Instrument Approach -- Ramon Gandia -- 8/15/2009 v4

The sky was a clear, deep blue above. Down below, the tops of the clouds swirled as the winds dictated. Up front, just a yard away, the faithful Lycoming R-680 Radial engine rumbled its deep sound, imparting of its strength to the Pilot.

But the Pilot needed more than strength from the engine. In fact, he was not even concerned about the engine. Today, the engine was taken for granted, that it would keep running as long as he could feed it Aviation Gasoline and keep the plane from impacting any mountaintop.

For he did not truly know where he was. He had left the village of Shishmaref, now a good 40 minutes behind him. Coming on the hills he had flown into dense fogs and mists, and before he risked crashing, he fed in the power, and pulled the plane up. He kept it straight using the new Sperry Turn and Slip Indicator. Should the needle tend left, he turned the wheel and pedals to the right to center it. If the needle tended right, he turned the wheel and pedals left to return to the straight and level.

After some time, the plane emerged above the clouds. The arctic sun shone on the white cloudtops, and for a time he was relieved.

He turned his head and looked at his passengers. The old lady and the eskimo teenaged girl were busy with the baby. A baby that resembled the Pilot ... but he was not sure. Only the old man in back glanced at him, as if to say, "I know you are in trouble son, don't lie to me!" But the old man kept his silence, his eyes speaking louder than words.

So the Pilot had flown south, towards Nome. But he knew the weather there was a low overcast, but perhaps ... perhaps there would be a hole in the clouds.

He had perhaps half hour to go before he got to Nome, and his fuel tank held another half hour of Gas beyond that. He guessed that if he turned right he could be in Teller in just twenty minutes, but there was no real airport there, and the weather was as likely to be bad. How could he land when he could not see?

So he continued, and the engine kept telling him it was all right. Just a slight admonishment of "Keep the gas coming, and I will do my part."

The plane was a Stinson, fairly new, and he had bought it last year and had flown it to Nome, picking his weather. But this was different. The reality was that he had to make payments to the bank, and keep his customers happy by taking them when and where they wanted. Most of his passengers were miners, flying up to the Kougarok country. But once in a while he made a flight to a village, mostly for schoolteachers but occassionaly for the native people themselves.

And there he had met this pretty girl, and it was no trouble to cancel return flights due to marginal weather. But now, a radio call had come in via the BIA school radio system on 3385 kc/s. The village operator had advised that the girl had given birth to a baby, but the baby was not doing well. The baby needed to be sent to the Methodist Hospital in Nome. Could he come up and help?

So he flew up, and managed to keep sight of the ground. He flew up Mosquito Pass, and up the American River, and over the hills. Ear mountain was to his left, but he never saw it. Only the flat expanse of the coastal plain, Shishmaref lagoon and there ... the village itself!

He landed on the beach, and the girl, with her father and mother came to the plane. He could see right away the baby had trouble breathing, and that the girl and mother would take turns breathing into the baby's mouth. "Obstruction," said the girl. "We bring hospital now."

There was no question of claiming an excuse. He had to fly. So he flew, but things were not as easy as when he came north. This time the weather hemmned him in, and squeezed him, and he pulled up. He was scared, and worried.

The instrument panel of the Stinson was very simple. It had a speed indicator, a trustworthy compass, and altimeter, a few engine gauges and the new, untested gyroscopic Turn and Slip Indicator made by Sperry. He had read about this instrument, and he had finally been able to afford one.

He also had a multiband radio receiver. He now turned this on and listened. Cranking the dial around 239 kc/s he could pick up the morse code signal "M ... K ... F" for the Northwest quadrant of the Nome Radio Range. He had no transmitter.

He also could not hear the north beam, but assumed he was west of it. So he turned the plane 45 degrees east of south and patiently flew on. After a while he could discern the faint identifier of the NE quadrant: " M ... K ... F ......m ... k ... f", and he knew he was getting on the right track.

His altimeter read 6,000 feet when finally he was on the course beam, and he turned right, towards the south. Should he wander a bit of course, he would make a slight correction in his heading, and on he went. The signal got louder and louder. His instruments reading a perfectly normal engine, temperatures and pressures just so, and his RPM's at 1875.

Soon he came over the Radio Range, and the signal had the typical momentary fade --the cone of silence. Now the Pilot turned east southeast, and retarded the throttle. The engine sound decreased and the altimeter started to creep down ... and down. He flew east for 5 minutes, and turned north to intercept the east beam.

In due time he heard the equisignal from the east beam, and he turned west, towards the station. As he neared 1,500 feet he fed in power, and being mindful of his Turn and Slip, he tried to keep his altitude constant. This was very hard to do, but he discovered that it was better to regulate altitude with engine power than to point the aircraft up and down with the control wheel.

He also knew the station was about 4 miles east of Nome, on a hill near Fort Davis, and when he got to the cone of silence again, he started a gradual descent. He saw the altimeter go to 1,400 ... 1,300 ... 1,200 but still he was in solid cloud. This was getting to be right scary.

With slightly reduced power, the plane continued to descend. The Pilot balanced the needs and direction of the Turn and Slip, his Compass and the sound on his earphones. Slowly, every so slowly, the altimeter unwound: 700 ... 600 ... 500 ... 400 feet. He was sitting on pins and needles, at the edge of his seat. Fear gripped his throat.

There! He could see some darkness below him. The ground! And as the Altimeter read 300 feet he came out of the thick clouds, and there were the houses of the town! In fact, there was the lighted beacon at the top of the BIA pole. The Pilot turned hard right and in a few seconds a most welcome sight: The Nome Airport Runway! He lined up and landed. The sound of the tires on the gravel being the most gratifying sound he had ever heard.

As the 3/4 ton Ambulance took the girl and family to the hospital, the sunlight bathed the clouds in their amber, sunset glow.

It was his first instrument approach, and forever always his best.

Nome, Alaska 1947.

Copyright © 2009, Ramon Gandia