Howdy everyone, A big thank you to all of you for your support and involvement. After my first night over the Indian ocean in conditions I am about to illustrate, I now know why Mike and James appreciate and value your support so much. It can get serious up there at times and it is then that knowing you guys are out there means so much!
Yes, finally after the various delays the time came to have last handshakes and hugs and get our scrawny butts into that oh so sexy silver machine and head into the night. Tanks full (430 litres) and all the other stuff needed to circumnavigate planet earth packed into the spacious cabin, James and I lifted off effortlessly and climbed swifly into a cool evening sky, escorted By Mike and Jay through the Pinedene route out to the east. W we were feeling good. But then as with these trips the final goodbyes are said and Mike and Jay peeled out of the formation to make it home before dark. Suddenly the cockpit takes on a new atmosphere and James looks at me and we smile knowing that we don’t know what lies ahead – it ain’t gonna be a walk in the park but we going to have a load of fun.
It starts getting dark fast and we turn down light intensities in all the instruments and start discussing how dark it is going to be over the ocean tonight if there is no moon. O, yes the Ocean! James says we must remember to wear our Life jackets when we cross the coastline. RIGHT at that point the realization that we were going to be over the Indian ocean for the next 13 or so hours in the dark, dodging storms got my adrenal glands a tad excited. So, I spent the next 20 mins with my but pointed east repacking the rear seat and becoming familiar with the life raft, ration packs and water, all tied to each and ready for action. A chat with James about drills in the event of the various things that could cause us to go for a swim relaxed us both and we settled into the flight.
It was a particulary beautiful night sky for us to savour as we sailed east off the Kosi bay coastline having a last chat to Maputo ATC. Wisps of light cloud lit by the half moon drifted beneath us at a healthy pace, we were enjoying a good breeze right from behind, the way we like it.
We were set to make good time, all weather sources reported good weather except for a couple of renagde storm cells hanging around the southern end of Madagascar. No problem to us – we will see them, route north past them and then the last run to reunion. Now we are chilled and content, so all sorts of fun things start happening in that slick little silver cocoon. After all we are going to spend a lot of time in there!
So, out comes the iPod, music chosen, Coolerbox out, dinner chosen and served. Life is sweet, we are relaxed and things are dandy, tailwind still good and we are styling. Evan the super new upgraded satellite tracker is tested and we have sent and received our first text msg. This means Mike and our team of good friends will be able to warn us of bad weather ahead and redirect us. Perfect – I mean what could possibly spoil this cruise?
So with full tummies and Bob Dylan making us happy we voted that I sleep a while as James was still refining the new fuel transfer recording system and we sailed on at about 130 knot ground speed I lay down on a perfectly reclined seat watched the stars. I even made a wish with every shooting star I saw before closing my eyes and floating off to dreamland. (It turns out August 5 to 8 has the best shooting stars of the year!)
After a very fine nap I woke up and the picture was a little different. Clouds had got thicker and now the lovely star lit night was a white ceiling. Up a little down a little and we managed to spend only short periods in the ‘white house’. About an hour before reaching Madagascar things seemed to clear and happiness prevailed – but then those storms we were warned about. Well, they were indeed an impressive show of mother nature’s energy, but we managed to route north of them by violating Madagascar restricted airspace (sorry) and they were just a pretty show for us to watch as we sailed past. Now James was ready for a little well deserved sleep, so I prepared the space behind his seat and after briefing me for the happenings for the next hour or so, he reclined with his favourite pillow and went off to sleepy land.
James woke as we were passing the South east end of Madagascar, casually said “Madagascar”, scanned the instruments and immediately fell back into slumber. Bob was still keeping us in good song and we had covered all the instruments with thin fabric to reduce the effect of their glow on our night vision. The moon had set and the autopilot was doing a very fine job flying us to Reunion. At this stage I was really having to strain my eyes to see any hint of a horizon, so that in the event of an autopilot failure or an artificial horizon glitch I could immediately take over and fly. Soon, though, I could see no horizon at all out of the cockpit.
It just got darker and darker and darker, so I woke James and we discussed the situation – we could still see the lights from Madagascar, so worst case we could turn towards there. But we chose to fly on – after all we have two EFISs and two separate attitude sensors, we have tested this wonderful MGL instrument system and are entirely happy with it performance and reliability. So we pushed on , tailwind, lots of fuel and surely if there were problems ahead Mike would see them on the weather site and let us know via our fancy satellite text system.
We flew a while with total blackness out there relying on our trusted Instruments and autopilot. Then James switched on our Bright Kuntzelmann landing lights and only then we realised it was raining, and really hard. It seems crazy, but the Sling 4 is so quiet and the water whips off the windscreen so smoothly that we hadn’t heard the rain crashing into us (over Bob Dylan!). We wanted to take a photo of the stunning site of the horizontal rain in the headlights, but the camera eluded at that point. We sat and enjoyed the water show in amazement (and some nervousness!).
At this point we had climbed to 10 000ft and the rain was intense. We did not really want to fly in the rain for too long so decided to climb as we could see what looked like stars above. So, prop controller to climb, a bit more power and up we went. 11 000ft, still rain, stars still lightly showing above, so we pushed on to 12 000ft. Still raining madly and no visibility at all outside the cockpit! Now what? We knew for certain if we lost instruments and autopilot we were in big dwang the only real option would be “pull that parachute”.
Then it happened! The autopilot suddenly pitched radically and the world went wild. My first thought was “instruments and autopilot have failed, here we go”. But despite my first thoughts, it took only moments to guess the real problem ICING! A quick glance ASI ZERO and TAS indicator ZERO. Ground speed, however, 104 knots. What else could it be? (Thanks Marc Gregson for focusing our minds on this earlier in the day!)
James immediately disengaged the autopilot which was trying to pitch the nose down because of lower than stall airspeed and then pitch it up again to maintain altitude, a bit like a bucking bronco! He started flying the plane manually on the artificial horizon and only the GPS airspeed to look at, IAS and TAS stayed fixed at zero.
We all know this is an extremely dangerous moment to manage and many pilots have died in these conditions. James descended us perfectly using GPS trend speed to control pitch. As I looked out of the window with my mag light the leading edges of the wings were thick with a white crust of frozen water and large pieces were peeling off and running back over the wing skin. We were strangely calm as we sat in T shirts and life jackets in our heated cabin waited for the ice to melt.
At about 7 500ft the ASI suddenly sprang into life, started to rise and we guess it arrived at the truth at about 7000. First thing we did, we reset the trusted autopilot and then flew quietly in that rain for another 40 mins or so before breaking out the other side.
The sky was dark from there on but clear. We relaxed and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of just being alive, savouring every moment, every breath and thinking wonderful things. We were blessed with a most amazing sunrise over low cloud. James had a bit of fun descending through the cloud and we flew the lat 45 mins at about 2 000ft.
Reunion appeared as a very large mountain in the middle of that big blue Indian Ocean.
So that is were we are now, living and loving life to the full!
Big thank yous’ to Laurent Mayer who has treated us like an old friend, arranged lunch, transport and (magnificent) accommodation at the Grand Hotel du Lagon, to Arnaud Lagesse who’s family owns the hotel and to the Roland Garros Reunion Aero Club, for hangarage and discounted fuel.
Next the Maldives. Anyone care to join us for a night flight through the ITCZ?
After all there are two extra seats!