Unusual Attitudes

In 1964, the first year I was eligible to vote, Barry Goldwater was my man and, besides, everybody in conservative, Republican, southern Ohio knew he was a shoo-in. Then Jerry Swart came up with a trip to Antigua in the British West Indies over election week and invited me to play copilot in the Beech 18 he was delivering. I was 22 and green as grass with maybe 300 hours flying time. Free multiengine dual in a Twin Beech plus an all-expense paid trip to an exotic Caribbean island and an airline ticket home. Did I want to go? Did Jimmy Doolittle want to go to Tokyo? Did Amelia want to find Howland Island? So I cast an absentee ballot, knowing it was merely a patriotic gesture since Goldwater would score a landslide win. And I spent delicious evenings pouring over ONC charts of the Caribbean, spread all over my apartment's living room floor.

This garden (read: basement) apartment was cheap, five minutes from the airport and even had a balcony ... well, sort of. It was below ground level, like an oversized basement window well. The other unique feature was an old, old gravestone leaning sideways, at eye level, only a few feet from my bedroom window. At first this was a little disconcerting since "we" were sleeping at about the same level.

But back to the Beech trip. A Cincinnati guy named William Cody Kelly had bought a resort called the Anchorage in Antigua, BWI, one of the Leeward Island group. The hotel had a Cessna 195 they used to haul fresh vegetables and meat between Antigua, Montserrat and San Juan until the airplane, pilot and vegetables disappeared in the Caribbean. So Jerry sold Kelly this venerable Beech 18 that hadn't turned a prop in three or four years.

But the logs proclaimed the engines were recently top overhauled and, like an aging prostitute, the old girl looked pretty good from 50 feet in fresh -- if not skillfully applied -- paint.

A good pilot, Jerry looked a lot like Clark Gable in a sharper, more hawkish way ... and the pupil in one of his eyes was curiously cat-eye shaped. He was street smart, canny, an impeccable dresser and, although he came from a little river town east of Cincinnati, could fit himself seamlessly into any social situation. Finally, he was a crack aircraft broker in that hugely competitive business ... little airplanes in the '50s and early '60s, but later into corporate class and business jets. Jerry and I had a volatile relationship; we were, for 40 years, alternately best pals and fiercely at odds.

Extensive flight planning revealed there was an awful lot of blue on those Overseas Navigation Charts with occasional islands and a few low-frequency beacons. And even at 300 hours I suspected that this Beech was less than a creampuff. But, hey, the flight from Cincinnati to Ft. Lauderdale would be a good shakedown. Anyway, who cared! It was a huge adventure. We'd arrive on the island in the first week in November, before the Anchorage actually was opened to guests for the season. But the staff would be in place and Mr. Kelly said we could stay for a night or a week or a month. Food, oceanside cabanas, rum drinks, swimming, sightseeing ... how good does it get?

The week before we left I sat in the Beech with a manual and studied the huge, round ADF azimuth mounted in the middle of the instrument panel and the mysterious switches and dials and cranks that ran it up on the overhead. I pondered the mysteries of homing and tracking, relative and magnetic bearings because low-frequency beacons were pretty much all there was in that part of the world. It was a long, long way between the VOR station at Nassau and one at the west end of Puerto Rico. Jerry said we'd fly from Ft. Lauderdale to South Caicos for fuel and then straight on to San Juan where we'd overnight. Next day St. Johns, Antigua.

"Uh, Jer, what about heading just a little more south from Caicos and flying along the coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti? It isn't that much farther than going straight out over all that water and we'd be in sight of land most of the way. "

"Seems like a good idea but actually it isn't. See, it would be far safer to ditch in the Caribbean than to go down in or even near those countries. They don't like intruders and it would mean prison at best, cannibals at the worst ... or maybe the other way around. No, the ocean in that part of the world [the Bermuda Triangle] is so full of ships and air traffic we'd be picked up in no time."

Jerry oozed competence and confidence. He knew so much, was so sensible and -- I would learn -- was tighter than the bark on a tree. We would not spend one red cent more than essential on this expedition.

We taxied out from Lunken on a foggy, late October morning. The six passengers who had eagerly laid claim to free seats to Ft. Lauderdale had evaporated, probably after a closer look at the Beech. It was a shame, really, because the flight to Fort Lauderdale was great. We skirted every one of the thunderstorms that peppered our route from southern Georgia through central Florida because that big ADF needle pointed right at them. No, it didn't point at any beacons but once in a while you could hear Morse code through the static and even occasional wisps of talk and music.

"This is working out great, Jer. We know the ADF is no good but we'll be on the ground in Ft. Lauderdale in plenty of time to get it fixed or even have a new one installed tonight, right?"

He considered this briefly before explaining (and I promise this is true), "Well, think about it ... we know we can't trust this ADF receiver but, actually, that's in our favor. We have all your ded reckoning figures and, besides, the weather's always great down here. With so many islands as checkpoints plain old pilotage works fine. But if we installed a new ADF we'd be tempted to trust it. And if it was wrong, God only knows where we'd end up."

There was some kind of weird logic to this but, c'mon, I was tired and hungry and 22 and had 300 hours. Jerry was about 50, with years of flying. He'd been everywhere, even crewed a military C-47 in the Arctic in World War II. So we parked at Red's Aircraft and Jerry sweet-talked the gal at the desk into a crew car. Our Midwest Airways IDs (doctored-up business cards) and more of Jerry's charm got us crew rates at the Yankee Clipper at Bahia Mar. "Meet you downstairs in an hour and we'll get some dinner ... wear that dress you brought and we'll go someplace nice." Now "the" place in 1964 Ft. Lauderdale was the Polynesian-themed Mai Kai and I was appropriately wowed by the palm trees and tropical birds and flaming torches. I think Jerry was a scotch drinker and I wasn't (yet) much of a drinker of anything. So he ordered me some exotic concoction festooned with fruit and flowers and full of stuff that went down far too smoothly. I have no idea how many Planters Punches I drank that night, if we ever had food or how we got back to the hotel ...

Unfortunately, I remember the next morning in exquisitely painful detail.

I washed aspirin down with black coffee, unconcerned about the consequences of all that liquid because, blessedly, there was a relief tube in the back of the airplane. So we climbed out to the east on a clear morning over water colored every shade of blue and green, the coast of Florida receding into a blurred line and then Andros Island on the horizon. Hey, I was feeling a lot better and Jerry was absolutely right ... this was going to be a piece of cake. I got out of my seat and told him I was going back to unload some coffee. What luck to have that "relief" gadget ... kind of a rubber cup attached to a long hose that empted, well, somewhere.

Very shortly into the procedure I realized with some concern and then growing horror that the funnel was filling BUT IT WASN'T DRAINING. Was there a valve, something to press? I pushed and pressed. No. Would it slowly begin to drain if I was patient? I was patient. No. Finally, but not nearly finished, I started a frantic search for anything ... can, pop bottle, rubber boot, even a hat. Eureka! Sic sacs Jerry had stocked for the no-show passengers. So juggling to keep the funnel upright, I retrieved the bags, opened them with my teeth and carefully transferred the contents of the funnel. It was time consuming and labor intensive but I climbed back up front, now actually amused and thankful that the mechanical parts of this airplane worked better than that rotted out relief tube.

As we flew down the chain from Andros and past Great Exuma, low clouds were forming and soon we were down to about 600 feet over the water dodging rain squalls. It seems the paint was so new and fresh that Jerry didn't want to fly through any precip. Visibility was really poor, the ADF wasn't doing much of anything and we were too low for a VOR signal when there was a bunch of sputtering and yawing. Then both engines quit.

I yelled, "There's a shoreline," but Jerry's hands were flying, switching tanks and wobbling hard with the hand pump. With only 600 feet to the water there wasn't a whole lot of time. Then the engines sputtered sporadically into life and the airplane yawed violently again as the power came back. See, this ancient Beech had a single fuel system ... both engines ran off the same tank, in this case, the one in the nose. And the nose tank was full of four-year-old avgas contaminated with sediment and water and probably frogs.

We ran out of the rain showers into clear skies and the rest of the leg was pretty routine. In fact, by smoking a pack of cigarettes and sitting on the edge of my seat, I was able to keep us in the air, only relaxing when we spotted the flat, sandy shapes of the Turks and Caicos Islands. In those days the runway at South Caicos was crushed coral and the strip unattended. You buzzed the town and Lem McGuire, a big handsome Englishman (I think), drove out in a jeep to open the fuel pit. He brought a couple of locals who unlocked a crude wooden hut and insisted we buy some souvenirs. When a kid ferrying a Pawnee from Miami to San Juan landed to refill his tanks and the hopper, I felt kind of sheepish about being such a ninny.

Anyway, my only options were to stay at South Caicos with Lem (not all a bad idea) or climb back in the Beech for the 300-mile trip to Puerto Rico with Jerry. There were no more islands so we flew over open water for about three days. I was absolutely convinced Puerto Rico was a huge joke ... there was no such place. Then, sporadically and faintly, the VOR came to life and finally, we saw real honest to gosh land, not just another cloud shadow mirage.

We stayed overnight in San Juan and launched on the final leg to Antigua, fortified with real food and a good night's sleep. The flight took us over the most incredible islands with breathtaking scenery ... much different from the flat, sandy Bahamas. Saba, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis ... volcanic islands with lush green cloud-capped mountains and precipitous drops to lovely white beaches. It was a grand adventure and the four days I stayed on the island were heaven. Alas, a couple nights later at a restaurant up in the hills, everybody huddled around a shortwave radio and learned that Lyndon Johnson had soundly beaten Barry Goldwater.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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