The Widow Maker
Growing up, my father was a recreational pilot. While I never understood the appeal, he found it relaxing to defy the laws of gravity with 2 tons of metal and gas on a Sunday afternoon flying in circles over Toronto.
In the beginning he was only rated for small single engine planes and visual flight plans. This meant he couldn’t go very far or fast and had to look at the ground to find his way.
But over the years he amassed various credentials and by the time I was in university he was instrument rated on twin engine planes. He was part owner of a Cessna 310. A six seater with decent range and good speed. A day of golfing in the Carolinas was doable from our home in Toronto, as were trips to New York.
He would also fly me out to university every fall to the east coast of Canada. We would pack up the Cessna like a station wagon and he would fly out with me, help me unpack, have dinner and a beer and he would fly back to Toronto the next day. For me, it was incredibly convenient and much nicer than the 24 hour train or flying commercially with duffels and boxes.
My final year of university would be the last time we took this trip in his plane, it would also be the last time I ever flew with him.
If you’ve never flown in a small aircraft there are a few things you need to know. Firstly, planes are ageless. Sure they were manufactured at some point in time but by law, their engines are pulled out and rebuilt every 1000 hours of flight. Their instrumentation is replaced and upgraded. Same goes for interiors. While technically my Dad’s plane was 20 years old, the interior and instruments were only about 3 years old. Entirely kitted with GPS, digital gauges and multiple radios not available when the plane rolled off the line in Witchita, Kansas in 1976.
Secondly, despite all this gear, pilots are decidedly analog. They fly with a series of books that detail every airport in North America. These references are as thick as a telephone book and printed on the same type of newsprint that is so infuriatingly thin that it makes it hard to handle. My Dad would fly with this leg mounted clipboard and a giant scientific calculator making notes and calculations throughout a flight that was so easy to navigate you could peg the compass at “E” and figure it out when you saw water.
The flight to Halifax was uneventful, I slept for long stretches of the 4 hour flight. We followed the St Lawrence most of the way and as far as flights go, it was above average, scenically speaking.
Now some more things you need to know about the air traffic system. As you fly around North America you speak to a variety of air traffic controllers as you pass through their air space. Every plane has at least 2 radios to help you do this. You typically tune one radio to one airport and the other to the next airport. You then leap frog the radios as you fly ensuring communication with at least one person. How do you know what the next frequency is? The books I mentioned before, tell you.
So you fly with this telephone book open flipping back and forth to find radio frequencies.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I went to school, doesn’t have a small private airport, instead you land at the International airport with the big boys. This isn’t uncommon and pretty pedestrian for me and my Dad at this point. We had landed at several large airports in the past.
If you’re familiar with Halifax International airport you will know it is something of a civil engineering punch line. Like the urban myth of the university that built its library without taking into account the weight of the books and is now sinking, YHZ had a similar story.
Like most port cities, Halifax can be engulfed in fog. In an attempt to prevent their airport from constantly being shut down, they built the airport far from the ocean.
YHZ sits in a wooded area about 45 mins from Halifax. A fog free part of the province perfect for landing planes. What engineers didn’t account for was when they removed the trees, it created a temperature differential between the air temperature and the ground temperature. The deforestation creates a thick layer of ground fog. The airport is frequently covered in fog when the harbour is clear and sunny.
Our approach was uneventful except we had no visibility. Couldn’t see anything out our windows. This isn’t a cause for concern since my Dad was flying on GPS, he could land the plane within 5 feet of the runway just on the handheld Garmin attached to the instrument panel.
On the radio we spoke with air traffic control who put us into position to land. Radio speak between plane and air traffic control is highly regimented. It requires the pilot to read back everything to air traffic control.
Air traffic: “Golf, Tango, Foxtrot descend to 3000 and hold on 168.9.”
Dad: “Roger - Golf, Tango, Foxtrot descending to 3000 and holding on 168.9er.”
With our landing orders received it was time for air traffic to move on to his next plane. His final task is to hand us off to ground control who will land us. The process is pretty simple, air traffic gives us a radio frequency for ground, we tune our second radio to that frequency and a nice man tells us how to land.
Air traffic: “Hotel, Victor, Uniform continue descending and tune to 112.45 for ground. Have a nice day.”
Dad: “Roger, Hotel, Victor, Uniform continuing to descend and... oh, uh”
As he was repeating his instructions the book that was on my Dad’s lap fell off onto the ground. It fell awkwardly in between the seat and centre console. He reaches down to get it, can‘t see it... fumbles a bit. Looks down between his legs. Can’t find the book.
Dad: Jon can you find that book?
I now reach over and start feeling around. I see my Dad starting to adjust the second radio. He’s forgotten the frequency given to him by air traffic.
I find the book which is now closed, having lost the page that had all the information we need to land the plane.
Dad: Jon, can you find the Halifax airport page. Did you know what frequency we are supposed to be on?
I didn’t. While I heard the conversation between air traffic and my Dad, I wasn’t really listening to it. Over a 4 hour flight I heard two dozen of those radio frequency hand offs. I had learned to tune them out.
My Dad continues to move the dials on the radio, hoping the frequency will come to him. Like trying to remember a combination of a lock you have. If I just keep trying numbers, maybe it will come to me.
I open the book and immediately forget the alphabet. Where does “H” come? After “T”? To make matters worse the incredibly thin paper means I have to lick my fingers every second page to turn them.
Lick, turn, turn. Lick, turn, turn.
Dad: You found it yet?
Jon: Almost. (I’m lying)
Now as all of this is happening we are descending pretty quickly. I look at the altimeter and see we are at 1000 ft. I look out the window. Fog.
What is more concerning is we aren’t talking to anyone. Our friend at air traffic has signed off and we can’t figure out how to talk to ground. We can’t see. My Dad is so distracted he’s lost track of his instruments and isn’t sure where he is without cross referencing with the book which I can’t operate because I’ve suddenly become illiterate... and we’re descending.
At 700ft my Dad grabs the book from me and begins his own attempt to locate YHZ in it. He is quickly defeated by the tissue paper. At 500 ft, the fog clears enough for us to see tree tops, we should be seeing a runway ahead. We don’t.
I hear my Dad say “Fuck it.”. He begins to rotate a metal wheel on his right side. This is the elevator control. The elevator control, is literally a wheel that controls a wire what moves the elevators on the wings up and down. As much as this plane was modern, it has certain things that can’t be upgraded. There are vestiges on all planes that reveal their age and engineering. The elevator controls are one of those things.
My Dad begins heaving on this wheel. He is having to manually force the elevators against wind and gravity to force the nose of the plane out of a descent into an ascent. A rapid ascent.
He also begins to enact a procedure for an emergency ascent that was clearly written directly after World War II. He tunes a radio to an emergency frequency and begins yelling.
Dad: “HOTEL, VICTOR, UNIFORM aborting landing at YHZ. Abort landing, abort landing. Repeat HOTEL, VICTOR, UNIFORM...”
We are now ascending a pretty steep rate. I then hear, the worst sound I’ve ever heard.
It sounded like the warning sound in a Bond film when the bomb is about to go off in the underground bunker and everyone needs to evacuate.
I look on the instrument dash and see a light I had never noticed before. It protruded from the dash about an inch. It was bullet shaped and orange. A small bulb inside flashed in sync with the siren.
Beneath the light was a small piece of stamped metal with letters embossed into it. Like one of those name plaques you see on an executives’ desk in Mad Men. The plaque read, “Stall”.
“HOTEL, VICTOR, UNIFORM aborting landing at YHZ. Abort landing, abort landing. Repeat HOTEL, VICTOR, UNIFORM...”
At this point I realize that YHZ ground must have seen a plane on their radar go...
1000, 900, 800, 700, 600, 500... 500. 600, 700, 800, 900, 1000
They are probably yelling on their end into a radio frequency we aren’t on.
We continue to rise in the fog, unable to see anything. We are not entirely sure where we are but I know that there are very large planes near us. I then clearly see in my mind’s eye, how I will die.
The fog will part just enough that I can make out the words “Air Canada” just before we slam into its fuselage. At this point I close my eyes.
I remember being very calm. My brain, having come to terms with the simple fact I was going to die, flooded whatever chemicals it needed to into my nervous system to prepare me for death. Then... nothing.
I waited, for what felt like a minute or two, with my eyes closed. I could feel the plane level off and I opened my eyes.
We levelled off at 3000 feet, my Dad got the stall warning siren turned off. He decided to not attempt another landing at YHZ, instead opting to fly to St. John, New Brunswick and land. We would rent a car and drive to Halifax from there.
Upon landing at YSJ, the ground control there said:
“Welcome to St John - Hotel, Victor, Uniform. Uh, got a note here that Halifax air traffic control wants to speak with you.”
My Dad found a phone in the hangar and got yelled at for 5 minutes from an air traffic controller who must of been having a seizure as he scrambled jets out of the way of this rogue Cessna. At one point my Dad had to hold the receiver away from his head as the controller yelled at him.
I took to lovingly referring to the plane as The Widow Maker after that. A joke, that my Mom didn’t find funny. I also never flew with my Dad again after that.