Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Flight that Almost Killed Me - Part I

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In the winter of 2002, I was working part-time as a line service specialist at Berz Macomb airport to supplement my income in between speaking engagements. It was a fun job towing planes, refueling them and providing customer service for pilots and their passengers. They also had a very generous 50% aircraft rental discount available for the few employees who had a pilot's license.

Rather than booking a commercial flight to fly home for the holidays, I decided to take advantage of the discount and rent myself a plane instead. My choice airplane was a small four-seat Piper Cherokee similar to this one.

In preparation for the 400 mile flight, I had two options. One was to fly south of Detroit, around the bend of Lake Erie, and fly east through the upper portions of Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania before arriving to Schenectady, New York. The other was to fly straight through Canada, saving significant time and fuel.

Although it had been a year, draconian airspace restrictions that were put in place as a result of 9/11 were still being enforced. That meant if I wanted to fly through Canada, it was going to require special planning and coordination since I would be flying through international territory with their own set of rules. This was made complicated by the fact that I would not be maintaining two-way radio communication throughout the flight.

Since I absolutely, positively did not want to take the long way, I enlisted the help of a very resourceful air traffic controller to help me get clearance for flying through Canada. This man had read about me in a magazine article published shortly after I received my pilot's license the year before. He had sent me an congratulatory email introducing himself and offered to help me in any way he could.

This controller, whose name I cannot remember, jumped at the chance to help. He lost no time making a flurry of phone calls to various control towers along the proposed route. After weeks of phone calls, I was eventually cleared to make my first "international" flight home for the holidays.

The winter in 2002 was beset with howling blizzards, low lying ice-filled clouds and poor visibility. Obviously, my intention was to make it home in time for Christmas. After several nail-biting days, the weather finally turned for the better on the day before Christmas. I woke up that morning to a forecast of partly sunny skies and excellent visibility. Excited, I rushed to the airport to prepare for the flight.

After pulling the plane out of the hangar and completing the required pre-flight check, a telephone call was placed to the faceless man who made all this possible. He gave me a four digit code for the transponder box inside the cockpit. Once the transponder was activated with this unique code, my airplane would appear on everybody's radar along the route, with a special note reminding them I was a deaf pilot flying without radio communication capabilities.

After thanking him for his help, I was airborne, finally on my way home to New York. The morning air was gloriously tranquil. It was 7 am and I was passing over homes full of sleeping occupants. The roads below me barely had any traffic for the town had not yet stirred. But I was wide, wide awake.

Since Berz Macomb airport was on the east side of Michigan, it wouldn't be long before the Michigan-Canadian border would come into view. Despite the excellent weather (which gave me one less thing to worry about), my overactive imagination was painting me a stark picture of international proportions.

What if one of the Canadian controllers experienced a technological glitch and could not identify me?

I might be seen as an unwanted intruder in their airspace, causing a flurry of fighter jets to be scrambled after me! It was not a pretty picture and the thought made me somewhat nervous. I tried to push those imaginary thoughts out of my mind but it took several more minutes of flying through Canada before I began to relax and smile for the first time since taking off.

No one was coming after me - everything was going to be okay.

Encouraged, I shoved the throttle forward and began the long climb to 11, 500 feet putting me far above the scattered clouds. There I was, all alone with the sun shining against a brilliant blue backdrop. Even though the temperature outside was bitterly cold at twenty below zero, I was comfortably warm in the cockpit. The possibility of a Canadian fighter jet intercepting me slipped further and further from my mind with each passing mile.

Two hours later, the GPS alerted me that I was approaching the Canadian-New York border but when I tried to find it, I was shocked to the core to discover that the puffy white clouds had transformed themselves into one solid layer, completely blocking my view of the ground! Unfortunately, I had allowed myself to relax a bit too much, never noticing the gradual change taking place several thousand feet below me. It did not look like I could descend without putting myself through the clouds.

My heart quickened again. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by climbing so high.

It would be another hour and a half before I had to land for refueling. I rifled through copies of weather reports, trying to see whether clear skies were forecast for nearby airports. When I couldn't find anything, I decided to keep motoring on, hoping to see a break in the clouds up ahead.

An hour had past since crossing the border. The handheld color GPS, borrowed from a fellow pilot (which would end up saving my life later), indicated I would be at Penn Yan airport in less than 30 minutes. At that moment, I received the surprise of a lifetime when the clouds magically opened up, similar to the way Moses was reputed to have parted the Red Sea.

Taking no chances, I immediately throttled back to idle and put the plane in an emergency descend configuration. The plane dropped like a hot potato, literally diving at 2,000 feet a minute. When the airport finally came into view, the clouds above me slammed shut!

My heart was yammering like crazy. It was the first time I ever put my emergency descend training to use. And it wouldn't be the first time either.

After landing, I put in a request for fuel and went inside the terminal to call my father. To my surprise, he and my mother were already at the Schenectady County Airport, waiting for me.

"But I won't be there for another hour and a half," I told him.

"There is a surprise waiting for you here," he said. "Hurry up. After you land, we have a 2 hour drive to your sister's house for dinner and we're already behind schedule."

When I pressed him for details on the surprise, he wouldn't elaborate.

Changing the subject, I said, "Dad, what's the weather like there?"

"Its gorgeous with clear, sunny skies. We're looking forward to seeing you!"

"Okay, I'll be there in a little while." And then I hung up.

One more call was made, this time to the controller at Schenectady County airport to inform him that I would be landing within two hours.

"You will be using Runway 28," he advised. Continuing, he said, "when you get here, look for the green light gun signal from the tower for permission to land. Your new transponder code is 4865. And don't forget to make your one-way call on the radio when you're about 10 miles away from the us. Okay?"

"You got it!" I was pumped and could not wait to see my parent's faces after completing the long flight.

Back outside, I rushed through the pre-flight and hurriedly got back in the air, climbing to 11,500 feet again. Since Dad told me the weather was pristine clear in Schenectady, I figured I wouldn't have to worry about going through some clouds on the way down.

Forty-five minutes after takeoff, I put the plane in gradual descend, going down at a leisurely pace of 500 feet a minute. But on the way down, I was once again smacked with the realization that the cloud deck insidiously thickened somewhere between Penn Yan and Schenectady County airports!

I couldn't believe it.

It was happening all over again and definitely not looking good.

This time there was the real possibility that I might have to arrest the descend and lumber around the sky looking for a hole to poke through. Beads of sweat sprinkled across my forehead. It was a struggle to control the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Just what the hell had I gotten myself into?

Keying the mic, I put in a call to the tower, "Schenectady County tower, Piper Cherokee 56136 with deaf pilot on board, 10 miles west, landing Runway 28."

The cloud deck continued to rise up with only a few more miles to go. At the 5 mile way point, the Piper Cherokee was barely skimming the tops of the clouds.

It's now or never.

Without warning, the powers-to-be apparently decided to give me second chance and granted me yet another glorious Moses-style parting of the clouds, creating a hole the size of a gigantic crater! My eyes feasted upon the delicious snow covered scene of Schenectady sliding beneath me. A few miles later, the airport sprung into view. The tower controller was already directing the powerful beam of green light at me, immediately giving permission to land.

Pulling the throttle back further, I pushed the nose down and entered the airport pattern. As I was doing that, the plane unexpectedly hit a pocket of turbulence. The winds had gotten stronger and was cascading up and down the hilly terrain causing unstable air. Despite the stiff winds, I managed to make a safe, if not clumsy landing.

The tower beamed a flashing green signal, instructing me to taxi across an adjacent runway on my way over to the main terminal. In the distance, I spied a line service guy giving me hand signals, directing me to my parking spot.

Imagine my surprise after shutting down the engine when a bunch of people with TV cameras and reporters streamed out of the terminal toward the airplane. My first thought was the controllers in Canada had alerted the authorities about an unidentified airplane flying through their airspace, setting off a terrorist scare. Dancing in my head were visions of headlines screaming, "DEAF PILOT VIOLATES INTERNATIONAL AIRSPACE!"

Then I saw Mom and Dad calmly standing in the midst of all the confusion, smiling at me.

I shot them a quizzical look, wondering what all the commotion was about. Reporters were shouting questions, probably not realizing that I couldn't hear them anyway. It seemed they all wanted to know how a deaf pilot could fly alone for 400 miles without using the radio. Seizing an opportunity to ham it up, I had a blast with them. But since we were pressed for time, I had to cut the interviews short and join my parents for the 2 hour drive to my sister's for dinner.

On the way there, I learned that Mom and Dad had tipped off the press. Up to that point, they hadn't believed that I could become a pilot and this was their way of saying, "Sorry we didn't believe in you before but we're proud of what you've accomplished and want the world to know about it."


To be continued.......Part II
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