Flying on Autopilot: Part III

“Frank, honey, I don't think this is a good idea.” said Sarah.

“What can go wrong, Babe? It's just a short hop from Nantucket to Bermuda.” Said Frank.

“Okay, say we do get this Piper Lance outfitted with the extra fuel tank. Then assuming we get the HF radio rental from old man Marconi, we still have to navigate nearly 600 nautical miles over the Atlantic Ocean on dead reckoning alone to find the island.” Said Sarah.

“When you put it that way, Sarah, I just wonder why we haven't done this yet.”

“You're such a hopeless romantic, my big lug. There's nothing I won't try once with you. It's been three months since our debacle on Block Island, but I suppose I'm ready to tackle our next adventure.” Said Sarah.

In a small t-hanger on the southwest corner of Nantucket Airport, Frank and Sarah found themselves stepping into it again. While Sarah's maiden passenger flight never quite got airborne due to the poorly maintained Cessna-150 on Block Island, she had become rather proficient with this Piper Lance out of Nantucket Airport. The Lance was the most powerful aircraft Sarah had piloted yet. With its six seats and 300 HP engine, it roared to life as she advanced the throttle and dropped her heels to the floor. If it had one detriment, it would be the lack of quality navigational equipment in the panel.

This Piper Lance, N430NG, was stolen from a tie-down space on the north side of the field just a few months earlier. Two young boys, who fancied themselves “X-Plane 11 pros” were inspired into this criminal act by their girlfriends, according to recently released court records. Apparently, they skipped some of the basics in X-Plane 11 and therefore never got the plane airborne. They did manage to taxi it off-airport, down Highline Drive and into a not so nice section of the downtown area, where they quickly abandon it. By the time daylight filled the streets of the town, one or more bandits had stolen most of the avionics from the flight deck.


A couple of Avemco insurance agents and a fellow from the TSA had thoroughly investigated the matter, deemed the aircraft a total loss and put it up for a fire sale. A one Mr. Captain Frank, never a man to miss a deal, bought the hull and remaining contents for pennies on the dollar, as they say. Well, he used those words when he told his partner, Sarah he had a new toy for her continued flight training. He proudly proclaimed the aircraft was in fine shape overall, despite needing a fresh coat of paint due to the salty Atlantic Ocean air and some new avionics. It boasted all six seats, a three blade Hartzell propeller, and a solid six pack of flight instruments.

Add one Radio Shack hand-held hiker’s GPS, some spare batteries, and a recently expired Foreflight subscription on Frank's old work iPad, and the couple felt they had all they needed for their dream vacation to sunny Bermuda. After Frank’s poor vacation planning on Block Island, Sarah assumed the role of chief planner. Frank had been relegated to the trivial position of flight planner. The two set out with vigor and plan they did. Sarah with her amazing find of the coveted Fairmont Hamilton Princess, Bermuda and Frank with his dead reckoning navigation log from Nantucket to Bermuda, purchased on eBay for $8.95, what could go wrong here?

“Sarah, I went to the marina today and found this old sextant lying on the dock.” Said, Frank.

“Bahahaha, we don’t know how to use that old thing, honey, it’ll just be extra weight.” Said Sarah.

“Well, still though, I think I’ll bring it along, you never know.” Said Frank.

Frank grinned as he stowed the ancient navigational device and its manual in the back of the Piper Lance. Everything was nearly together now for their departure early tomorrow morning. Frank had his Sextant, one lifesaver flotational device from the hotel pool, one bag of granola and M&Ms from the hotel’s concierge lounge, and his soft-sided duffle bag with two pairs of shorts and two t-shirts. One shirt aptly said, “I Work Smarter, Not Harder” and the other said, “Not Today.”

Sarah’s approach seemed a little more responsible, as usual for her. She was often the brains of the operation and Frank knew this. Typically, Frank would suggest one thing and Sarah would do the opposite, with great success. That’s the way it was with them two. In Sarah’s pile of gear, she had the Radio Shack handheld GPS, with extra batteries, a South Atlantic Plotting chart, one slightly out of date Jeppesen IFR Enroute chart mostly covering the distance required to Bermuda. Although she was not yet IFR rated, Frank would assist her from the right seat. He always wanted to become an instructor pilot, he mused. Finally, Sarah had her favorite thermos to fill with hot coffee in the morning. It said, “A flight today, will keep the doctor away” in pink vinyl letters on the side.

As they enjoyed a couple glasses of wine that evening, they looked up at the sun-fading sky and saw streaks of red and maroon, and orange, and blue alike. They looked at one another and smiled. “What’s that saying, Sarah? Red skies at night, sailors delight.” Frank Said as he grinned with confidence.

“That’s the one, Frank, we’re really doing this tomorrow and we should have great weather too.”

Early next morning as Frank and Sarah boarded the airport shuttle van, they peered into the skies to the Southeast and saw lots of red. “Hey Frank, what’s that other saying, something about red skies in morning, and, uh, I don’t know, never mind.” Said Sarah.

Frank was sipping his coffee and as the van exited the driveway and ascended the speed hump, half the cup spilled onto his khaki shorts. Those were his flying shorts, though, he always said. Frank always drank milk with his coffee just in case he spilled on those shorts. They were the same color, you see. While no one noticed his error, he simply grinned in amusement as he knew he was way ahead of most with his intelligence and forethought.

The runway 06 departure was mostly normal, but for the extra long takeoff run needed due to that large fuel tank plumbed into the system from the backseats. As Sarah retracted the gear and accelerated, her next mission was to clear the Freedom Point hill off the end of that runway and retract those flaps. She knew if she banked the aircraft, she’d lose even more lift, therefore she held her steady, “060 degrees, now Sarah.” Said Frank.

Sarah’s on course heading to Bermuda today was 173 degrees. This accounted for variation, winds, deviation, and all the rest, Frank assured her. This Piper Lance had a slaved compass system, so Sarah didn’t really worry about that pesky thing called precession. If Sarah reestablished her 173-degree course on her exact line just South of ACK Airport, all should go well. That course line passed right over the Tasty Scoops of Poop Animal Shelter and Creamery adjacent to Cheap Sands Beach Club. No problem, she thought to herself as she pitched the Lance down a bit for a cruise climb to 15,500 feet altitude. The two would start off VFR and activate an IFR flight plan only if absolutely necessary.

Frank marveled at the pleasure craft on the water below. “I think I see John Kerry’s yacht down there. Nah, that can’t be. Look at all those windmills down there. None of them are turning.” Said Frank.

“Okay, Frank, I’m flying your 173 course and the GPS says the same exact desired track. I must say, this may be your best flight planning effort yet. Thanks for getting up so early and plugging in those winds.”

Frank smiled at his beautiful Sarah. That’s how this flight started, peaceful, serene, and those beautiful red skies towards the South. After two hours at 15,500 feet and using a regular routine for switching between the left and right fuel tanks, Frank realized something odd as he reached aft for his bag of granola and M&Ms. The extra bladder tank of Avgas was secure in the seats as Bill the mechanic promised it would be, but Frank noticed the fuel lines meant to plumb it into the aircraft’s normal system were not connected to anything at all.

“Uh, Sarah, honey, what day did Bill say he would finish the fuel tank installation?” Asked Frank.

“Tuesday, Frank, why?” Said Sarah.

“Hey Sarah, what day is it today?”

“Geeze, I don’t know, I’m flying the darn airplane Frank, can you take a look at your watch.”

That Monday morning seemed like a perfect day to fly off to paradise. Aside from Sarah remembering that old nautical saying, Red Skies in Morning, Sailors Take Warning, and the fact that they just realized they had 30 gallons less fuel than they planned, all was fine. The Piper Lance, on her autopilot was as steady as she goes, heading 173 degrees. Oil temperature and pressure, in the green, true airspeed 169 knots, and neither occupant had to relieve themselves, yet.

“Well, damn Frank. That seems like a problem. Here we are halfway to Bermuda, now. We have nearly zero wind, maybe 5 knots of tailwind, pushing us towards our destination. The ship’s fuel gauges are reading just below half empty.” Sarah Said.

“Sarah, listen, that extra fuel was just that. My calculations showed we could make it on the fuel in the wings alone. It will be tight, in fact we’d land with maybe 2 gallons per side, but, if we keep it real balanced and switch tanks only when the one side is completely empty, we can do this.”

“I’m not comfortable with this at all, Frank. That was your job to have that tank installed and tested. Now, we’re lugging all that extra weight and you want us to arrive on a small island, with a single runway on fumes.” Said Sarah.

“Listen, Amelia Darling, we got this. These 5 knots of tailwind will soon increase to 18 knots on this second half of the leg. Also, if I can siphon that gas out of the bladder tank and dump it overboard, we can shed nearly 180 pounds, making our situation even better.” Said Frank.

Frank opened the “I just can’t wait anymore” pee tube from its packaging and grinned. He said excuse me for a minute, My Lady as he relieved himself. He said to no one in particular, “You don’t drink coffee, you borrow it.” After that awkward exercise was complete, he began siphoning the gas from the extra fuel tank and positioned the outflow through the pilot’s window on Sarah’s side of the flight deck. This left a steady stream of fuel seemingly atomizing into the air at 15,500 feet. It would take a while, but Frank was fixing their problem.

With this process well underway, Frank and Sarah began discussing just how much they can lean their engine without burning it up. The EGT’s and CHT’s were quite high already, Sarah felt, but Frank insisted. He knew this engine, he said. As Sarah glanced at the screen of the yoke-mounted GPS, she noticed a dimming display. She closed and then re-opened her eyes several times in quick succession thinking she was just tired.

“Hey Frank, how are you feeling?” Asked Sarah.

“Fine, honey, why do you ask?” Said Frank.

“I don’t know, my eyes seem a little fuzzy. Are you sure we don’t need any oxygen up here?” Said Sarah.

“No way, we should be fine during the daytime at this altitude. Neither of us smoke, unless wait, did you start again?” Asked Frank.

“No silly, not since you crashed that airplane back in New Jersey. I’m having trouble reading this GPS display. Have a look, please.” Said Sarah.

“I don’t see anything on the screen. Did you turn it off?” Asked Frank.

“No, I definitely did not turn off our sole means of navigation, Frank.”

“Okay, well, lets put new batteries in it then.” Said Frank.

“Great idea, it takes 8 AA batteries. Can you pass those spares up to me?” Asked Sarah.

Frank fumbled for what seemed like 5 minutes in the back seat looking for the bag with the spare batteries. Meanwhile, as Sarah diverted her attentions from the airplane and turned around to assist, Frank dropped one of Sarah’s bags of supplies on the siphon hose and didn’t realize it had pulled back into the aircraft and was now spilling fuel all over the interior carpet and pilot’s sidewall.

“Frank, did you load my red emergency gear bag from the back of the hotel shuttle van?” Asked Sarah.

“I never saw any red bag, Sarah. Don’t even try to blame this one on me.” Said Frank.

Sarah was now seething mad at Captain Frank. Was he even worthy of that title anymore, she thought? Every single time she tried something grand with this fellow, he lets her down. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Frank, have that tank set up, will you? Frank, take some inventory on our supplies and get it all onboard, will you? Sarah was shaking her head and now triple checking her heading, her compass system to the whiskey compass, and that fleeting fuel in her tanks. The gauges were now approaching ¼ empty. I mean, they knew the gauges were accurate as they were in the habit of topping the plane off after each flight and reverse calculating their actual fuel burn versus their planned burn. This baby was right on, nine times out of ten.

Frank knew when Sarah didn’t want to hear it. He was quiet now and stuck to just the facts, as he saw them. He was all business now. Frank suddenly remembered that sextant. He retrieved it from the back and began reading the manual. Kind of like a crash course, he thought.

“Hey Frank, what’s that smell?” Asked Sarah.

“I smell fuel, oh no, the hose, it’s hanging down your side spilling all over. Can you get it?” Asked Frank.

Things were getting quite tense now in the Piper Lance known as N430NG. Frank always joked and said the NG stood for next generation. Sarah now felt that maybe it stood for no good. Frank had the sextant out now and he was blocking Sarah’s view as he peered through the telescopic lens out of the left side of the airplane. He knew he needed to align the bottom of the celestial body, the sun in this case today, with the horizon.

“Frank said, okay, okay, I got it, write these numbers down.”

Sarah wrote the numbers down and then looked at her Co-pilot while shaking her head again. “Okay, now what?” She Asked.

“So, umm, I don’t know, maybe those are our coordinates. See if the numbers seem to match what’s on your IFR chart.” Said Frank.

As it turned out, that bubble sextant, without the obligatory chart book to go with those numbers, was just more useless weight. They thought they could figure out their latitude, but not the longitude without an accurate time and those conversion charts. This wasn’t terrible, said Frank, due to their mostly north–south course line today. Sarah just held her dead reckoning heading, along with the help of the autopilot, perfectly. That’s the one area where Frank typically excelled and oh, did they need him to be on today. “Frank, can you put that thing down and just make our next position report on the HF radio?” Asked Sarah.

The High Frequency or HF radio they rented from Marconi’s Electronics and Ham Radio Depot worked great on their last position report. They were too far from land for VHF communications and therefore needed to resort to another old piece of tech. Since this radio was just a portable, it had a long wire antenna that needed to be reeled out the same window that was still draining Avgas from the back seat. The length of the antenna was critical to transmit and receive the signal to New York Radio, who would relay the Piper Lance’s position to ATC.

Frank reeled the antenna to its designated length, tuned the radio to 5616, clicked the mic and let out a loud expletive. He was still holding the antenna out of Sarah’s window when he clicked the mic, it sent a wave of energy though the wire and burned and shocked his hand so quickly, he immediately let go and the antenna sucked out into the wind stream and down to the ocean surface.

“Ouch!” Yelled Frank.

“Oh my God, what now, Frank?” Asked Sarah.

“Uh, listen, have I told you lately how much I love you?” Asked Frank.

Just then, the engine of the Piper Lance sputtered to a stop. Sarah knew exactly what the culprit was. She reached down and switched fuel tanks to the right side and the windmilling propeller quickly coughed to life once again. The airspeed decayed rapidly but was quickly rectified as the engine sucked that delicious Avgas from the right wing. Frank and Sarah looked at one another as if to say what else can go wrong.

Frank said they could simply relay their position report on guard frequency, 121.5 to a nearby aircraft. He noted earlier that United 13 was likely enroute to Bermuda from JFK at that time of day. 5 mornings a week, Monday through Friday, he recalled. Very little else was said for the final hour of their planned 5:25 flight that day. Sarah held that heading, 173 degrees. She cross checked her instruments. Frank sat and wondered what he would do if he wasn’t the nearly professional pilot he was. He was also back to gnawing on that bag of granola and M&Ms. Sarah occasionally called him hangry, when he exhibited hunger and anger all at once. This is when she knew to avoid those silly political conversations as well.

“I see a cruise ship down there, Sarah. That must be the ship out of Bayonne, New Jersey going to Bermuda. Turn right and follow it.” Said Frank.

“Heck no, Frank. Are you crazy? You have no idea what or where that ship is going. It’s just as likely to be that new “Titanic” ship that the Cunard Line built. I’m sticking to the plan, your plan, in fact, for some crazy reason.” Said Sarah.

Sarah estimated they should be less than 50 miles from the island now. But there was still nothing in sight. She would stay at altitude until she knew for sure. No reason to come down and burn that extra gas without their destination in sight. The skies were hazy as the local time in Bermuda approached 2:30 in the afternoon. They were on Atlantic time there, so she simply added one hour to her watch display. With lots of white puffy clouds in front of them now, Sarah felt if she didn’t begin a decent soon, she would overfly the airport. She should have been in range of the New York approach control frequency now, 128.5 on Bermuda, but the onboard radio stack had intermittent issues since Frank tightened a few screws a couple weeks back.

“Sarah, you have to go down, honey. We’ll never see the island if we’re above those clouds.” Said Frank.

“Great idea, Frank, I never would have thought of that.” Said Sarah

“Okay, okay, we’re going to be fine. Just watch your descent rate, with that little fuel in the right tank, you don’t want to uncover the feed line to the engine. Make it a nice shallow descent the rest of the way now and turn the fuel pump on.” Said Frank.

As they passed through 5,000 feet now, there was no land in sight. It was quite warm in there now with the hot sun from above beating down on them. The stench of Avgas from the spilled fuel hose was also making them a little nauseous. These two intrepid aviators needed a break. Just then, Frank recalled they had an ADF on board. Apparently, the thieves from Nantucket weren’t interested in that old piece of history, but Frank suddenly was.

“Sarah, I got it. Remember the AC-U-KWIK has all the AM radio stations in the back of the book behind the FBO section? We’ll find one for Hamilton, Bermuda, tune it in and voila, the Automatic Direction Finder needle will point directly to the station. Amelia wished she had this equipment turned on back in 1937. It was new to them and now it’s old to us. Hot damn!” Chuckled Frank.


Frank dialed in 770 WHAM on the ADF. The needle came to life and pointed 30 degrees to the right of the nose of the aircraft. “Turn that way, now! 25,000 watts of pure talk radio joy.” Said Frank.

“Are you sure, how do you know?” Asked Sarah.

Frank pushed the ADF button on the audio panel and moved the switch on the tuning head to AM and just like that, they were listening to Bobby and Stella on the AM dial. They anchored the afternoon drive in Bermuda’s largest city. Now, with smiles of relief on each of their faces, Frank and Sarah breathed a deep sigh. As if to say, this is the last time. In just 5 minutes, as Sarah kept the nose of the airplane homing to the AM radio station in downtown Hamilton, she spotted the Northwestern corner of the island and the town of St. Georges. A beautiful sight indeed, she thought. If only Amelia had her Frank, she thought, what if?

Frank still couldn’t raise anyone on their VHF radio, so he tuned 7600 into their transponder and they each discussed which light gun signals to expect from the tower for the next few minutes. Unable to come to a consensus, they agreed to bring it straight to the numbers 12 and hope for the best. Some combination of green and or green and red, and or red would surely do as they were fast approaching empty in that right wing tank. Ironically, that aft mounted bladder tank was just about empty too. Still seeping from the make-shift siphon hose out Sarah’s window. What’s the max airspeed for that window in flight, she thought to herself?

“I see it, I see it!” Hollered Frank.

“You see what?” Asked Sarah.

“A steady green light from the left side of the airfield. That must mean cleared to land. We did it, we did it.” Said Frank.


Frank cautioned Sarah on lowering the gear too soon due to the drag and extra power needed to reach the runway. She began adding flaps and started to slow to her final approach speed and held off on the gear. The right-side fuel gauge never seemed to be emptier and there was still about 3 miles to the runway. The FAA says the only time it needs to be accurate is when the tank is empty. Sarah was cool as a cucumber on this final stretch. A stretch it had been, she thought.

As they came through 1000 feet now, Frank and Sarah looked at one another as they heard what sounded like the stall horn. That couldn’t be, however, as Sarah’s speed was nailed on her final approach number. Was it the extra weight of the bladder tank? The air was smooth during this final decent, quiet too, but for that horn.

“That’s the marker beacon, Sarah. Keep going.” Said Frank.

“Do they have an ILS on runway 12?” Asked Sarah.

While Sarah was focused on the runway now, she couldn’t help but spot a flashing red light coming from the control tower. She thought nothing of it and continued. 100, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, Frank would always call out their altitudes as if they had a ground proximity warning system in their small aircraft. Only problem was his depth perception was terrible.

“All the gear, all the flaps.” Sarah Said.

“Oh my God, the gear, the gear, put the gear down, Frank!” She Blurted.

“5 Feet, gear down and locked, boom.” Said Frank.

Sarah greased that landing on that day. Frank though she could have held the nose off a little while longer but didn’t think it was a good time to mention it. After all, he talked her into leaving the gear up until they were lower. Not quite that low, Frank thought, but it did reduce all that extra drag. As Sarah was just excited to be on terra firma once again, she didn’t realize that taxiway E was several thousand feet further down the runway. She added power to make haste and just then the engine sputtered and quit altogether.

“Welcome to Bermuda, honey, did I promise you a dream vacation or what?” Said Frank with his signature grin.

Sarah’s heart was pounding with nerves now as she realized how close they came to not actually making it. She never did learn to swim and certainly didn’t have any hope that Frank would be able to save her, much less himself. She would have to rethink this whole relationship. At least, perhaps, they would stop flying for a few months and reflect on their decision-making skills.

Racing down the runway now was an operations vehicle with two men in the cab. They pulled up to the side of the Piper Lance, N430NG and shook their heads as they witnessed fuel dripping from a tube on the left side of the plane and the engine seemingly out of gas itself. And they say we’re slow and living on island time, the one man said to his partner in disgust.

“Hey boys, how are you? Can you drop us at the Fairmont, Hamilton Princess, please?” Asked Frank.