Soaring With Amelia

Book Excerpt

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“When once you have tasted flight you will forever
walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

The Piper MalibuThe Piper Malibu–July 6, 1995, Portland, Maine, USA

Buckled in the copilot’s seat of Jay Merten’s 1987 Piper Malibu, I shiver from the predawn cold and from sheer fear. Sitting to my left, Jay listens to the radio broadcast and balances a clipboard on his lap. Holding a flashlight in one hand and a pen in the other, he scribbles several numbers on a piece of paper. Bangor Center has just radioed the details of our air traffic control clearance information.

“I got the squawk code,” I report. I dial in the radar identification and recheck the radio frequencies on the panel.

“OK. Stow this for me, please,” Jay says. He hands the clipboard to me and grips the yoke.

Today’s flight will be a long one, even if all goes well. I wriggle to get comfortable in my seat. With only a few hours of anxious sleep last night, I can tell I’m going to be more fidgety than normal this flight. I’m not what you would call a morning person; it’s one of my biggest weaknesses. Only the excitement and fear of this moment is keeping me from closing my eyes and zoning into a snooze. Outside the cockpit window, a heavy fog encases the airport taxiways and runways. The smell of gas overwhelms the normally pleasant leathery smell inside the airplane. The engine is humming, the brakes are holding, and the little plane’s solitary propeller is pointed into the wind. We are in position on the airport runway to depart, and at any minute we’ll be cleared for takeoff.

World from aboveWe’ve been up many times before. This time, though, we’re not sure the little gray and maroon airplane is going to get off the ground with all the fuel it’s carrying for our long overwater flight.

Jay is noticeably tense, not something you want to see in your airplane captain. With penetrating blue eyes and frowning gray brows behind dark plastic-rimmed glasses, he focuses on the moment’s task. His complexion is pale; his face thin. His 5’10”, 163-pound torso fits easily into the beige leather cockpit seat. A black Bowes headset fits snugly over his ears. I wear a headset, too. We can’t hear each other’s voices directly; we can only communicate through the radio system. This early in the morning, I’m not much of a talker, which is perfect because Jay has much to concentrate on.

Yesterday, a maintenance worker added a makeshift metal fuel tank right behind my seat so we’d have enough fuel to cross the two oceans. Welded at its seams, the new 120-gallon auxiliary tank doubles our fuel capacity. It sits on a couple of pieces of plywood, and a plastic tube exits the tank at the bottom and runs between Jay’s and my seat. The tube is attached to a two-by-four with a couple of metal fasteners. A lever controls the tube’s fuel flow. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some band-aids and bubblegum on this homemade-looking contraption. We’re betting our lives on this pitiful-looking invention.

The new tank is brimming with gas, and fumes saturate the cockpit, even though the tank is tightly capped. The request “no smoking, please” implies life-and-death consequences. Even a wayward spark could create an explosive fire. The smell is no fun, but I don’t feel sick from it.

Flight mapThe plane’s two permanent fuel tanks are located in each wing. Over gross weight by 25 percent because of the extra fuel, the plane’s compressed main gear and flattened tires struggle to hold up its weight. In the last few days, every scrap of luggage has been weighed, double-checked, and added to the weight and balance computation to make sure the plane is still airworthy. The plane’s center of gravity had to be calculated as well. Jay and I also stepped on the scale, and, ladies, this is no time to lie about your weight. It isn’t every day that your life depends upon the answer to a math problem.

Usually I like numbers. I seem to be drawn to professions that use math: accounting and computers. A practical, earthy type, I even look a little geeky. My blue eyes do not need geeky glasses, however. I’m pretty proud of that. With an olive complexion, I tan easily. My short brown hair, still damp from this morning’s wash, curls naturally when I let it air dry. I’m 5’3 ½”, 106 pounds, a comfortable petite size four.

Our destination is a beautiful set of remote islands in the eastern Atlantic Ocean called the Azores, a Portuguese territory. Today’s trip is only one leg of a longer journey, a trip around the world, from Dallas, Texas, USA, eastbound to Dallas, Texas, USA. The previous week we departed Dallas and landed in Monroe, Louisiana to visit family; Virginia Beach to see old friends; Hampton, Virginia to visit a former home; and Portland, Maine to install the extra equipment for this flight. Our adventure will transport us to foreign lands, over seemingly unending stretches of oceans, deserts, and mountains, and through unfamiliar weather patterns with challenges such as monsoons, typhoons, stifling heat, and extreme density altitude readings. Pilots call a voyage like this a circumnavigation of the earth in light aircraft. Jay calls it the dream of his lifetime. I am not sure what to call it. I only know that I am passionate about traveling, I trust Jay’s piloting skills, and I’m absolutely certain the chance won’t come around again.

This early morning, it’s dark and foggy with only an eighth of a mile visibility. Two hazy orange lines of lights outline the edges of the runway in front of us. A white glow of lights illuminates the center line. The airport buildings line the runway on the left side. There is no room for error. If something bad happens during takeoff, the foggy condition will preclude us from being able to turn around and land again.

The Piper Malibu cockpitWill we be able to get off the ground? Will the plane fly with its extra payload? Will we make it across the ocean without the lone engine giving out?

The stakes are high. Several pilots in similar situations have lost their lives. Six days before Christmas 1998, a pilot traveling in a Cessna from the Azores to St. Johns, Newfoundland encountered strong headwinds and ran out of fuel prior to his destination. The air traffic controller guided him to an oil platform where he glided to a successful ditching in heavy seas. In the water, however, things turned deadly. The pilot wore a survival suit, but failed to zip it up. He perished in the icy water before the rescue-boat crew could retrieve him.

In July 1998, a homebuilt airplane disappeared 500 miles southeast of the Azores. The airplane and its two pilots were never found.

Even full-size commercial airlines experience challenges along this route. A Canadian passenger plane with 300 aboard was forced to ditch in August 2001. All but ten minutes of fuel had hemorrhaged from the plane, and both engines lost power. Expert flying allowed the pilots to turn the plane into a glider for twenty minutes. Almost out of altitude, they barely reached an Azores airport. The plane blew multiple tires during the hard landing, but only nine people were injured.

In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic. During the flight of the Friendship, she never touched the controls. Pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon did all the aviation work on the famous flight. Amelia felt funny for receiving so much publicity for basically doing nothing. Four years later, she vindicated herself by piloting her Vega from North America to Ireland and becoming the first woman to solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

In the dark cockpit, Jay gently requests, “I need you to call out the indicated air speeds during takeoff. And will you set the power for takeoff?”

“OK,” I move the power lever, and Jay advances the throttle at the same time.

For days now, Jay has been very nervous about this takeoff. Months of planning and years of experience will be tested in the next few seconds. Our success or failure will be determined by how well we thought through the scenarios that could happen to us, how well we prepared for them. There are so many risks on a flight like this. The key to success is to first try to prevent them from happening. But you can’t just stop there. You have to also be ready if they happen. You have to be ready in such an automatic way that your training and instincts kick in instead of your emotions. And that means lots of practice and mastery.

America“Here we go.” He lifts his feet off the brakes. Jay is all business, more so than normal. Adrenaline floods my body as the engine’s drone intensifies and we start to roll. Jay makes the remaining takeoff adjustments swiftly.

Over the 25 years he has been flying, Jay has advanced from private pilot license to instrument-rated to a commercial license. Four months ago, just before he turned 48, Jay earned his ATP: Airline Transport Pilot. Now he has over 1500 flying hours logged.

The Malibu lumbers like an elephant down the runway. I assume my duties. “Air speed alive… 40… 50…”

The plane is more sluggish than I have ever experienced. Jay selected this extra-long runway to allow more room for error. With rock-solid concentration, he glances at the gauges and peers ahead through the cockpit windscreen into the foggy darkness. He manipulates the rudder pedals to keep the plane going perfectly straight, tracing the white center line of the runway.

“60…70…”

From the skyI catch a glimpse of a runway marker in my peripheral vision. I quickly sneak a look to see how much runway we have left. A tall cluster of trees stands amid the fog at the end of the runway ahead of us.

“80…”

Finally we reach the speed at which you pull the yoke back. It’s now or never for the Malibu…