FLYING THE TITANIC
AND MISSING THE ICEBERGS
You might not think that an iceberg can put an aircraft in peril, but I do! That is exactly what happened during my final approach to land in a blinding snow storm at Narssarssuaq in Greenland.
The control tower issued a final warning to me during approach. “Gulfstream One November Charlie, caution, icebergs off the approach end of the runway.”
I can just imagine that Commodore Edward J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic, perhaps got a similar warning before wounding his mighty un-sinkable pride of the White Star Lines. But, I think there is a big difference between Captain Smith and Captain “IKE” Eisenhauer. I was at the helm, not napping in the chart room (as reported). And, I’m still alive!
This was one of those “do or die,” situations that many pilots, and aviators, have been faced with during their aviation career, if they live long enough. I was running out of fuel and this was the only airport for hundreds of miles so I had no other options. I had descended to the minimum legal altitude during the approach. What that means is that if you dare to go any lower before you see something to land on you’re on your own. Either something pops up to give you ground reference for your landing or you just keep going until your wheels either hit the runway …or you crash.
Let’s relive what goes on in the cockpit (flight deck) between the crew during realistic operations.
“On course, on glide path, ref plus five, landing check list complete. One hundred feet above minimums, fifty feet above minimums, MINIMUMS,” the co-pilot (first officer) virtually shouts so you don’t miss his cues. When he shouts MINIMUMS you have a micro-second to make a decision. You either, apply full power to the engines and call for takeoff flaps as you ease the nose up for a “go-around” (missed approach) or say, “FUCK IT, WE’RE LANDING!” Up to this point during the approach the Captain (me) is concentrating on his flight instruments. His partner is searching outside in an attempt to find some ground reference, anything for a clue that says, “we’re getting close.” If, and when, he does he’ll say, “got the ground, or got the lights, or got the runway.” If the Captain has made a good approach he expects to hear, “runway dead ahead, you’re on centerline, over the end of the runway.” That’s when the Captain glances out the front window for the first time as he reduces the power and eases the nose up to squat on the ground and sigh. Of the two choices I had you can pick the one I chose. I had no other option. When my co-pilot said, “I see the water, Jesus Christ, jog right, there’s a fuckin’ ice berg right in front of us!” I caught sight of it and gently banked right to miss it then back left to get to the end of the runway. I was barely a hundred feet above the water and didn’t want to clip the water with a wing tip. That would have been disastrous.
You will discover from several chapters in this book that I consider an aircraft to be almost human. That’s why I have always talked to my airplanes. It sort of enforces our relationship because I believe that everything God created is composed of molecules, atoms, and whatever else make something real and alive. So, whether or not you agree with me, I’m happy living in my world. Hell, I’m still here. The last flight I took over the pond in this particular type of aircraft for many years, until I delivered them to Europe for other clients, I was convinced that my airplane had a grudge since the night I pissed on her nose wheel at Alamosa, Colorado after landing on one engine. For a couple of years she had behaved until this last ocean crossing when she finally decided to test me. She knew I was going to dump her because to fly back and forth over the ocean on only two engines made every crossing an experience. Not to suggest that the airplane wasn’t capable of making the trips, but after doing it so many times (I lost count) I decided it was over and done with. I had pushed my luck too many times and THIS WAS IT! But she had other ideas.
After I left London Heathrow (where Vesco told me to get a four engine jet for the future), I knew she overheard the conversation. For starters, the wind against me for the westbound crossing was not to my liking. I knew from the start that it could possibly be a touch and go crossing because I had never fought such strong headwinds before. Add to that the forecasts were way off the mark and you can imagine my dilemma as I slowly made my way toward home by way of Iceland. The first leg of the flight from London to Keflavic was as expected, long and grinding. It took longer than any previous flight I had ever made and was probably a warning of what was ahead.
At Keflavic flight operations the briefing I got assured me that the strong headwinds I had encountered from London would diminish the further west I flew. WRONG! I could just as well have listened to a TV weather forecast and probably got better information. The first hint I got about how wrong the Keflavic forecast was is when I passed over my first positive indication. It was an anchored weather ship in the middle of the ocean three hundred miles west called Ocean Station Alpha. (They have long since become a thing of the past). It had communications, radar and current reports for passing aircraft. They gave me a read out of my ground speed and it wasn’t good. I was further encouraged, however, by their report that the winds would definitely slack off as I went further west, but they were wrong also. Their radar tracking of my groundspeed ndicated I was banging my head against one hundred knots, on the nose. Still I pressed on with faith that they could be right and the winds would lessen as I flew further west. My next check point was off the southern tip of Greenland. It is a radio beacon identified as Alpha Sierra about a hundred miles off my right wing tip. As I checked my time passing abeam (beside) the beacon I couldn’t believe my numbers. The headwind didn’t get less, it got stronger. Now I had a real problem. I didn’t have enough fuel to reach my next fuel stop which was Gander, New Foundland. Hell, I couldn’t reach any land on the east coast of Canada so I had to think fast. Just then, while trying to figure an alternate I could get to, she (The Gulfstream) bit me in the ass. The caution light on the instrument panel suddenly lit up alerting me to check the annunciator panel to identify the culprit. It was the alternator on the right engine that failed. I left my seat and diving under the radio rack for the reset I gave it a try. It didn’t reset. What would this mean to me? It meant that I no longer could de-ice my right engine or propeller. The ac generator (alternator) provided electrical power to heat both the propeller and the inlets to the engine to prevent ice from forming. It didn’t take long for the right prop to start slinging ice against the side of the fuselage. We could hear it happening but what caused me more concern was if ice would block the inlet to the engine causing it to flame out. Then I’m down to one stinking engine to add more problems. I called ocean control and said I needed a lower altitude to get out of the icing conditions. I got it. I descended a few thousand feet to get out of the ice and concentrated on finding an alternate airport to land at. Fortunately for me I was able to establish contact on long range (HF) frequency with Gander to not only get a lower altitude but to get information on where I could go. They told me to attempt to contact Narssarssuaq on VHF and divert to that airport. It was our only chance. When I made contact they told me what I didn’t want to hear. In simple terms, their weather sucked and they hadn’t had any aircraft landings for several hours. Scandanavian Airlines was the only scheduled operator using this facility but at least they had radar and a control tower and an instrument landing system I could use to navigate to the runway. After making a right turn from my original route I passed over the Alpha Sierra radio beacon. Now I had a ground fix. I got clearance to the airport compass locater. Good, because the only navigation I had was an ADF (automatic direction finder). The only thing it was good for was to point. It couldn’t tell you how far away you were so you wouldn’t know you got there until the needle swung. Once over the field I was cleared to a lower altitude and then for an approach. The reported weather was, what we call, on the deck. They said they had a two hundred foot ceiling, snow and a half mile visibility. That’s good enough for me. We’re going to land. Where the hell else could we go? So, we landed.
In order to get to Gander I needed a lot of fuel. They didn’t have any fuel truck, just fifty-five gallon drums of kerosene for emergencies. I guess I had an emergency because with a lot of persuasion and hard cash I rounded up a crew who carted the drums to the aircraft and after hours of working in the snow, filled my tanks. About five hours later I cranked up and finally made it to Gander. Would you believe, the wind had finally calmed down? The meteorologists only missed their forecast by six hours. Well, nobody’s perfect. I didn’t end up swimming in the North Atlantic. However, that was the last trip across the North Atlantic for me in a Grumman prop jet Gulfstream One…until several years later. But, that’s another story.
Icebergs? They are beautiful from a distance but up close can either scare the hell out of you…or sink you.