Friday, February 5, 2010

Stick to the Script

IF I wrote a weather book for Canadian pilots, perhaps calling it Canadian Aviation Weather, I would include anecdotes along the way called "weather words of wisdom." Here's a rather long one.

To build those ever so crucial hours, I got my lucky break by getting hired on by a small cargo/charter company flying twin engine Navajos in the Maritimes. Every morning we would depart on either three routes. One route, with call sign, "Speed Air 401" departed from Halifax at around 6:00 a.m heading north to Moncton, New Brunswick. We would quickly unload bank bags with the engines running and then leap back into the air further north to Chatham. Chatham was a big piece of real estate left over from the military. It had a NDB and a DME. Sometimes it offered a PAR (Precision Radar Approach) but later closed up service when the military officially moved out. If the weather was low, the company procedure was to request special VFR (i.e. license to scud run) and fly north to pick up the railway tracks. After getting sight of the tracks we were to turn right to head northeast into the town/airport of Bathurst - our next stop. Bathurst only had a NDB approach which meant you would never get in with ceilings 300 feet overcast.

When the weather was good, I noticed a new two lane highway being built from Chatham to Bathurst. I decided when I went captain and with the weather low, I would follow the new highway into Bathurst instead of the scud running company procedure of following railroads. I realize many have heard this joke before but I'll tell it anyway. IFR did not stand for Instrument Flight Rules, but "I Follow Railways" or "I Follow Roads." Anyway, you probably know where this is going.

The aviation world bustled so I was promoted to captain relatively fast. As luck would have it, my first week as captain doing the "Speedair 401" run the weather was low.

We get to Chatham and we request special VFR as per our company script. We depart north and I see the new highway. I briefed the F/O we will follow it into Bathurst. The F/O agreed but never mentioned anything more. (He had an inkling in the back of his mind this might not be a good idea)
So there we were (most pilots have a "so there we were" story) scud running at 200 feet AGL at a 160 mph and the F/O yells, "TOWER!" We merely miss a communications tower off to the side of the highway lurking into the cloud base. The tower was strobed meaning it stood tall with guy wires off to all sides. We were close enough to see the wires ready to bring down a Navajo.

Needless to say my heart went from an exciting "roof top flying" patter to it almost going through the chest throb. I never saw that tower when I looked down upon the new highway during VFR conditions. Nor did I see the second one, but the F/O had a gumption there were two. He was right. We land in Bathurst and continue our flights to Bonaventure, Quebec and then to Charlo, New Brunswick to rest for the day. We backtracked the same route that night. Needless to say I could not sleep that day. It was a close one. That happened over 24 years ago. I taught weather for many years and I always ended my last class with this story. Set limits for yourself and stick to the script.

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.


Andrew said...

yowza, awsome quote at the end...i can only imagine what it would be like to have a tower come barreling out of the clouds..


Joe d'Eon said...

From my days flying low-levels as an A-10 pilot, I remember not being afraid of the towers themselves, so much as the guy wires that you can't see coming off of them -- how far out do they go?

From the Flight Deck said...

Joe. You flew the Thunderbolt? You know all about hill hugging flying. That must have been quite a ride! I always remember a military pilot telling his story about skirting a tower mired in cloud over the Canadian Prairies. Years later I encountered the same feeling he must have experienced.

As far as guessing how far out guy wires stretch, I'll give it a miss because my days of scud running are over.

What are you flying now?

Curious Doug

From the Flight Deck said...

Andrew. Yes, someone was looking over me that day. Maybe they wanted me to stick around so I could blog? :)


Jack said...

Great story, Doug. My own heart was pounding after reading it!

You should submit your story to Flying magazine's "I Learned About Flying From That"? It would be a great submission. I've been a subscriber for quite awhile and I find that the stories are getting kind of thin as of late. It would be a great promotion for you and your writing, too!

I don't know if you read that feature or magazine, but a couple of months ago, the story was submitted by what sounded like an AC pilot who had a ground accident/near miss with his personal plane at Buttonville (he said he flew the DC-9, so I'm assuming AC).


From the Flight Deck said...

Jack. Thanks for your suggestion. I just might do that. I don't know the AC pilot, but you're right, if he flew the DC-9 he is part of the red team.


Jack said...

Hi Doug,

I'll be looking for your article in a future issue!

Here is a link to the article from the pilot at Buttonville - Scott Jackson:


From the Flight Deck said...

Thanks Jack. I'm out the door for Victoria, B.C for some extra flying. I'll take a look at the article on my layover. Scott Jackson - doesn't ring a bell.