Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Stand-by Pilot

This is a short story, about one small part of a day, in the life of a Charter Pilot.

The place is Hobart Tasmania in the early 1960's.

The aircraft is a Cessna 206, a single engine, 6 seater.
Stand-by Pilot for the weekend.
The time is 0330 am.

I'm sleeping and the phones ringing! an ringing! so I grab it "good morning,  Tasair, how may I help you?"
Its the nurse on Bruny Island!

She has a wee girl of two years of age with a serious bout of whooping cough and she is not responding to treatment and needs immediate pick up, for the Hospital in Hobart! and "she" would not be held responsible! for what may happen! if she is not picked up immediately.

Of course ! I've heard this story before, many times, from this particular  nurse?
She has always  life or death situations, laying a guilt trip onto the pilot to get her own way, and it always seems to be in bad weather! I told her " I would call her from the airport" and I put the phone down before she could create more nagging guilt!

Well I climbed out of my cot, dressed and headed for the door, climbing into my car I started out for the airport, (about a 30 minute run)  it was blowing a south westerly with rain squalls, low cloud and dark!
My mind was already going through the legal weather! to undertake this flight under Visual flight rules and at the present time it was definitely not legal.
I also had to consider the company operations manual, which also lays down the rules regarding visual flight, which I had to sign? and adhere to.
All things considered the flight under the present weather was a legal! No go.

I told myself, I would check the weather when I get to the airport and if its still bad! I will Phone the nurse and tell  her"I would arrive as soon as the weather improves"
Already my mind is making up pictures of the nurses reply! " You will be two late! you're this baby girls only chance"? then there will be a long silence to let the guilt sink in, Oh yes! she was really good at this.

I have been up in front of the Chief Pilot and the Civil Aviation Authority a couple of times, for stretching the rules to suit myself and you might say, I'm close to a last warning and this bloody nurse is making me feel guilty, before I have even spoken to her?

I arrive at the airport and check that the aircraft is secure and ready for flight, its just tied down outside the office, and  the weather is passing through in pulses, as they strike the aircraft, it bucks and shudders on its tie down ropes.
" Ain't no way I'm going out in that" passes through my mind, its still quite dark I would expect dawn around 0510 am, I'll wait and see what it brings?

I go into the office and put the coffee on and a phone call to the Met office, the forecast for this area is bad, with no improvement expected until later in the day, after the active front that is effecting us now, moves through and the Met boffins say" wind and rain is likely to worsen as the front passes with wind gust up to 50 mph, visibility in rain down to 200 metres"!

Well that's that, I will have to wait for an improvement regardless of what the nurse says.
I have a picture in my mind of the approach to Bruny Island under these conditions, no lights, wet grass and rain and a big wind on my port side quarter. Its only a short 15 minute flight on a good day, but in the dark, with the head wind component maybe 20 minutes.
I would expect the wind to be across the strip and a northern approach with use of the VAR aid in daylight, it could be possible, I would at least, see the runway before committing myself to a landing!
Coming in, hanging on full power and full flap, full fine prop, with the nose and aileron cocked into wind, if sighted!  it's reduce the power, steep decent, and just before contact with ground straighten the aircraft up with the runway, using the rudder and reduce the power and dump the flaps and hold the nose on the ground as the speed bleeds off,
But if I do not recognise the field? it's full power and nose up,and awaiting for climbing speed to build up, then climbing away reducing the flaps slowly, go up to 500 feet and fly around for another try after getting my heading settled on the VAR aid.
But as I said "I am not going under these conditions."

04.45am. The phone rings again, its my nurse on Bruny? She is just checking on my progress? " The baby is in the container with only 30 minutes of oxygen supply, the mother and father are here waiting" I mention "I have spare oxygen on board  and I am waiting for a break in the weather before departure," she asked "to speak with the chief pilot"? (boy she's a bitch!) I said "sorry I'm all you've got" the phone went quite for a few seconds then she said
" she will see me  at day break on the strip" and the phone went dead.

I thought to myself "daybreak"? maybe that's it! I had used daybreak before to get into a strip in bad weather, its not without risk but sometimes the wind drops off at daybreak as if the wind was taking a deep breath only for a short time 5 to 10 minutes? but it may be enough,  So I'm off.

Doing my pre-flight checks in the wind and rain and climbing into the aircraft, I started to get second thoughts again!
I started the aircraft and rolled forward towards the south west facing into wind runway, I was getting buffered by the rain and wind, taxing to the take off point, and completing my take off checks I turned into the wind , setting my altimeter to ground level and I  considered it acceptable for take-off .

I set the directional giro for the runway direction and rolled forward gathering speed the visibility was poor, the white lines of the centre of the runway were passing  under my nose and with a quick look at my gyro? it all looked good. The forward speed built up quickly and when she was ready to fly, I held her down just a bit to get above flying speed, she came away from the ground and swooped up on a gust of wind.
I held her  until she steadied on climb speed, I slowly retracted the flaps and power  at 300 feet, I further reduced the power and gave her the first notch of flap slowing me down, so it wasn't so rough, heavy showers and real poor forward visibility, were making me question my actions,  my doubts were sitting on my shoulder waiting to start cracks in my confidence !
I let myself down to 200 feet? there seem to be a definite improvement in the forward visibility? at 2 minutes? to run.

I set myself up for a short field landing, One look at the Var against the gyro told me I was with- in spitting distance of my bearing! so that was good? Still out over the sea, I thought I could see the phosphorus light effect in the surf on the beach,
so I let down to 100 feet with full flap and landing checks complete, Still,  can't see the runway, I can't use my landing light? as it will reflected back at me in the rain and kill my night vision. I can see the strip, it's like a dark line! at 50 feet,
I was getting buffeted around  in heavy rain, I was just about to start my missed approach procedure, when I got a positive sighting of the strip and continued, before I knew it, I was on the ground, splashing through the puddles, my windscreen was covered in mud, until I slowed enough to stop the splashing and the heavy rain washed it off of me. That's it! I thought? I'll wait here until it improves.
I taxied over to their little terminal ( a hut really!) parked the ole girl into wind and shut her down,
then I made a run for the terminal.

The nurse met me at the door partly blocking my way? she ask "why I had stopped the engine?  as it was normal practise to leave the engine running, on these emergency pick ups".
I said " Sorry the weather is un-flyable". she just looked at me! As if I was a wimp?

I was ready to give her a piece of my mind! regarding the way she intimidated me to get me to come here under such bad conditions, But I was quickly lead over to meet the parents, the mother was crying and the father didn't look much better, the nurse took my arm and ushered me over to the baby and pulled back the mask cover, the wee baby girl was a purple colour and look as if she was close to death already.

The nurse said "she had spoke to Hobart hospital and they will have an ambulance at my base in 10 minutes," she then went ahead and put the baby into the aircraft and connected up the oxygen on board.
My mind was racing between punching her on the nose, and just leaving, She had beaten me again!
I walked back to the aircraft and climbed aboard! anywhere was better than being here!

I told the nurse "I was leaving and I could not take the parents with me, due to their weight"
Which would effect the performance of the aircraft, which under the present conditions? it would be downright foolish"!
She said "well at least take the mother?" I said "No! she is too fat"
she started to protest and I pushed her back.

I started the aircraft and began to taxi down the strip for take off, I saw the mother running to the nurse in tears, as I departed, into the rain for take off.
At the end of the runway it was: Trim for take off,
mixture full rich, Pitch full fine, fuel is on , quantity, pressure, fuel warning light, OK all temps in the green, Flaps, controls full and free, "Do you really want to do this"? " No"  now go! I look over my shoulder to check on my charge?  all's quite, no coughing a bad sign.

I begin my take off run, no white lines this time! just my d/g and loads of water, I started my run without flap, to reduce my drag from the splashes, then as I passed the take off speed I pulled on 20% of my available flap, pulling me into the air, I was away! I climbed away in a straight line climbing to 500 feet, my visibility was zero in heavy rain and mist, I began a turn back to base, very quickly I realised that I was entering the active squall front, of  weather, wind , rain and hail which were buffeting me around.
I wasn't going to make it back in time for the wee baby?  shit !

I'm commited now ? I have to set myself up in a climb, to survive this and to try to break out of it, at altitude.
Mt Wellington is around 4000 feet in height in front of me.
I was tuning in the Hobart none directional beacon on their instrument landing system it would give me a good line, if I haven't broken clear of the front by then, I will have to go and hold over the beacon, lightening flashes were showing me the dense parts of the clouds, which I tried to avoid, getting caught in descending air and turbulence! I didn't need.

I quickly looked over my shoulder at my wee princess? it was dark and I saw no movement.
In my mind I tried to convince myself? that had I left her she would be dead  anyway, so at least she got her chance.

But it didn't sit well with me, I continued my climb, I entered a storm cell which gave me a quick 2500 feet! before I flew out of it, I was passing 10,000 feet as it started to improve, at 11,000 feet I was in clear  blue sky. I could just see the sun rising above the weather that was trailing behind the front, for as far as the eye can see, a line of  towering thunder storms were lined up across where I was going moving south, I was on the northern side, with Mt Wellington below me in the cloud and rain?

I turned back to the Hobart beacon, giving them a call on my radio at the same time, its too early!
Well the games up! time to run out the high frequency aerial and call Melbourne over 300 miles away and talk to them, and end my charter pilots career. oh shit!
I made contact with Melbourne HF radio, who were at first alarmed to hear from me, and started to give loads of questions, with a bit of attitude, which OK I deserved ?
I told them "I was holding on the Hobart beacon with a dead child on board, with 3.00 hours of fuel ".

"So shut the fuck up! and  check with Hobart to see? that they are not taking any of their aids off for maintenance this morning?
 and get them to give me a call on their VHF radio I will be listening out".
So here I go! holding on the Hobart beacon, flying towards it and when I'm over head the beacon  I turn onto a reciprocal heading and fly away from the beacon , avoiding the towering Cumulus thunder clouds best I can, and avoiding the dark patches within them, ice!
I have no de-icing and its below freezing at this altitude and the ole 206! would take on ice like a sponge, increasing my weight, reducing my ability to fly. One way ticket to eternity!

Its time for me to turn back towards the beacon again, I complete this holding pattern, and continue to fly them, after about 40 minutes!
I receive a call from Hobart controller advising me "all their equipment was full serviceable and what were my intentions"?
I asked him "what was his weather doing?" he said "It was still wild down here, runway visibility was below 200 metres! wind still gusting over 35 mph with heavy rain, all the hail had stopped! "
I reported that I was flying in clear blue sky and the line of thunderstorms were slowly moving to the south,
it was my intention to descend on the beacon to 3000 feet and join the Instrument landing system, in about 1 hours time and make a full instrument approach, down to the minim and if clear proceed and land at Cambridge, where the ambulance was waiting, with luck the weather front will have moved through and the weather may improve ?
he asked "if I had any word on the baby?" and "did I want him to do any thing for me?". I said "no! the weather is too rough to climb over the back! and check at this time?"
"I'm sorry but I think I lost her? earlier when entering the storm, she looked very ill at the start? and stopped coughing during the take off run.
I will call you inbound to the beacon and established on approach"
I had forgotten all about the little girl? isn't that so crazy?
I checked the her oxygen pressure! it looked like it was out, I've got to get below 9000 feet asp to allow nature to take over and give her air? if she is still with me? That is !

Arriving over the beacon this time, I looked along my approach line and the thunderstorms were south of my track, so as I start my turn  out from the beacon, I let down 1500 feet and on the return leg, I let down a further 1500feet, I noticed the temp gauge was dropping again telling me I was close to a storm cell,
I had been keeping my eye out for ice! but so far so good, as I passed the storm the temperature began to rise a bit, at the beacon I had lost 3000 feet and as I went outbound again I descended a further1500 feet,  inbound I lost another 1500 feet.

On my last departure from the beacon I set myself up for a descent that would put me back over the beacon at 3000 feet as I turned back to the beacon I called Hobart "Inbound for landing" at the beacon I called "established outer marker " Hobart called back saying "Runway wet, wind gusty but down the runway, continue your approach! the temperature had gone up by 7  degrees, bit of a win!  I continued my descent, as I approached the finals beacon the weather started to break up and improve I could see the runway lights I called "final with the lights"
Hobart "your cleared to land" at 100 feet I could just see under the cloud in rain, and I could see the lights in my office so I called  "Finals for Cambridge!" Hobart Replied "at you discretion"? I went on to land, it wasn't good, but I was on the ground, it was still raining "cats and dogs".

I made my way up to the office, where the ambulance guys were there to meet me, as I turned into wind and shut down the engine, they opened the back door,
when they removed the cover there was the sweetest sound, that wee girl was screaming her heart out,
The ambulance men took her inside and gave her a check over, giving her a warm milk drink, saying all the congestion was gone and she really didn't need the hospital?

I but a phone call through to the Bruny nurse and advised her of the  good news and  what the medics had said about the congestion?
It would seem! the time at altitude had a lot to do with relieving the congestion.
Of course this ole dragon wasn't going to let me off the hook,
she was going to complain to the chief pilot and expected a letter of apology to the parents for my remarks!
I just put the phone down, this lady drives me crazy.

But I must say! she is a good person to have fighting in your corner!
We all took turns in holding the baby until the ambulance guys decide to take her back with them,
I secured the aircraft and headed for my pit? I will more than likely be on the carpet later today,
Oh ? yes she never spoke to the Chief pilot! but I had to make an apology? As you do !

Who was it that said? " it's better to be down here wishing you were up there? than up there! wishing you were down here?



  1. Wow! What an intense job! I can't imagine the stress you were under in the situation you described. I am so glad to hear that the little girl made it and you sure were brave to risk your life to save her life!

  2. thank you for your kind remarks, be well. TD


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