Tue May 25, 2010 4:18 pm
Nick Lambert follows an experienced airline pilot whose skills might be no match for low-level navigation in a float-equipped Super Cruiser through the maze of islands of the Pacific Northwest
Ever since earning his seaplane rating in Florida, Pilot X had dreamt about exploring the Pacific Northwest. Retirement now made the dream a reality. Being based in the UK, the trip had taken some organising. It had quickly become apparent that solo hire wasn’t an option. However, a few hours research on the Internet produced a float-equipped 1946 Piper Super Cruiser. The aircraft was based in Seattle and priced at $74,000. What’s more, the aircraft had a Supplementary Type Certificate (STC) allowing it to run on mogas, which might prove useful in the outback.
Over the course of a lengthy email correspondence, Pilot X had become friendly with Glen, the seller, and a flying instructor to boot. Because Glen knew a little of Pilot X’s flying experience, he endorsed the former airline pilot’s plan to fly up the coast to Vancouver Island and then up the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Alaska. The aircraft would then be sold in Anchorage where there was always a good market for floatplanes.
Glen picked Pilot X up from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. They immediately drove to the small lake where the aircraft was based. Pilot X was delighted with the little red and white aircraft. It was in immaculate condition; his concerns about buying over the Internet proved unfounded. Glen suggested Pilot X get some sleep before taking to the skies and offered him a bed for the night.
The next day was hard work. The instructor was clearly no longer in sales mode and gave
Pilot X a thorough checkout before signing off his Biennial Flight Review. They spent the evening poring over maps. Glen had done the trip before and his experience was invaluable. The trip would be just over 1,000nm, which at the Piper’s leisurely cruise speed of 65kt, would be about 15 hours flying. Pilot X was is no hurry though and planned to allow himself two weeks to complete the trip. Glen suggested a good first overnight
stop would be a bear-watching camp on the Canadian mainland, opposite Vancouver Island. The camp had its own pontoon for floatplanes and sounded ideal.
Water is heavy
The following morning, Pilot X was raring to go – he couldn’t remember the last time he felt this excited about flying, but it didn’t stop him preparing and loading the aircraft meticulously. The final job was to pump out the floats; as Glen said, “Water is heavy. Unless it’s properly containerised and someone is paying you to deliver it, don’t do it.”
Pilot X waved goodbye and taxied out onto
the lake. It was dead calm and there wasn’t a ripple on the water. As soon as he was clear of the shore, he simply firewalled the throttle. Almost immediately the floats were on the step, rather
than ploughing through the water, and the airspeed was building nicely. He tried to rotate at 45kt but was momentarily surprised when nothing happened. Then he remembered that in flat calm conditions the floats can ‘stick’ to the surface. He gingerly raised one float with aileron and they were off.
Some pilots may have been daunted by the short international flight across the border to Victoria. Airspace and radio procedures didn’t worry Pilot X who had over 20,000 hours plying his trade aloft. The sky was completely overcast and, being equipped for visual flight, he was limited to 1,000ft. This wasn’t a problem as the navigation was straightforward and he also had a portable GPS from home. Pilot X completed the Customs formalities quickly at Victoria International Airport, topped the tanks and was on his way north in no time.
Pilot X’s route tracked up the east coast of Vancouver Island until the point where it almost meets the mainland. From there he crossed over to the mainland and that’s when things started to get interesting. The cloudbase had gradually been lowering as he tracked north and he was now down to 800ft. Despite being surrounded by 10,000ft peaks he wasn’t unduly concerned – the water was still flat calm and there was water to land on everywhere. However, he was concentrating hard because it was vital that he followed his planned route through the maze of inlets and islands. A direct track wasn’t an option as that would have required a cloud base of at least 6,000ft.
The murk above
From Campbell River, he headed up Discovery Passage, the edges of which now disappeared into the murk above. He chuckled wryly to himself as he passed what he hoped was Blind Channel and on to West Thurlow Island. He was struggling now; the handheld GPS wasn’t really providing much situational awareness as he manoeuvred to stay away from the high ground. The aircraft wasn’t equipped with a Direction Indicator and the compass was all over the shop. He just couldn’t correlate what the compass was telling him with the GPS.
“If in doubt, believe your compass.” His first instructor’s advice rang in his ears. But it was no use. He was now well and truly lost. The important thing was not to panic. He was at 400ft, flanked on either side by ground that disappeared into cloud, and unless it was his imagination, the inlet was getting narrower. What was the turning circle of the Super Cruiser? Surely not much?
He slowed to 50 knots to keep the turn radius tight, and cranked on a stage of flap. Pilot X then manoeuvred as close as he dared to hug one side of the valley. He then took a deep breath and cranked it round. The floats clearly didn’t do much for the handling but the little Piper made it round with about 200ft to spare.
Where to now? He had no idea. This was stupid, the only solution was to land and collect his thoughts. His present position seemed as good as any so he let down. At 100ft the water was so clear he could see a shoal of fish below – and that was Pilot X’s last ever thought.
1. What went wrong?
2. What could have helped his situation?