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