Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fear Of Dunking

The airplane doesn’t know if it’s flying over water or land. The pilot does.

From two miles up, big water looks pretty much the same all over the world. Okay, the 20-foot swells of the Pacific aren't quite the same as the flat expanse of Lake Michigan, but you must look hard to recognize the difference.

Whether you're navigating across the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean, or simply spanning one of the Great Lakes, the similarities are easier to recognize. In my case, today's leg is about 850 miles across Africa's Gulf of Guinea.

Water is water. True, here at two degrees above the equator, there are no icebergs drifting below as there would be in the Labrador Straits off Greenland, but it's still pretty much the same bottomless blue, occasionally interrupted by splashes of whitecaps.

My altimeter indicates I'm cruising 11,000 feet above this particular stretch of the South Atlantic, but my Garmin 496 GPS suggests I'm only 390 miles from today's destination—Libreville, Gabon—moderately good news.

Still, there are few places to park below that won't involve getting wet. The tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe is a consolation prize somewhere ahead, a small, mountainous outpost of humanity in an otherwise unforgiving ocean.

No matter. I know there's essentially no search-and-rescue service available in this part of the world. If I go down, I had best be a really strong swimmer or have a compass, a good raft and a large paddle. Fortunately, I have all three, though I'd need to be doing everything exactly right to use them.

I filed IFR in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, this morning, but I'm flying what's sometimes referred to in this part of the world as "passive IFR." There's no radar in this region, and even HF contact is often intermittent. SAR assets are similarly almost nonexistent. As with so much of Africa, IFR and VFR traffic is frequently left to its own devices. If I were to lose the Mirage's engine now, the search-and-rescue effort would consist of little more than putting a note on the bulletin board in the pilot lounge at Libreville and Abidjan.

I look back warily at the pile of survival gear behind me, and wonder for the 37th time if I really would stand any chance of using it in the event of a ditching. Things don't always go smoothly for even the most experienced aviators.

My friend Ray, who had already been in the water twice (you'd think…?), lost the engine on a Skylane five years ago, and went into the Pacific, 600 miles south of the Big Island of Hawaii. At the time, I was about 50 miles ahead in a Shrike Commander, also headed for Ray's next destination—Christmas Island. We were hoping to deliver to Sydney, Australia, three days away.

Facing big swells, Ray eased the 182 into the water, but the airplane flipped inverted in the big sea, and submarined so fast, Ray didn't have time to grab his raft. He did get out of the airplane before it submerged, but he was left floating in his vest for five hours before the U.S. Coast Guard C-130 arrived, found him and dropped a survival package. Fortunately, he was picked up by an Australian container ship late the same night, and got a welcome but somewhat slower ride to Sydney than he had planned.


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