Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

From Hero To Bum—Almost

You can learn from your mistakes…if you can just survive them

“Roger that, Iceland, N3274B is requesting FL10,” I said.

“N3274B is cleared at pilot’s discretion to descend from FL190 to FL10. Report reaching.” Good, perhaps he understood the problem.

I disabled the autopilot and pointed the Mirage downhill at 1,500 fpm. I was determined to warm up the gear on this airplane with an hour at 1,000 feet above the relatively warm ocean.

A day without sunshine is pretty much night, and that’s nearly every day at these latitudes in early January. I had been watching the northern lights waving their green/blue flags across the sky, half listening to the jibberish over the radio as I descended through the clouds toward the dark North Atlantic. I leveled at 1,000 feet about 170 miles out from Reykjavik, and the temperature was a reassuring minus-5 degrees C. Certainly shouldn’t have any problem getting the wheels down this time, I reasoned.

I was still getting a little tailwind as I drove on toward Iceland, wondering if there were any ships out here. It’s a good thing there weren’t. I noticed a pale green phosphorescence ahead, and first attributed it to the northern lights, then, suddenly, realized I was flying beneath an overcast.

I immediately disengaged the autopilot and pulled up hard. I was amazed at my stupidity. I punched the mic button and asked, “Iceland, N3274B, could you give me the current Reykjavik altimeter?”

“Reykjavik is 29.03,” said the controller. It was the dreaded Icelandic low. Sure enough, I had been cruising perhaps 50 to 100 feet above the waves rather than 1,000 feet. I assume the controller gave me a current altimeter, and I missed it as I descended through 18,000 feet, leaving my altimeter on 29.92.

The gear worked perfectly on the ILS approach to Reykjavik. I landed and taxied to the ramp at Flight Services, still a little amazed at how close I had come to disaster. Obviously, I’ll never know if I was flying at 50 or 200 feet off the water. And, damn, I thought I was so good.

Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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