Around storms, above suspicion

Our flight requires sharp eyes - and sharp outfits

When was the last time that all you could see of your flight captain were the soles of his shoes (sandals, actually) poking out the belly of his aircraft as he tried to repair a fuel leak? This happened the other day when Arthur Hussey and I stopped in Libreville, Gabon, where we found ourselves in the situation - I'm not making this up - of considering baling wire to affect a temporary repair, but opting instead for duct tape.

All turned out fine in the end, much to the astonishment (and, I'm sure, amusement) of the Gabonese fuel-truck crew. But for a time there, I was wondering whether I might have been just a touch rash in volunteering to accompany Mr. H. on his 12,000-mile journey to Alaska in a small Cessna.

Then there had been his pre-launch instructions that we both had to dress like airline pilots to smooth the way through airport security, especially in this part of the world, where persons such as ourselves (that is, non-Africans traveling in an unusual fashion) might legitimately be confused with diamond smugglers or some other ne'er-do-well.

After our first week together in close quarters, on our way north to Europe, we've gotten into a sort of daily routine. As command pilot and owner of the aircraft, Arthur has full responsibility for everything. But we share the preflight checks and preparations, and I do some of the straight-and-level flying in order to give him a break on the long hauls.

Most days, however, have included something decidedly unroutine and sometimes challenging.

The other day, for example, we were flying across the Gulf of Guinea to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, an eight-hour, 859-mile flight that would be the longest over-water leg of our entire trip. This put us some 200 miles from land - many times farther than a Cessna droning along at 6,000 feet and 140 m.p.h. can glide, should something go wrong. For hours, we were out of radio contact with anybody. We tried to get an Air France pilot whizzing along six miles above us to relay a mandatory radio report to Accra, Ghana, but this failed.

Then a wall of "weather" loomed up ahead of us. (Pilots say things like, "Did you run into any weather out there?") There were towering thunderstorms and occasional lightning, not unexpected in this "zone of tropical convergence" where winds and moisture can be a particular challenge to aviation, especially to light aircraft that can't climb above it.

It looks beautiful, especially when you see a rainbow below you, as we did. But a mistaken interpretation of a cloud formation or winds aloft or icing conditions can "ruin your whole day," as pilots also say.

We went way off our intended track to steer clear of what looked like the worst parts, then pulled out the emergency procedures when it looked as though some of the flight instruments affected by outside air pressure had failed - just the instruments you need for this kind of flying.

In the end, everything worked. We found our way to blue sky and our destination.

Inside the cockpit, things are as packed and cramped as they could possibly be. The two back seats have been removed to make room for an extra fuel tank (the one that needed a bit of duct tape for a time). Together with the four wing tanks, that gives us a total of 600 liters (156 gallons) of "avgas," which means we could stay aloft for 13 hours. Our maximum range is more than 1,600 miles - far longer than my backside could stand.

Packed around the square metal tank situated just behind us is all our gear: some personal stuff and lots of survival and emergency equipment, including a 44-pound inflatable life raft (which we fully intend to ship back to its owner unused).

This puts us 28 percent over normal gross weight at takeoff. But Arthur did a lot of test flying in order to get the necessary permission from civil-aviation authorities and his insurer to do this.

Our costumes - er, uniforms - are not totally bogus. Anybody can legally wear shirts with epaulet devices and narrow black ties. Our official-looking "crew" badges with the flag of Alaska on them were issued by Chetana Air, specializing in "Long Range Cessna 182 Operations." That's the company Arthur and his wife, Janet Daley (who is also a pilot), set up to charge for the use of their aircraft.

I can sleep with the fact that my badge says "copilot." Based on my flight experience years ago in the United States Navy and a current flight physical, the government of Namibia issued me a commercial instrument pilot's license - good for 30 days, as long as I don't fly anything but Arthur's Cessna.

That license and my "Chetana Air" crew badge will be among my most prized mementos when our adventure is over.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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