09 Feb Ferry Flight From Seattle To Prestwick
We had completed Boeing 727 simulator training in Vancouver at CP Air’s training facility, and flight training with Boeing in Seattle. We had all flown the 727 before and we were now ready to take delivery of a brand new aircraft at Boeing Field which we would ferry to the Middle East. The planned route was from Seattle to Sana’a in Yemen via Edmonton, Frobisher Bay, Keflavik, Amsterdam, and Athens.
The first sector to Edmonton in Canada was uneventful until the approach and landing. During the approach the first officer’s airspeed indicator hung up at 140 knots and was still indicating 140 knots as we left the runway. This necessitated an overnight stay while Boeing arranged to have a replacement airspeed indicator sent up from Seattle. It is often said that a brand new aircraft is the most dangerous to fly until the bugs are sorted out during the first 100 hours of flight.
The next morning at breakfast I was introduced to peanut butter and jelly. Charlie, a former USAF pilot who flew the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft capable of Mach 3, or 3 times the speed of sound, spread the peanut butter and jelly thick on a piece of toast. He then handed it to me saying “Try it – you’ll like it!” There was no point in protesting that I would prefer marmalade because I would be flying the line with him for the next year at least. Charlie always had a jar in his flight case as it was not readily available outside of North America.
Having survived peanut butter and jelly I boarded the crew bus for the airport. Our next sector was from Edmonton to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in north eastern Canada just outside the Arctic Circle. Navigation was with a single omega unit. We also had a Boeing flight navigator on board because single omega did not meet the minimum navigation specifications for a trans Atlantic flight. It seemed to me to be a false economy to spend $18 million dollars buying a brand new aircraft and to not include a second omega unit. Apart from the small additional cost, dual omega would have made the navigation much safer as well as negating the requirement for a flight navigator.
As we flew north towards the magnetic north pole, the compass starting swinging and was no longer a reliable direction indicator. The single omega unit worked well and we landed on an icy runway in Frobisher Bay in the dark with a strong cross wind. Frobisher Bay, with the chill factor from a stiff breeze, was the coldest place I had ever been in except for Iceland which was our next destination.
The fuel tanks were filled to capacity and the three gauges showed a total fuel load of 50,000 lbs. There were no reserve tanks on this particular aircraft. The 727 is a short to medium range aircraft and is not designed for trans oceanic flights. An hour after landing in Frobisher Bay we were airborne and heading almost due east for Greenland enroute to Keflavik. The flight navigator, who was seated in first class with a portable LORAN set, passed up to the flight crew headings to fly to stay on track.
On arrival at Keflavik we entered a holding pattern at 35,000 feet over the VOR (very high frequency omnirange) which was located on the airfield. The control tower had just reported the RVR (runway visual range or visibility) as 400 metres in fog. This was well below our landing minima which meant that landing in Keflavik was no longer possible.
Here we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with standard fuel tanks, almost half of which were depleted, with no place to go! It was a precarious situation to say the least. Chaos reigned on the flight deck and back in first class as everybody shouted different destinations. The flight navigator favoured Bergen in Norway. This suggestion was quickly rebutted by George who had flown the North Atlantic for 20 years in Boeing 707s. He made it clear that in September at our estimated time of arrival there would be thick sea fog in Bergen.
Finally, good sense prevailed and we set course for Prestwick in Scotland. George and some other pilots who were seated in economy, started drinking heavily in the firm belief that their airline careers would soon end in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The chances of surviving a night ditching in the ocean would be close to zero. It was a very stressful flight constantly checking fuel remaining against distance and time to go.
At about 3.00 am the lights of Prestwick airport could be seen with almost no clouds and good visibility. On final approach, so as to ensure that the electric fuel pumps were not uncovered, a higher than normal approach speed was flown to reduce the angle of attack. Prestwick has a long runway so a fast approach speed was not a problem provided the engines kept turning so that reverse thrust could be used and to provide hydraulic pressure to the brakes.
On the ramp the flight engineer took an accurate measurement of the fuel remaining with dipsticks. He reported that there was 2,000 lbs total fuel remaining. This would probably not have been enough for a go-around and another landing attempt, had that been necessary.
A trans Atlantic flight in a Boeing 727 with standard tanks, unpredictable weather, degraded navigation equipment, and practically no alternate airfields, is an experience I would not like to repeat.