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Deadly Silence

by Murray Lundberg

This is the true story of a flight made by your Guide, on July 30, 1987. It was a flight that shouldn't have taken place. This story has been posted to remind myself, and others, how pressure can cause very bad decisions to be made.

    Driving to the little strip of mowed grass called Delta Air Park, I was exhilarated, as always before a flight. I never tired of the Vancouver - Port Hardy route; it was always beautiful. And today there was a bonus. I would be returning at night, adding another dimension of beauty to the experience. There was no hint yet of the chain of events that would soon start, and result in a few hours in being tested to my absolute limits, and coming within a split-second of dying.

    The first hint came as soon as I saw the aircraft I had rented for the flight. My own Skyhawk was in the shop for a 100-hour check, and I had promised a friend that I'd pick him up this evening - with no way to contact him, renting was the only option. The plane sitting in front of the pumps had a long list of mechanical problems, but with the pressure on to complete the flight, I drained the water out of one fuel tank, pumped up the flat tire and packed a portable transceiver to back up what I was warned were problem-ridden radios on the panel. I knew Cessna 172s thoroughly, and now convinced myself that I could nurse this one over almost 500 miles of inhospitable country.

    Even though I was empty for the trip north, the plane insisted on rolling along the ground for an extremely long time before struggling into the air, but I rationalized that it must be just the friction from grass that hadn't been cut for a few days. Ten minutes later, the radios died. Unable to contact Vancouver on the portable radio either, I took the fastest route out of their Control Zone, embarrassed by the knowledge that the people in Air Traffic Control would be silently cursing me for not announcing my intentions.

    Even the rugged splendour of Vancouver Island could not remove the nagging feeling that something was seriously wrong. Maybe I was just unnerved by all the problems. It was nothing distinct, but the engine just didn't feel right, didn't purr like it was supposed to. But at least one of the radios was cooperating again.

    After a stressful flight, landing is usually a relief. Arriving at Port Hardy at sunset, though, I was met by three angry passengers. I was 45 minutes late, and they wanted to get home as fast as I could get them there. After a successful commercial fishing opening, their pockets were full of cash, and they had started their celebration hours ago.

    Takeoff, at near-maximum weight now, was scary; we used up every foot of the runway. Cruising flight was not much better. The engine was sick, and getting worse. The lights of each airport we passed over indicated a tiny circle of safety where I could glide to a landing if the engine died. Between them, I gambled. Suggesting a landing at Campbell River to check out the problem brought unanimous rebuke. The party was continuing.

    Finally we were passing the lights of Vancouver. All that remained were 12 minutes over the cold waters of the Gulf of Georgia, on this night an inky, threatening void. Half-way across, the tension started to ease. I switched the radio to Boundary Bay Airport frequency as the beacon guided us to safety. For the first time that night, I noticed how incredibly bright the stars were.

    Disbelief was the first feeling. "I've gone deaf!" Then there was an overpowering, sickening feeling as the nose of the plane dipped slowly, silently, toward the blackness below.

    Reminiscing now, I still don't really understand what happened next, but I thank the patron saint of fools and pilots that it did. After a flash of terror, I became totally calm, totally focussed. This was merely another practice forced-landing, with an instructor beside me and a farmer's field below. Fuel switches, primer, magnetos, electrical; the emergency checklist was quickly run through, but showed no reason for the engine to quit without warning. Best rate-of-glide speed, 80 mph. Check. Time to call the cavalry. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Cessna 172 Charlie Golf India Papa Papa, 10 miles west, descending through 5,000. We've lost our engine!"

    The reaction from the control tower at Boundary Bay was the same as my first reaction; "India Papa Papa, please say again?" A restatement of my problem brought the controller's calm night to an abrupt end. "Roger, India Papa Papa. Understood. Hang on, I'll be away from the radio while I call Vancouver SAR (Search and Rescue Unit)."

    David and his buddies had responded perfectly to my initial answer to their questions: "I don't know what's wrong yet! Shut up and leave me alone for a minute!" Now I gave them what little information I could, all the while flipping switches, adjusting speed and descent rates, resetting anything that might have any vague chance of helping our desperate situation. "Can you get it restarted?" "No." "Are we going to make it to the airport?" "No." "Will we make it to the shore?" "I don't know yet. Maybe." "Shall we start throwing out the luggage?" "That only works in the movies. Don't bother." West Coast fishermen are a hardy breed, and their calm over the next few minutes would help save their lives. "How long can we stay up?" "About 4 minutes now."

    When the Air Traffic Controller came back on the radio, the information exchange continued. She had contacted Vancouver; the fire engine and ambulances were on the way, the hovercraft would launch within five minutes. And a student pilot practicing night landings was trying to intercept me, to pinpoint the exact location of the crash. For no practical reason, having another pilot around was a comfort to me.

    It rapidly became clear that the crash would be in the water; I had the expected location relayed to the hovercraft; the other rescue equipment would go to the nearest point on the dyke. This is about the most terrifying scenario that a pilot can set up in their nightmares. Ditching in the water at night, in a plane with non-retractable wheels. On floats, or with the wheels tucked up into the fuselage, a safe ditching is relatively easy. With wheels hanging down, the plane is almost always "tripped" and flipped upside down. We could now see the waves in the beam of the landing light; I ordered both doors to be opened and latched in the open position. When a plane flips, the fuselage often twists, jamming the doors shut. That was not going to happen to us.

    There is an extremely fine point between the furthest a plane's nose can be pointed up, and where it "quits flying" and the nose drops sharply. If I could get the plane's tail to hit first, right at the plane's stall speed, 49 mph, we might get out of this. If I misjudged, the hovercraft need not hurry.

    With terror rising rapidly in me, mere feet above the water, I screamed into the radio; a plea to somebody, anybody, to save us. "We're going into the water!!" We hit the water with disorienting violence, my body was seared with pain, then everything went black.

    I must have only been knocked out for a few seconds. Coming to, it took another few seconds for all of us to agree that the plane was not floating, it was settled upright on the bottom, in about six feet of water. That left us with cold seawater almost up to our necks if we stayed in the plane. The hovercraft should arrive in a few minutes; we were safe where we were. Miraculously, I was the only one injured. The others were bruised in a few places, but my head was badly ripped from hitting the instrument panel, and even in the dark it was obvious that I was bleeding profusely. We found a shirt to wrap my head somewhat, then managed to locate the emergency flare kit. I showed Bob how to use the flare gun when he saw the hovercraft, then shock set in, and I drifted into unconsciousness.

    My memory of the next few hours is very fuzzy; the roar of the hovercraft, flashing lights and yelling, the scream of the ambulance, and the glare of the operating room lights, the pain as the anesthetic wore off during the two hours it took to close my wounds. Much clearer are the memories of the next few days. Headlines on all the local newspapers, a spot on the national television news, the horror on people's faces when they looked at me, seeing the twisted wreckage of the airplane that nearly became a coffin for the four of us. But most clearly of all, I remember talking to the captain of the hovercraft. He told me that when the situation was described to him, he knew what to expect. The rescue crew had made sure that they had four body bags on board.

    Ten days later, I was back flying short trips with my family.

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