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Crashing? Can we still make Atlantic City?
Today’s blog is not informative. It speaks nothing about the future of writing or the particulars of crafting a novel. There are no endorsements for up and coming authors and no cheap plugs about any of my novels. I’ve decided that this new post should be solely about entertainment. So, what you are about to read is a short story (2600 words) about an event that happened to me many years ago.
It was a cold fall day in New England. I remember it clearly. There was a heavy overcast that blanketed the entire northeast. The cold air felt raw and distinctly uncomfortable, but I didn’t care ‘cause I was now an instrument rated pilot. I was a hero in the sky. Only a select few general aviation pilots ever moved to this lofty status. Oh yeah, I could handle anything now that I had just obtained this new license the day before.
Moments before the flight, I had called Flight Services and received the weather for my route of flight: heavy clouds, ceilings beginning at 800 feet; rain, heavy at times; strong headwinds along my route of flight. Yes, today I was going to put this new license to the test.
“We’re you scared?” You ask.
‘Course not… and besides, I had Bob with me.
Who’s Bob, you ask?
Only the bravest, most level-headed, clear thinking gambler this side of the Hudson River. Bob was my best friend. He and I did everything together. We flew planes together, climbed mountains together, golfed, mountain biked, drank… boy did we drink, chased women… Hmmm, I better stop there. Wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression of me.
Anyway, Bob decided that I was a skilled enough pilot to make the trek from New London, Connecticut, all the way down to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to gamble. With that kind of endorsement, what could possibly go wrong, right?
Ok, so there we were, minding our own business, taxing down the taxiway when the engine decides to sputters on us.
“What the HELL was that?” I asked Bob.
“Probably nothing,” Bob reassured me.
Phew… Thankfully I had Bob along to add clarity to an otherwise serious anomaly. Many hours spent riding as a passenger made him uniquely qualified to offer this expert advice. Besides, he wasn’t about to let a little thing like an unreliable engine stand between he and that casino.
“How much you bring?” I asked Bob.
Clutching his small rounded, paper bag, he raised it aloft and pronounced, “Forty bucks.”
“Quarters… you’re brought forty dollars in quarters?” I asked incredulously.
“Dimes and nickels… I’m saving the quarters for beer,” Bob shot back instantly.
“Hmmm, sound logic,” I replied, in mocking tone.
What else could I say? After all, it was money. It’s not like I was going to turn around just because he brought denominations that seemed ridiculous to everyone but a three year old.
I lined up on the runway, advanced the throttle to full and adjusted the rudders to keep the plane on the centerline. Rolling down the runway, I heard the engine suddenly cough, then surge. I looked over to Bob for consultation. Nervously, he held his eyes forward to avoid consultation. He was a true master of avoidance. The engine stabilized, I was at my takeoff speed and Bob was determined to gamble, so I pulled back on the control yoke and lifted off into the wild gray yonder.
Climbing through five hundred feet, we hit a passing snow shower.
“Huh… Snow,” Bob remarked nonchalantly. “And early this time of year… nice.”
Nervously, I looked over to Bob and said, “Hey, numb nuts… snow’s nice for skiing… bad for flying.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Bob replied with confidence.
Moments later, we entered the clouds and I transferred my view from outside the cockpit, to inside the cockpit. I now had to rely solely on the instruments for flying the plane. Scanning the gages, I was like a finely tuned machined, flying with absolute precision as we continued to climb higher. As I headed west toward New York City, I climbed to four thousand feet and leveled off. Aside from a torrent of rain that nearly tore the wings off my plane, everything seemed fine.
“Six-Tango-Lima, turn heading 180 degrees and hold at Deer Park,” ATC barked over the loud speaker.
Looking down at my map, Air Traffic Control was instructing me to turn away from my original route of flight and hold at an imaginary point in space, fifteen minutes away.
NYC Air Traffic Control was notorious for this kind of maneuvering. The larger traffic took precedence over smaller traffic. If you were in their way, they simply rerouted you out of their way and forced you to hold somewhere on the edge of Timbuktu. This meant one thing and one thing only… Atlantic City was now in jeopardy.
Ah, but I was too smart for them. I had a plan.
“Center, this is Six-Tango-Lima. Request flight change. Now landing NYC,” I confidently retorted.
I figured that landing planes take precedence over planes passing through. I figured that they would now HAVE to direct me to the airport for landing. I was so smart. I even smiled at my ability to out think my adversaries.
“Roger, Six-Tango-Lima… proceed to Deer Park and HOLD,” ATC dryly ordered.
“BASTARDS, they’re onto me,” I said to Bob. “We’re going to have to hold over Long Island for a while until they can route us past New York City.”
“How much longer will it take?” Bob asked, with obvious concern that someone was eating into his gambling time.
“Don’t know… an hour, maybe two,” I replied. “…and with these headwinds, it could take longer.”
“OK, wake me up when we get there,” Bob said.
With that, Bob wadded up his jacket as a pillow and rested his head against the side of the fuselage. So much for the pleasure of his company. I was now alone, at least it felt that way.
As I headed for the Deer Park Intersection, dusk became darkness. Flying at night is fun, with its beautiful stars and the city lights that sparkle like Christmas decorations, only we weren’t flying in clear weather with beautiful stars and sparkling lights. We were flying in grey, dense clouds with heavy rains. I saw nothing. It felt like someone had stuck me alone in a closet with a flashlight… a closet 4000 feet above Long Island Sound. Damn, it was creepy.
Anyway, there I am, chugging along, minding my own business, alone, in darkness and clouds, when the plane decided to do something stupid.
That’s right… the plane did something stupid. It coughed… again, only not like before… And I’m not talking about a wimpy wheeze or some polite little throat clearing. Oh no, this was a well developed, phlegm hocking, bellicose bark that scared the living Sh#t out of me. As if my under-britches needed any further soiling, the engine’s RPM then suddenly dropped from 2400 RPM’s to just over 1500.
Folks, if ever in your entire life, you ever need an OH-Sh#t moment to measure all others by… TRUST ME… This is definitely it! This is the granddaddy of all OH-Sh#t’s.
Oh Sure, I’m certain there are those of you out there who have been in death defying near misses, but nothing is more scary when you have lots of time to envision your own death.
Before you accuse me of over drama, please allow me to explain the gravity of losing power in an airplane… at night… in the clouds… over open ocean…
You see, in order to maintain flight, you need, at the very least, 1800 RPM’s of engine power. That power setting, while it might seem like a lot, is just enough to keep the plane flying at a minimum speed before the wings lose lift, stall, causing you crash and die. Anything below that power setting means you have to lower the nose of the plane to convert your descent into enough speed to keep the wings from stalling. If the best you can do in a plane is descend, then you are effectively crashing.
In broad daylight, in clear weather, over land, you have a really good chance of finding a landing spot and crawling away with a bloody gash or a broken limb. Unfortunately for me, I waited to have my emergency in those exact opposite conditions. This was shaping up to be a great test of my skills. It was a genius plan.
Years of flight training are spent preparing you for moments of terror like this, so if disaster strikes, you make the right choices and improve your chances of survival. For me, instinct took over… I instinctively panicked.
“Bob, wake up you idiot… we’re crashing,” I instinctively yelled over to Bob.
“Huh?” Bob replied, still in his dreamlike state, barely phased by my alarm.
“We lost power. I can’t maintain altitude. We’re going to have to land,” I spat out in quick succession.
“Crashing?” Bob replied, now wide awake. “Can we still make Atlantic City?”
That was a defining moment in Bob’s life. Yup, that moment defined Bob not as one who couldn’t be counted on in a crisis. Oh no, something far more serious had just been discovered. I now realized that Bob had serious gambling issues. Terrible, just terrible. If we made it out alive, I felt I was going to have point out this character flaw.
Suddenly, I heard the strange sound of air rushing past the plane. I instinctively looked outside to gain my bearings, but realized that the darkness and clouds made the horizon undetectable. Bummer.
I quickly scanned my flight instruments. To me horror, I realized we were not descending, but were in a climbing turn. I locked my focus on my attitude indicator. It was registering a big frowny face…
Sorry… Couldn’t help myself.
The attitude indicator displays the position of the plane in space. Mine was showing my wings banked and my nose above the horizon. I quickly leveled my wings and lowered the nose of the plane. As I banked to bring myself back on course, I heard the rush of air once more. Scanning the instruments again, I nearly freaked. I was now banked in the opposite direction and rapidly descending.
“Damn, stay focused you idiot,” I remember telling myself.
I hauled back on the control yoke while leveling the wings.
“Phew… that was close,” I said under my breath.
Suddenly, a loud screeching alarm sounded. Instantly, Bob popped up to a sitting position.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“Stall warning! The wings are stalling – SH#T!” I exclaimed, in frantic tone.
In my struggle to keep the plane flying straight and level, I forget that we didn’t have the engine power to maintain altitude. As a result, we were trading altitude for airspeed, causing the wings to stall. Quickly and deliberately, I lowered the nose while forcing myself to keep the wings level.
Through the blaring alarm that screamed from the speaker above, I heard Bob yell out, “Can’t you shut that thing off!”
Apparently, the sound was bothering him.
Moments later, after some quick reflexive control inputs, the plane was now stable and I began to go through my emergency checklist.
“Ok, airspeed… 65 knots,” I read off the top of the list.
I was travelling a bit faster than that speed, so I raised the nose slightly and reduced my speed to 65 knots.
“Carb heat on,” I read next.
“CARB HEAT?” I remember yelling out loud.
I looked at the outside temperature gauge and realized that I was flying in clouds in freezing temperatures. Quickly, I pulled the Carb Heat knob to add hot engine air to the carburetor. I couldn’t be sure, but I now suspected the loss of power was due to carburetor icing. It made sense.
As I finished the checklist, I called ATC and informed them that I had lost power and couldn’t maintain altitude.
“Please advise,” I radioed in perfect throaty airmen tone, exuding confidence and professionalism.
“Do you wish to declare an emergency?” They radioed back.
‘Why yes, I do want to declare an emergency… I just sh#t my pants and I’m flying with a complete idiot.’
No, that’s not what I declared… but I should have ‘cuz it was pretty damn close to the truth.
“Negative, need vectors to the closest airport,” I radioed.
“Steer heading 200 degrees, MacArthur Airport 8 miles ahead… straight-in landing approved,” the controller shot back instantly.
“Eight miles ahead?” I shouted out incredulously.
“Is that close to Atlantic city?” Bob piped up.
I didn’t answer him.
Through all the “excitement”, I hadn’t realized how far I had actually flown across Long Island Sound. Feeling relief that I wouldn’t have to attempt a water landing, I flew more calmly now, clearly thinking through my options. I knew that I needed to conserve as much altitude as possible until I reached the airport, then once there, I would spiral down out of the clouds and hope that the cloud ceiling was high enough for me to pop out and land.
“Six-Tango-Lima, you are now directly over the airport. Cleared to land,” ATC radioed.
This was it. The moment of truth. I started my circling descent. I scanned the gages repeatedly, flying with near perfect precision. I was in the zone. Nothing was going to stop me now.
“Bob, watch for lights through the clouds. Shout out if you see any,” I called out in authoritative tone.
“Dude, you can count on me,” Bob replied.
Knowing Bob was on the job and couldn’t possibly fail me, I also scanned the clouds for any sign of lights.
As we descended through 3000 feet, I held a constant bank that I hoped would hold me close in to the airport. Fortunately, the rains had stopped and turbulence was nonexistent, making my task easier to accomplish. Round and round we flew, descending at 500 feet per minute.
Two minutes later, at 2000 feet, I began to see the slight illuminations of the city through the clouds. One minute after that, at 1500 feet, I saw my first glimpse of a beacon flashing below the cloud deck.
Looking over to Bob, his sights were glued to the windscreen in front of him. If there was a light out there, he was going to find it. He was like a bloodhound on the hunt. Nothing was going to slip by him.
Another minute ticked by now. I was seeing sporadic lights from buildings below. At 1000 feet, I was breaking in an out of the cloud deck. Another 200 feet or so and I’d be in the clear. I felt relief knowing that I was going to have nearly 800 feet of altitude to plan my landing.
“I see lights,” Bob announced proudly.
And so he finally did.
At 850 feet, I was in the clear. Below me was the airport, brilliantly lit. As I continued to circle, I watched the long runway carefully, trying to judge when to brake off from my emergency descent and fly straight in.
At 500 feet, while lined up on my shortened approach, I could easily see that the runway was assured. I was going to make it.
I pulled the power and lowered the flaps for my final approach. As I touch down on the wet tarmac, I felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders. I taxied to general aviation parking and shut down.
To my left, I heard the distinct sound of someone clearing their throat. Yes, it was Bob.
“So… what are the odds we make it to Atlantic City tonight?”
Ahhhh Bob, always the gambler…