You might call the approach to the runway at Funchal, Madeira Islands, Portugal, challenging, especially if you’re flying on an even modestly windy day. In my case, I went into Funchal in a typical wind event, flying a new Cessna T303 Crusader, a medium twin intended to compete head-to-head with Piper’s wildly successful Seneca. It was December of 1981, and “my” Cessna T303 was the first Crusader to be ferried overseas. My destination was Johannesburg, South Africa, roughly halfway around the world. Under contract to Globe Aero of Lakeland, Florida, I’d picked up the airplane at the Cessna factory in Wichita and hurried down to Lakeland for tanking. Two days later, I flew the Crusader to Bangor, Maine, then on to St. John’s, Newfoundland, the following day.
The next leg was a 1900 nm overwater hop, diagonally across the Atlantic to the aforementioned Funchal, 700 nm off the south coast of Morocco. I’d never been in to that particular airport, but its reputation preceded it. The consensus was, it could get exciting when the wind was woofing, and the wind at Funchal was nearly always woofing. The Madeira Islands, famous for Madeira wine, are mostly rugged hills and low mountains, so there was little room for a conventional runway at Funchal. Accordingly, the airport was built at the apex of a half-moon bay; the approach is semi-circular practically all the way to touchdown. Navy pilots should love it. The threshold is constructed on pylons that begin 1000 feet out in the bay and stand 250 feet above the water. The threshold starts you on a fairly steep uphill rollout. Just past the terminal at midfield, the runway begins to level, then turns downhill, so you’d better be pretty well stopped by midfield. The asphalt extends for over 5400 feet—runway length isn’t a big problem—but the curving approach to avoid the hills means you’re often battling turbulent winds off the mountains all the way to touchdown.
Funchal is on practically everyone’s list of the 10 worst airports in the world. The History Channel program “Most Extreme Airports” labeled Funchal the ninth most dangerous airport in the world and the third most dangerous in Europe. There’s almost no ramp space at Funchal, so unless you arrive late and depart early the next morning, you can only fuel up, grab a sandwich and leave town.
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I arrived late with two other ferry aircraft, a Mooney 231 and a Piper Seneca. All three of us were headed for Rand Airport in Johannesburg. Technical problems with further clearances held us up for an extra day, so we had an additional 24 hours to prepare for Africa. The bad news was that the only refueling truck with avgas wasn’t a truck at all. It was a trainer with no power to drive the pump. This meant the poor kid selling fuel had to cycle a manual swing arm pump to fill our tanks for the next leg across the Sahara to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The young gas boy must have cycled that pump a thousand times to fill our three airplanes.
Even worse, I was the last airplane to be refueled, and the trainer ran dry before the Crusader’s last ferry tank was full. This meant whatever miscellaneous glorp that might have accumulated at the bottom of the trailer’s tank may have gone straight into my ferry tanks. Fortunately, all other tanks were already topped. Sadly, there are no convenient quick drains at the bottom of ferry tanks. Owners aren’t enthusiastic about ferry companies cutting holes in the belly of their new airplane to install them. That meant the only way I could check the ferry fuel for contamination was to climb on top of the tank, unscrew the cap and shine a flashlight inside. Not much chance of seeing anything deep down in the bottom of the tanks.
We departed Funchal the following morning and headed southeast toward Mauritania and the Sahara. The day’s destination was Abidjan, Ivory Coast. As we tracked above a desert roughly the size of the contiguous United States, I watched the two fuel flow needles fluttering slightly on the single gauge. The engines were running smooth and all other indications were normal, so I wrote it off to an instrument problem. We passed Bamako, Mali, about 200 nm from the infamous city of legend, Timbuktu; then Yamoussoukro, capital of Ivory Coast, and continued to Abidjan with no mechanical complaints. The fuel flows were still flittering slightly as I turned final for Abidjan. Just the gauge, I reminded myself.
Safely on the ground, I talked to the Seneca pilot, Ernie Kuney, an A&P mechanic, and he dismissed the problem as a typical new airplane glitch. It seemed there were soldiers with AK-47s everywhere we went, including the parking lot and lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel. The constant presence of military personnel and vehicles was unnerving.
The following day’s flight would be a short one, only about 850 nm across the Gulf of Guinea to Libreville, Gabon. Again, I watched the fuel flows occasionally ticking as our three airplanes flew over water toward out next-to-last stop. Everything else seemed normal. We arrived early enough for me to catch the mechanic at Cessna of Gabon. He‘d never even seen a photo of a Crusader before (hardly anyone else had either), but he reassured me that it was ”most certainly the gauge.” Most certainly hope so.
The next day’s leg was 1500 nm down the west coast of Africa to Windhoek, Namibia. The other two pilots had flown this route before, and they suggested turning slightly right at the Congo River, flying out to sea at least 30 miles to avoid Angolan airspace altogether, and then traveling 1000 nm straight south until reaching the Tiger Peninsula. Tiger was a small, sandy, white spit of land, outlet of the Cunene River to the South Atlantic and Angola’s border with Namibia. After that, we could turn slightly left, back over the coastal Namib Desert and on into Windhoek without fear of being shot at. Angola and Namibia were at war at the time, and Angola had virtually no air force. Accordingly, it assumed any airplane was an enemy machine. This provided a strong incentive to stay out over the Atlantic until we were well clear of Angola.
I’d been warned that there were few radio navaids in this part of the world, and most of the ones that did exist were inop. Sure enough, the trip so far had demonstrated that only about one in five was working. For that reason, navigation in much of Africa was mostly point-and-shoot or flying by landmarks. This was long before the introduction of GPS, so finding a destination was relegated to whatever worked. Twitchy fuel flows again. The gauge, right? To everyone’s surprise, there was a VOR near the equator in southern Gabon with a strong signal, Tchibanga (TCH, I think). As we passed over it level at 11,000 feet and made our turn off the coast, I pushed my seat all the way back, repositioned the right seat forward so I could put my feet up, and let the Crusader’s autopilot do the work.
Directly below, I could see the almost iridescent green, double canopy rain forest stretching in every direction except west, a near-solid blanket of thick jungle with few open spaces. Wouldn’t want to go down in this part of Africa. I’d reluctantly switched to the aft, 100-gallon ferry tank a few minutes before, the one that was last to be fueled in Funchal. We always departed and landed on the wing tanks, usually the farthest forward. Ferry tanks were nearly always installed in the back of the airplane. For that reason, we had to switch to the farthest aft tank as soon as possible to keep the CG from shifting too far aft. I watched the fuel flows to make certain there was no change, nothing too erratic. By now, I was convinced I was just being paranoid and that everyone else was right. The fuel flow problem seemed to be more imagination than real. I opened a package of chocolate chip cookies, popped the top off a bottle of water, and settled down for the long ride south. That’s when the left engine quit.
There was the predictable pause of disbelief, during which the autopilot disconnected and the left wing dropped toward the jungle. The right engine also quit before I could even react, and the Crusader’s nose pitched down toward the impenetrable tangle of trees below. I hit the pumps, switched back to the wing tanks, pushed the mixtures forward, eased them back and generally tried to undo anything I might have done wrong in the last minute or two. Nothing helped. Each of the two 100-gallon ferry tanks fed both engines at the same time, a concession to simplicity. That meant the same tank was fueling, or in this case, defueling, both engines simultaneously. Whatever was blocking fuel flow to the engines had probably come out of the aft ferry tank, and switching back to the mains had not solved the problem.
I squeaked out a mayday to my two playmates. “Tom and Ernie, I just lost power on both engines.” Ernie came back first, “Bill, don’t screw around on the radio.” Tom Willett jumped in next, apparently recognizing that I didn’t normally talk with that high a voice. “Bill, where are you?”
“Tom, I’m right behind you, have you in sight. I’m about a mile back, circling to the left,” I replied, desperately searching for an opening in the trees below. The only flat spot I could see was a small, lazy river flowing toward the coast. I’d rather take my chances with crocodiles than try to dodge the trees. After 8,000 hours of accident-free flying, it was beginning to look as if I was about to wreck my first airplane. Even worse, I might even wreck me. No more ferry flights. I’ll never see space. What about the girl back home? Who’ll feed my dogs?
“I’m coming back,” said Tom, interrupting my cynical reverie. “There’s a small, grass missionary strip around here somewhere. I saw it on my last trip.” Both engines were staggering, chugging out occasional short bursts of power, then reverting to idle. Neither engine had quit completely, but that was little consolation. I pegged the airspeed at 110 knots and tried not to look at the VSI as I augured down in the general direction of the river.
The radio came alive with an announcement by Tom Willett in the Mooney. “Bill, I have you in sight, and I’ve spotted the grass strip,” he said. “It’s just north of you.” I rolled out of the turn to the north but didn’t see anything even vaguely resembling a flat spot between the trees, much less a grass runway. The Crusader was gliding like a Steinway, and when I finally picked up the strip, I was practically overhead, the wrong place to try to improvise a pattern without power. I couldn’t begin to guess how long the runway was, but it looked far too short for a 6000-pound twin. I widened out to the east in a modified semblance of an abbreviated downwind leg, turned base and hurried the airplane around to final. As I rolled out, I dropped the wheels and flaps, only to realize I’d already blown it. I was going to be short.
I was glad the airplane had no cockpit voice recorder as I braced for impact. I was about to crash the first Crusader to leave the U.S. The airplane cleared the trees by inches and slammed down well short of the runway, splattering mud everywhere. It half-skidded, half-bounced out of the tall grass onto the short strip. To my utter amazement, nothing had punched up through the top wing skins, despite the hard impact. Somehow, the T303’s rugged, trailing beam gear system had protected me from evil.
The Cessna rolled out a short distance, and I turned off to the left with the last of my momentum as Tom Willett buzzed me in the Mooney. He gave me a congratulatory wing waggle, then pulled up, entered an abbreviated pattern and landed. Ernie was still circling above at 11,000 feet in the Seneca, and he was talking to Air Gabon in Libreville on VHF. Tom advised him that my airplane appeared undamaged, and I was still breathing and had no pieces missing. Ernie relayed the news to Air Gabon. They immediately launched a rescue Skylane with a mechanic and tools aboard. We pulled the top cowls, and just as I’d suspected, both engines had ingested foreign material, presumably from the aft ferry tank. It appeared to be a half-dissolved fabric substance, and it had plugged up fuel flow to both engines. We never understood why it took so long to shut down fuel flow. We saved as much of the contaminant as possible in a plastic baggie, and I sent it to Shell for analysis after I got home. The report suggested it was a long-outdated fabric filter that was no longer used but was supposed to be changed every six months when in service. It estimated this material was at least three years old.
The mechanic did the best he could to clean out the injector lines and filters, then wished me luck for the short flight back to Libreville. Willet and I drained as much fuel as we could from both ferry tanks to reduce the load for takeoff. I staggered out of Tchibanga with nearly full wing tanks and managed to sneak back into Libreville barely before the night time curfew.
The following day, there were 20 cars lined up outside the Air Gabon maintenance hangar. All the owners were eager to collect their allotment of 10 gallons each, as the Crusader’s entire fuel system was drained of every ounce of 100 octane, probably close to 200 gallons. Each driver strained his 10 gallons through a chamois before pouring it into his car’s gas tank. Willett’s Mooney had been fueled just before mine in Funchal, so Air Gabon checked his fuel and found the same fibrous contaminants. As a result, his airplane’s fuel and injection system also had to be drained and cleaned—another free 130 gallons for the Gabon Auto Club.
The remainder of the trip was anti-climactic. Willett and I launched out of Libreville for Namibia on December 29, spent the 30th cleaning up the airplanes in Windhoek, and finally made the last leg across the Kalahari Desert to Johannesburg on December 31. Cessna’s South African dealer held a big New Year’s party in honor of the first Crusader’s safe arrival. It seemed everyone had heard about the double engine failure and subsequent emergency landing in Gabon. I told the story a dozen or more times, and I was an instant curiosity for about 10 of my allotted 15 minutes of fame.
Editor’s note: Since this trip in 1981, both the Funchal and Tchibanga airports have been extended and improved.
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.