear air, the sunshine, the beautiful beach below – and the ugly bank of black clouds off to my left, towering to the stratosphere. So much for the weather "always being better inland."
7+40 later, I landed at Antofagasta, Chile, to find the rest of them waiting on the ramp, fearful for what had happened to me, and wondering what to do. Bob at least had the grace to apologize profusely, all evening long and for the rest of the trip, and he seemed genuinely contrite at having nearly caused my death — with a lot of help from me. He admitted that he had erred badly in going inland, but swore it had worked for him before. He and Ken had climbed to a very high altitude, and had been unable to top the clouds, so they turned west and finally broke out. Charlie had broken off and climbed out west right from the separation, and had a nice solo flight, landing within minutes of the first two. I straggled in about an hour later.
I told them of the bounces I had done on the Peruvian desert, and there was still some debris jammed between the tires and the wheel rim to prove it. The tires had rather peculiar marks where they had been violently abused, so I think they believed me.
Lesson: Never let the promise of flying a DC-6 push you into doing something really, really stupid.
The next day we continued on to Santiago, Chile, where we were weathered in for four long days, fretting at the lost time. It was particularly irritating, for the Santiago weather was beautiful (but cold). The problem was the two passes over the Andes were cloudy, and the Chilean authorities would not grant approval for flight until they were clear, and the winds dropped. On September 3, the reports were favorable, so we took off. I do not today recall the elevation of the "El Christo Pass," so named for the statue of Christ erected at the high point, but it is, from memory, about 14,000 feet, and the mountain that rises nearly straight up to form the northern wall of that pass is "El Aconcagua," the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere at 23,000 feet. Even with minimum fuel and leaning for best power it took us an hour and twenty minutes of circling to get high enough, and even then I barely, barely made it. "El Christo" was literally looking down at us as we went by a few feet in front. I didn't see tears in his eyes, but I could swear he was shaking his head at the folly of it all. Then the long descent down a narrow valley (what if the weather had turned bad in that valley?) into Mendoza, Argentina for fuel, a short hop to Rio Cuarto for the night, and an easy flight to "B.A." the next day. I don't recall even staying the night, before boarding the airline home to Miami.
57 hours, 15 minutes flying in 12 days, four of them sitting in Santiago. I was a LOT older, a lot wiser, and $500 richer.
Upon our return to Miami, there had been some sort of corporate shake-up. Bob was "out," and there was a new boss. He listened to my story, and promptly fired me, as he wanted no reckless pilots working for him.
Lesson: Deny, deny, deny. Chief pilots don't NEED to hear this stuff.
I never heard anything about Bob again. Charlie kept on flying the little airplanes around the world, and Ken went on to fly those DC-6s, rather quickly checking out as captain. I always envied him for that.
Be careful up there!