Down In The Drink! (Part 3)

Written By: The Lowdown - Jun• 29•13

logo The Cat O' Nine TalesThe next day I looked for an aircraft mechanic, but was told that no such animal existed on Crete, the owners of the few aircraft based there had even to bring in their own fuel from the mainland. Fortunately, my careful attention to NOTAMS had elicited this fact before I left Cairo, and I had taken the precaution of bringing forty gallons of fuel with me.


With no mechanic available I went down to the Cessna and made a very thorough inspection. Nothing hanging or dripping, no sign of any leaks or overheating in the engine, no water or sediment in the fuel strainer, everything looked perfect.


Then I started the engine, letting it run up to operating temperature. After a couple of minutes I ran the engine at full power. It was perfect, no sign of roughness or uneven running. I ran up the engine for nearly half an hour, with no problems indicated. I thought back over the previous night. It was obviously a clear case of ‘nerves’, with two Atlantic solo crossings behind me, I should have remembered that every time you cross a lot of water, your engine appears to go into ‘auto-rough’.  ‘A coward dies ten thousand deaths.’ said a disremembered poet – or as Shakespeare put it in Julius Caesar: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths, the Valiant never taste of Death but once.’ I am a card-carrying, devoted and dedicated coward so I can attest to the veracity of both these bards.


I closed down the engine and got out the cans of fuel to top-off the tanks, giving them a total of six hours endurance. Then I filed my flight plan, and set off on the two and a half hours flight to Corfu in the Ionian Sea. Perhaps I was growing old, letting my imagination play such tricks. It was the 12th of May 1987 – well past the Ides of March.


The engine ran perfectly, and I turned above Milos towards the mainland where I made a landfall near Navplion. However, during the last hour cloud had built up, and as I started towards the 8,000 foot mountains in the west, I saw that most of them were shrouded in the cloud. I circled within sight of Argos airport whilst I called Athens for permission to land at Argos.


Athens, wanted to know why, so I explained that I could only continue IFR, and although I myself, was qualified, the aircraft having no transponder, was not strictly legal for IFR in Europe. Athens control digested this point whilst I circled for another ten minutes, and then they cleared me IFR to report overhead Araxos on the west coast of Greece. The silky clouds slipped beneath me, and soon I saw the west coast, clear of cloud, and could report to Athens that I was now VFR again, ‘clear of cloud’ and overhead Araxos.


The engine ran smoothly as I turned again to the north-west passing Levkas and Preveza, – no sign of the previous night’s perplexing problem, – I was literally home and dry! I called Kerkira airport on Corfu, informing them I would be landing in fifteen minutes. My tanks still indicated over half full. I flew on over the channel between Albania and Corfu.


Suddenly the engine stopped, this time there was no warning cough, no roughness, it just stopped! Hurriedly I changed tanks, switched on the fuel boost pump, slapped the mixture full rich and waited. The engine refused to re-start. I checked the magnetos, changed tanks again, toggled the boost pump. Nothing, no fuel pressure, no engine. By now I had turned towards the south of the island of Corfu, and was frantically looking for a place to land. I called Corfu:


“MAYDAY, Mayday, Nine Juliet Mike Charlie Kilo, engine failure, passing through eight thousand feet on westerly course towards the south of Corfu”


I was still trying to find a place to land, but the southern end of the island is composed of mountains rising straight out of the sea to a height of two thousand feet. I passed above the island, but could see nowhere to land. Kerkira air traffic came on to me now with that classic time-wasting cliché so beloved by controllers all over the World,


“Nine Juliet Mike Charlie Kilo, what are your intentions?”


I could hardly say:

“To save my bloody neck at all costs,”


Which was exactly what I was so urgently trying to do, but I was freed from answering when a very British voice broke in:


“This is ASCOT 335, I suggest you leave that pilot alone, he has more than enough problems at the moment!”


ASCOT is the callsign for the Royal Air Force and I felt grateful to the light-blue job for keeping Kerkira off my tail.


Nothing had worked towards a re-start, so I was now resigned to a forced landing, and I had come to the conclusion that because of the mountains, I would have to ditch as near to the shore as possible. I called Kerkira and told them I would land about fifteen miles due south of them, near the shore, and switched off the fuel tanks and pumps. Then I cranked in full flap, switched off the electrical master switch, and wedged the pilot door open with a spare shoe; all I could do now is try and pull off a good ditching.


I turned slightly to line up with a sand bar, the turn was sluggish, and I knew I was close to the stall, I eased the nose down, then as the sand bar flashed underneath I pulled hard back, the 185 stalled and landed tail-down, heavily in the water, it never got airborne again, just ran nose high into the water, and I braced myself expecting to flip upside-down. I heard a crack as one undercarriage leg collapsed against something hard, then I was thrown forward as the nose dipped into the water and stayed upright. I had wedged the door open before landing in order not to be trapped inside a sinking aircraft, so I now climbed out preparing to swim, but found I could almost wade, half swimming in only a few feet of sea water. I waded towards the shore a hundred yards away, to be met by an excited Greek, carrying a blanket and a bottle of ouzu.


I had a gulp of the ouzu before remembering there would be an investigation, I must not appear to have taken alcohol, so I waved away both blanket and bottle. The Greek was crestfallen, “You are in shock, and must keep warm” he said,


I was feeling fine, with no dents or blemishes on my person, just depressed about being caught out again within a few minutes of landing at Kerkira. I found a telephone and called the airport to report, and within an hour a car drove up with half a dozen excitable Greek air traffic officers” You have landed in the sea off Petrit Point.” they exclaimed;


I was determined to remain in command and told them,


“The immediate thing you must do is check the amount of fuel remaining in my tanks, because the first thing that will be said in the Lusaka Flying Club, and the East African Aero Club is that I ran out of petrol.”


This prediction later proved correct – it was exactly what was maintained in both institutions! Usually by so-called ‘friends’. However, the Greek officials organised a mobile crane to lift the aircraft from the sea, brought a hose and siphoned forty-five gallons from the two tanks, enough for over three more hours flying. Plainly the fault did not arise in the fuel quantity.


It turned out that the Greeks were not very interested in finding the cause of the accident, and although I pointed out the fuel collector and the injection lines, they refused to even check them. They gave me permission to remove the wreck, and offered to inform the Zambia authorities themselves, as there was no telex or fax on that part of the island that I could use. It was a month or so later, after I had returned the wrecked aircraft to Britain, that aircraft engineer Mike Stanton of DenhamAirport wrote me:


“I have carried out fuel check on the engine/aircraft fuel system and have retained various samples of fuel/salt water/debris from various parts of the system. The most significant find was a piece of rubber seal in the fuel distributor which might easily have interrupted the fuel flow to the cylinders.”


So much for the ‘CERTIFICATE OF AIRWORTHINESS’ I had obtained from the Zambia Department of Civil Aviation less than fifteen flying hours before. Immediately, however I was faced with a recovery problem, so I hired an Olympic Airlines mechanic on a weekend leave, and with his help I took off the two wings, propeller and tail and remaining undercarriage leg, and we packed the aircraft into a truck and sent it to Britain. I was to arrive a week or so before it, the investigation complete, I flew Olympic Airlines to London.


Later, I was to be invited to join ‘The Goldfish Club’ a most exclusive body of pilots, which only grants membership to aircrew who have been forced to make a ditching on water. There happens to be another member of the club in Lusaka, my friend Lieutenant-Commander Hugh McEnery, who dropped into the sea from his aircraft carrier during the Korean war!

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