Swimming at Ten Thousand Feet

By David

I enjoy flying for the same reason I enjoy swimming. From the moment you ease back on the controls or dive into a pool there is a peerless sense of involvement with one of nature’s elements. There is isolation, there is contentment and there is the busy effort of trying to do this thing just a little bit better than last time. I don’t know whether the multi-thousand hour airline pilots see it that way, but for a one thousand hour amateur, that’s the way it is for me.

Like swimming, flying produces an endless archive of stories. I don’t do it anymore, but when I first learned to fly, I spent most Sunday evenings in the Aero Club bar listening to the old timers tell stories about airplanes. I learned as much in that bar as I did, with Warwick, flying around Palmerston North airport. Every conceivable “what would you do if” was debated long into drunken and senseless nights. In severe turbulence, was hand flying or the automatic pilot better? Forced landings over a pine forest, in a stormy sea or along a rocky river were debated and never agreed upon. At the time, all my landings – even on Palmerston’s wide and long runway – were pretty forced. Little did I know how valuable those aero club debates would one day become.

One evening I was flying from Wellington to Rotorua. That’s about 235 miles. A bit passed half way, over a town called Taihape, you cross over some rugged country. Only real men live in Taihape. There must be women there too but they don’t get brought into the conversation much. Taihape is famous as the home of an annual Gumboot Throwing Championship. A small road behind the main street is permanently cordoned off for those wanting to practice gumboot throwing. It is every New Zealander’s shame that the world record just now is held by Jouni Viljanen of Finland with 64 meters and 35 centimeters.

As I flew high over Taihape on my way to Rotorua, a local farmer took off from his farm airstrip and came on the radio to file an in-flight flight plan. He said he was “off to Wanganui (about 65 miles) to do some shopping”. I’m sure air traffic control needed that information. When he was finished, the patient controller asked, “How many people are on board.” “Well,” came the carefully thought out reply, “there’s me, me dog and the missus, so that’s three of us.”

As a rule, in order to fly at night or in bad weather you need a license called an “instrument rating.” Just before I got mine from the Motueka Flying School, I was flying from Wellington to Christchurch (185 miles). I left Wellington a bit late and I had agreed to drop off a mate of mine at a small airfield near Blenheim in the South Island. By the time I arrived at Christchurch it was pitch black and I shouldn’t have still been flying around New Zealand’s skies. As I entered Christchurch International Airport’s airspace I called air traffic control and asked for landing instructions. I think they were fully aware the idiot in the airplane should not have been there, but to their credit, they never said anything. They told me to circle above Belfast. Fortunately I recognized the lights of Belfast because I used to work in the big meat plant there. The controller said that when I saw the lights of a Focker Friendship coming in from Wellington I should follow it into land.

A couple of circuits over Belfast and I saw the blink, blink, blink of the twin propeller Focker heading in to land. I called the tower and reported my find. The tower came back with the instruction, “Position behind the Focker Friendship and proceed to land.” Diligently I confirmed the instruction in those exact words. The radio clicked and a very up market, extremely bored Air New Zealand captain’s voice said, “For the information of both of you, I’m not a Focker Friendship, I’m a seven thirty seven.” After I’d landed the tower came back on the radio, this time just to say, “Oops.”

On a clear day, flying in New Zealand is a privilege. It is true; there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. New Zealand does not have the domestic order of England’s southern counties or the endless expanse of Australia’s outback or even the manufactured theme park quality of Florida’s south east coast. There is a youthful fresh variety about this place. Human toil has tempered but not tamed the enthusiasm of nature here.

My daughter Jane was just a week old the day I flew from Auckland to Wellington. After leaving Auckland I flew over the populated rush of the nation’s largest city, out over impossibly green dairy fields and passed New Zealand’s longest river’s troubled exit into the Tasman Sea. Further south I saw the triple cones of the central North Island mountains still holding on to small pockets of winter snow. Even here, in this most barren central plateau, the scene was awash with color. Light brown tussock, grey rock, a dark emerald canopy of native bush and smudged into the hillsides are purples, whites and reds of thriving imported heather. Approaching my reporting point at Ohura, the scene changed again to the gorges and ridges of the Parapara Ranges – a place of harshness and angles, an undisciplined jumble of busy streams, steep hills and narrow valleys. As far as I could tell there was not a flat paddock anywhere. This was the last place on earth you’d want to try a forced landing, I thought.

“Auckland Radar, this is Echo Kilo Romeo, overhead Ohura Beacon, 8500 feet. Transferring now to Ohakea radar 130 decimal 6.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo. Have a good day.”

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo overhead Ohura Beacon 8500 feet. Flight plan to Wellington, one POB”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo”, said a lovely soft Scottish accent. “We have you on Radar at 8500 feet.”

Straight on to Paraparaumu, and then the decent into Wellington – that’s strange I thought. A thin mist had appeared over the front window. I looked out the side. Everything was clear. Perhaps it was some atmospheric condition. I checked the engine gauges. They were fine. I loosened my seat belt and looked over the control panel.

“Oh my God,” a thick stream of dark black oil was oozing over the engine cover. Small specks were covering the front window. I knew Wellington was out of the question. The oil pressure gauge was still fine. Perhaps I could reach Wanganui. Quickly I reduced power, eased the nose down and trimmed the Arrow to a 70 knot, 500 foot per minute descent towards the safety of Wanganui. “Maybe”, but before that thought had time to develop the oil pressure dropped into the red zone at the bottom of the gauge. “How long can it stay there before the engine stops,” I thought? The engine answered quickly with a load bang and silence. The propeller sat still.

I had to find a field. I looked to the left. Pine trees, great for export but not the place to land a small airplane. A gentle turn and too many hills – I had heard of topdressing pilots landing uphill, could I manage that? Another turn, thank God I had so much height, what was that – a field? It looked flat. It looked big. It would do.

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo.”

I refused to say Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. That would have made things far worse.

“Go ahead Echo Kilo Romeo” said the soft Scottish voice

“Echo Kilo Romeo, 20 miles south of Ohura beacon, descending through 5000 feet. I have complete engine failure.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo, Please advise your intentions”

My intention is that you should at least sound a little concerned, I thought. “Echo Kilo Romeo, I have found a paddock and am attempting to land.” I said.

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo” said the Scottish voice still with not the slightest note of surprise “Cleared to land in a paddock approximately 20 miles south of Ohura. Please call finals.”

Please call finals, who the hell did this guy think he was? I’d better do it though. The field was getting closer; time to put the wheels down; three green lights, good; a bit more flap. “I’ll come in high,” I thought, “that way I’ll avoid the trees and power lines that crossed the final approach.” So far so good – one more turn and I was committed – on finals for better or for worse, come around, line up, actually that looked pretty good.

“Echo Kilo Romeo, on finals for the field.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo, cleared to land. Good luck.”

Ahh, I thought, the Scottish voice is human after all.

Turn off the electrics, full flaps, speed is good, height, too high, but with no power and flaps that should quickly come down. There was barley in the field and it was a lot taller than I expected. Lift the nose up, up, up. Hold it off. Hold it off. The wheels touched. Keep the nose up. “We’re slowing quickly, must be the barley,” I thought. And then I stopped, silent and alone in a golden pool of barley.

“Bloody great,” I thought, “those Sunday nights in the Aero Club were worth it after all.”