This is one of those real commercial pilot stories, I know because I was there.
I was training to be a commercial pilot and had recently passed the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) exams, that were required by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
The subjects included Flight Planning, Navigation, Air Law, Meteorology, Human Performance Limitations,
Morse Code, and Aircraft Performance.
Passing exams and flight tests would allow me to be employed as an airline pilot, once I had completed 1500 hours of flight time as a commercial pilot.
However, I would also need an Instrument rating and a type rating on an aircraft like a Boeing 737.
These were the next steps of my plan to become a fully-fledged airline pilot.
Tales of Captain Clive ‘O
But let’s move on with what happened on this flight as the journey would be quite long, but the experience would be unforgettable for me.
And if this post does well I may start compiling a series of commercial pilot stories.
It was late in 1991 and I had the opportunity to do a flight with local Air Taxi service namely, Skylane Executive.
I was going to fly with Captain Clive’O as he was known at Southend Airport.
The aircraft we were going to fly was a Cessna 404 Titan, a powerful 10 seater twin engine aircraft.
Also named “Tommy Titan” by my 4-year-old niece. Buts that’s another story.
The job for the day was to deliver some seatbelt brackets for Ford Motor Company to Maastricht, Holland.
This entailed firstly flying to Coventry to pick up the cargo load and then flying across the UK, Europe to Holland.
We did the pre-flight checks, got the weather forecasts and actuals for the route.
This included crossing the English Channel, France, Belgium and on to Maastricht.
As we were going to carry cargo that day the aircraft had to have the seats removed and a cargo net and fastenings added.
Commercial Pilot Stories & The Chippendale Exhibitionist
The weather at Southend was good, just some scattered clouds at 4000 feet, but with wind gusts straight down the runway at 25kts.
So we were on the flight deck (the front two seats – LOL) and proceeded to take off.
Clive did his usual thing, as soon as we reached 400 feet he knife-edged the Titan to turn towards Coventry.
He was younger than me but had much more experience and airline seniority than me, well air taxi service seniority to be precise.
He was also part of the local Chippendales group, so was quite the exhibitionist and never missed a chance to show off.
But a great bloke and an excellent pilot in any case.
We all sometimes take things for granted but as we flew over the English countryside towards Coventry.
I couldn’t help but notice the landscapes below despite I had seen them many times before.
This flight seemed to make me more aware for some reason
and I was about to find out why I seemed to appreciate the view more than usual.
The verdant fields looked like a patchwork quilt from above.
But I am sure that’s not the first time someone had said that.
We reached our cruising altitude and the Titan’s cruise speed of 190 mph.
However, on that day we were achieving a ground speed of over 240 mph because of the strong tailwinds at height.
So covering the ground at 4 miles per minute requires good piloting skills.
Make sure you’re thinking ahead of what the aircraft is doing right now and planning the next thing you need to do for a safe flight.
There’s a Rule For Everything
We flew to Coventry using Visual Flight Rules (VFR) as the cloud base at that time was quite high.
As we descended the skyline gradually came into view.
The spires of the city’s historic churches and cathedrals rose majestically against the backdrop of the morning sun.
So that was a great thing to see.
After arriving we had a cup of tea, and some sandwiches then we checked the weather once more before crossing the channel to
France and then onward to Maastricht. The weather had closed in so we had to file an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan for
the flight. The departure would require us to use a Standard Instrument Departure (SID) to leave Coventry.
A SID is generally the opposite of a STAR, merely a set of instructions from ATC or following a departure plate (a chart)
The pallet of brackets arrived and was loaded safely by from lift truck in the rear hold of the aircraft right behind our seats.
I thought nothing of it at the time, but that would change during the day.
Unexpected Chills and Spills
We climbed out of Coventry to an airway onward to the coast and the English Channel.
Clive selected the autopilot for the route climb up to 7000 feet and so we were on our way.
When we reached the French coast the weather had closed in and we were flying in a total whiteout on IFR.
All I could see outside was a white thick cloud.
This was the first time I had experienced weather like this, so all a good learning experience I thought having to fly on instruments.
This proves the importance of having an instrument rating but also having current experience.
A Lesson in Keeping Your Cool
When we reached 11,000 feet we had the first spot of trouble, the outside air temperature was -22 degrees.
Not a problem with the internal cabin heater, but as luck would have it the heater packed up.
So we started to get very cold. So I duly put on my gloves, flight jacket and hat I remember.
Despite the unexpected cold weather, our journey continued to be quite exhilarating, to say the least.
Thankfully the Titan proved to be a reliable and sturdy aircraft, well maybe.
Clive O was using his instrument rating training to navigate through the thick whiteout with ease.
As we got through France and Belgium we hit severe turbulence and it was like being on a rollercoaster ride,
but shaking violently at the same time.
It was like being in one of those old black-and-white films where the intrepid pilots were flying in bad conditions
and could not read their instruments because the aircraft was shaking so much.
I had thought previously that was total Hollywood BS, but I can tell you it’s not –
we really could not see the flight deck instruments that well at all.
So that was a wake-up call!
It’s not good when your depending on instruments to tell you how fast, how high and what direction you are going.
This was a reminder of the importance of good training, preparation and skill in the face of unexpected challenges.
The Airlines use Advanced Quality Program (AQP) training for pilots to use scenario-based training to help them deal with specific situations.
Brackets, Turbulence, and Seat-Whacking Fun
Then we found smooth air at last, but that was the calm before the storm.
As we hit turbulence again so violently that the aircraft pitched up, then down so quickly that the pallet of brackets behind us broke away from the straps and hit us in the back of our seats.
So now not only are we cold, with unreadable instruments and a painful back.
But now the aircraft was out of balance and required constant trim adjustments to keep the plane straight and level.
The sudden jolt of the brackets hitting us in the back was a stark reminder of how important it is for pilots to have good situational awareness.
It was a humbling reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of being prepared for the unexpected.
As we descended to a lower altitude, the outside temperature rose and the cabin heater miraculously came back to life,
providing us with much-needed warmth.
The pallet of seatbelt brackets in the hold remained loose but under control.
Slowly the weather improved and we hit smooth air once again, but now the next problem occurred.
We needed to start our descent into Holland.
The Titan has two powerful engines so we started to throttle back, or at least we tried, now the port engine throttle cable was stuck and would not reduce engine power on that side of the aircraft.
The situation was becoming increasingly dire as we approached the airport.
The malfunctioning throttle cable was the last thing we needed as this further complicated our situation.
Lessons from an Asymmetric Flight
So there was only one thing to do, we had to feather the propeller and shut the engine down.
I was getting worried now as I thought how are we going to do that with a frozen throttle cable and could the other control have a problem?
Fortunately, they were ok and Clive’O managed to cut the port engine and throttle back on the starboard engine.
So this is the scariest moment: we are in asymmetric flight (a fancy word for flying sideways) in IFR conditions, still cold with an out-of-balance aircraft. With only the starboard engine working this required a constant battling of systems.
This included engine power, propeller pitch, trim and rudder control while descending and turning the aircraft, especially towards the live engine.
This shows how important it is to have engine out training.
The airport weather had a cloud base of 300 feet above ground level, so we had to get the approach right as trying to do a go-around would be very tricky with aircraft in this situation.
When ATC Plays Musical Runways
We started to follow the Standard Terminal Arrival (STAR) descent. However, Air Traffic Control (ATC) had others ideas.
They decided to change the runway to a shorter one, away from the main traffic using the airport.
They thought we might cause a problem if we didn’t make it. Just charming I thought
Pilots must follow the STAR instructions using a chart (namely, an Approach Plate) or from air traffic control
to ensure a smooth approach and landing.
It’s a pre-determined route that guides the pilot through a specific sequence of altitudes, speeds, and headings.
So that’s why they decided to move us away from the longer runway.
Although, the alternative runway was more than long enough for us.
We broke cloud at 350 feet with the runway right where it should be, and that was such a relief.
We landed safely in Maastricht, without any issues and I remember getting out and kissing the ground, never thought I would ever do that.
A&P Engineers, the Wizards Behind the Scenes
After we taxied towards the apron the cable became unfrozen, so this was an intermittent issue.
The malfunctioning throttle cable had thrown a wrench in our plans, but we were determined to make the best of it.
We called upon the expertise of local Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Engineers, the unsung heroes of aviation always more than helpful in my experience.
After, inspecting the cable they advised us to avoid icing conditions for the return flight home but assured us it was safe to use the aircraft.
Without them, we would have been stranded, but thanks to their skills, we were soon back in the air.
So we completed the pre-flight check once more before we decided to fly back to the UK.
Tally Ho! Bandits at 3’O Clock!
But this time no IFR flight, we took off and climbed to 3000 feet in beautiful VFR skies as the weather had almost completely cleared.
I took the controls from Clive and we did some cloud chasing, flying in and out of clouds.
It was like something from the Battle of Britain film looking for the enemy.
Well, I could not resist it, I just had to say it – “ Taka Taka Taka – Tally Ho! Bandits at 3’O Clock!”
When we arrived at the French coast Clive said how low have you flown? I said what do you mean?
He took controls and proceeded to do a wing over, and descended to 30ft or lower above the channel sea.
Clive positively trimmed the Titan so should he let go of the controls it would climb away from the sea below.
We were so low that we were creating a wash on the surface of the water.
I also remember seeing passengers waving on the cross-channel ferry as we passed lower than the top of the ship.
Home and Tea or Whiskey?
Upon reaching about 5 miles from the English coast we popped up to 3000 feet again.
Then reported to Air Traffic Control (ATC) for our approach back into Southend.
As we taxied to a stop on the apron in front of the control tower I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride, satisfaction and relief.
After all I had played a part in and experienced this incredible journey.
Flying the Cessna 404 Titan was truly an unforgettable experience, and I was grateful for that.
Oh and to be back in our green and pleasant land, and to be alive!
Now I needed a cup of tea or maybe something stronger.
That’s one of the best commercial pilot stories I know. Well I may be a little biased but it was my story after all.