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Once Upon A Dark Night

When your very survival depends on the helping hand of a stranger.

Anyone who’s ever been lost in an aircraft will tell you it’s not a pleasant experience. But at night – it’s positively hair raising! And I’m not talking about being “temporarily unsure of one’s position.” I mean well and truly LOST! During daylight there are all sorts of options to salvage your wounded pride; like a square search. (Yeah – like that ever worked!) Or a precautionary landing; to enquire one’s whereabouts from a friendly farmer. (I’ve done this a few times, but there’s usually a price to pay.) “Kyk vir hierdie doos, hy weet nie waar in die hell hy is nie!” Then the predictable belly laughs from the entire farmyard – livestock included. It’s a humiliating solution, but very effective nevertheless.)

But nighttime not only nullifies these options, the physiological and psychological effect of darkness compounds the problem dramatically! Physiologically because your situational awareness deteriorates radically - and psychologically, because it’s very scary! 

The chances of getting horribly lost these days are minimal thanks to GPS. And anyone who doesn’t carry one on a long flight is, quite frankly, exposing themselves to unnecessary risk. I’m a great fan of map reading but I’ve flown VFR charters to the bush where the visibility from sandstorms and haze made it virtually impossible to see anything beyond the vertical.  In my opinion, the development of GPS has been the single biggest contributor ever, to flight safety. Only Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) and TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance) have saved more lives, but that kind of equipment is hugely expensive and generally relegated to the heavier metal, while GPS is used on everything from hang-gliders to airliners at a fraction of the price of the obsolete technology.

The story I’m about to relate happened in pre-GPS days so it’s largely improbable today, but the experience left an indelible mark on my psyche and although I’m somewhat embarrassed in telling it, it serves as a lesson in how fast a flawed decision can spiral out of control into a life-threatening brawl that can sometimes only be won with the timely intervention of a benevolent power.

As in last month’s story – flashback to August 1980. Little over a year after my nearly catastrophic takeoff incident. By this time I had a brand new Commercial Pilot License and I was spending my time squatting outside charter company’s doors, flirting with the stone-faced Queens who ruled them, looking for anything that would repay my parent’s investment.

After a month or two, lady luck smiled on me and I cracked the nod. (More likely Her Majesty just couldn’t stand my begging anymore…)

A charter had been commissioned for a group of German tourists from Lanseria to the Okavango Swamps. The numbers were such that we required three aircraft to do the job. The only three available were a jaded Cessna 182 Skylane, an immaculate twin-engine Cessna 310, and a really clapped-out old Cessna 172. They all wanted to fly into Xaxaba Lodge via Maun, the entry point into the Swamps. We would spend a few days drinking beer, teasing the crocodiles in wooden Makoro canoes, before heading off to the Victoria Falls on the newly independent bank of the Zambezi River. Mugabe was the new president and who could have guessed Zimbabwe’s long slide into cataclysmic ruin was just beginning? (It’s a rhetorical question. We all knew…)

Being the lowliest of my Charter Queen’s subjects, I was allocated the insipid old 172 and departed Her Majesty’s presence with deep bows and a thousand thank you’s.

Leon, my fellow peasant, would fly the Cessna 182 while Richard, Her Majesty’s favorite, would fly the twin. He was clearly a cut above us single-engine jockeys and he missed no opportunity in proclaiming it. Personally though, I suspected his status within the company had more to do with his charming ways with the Queen than his actual flying ability.

On the allotted day we all made our way up to Maun in our respective aircraft and I prided myself in never once becoming even remotely unsure of my position during the entire flight, despite my un-honed map-reading skills and poor visibility. I played it safe and intercepted the only road north of Gaberone, then simply followed it towards Francistown where it veered westwards through the Makadikadi Pans all the way into Maun. Flying direct would have been much quicker but far too dicey in a single if the engine quit over the desert. Only Sir Richard was bold enough for that, and he arrived in Maun hours ahead of us, slaking his thirst on a coke, feet up on the airport manager’s desk, wondering what the hell was taking the cretins so long.

By the time we arrived on our metaphorical donkeys it was late afternoon and we still needed to transfer the passengers off the twin onto the 182 and 172. Xaxaba’s runway was way too short and rough for the racehorse-spirited Cessna 310 and we would leave her in Maun for the week.

Passengers loaded, I took off shortly after the 182, turned northwestwards onto heading and started the stopwatch. Twenty minutes later, there it was, short sandy runway beneath the left wing. There was no reason for Leon to return so I off loaded and immediately departed back to Maun for the remaining three passengers. I was in a race against sunset and I knew by the time we returned it would be pretty dark so I made arrangements with my fellow pilots to monitor the radio and set up gooseneck flares along the runway for my return.

Back in Maun I decided against refueling the 172. There was little point. It was senseless carrying the extra fuel when I didn’t need it. I had more than enough for the return flight and I didn’t want to be too heavy on the next takeoff out of Xaxaba in a few days time. I was thinking ahead.

So off we go, my Germanic suckers and myself, like cowboys into the sunset. Early turnout and we set sail for the lodge.

Same heading. Same time. Twenty minutes passes and the swamps are now dark beneath my wings. Surely we must be overhead the camp any moment. I call on the radio. Leon hears me. “Are the gooseneck flares lit?” I ask him.
      “They’re all set,” he replies. I should be seeing them. But I’m not! I peer around in the darkness. By this time the sun has slipped below the horizon and there is no moon to replace its luminance. “Can you hear my aircraft?” I ask Leon.
      “Negative.” The first alarm bell starts ringing in my head. I’ve steered the same heading for the same time, just as before, and he can’t hear me? For Pete’s sake – is this guy deaf? I must be in earshot!

      “Shoot off a flare,” I tell him. I don’t see it… Then far in the distance I see what appears to be a row of lights. Aha! “I’ve got you,” I announce triumphantly over the radio.
Setting course towards the lights I soon discover they are further away than I expected. (At night, illuminated objects appear closer than they actually are.) Sure enough, a short while later I’m circling over two neat rows of lights and I start my approach. On finals at about two hundred feet I switch on my landing lights - just in time to see the tree tops swishing passed my wingtips!

“Holy Moses!” I don’t remember such high trees on my last approach, barely an hour ago! Suddenly I’m rattled. Something’s wrong! I take power for the go-around. Up we go, climbing steeply (as steeply as a 172 can climb!) But now I’m looking down at the lights, trying to figure out where the runway’s gone! No sooner do they pass behind me when I realize I’m staring into absolute darkness on the other side and I catch a glimpse of my artificial horizon. We’re banked forty degrees over to the left with the nose pitching towards the earth and the airspeed rising fast! Vertigo! (Low level at night is not the place to get it!) The impact is going to be messy and those crocs are hungry! Fortunately recovery comes fast and we’re back on an even keel almost instantly. Leon calls on the radio. “Hey, where the hell are you? I still can’t hear you!”

Now the alarm bells are going off like a claxon in my mind! This guy really is deaf and I must be blind for not noticing those trees on my first approach into Xaxaba. “Leon I’m right overhead you dammit! I’ve just done a go-around from my first approach! What do you mean you can’t hear me! You should be able to see me!”
     “Wherever you are buddy, it’s not over Xaxaba, I can tell you that!”

I feel the knot tightening in my stomach. “Shoot me off another flare,” I order. Nothing. I don’t see anything! Now I’m really in trouble! By now my passengers sense something is terribly wrong. None of them can speak a word of English and I’m left wishing I’d taken my high school German lessons more seriously than the cute little teacher who taught us. I smile back at them like I know what’s going on.

I look across at the fuel gauges. I’d left Maun with only enough for the return flight plus 45 minutes extra. I had the legal reserves when I’d left but I hadn’t bargained on getting lost! Checking my watch I realize we’ve been going at this for more than an hour! Far longer than I’d expected. Both gauges read below a quarter. The situation was deteriorating rapidly! I hadn’t a moment to lose. I needed to find Xaxaba NOW, or get back to Maun fast! The crocodiles make my decision easy. “Leon, I still don’t see your flare. I’m heading back to Maun.”
      “Roger that,” Leon replies unperturbed. “See you tomorrow.”

Fortunately Maun had an NDB so getting back wasn’t much of an issue. At least not until we arrived overhead! Back then Maun was a dirt strip and didn’t have runway lights or the reflector boards that came later. I could vaguely see the gravel strip in the starlight as we flew overhead, but the moment I turned finals the curve of the windshield distorted the image so badly, the runway became virtually invisible! I tried a second approach but it was clearly impossible to land. By now the fuel situation was so critical I was expecting the motor to quit at any second. There was only one thing left to do. “Mayday Mayday Mayday, Foxtrot X-ray, Alpha, overhead Maun. No runway lights. Running out of fuel. Does anyone copy?” My guardian angel replied instantly. He came in the form of an inebriated tour guide.

After breaking through the gates to the airport, he positioned his truck with the headlights shining down the runway and I made the smoothest landing of my life. Or so the hysterical applause from the Germans indicated.

I never found out the name of the man who saved us that night. Only that he’d been driving back from the pub at Riley’s Motel when he’d heard us overhead and felt the urge to switch on his handheld VHF radio. Thank Heaven he did.

The next day I pre-flighted the 172 in preparation for another try at Xaxaba. I stepped onto the wing-strut for a physical view of how bad my fuel situation had been. I wasn’t surprised. There wasn’t any! Just the dry aluminum of the tank reflecting back at me.

Leon was waiting for us when we landed. “What the hell happened to you guys last night?”
      “No friggin’ idea!” I shrugged. “It’s an absolute mystery to me.” Then I related the rest of the night’s events to him.

At lunch we were still scratching our heads when Sir Richard, tired of our conversation, went off in search of a buxom fraulein to impress. No sooner had he left when a stern looking gentleman strode over to our table and gruffly asked if we knew who was circling Delta Camp at low level last night. The owner was furious and wanted to lay a charge against the pilot for reckless flying! Leon and I shrugged our shoulders innocently and carried on eating. (We were relieved Richard hadn’t heard the question. Neither of us was confident of his allegiance.)

“Good grief!” I whispered as soon as he had left, and reached for my flight bag. I searched for Delta Camp on the map. The mystery was soon solved. No wonder I hadn’t spotted Xaxaba! I was way off track! Had the wind changed since my first flight? It didn’t make sense! And the runway lights at Delta Camp? Why were they so close to the trees?

     “Oh, those weren’t runway lights,” Leon replied casually. “They must have been the lights from the cottages. They’re built in two rows.”

My blood ran cold. I couldn’t believe it! I had tried to land on a row of cottages, surrounded by trees, in absolute darkness! The consequences were too ghastly to imagine. Instantly I lost my appetite and left the table.

For days the mystery gnawed at me. How could I have gotten so horribly lost? And consequently come so close to disaster – not once, but, twice on the same night!

The answer came a week later... We were on our way to Vic Falls and I was leading the way in echelon formation with Leon to my right. “Hey Wally,” he came over the radio. “Why are you steering 30 degrees off?” I looked down at the Directional Indicator. Then at the magnetic compass. I’d synchronized them both only minutes before. Instantly I realized what had happened that night. The knob for adjusting the DI had stuck in the engaged position! The bevel had locked onto the current heading. Normally the knob would pop back out, freeing the DI compass card to rotate. Instead, it now remained intermittently fixed on the last heading. The heading set when I’d adjusted course for Xaxaba! I had strayed off heading that night, with not the slightest hint from the DI! And being night, it was too tedious to constantly cross-check against the unlit magnetic compass - which I’d last done on the runway at Maun before takeoff! (Omitting this seemingly unimportant crosscheck was ultimately responsible for the entire incident! Neglect procedures and checklists at your peril!)

I was angry with myself, but at the same time very relieved. At least now I understood what had happened that night and it reminded me how the smallest mistake could lead to the most awful tragedy. Unknowingly, I had set up a chain of errors and poor judgments that could easily have cost us our lives that night. My Immediate return to Maun when I realized we were lost had been the one good decision taken. The other was to declare an emergency when I couldn’t land. Delaying either of those decisions would have caused an accident, no doubt about it! And for that reason, the events that took place on the night of the 28th of August 1980 features prominently in more than just my logbook. It remains the closest call of my career.

These days I only see Maun from Flight Level 390. Mostly in the middle of the night, streaking overhead in the starlit sky, en-route to Europe in the A340. But not a single flight goes by that I don’t gaze down into the darkness and silently give thanks for being spared the calamity that so nearly befell us twice on that night. It was truly a flight I’ll never forget.

(The author is a Senior Captain on the Airbus A340 with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.)
Next month: The death of a friend.

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