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Pilot - - ILAFFT - By Stephen Beaver

t was some­time in the mid-1990s. The ink on my in­stru­ment rat­ing was al­most dry and I was lov­ing life in the USA, fly­ing many dif­fer­ent types of air­craft, both for fun and to help a lo­cal en­gine re­build­ing com­pany to test their work. One evening an ac­quain­tance called to see if I would do a ferry job. “Depends what air­craft, when and where.” “It’s some Ital­ian plane,” said the caller, “a Marchetti some­thing or other”. I al­most dropped the hand­set. “Yes,” I nearly shouted down the phone, “ab­so­lutely I’ll ferry it”.

It was an SF260. A real Fer­rari of the skies — Ital­ian SF260B! My heart was rac­ing, I could hardly wait. Where was I sup­posed to take it? Ari­zona, I think he said. That would be a day-long trip but enough to make friends with the Marchetti. I didn’t hear where the plane was now though. Bet­ter call him back some­time — it’s prob­a­bly here on the East coast some­where.

When I called him back a cou­ple of days later he told me it was in Grim­ber­gen. OK, where’s that? Michi­gan some­where? Nope, Bel­gium. What! Bel­gium? Are you se­ri­ous?

In the coming weeks there was much to learn. Maps and charts, com­pul­sory re­port­ing points, po­si­tion re­port pro­to­cols, HF ra­dio, ferry tanks, survival equip­ment and a lot more, but even­tu­ally I pre­pared to lift off from Grim­ber­gen’s beau­ti­ful grass run­way in an ex-sabena SF260 loaded with a thirty gal­lon ferry tank and ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink. After a low pass for the lo­cal pa­per, I headed west to a point on the coast of France, and then turned north.

As I headed for the White Cliffs, ahead was a bank of cloud and I had not yet flown this air­craft on in­stru­ments, so I re­quested and re­ceived clear­ance to climb. At around 12,000 feet I fi­nally re­alised I was not go­ing to be able to out-climb the clouds. Oh well, the in­stru­ments were re­cently checked and looked to be work­ing OK and I had filed IFR. Tighten the straps, stow the sand­wiches, pull on the carb heat and in we go.

That big bub­ble canopy on the SF260 was not well sealed and wa­ter started drip­ping onto my lap, onto the glare shield and even be­gan run­ning down the face of the in­stru­ments. This isn’t good. At least the gy­ros are vac­uum op­er­ated so even if I lose elec­tri­cal power I’ll be OK. At which point the en­gine stopped.

Why had I ever agreed to do this? What an id­iot I was. Now I was go­ing to end up dead and this would be the last plane I ever flew. Deep breath. Calm down. You ac­tu­ally trained for this just a few weeks ago as part of the in­stru­ment train­ing. Fly the plane. The wings are level ac­cord­ing to the elec­tric turn and bank (for­tu­nately not a ‘turn co­or­di­na­tor’ which I hate.) Tune to 121.5 and “May­day, May­day, May­day.”

The re­ply came in­stantly from West Dray­ton D&D. “State the na­ture of your emer­gency.” I ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion and a very calm and re­as­sur­ing voice started to guide me. “On my mark, turn left stan­dard rate, 3-2-1 now.” “On my mark, wings level, 3-2-1 now.” This went on for what seemed an eter­nity. Wa­ter was still pour­ing in, the pro­pel­ler still sta­tion­ary, but that won­der­ful T&B and the even more won­der­ful voice on the ra­dio had the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol. Only just un­der con­trol per­haps, but I wasn’t dead yet.

At some fairly low altitude I have long since for­got­ten, I broke out of cloud and there, to my left and per­haps half a mile away, was a large air­port with a great big run­way I could eas­ily reach. I was given a new fre­quency and, with mum­bled and ab­surdly in­suf­fi­cient thanks to West Dray­ton, changed to the Tower fre­quency.

Now you would think that was quite enough aero­nau­ti­cal drama for one day — I cer­tainly did, but no. “I’m sorry sir,” the Tower con­troller said, “but we have an emer­gency that is more se­ri­ous than yours and we can­not al­low you to land at this time.” It turns out this was an RAF base and they had an F-4 Phan­tom in­bound, also dead-stick. They had erected nets on the run­way to ar­rest it and there was no way I could get in. As I looked around and lo­cated a nice look­ing field to land in, I had time for one more try with the en­gine. Throt­tle one third open, mix­ture rich, carb heat off, mags on both and press the but­ton. The en­gine mocked me by start­ing with­out the slight­est hes­i­ta­tion.

Al­most as if noth­ing had hap­pened, there I was be­low the clouds in good vis­i­bil­ity over the South-east of Eng­land, en­gine run­ning and in­stru­ments back on line. Life was good. The Tower gave me a head­ing to a civil­ian air­port some miles way. On con­tact­ing that Tower the con­troller asked: “Are you the air­craft that de­clared a May­day over the Chan­nel?” “Yes, that was me”. “It’s re­ally not your day sir, is it?” he said. That I remember as if it were yes­ter­day. As I tax­ied to the base of the Tower it oc­curred to me it wasn’t over yet. This was Eng­land, I had de­clared a May­day, al­most landed at a mil­i­tary air­field and bro­ken good­ness knows how many reg­u­la­tions. I could be in Nor­folk for a week fill­ing out forms and ex­plain­ing my­self. I climbed up to the Tower to learn my fate. “How are you? Do you feel OK? Would some tea help?” That was it! No forms, no ex­plain­ing. “Glad we could be of ser­vice and have a nice af­ter­noon” sort of thing. Wow. What a coun­try.

Once I had gath­ered my­self and fig­ured out what I had done wrong I was able to con­tinue. Manch­ester, Glas­gow, Stornoway, Reyk­javik, Narsar­suaq, Goose Bay, Sept-îles, Burlington (Ver­mont) and down through the USA to Ari­zona. It was mostly un­event­ful.

What had I done wrong — other than not get­ting a proper check­out, not read­ing the POH suf­fi­ciently thor­oughly, and not hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence to see what was right be­fore my eyes? The car­bu­ret­ted en­gine in an SF260B has an enor­mous heat muff with which it col­lects hot air for the car­bu­ret­tor air in­take. It is so large that a vernier con­trol and a ther­mome­ter are pro­vided to al­low the pi­lot care­fully to ad­just the ex­act tem­per­a­ture of the air en­ter­ing the en­gine. Pull it on all the way and the mix­ture can be­come so rich that the en­gine floods and may even stop... Of course, in typ­i­cal light air­craft fash­ion I had just yanked it to full hot in case the mois­ture in the clouds caused carb ice.

That’s not quite the end of the story, how­ever. Twenty years later, a friend at the air­port where I am now based called me. He had just bought an air­craft and his in­sur­ance com­pany had sug­gested he call me for a check-out. Ap­par­ently I was the only in­struc­tor they knew in the area that had flown an SF260. And, you guessed; it was my old friend, the very air­craft I had fer­ried. The paint was much nicer, the in­te­rior now beau­ti­ful beige leather… and some­one had con­verted it to fuel in­jec­tion. ILAFFT tale? Do you have your own around 1,100 Tell us your story in see words and you could it in print

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