Silent Giants of the Atlantic
Enroute to St. John's, Newfoundland
Out of the gray ocean mist, the cliffs of the Newfoundland coast are slowly emerging. The over water segment from Prince Edward Island is almost over as I loosen my life jacket. It's probably useless anyway. Survival time in the cold water over a mile below is only a few minutes; if the engine quits, your only hope is to ditch near a fishing boat, if there is one.|
Banking the plane to the right, I fly east along the coastline of Newfoundland. The gray, rocky coast breaks into steep cliffs that spill downward into the white ocean foam. Deep fjords of dark blue water cut into the cliffs. The bare rock and fjords extend inland until they seem to merge into the low stratus clouds stretching northward to the horizon. Off to the right, misty-white scud clouds skim over the dark gray ocean to the southern horizon.
An unforgiving coastline, as unlandable as the miles of water I have just crossed. And I still must fly 300 miles before landing.
I am flying my single-engine Cessna 195, registration N3485V. Rolled out of the factory on August 8, 1947, this old plane will be fifty years old in 1997 - just like the pilot. Graceful, with a long fuselage and a round, radial engine, the plane is easily distinguished from aviation's newer, more efficient offspring. Forty-five years ago, these planes were the workhorses of small airlines and Arctic bush pilots. Today, only a few hundred remain, flown by private pilots who appreciate the deep, resonant rumble of the old radial engine; the gleam of polished aluminum propeller and spinner; the old-fashioned, tailwheel landing gear; and the large interior with front seats like church pews.
The Cessna 195 was the last of its kind, the final evolution of the 1930's classic Cessna Airmaster. The Airmaster flew during the Golden Age of Aviation, the period when Wiley Post, Roscoe Turner, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes set speed and distance records around the world. An era when airplanes had names and a time of great promise for aviation. As a descendant of the Airmaster, the Cessna 195 is a link to that Golden Age.
An airplane like this was built to fly long distances; to destinations the pilot and plane have never been before.
Today's destination is St. John's, Newfoundland, the most northeasterly tip of North America. St. John's reaches out deep into the North Atlantic, as far north of my home in Boston as Florida is south. After spending a few days in St. John's, I intend to fly due southwest, over the Canadian maritime provinces, across the United States, through northern Mexico, past the Tropic of Cancer to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California, Mexico, the most southwesterly point of the continent.
St. John's maritime weather changes rapidly. Three hours earlier, I'd heard from the Canadian Flight Service that the weather is holding.…Still, a freak snowstorm had covered the city only four days ago, even though it is early June. On this isolated tip of the continent, wind, fog and blowing snow make instrument approaches difficult for even the most experienced instrument pilot. I am not one of those. I earned my instrument rating only two months previously. If the weather deteriorates, my only alternate is Gander, another hour's flight from St. John's. I can reach it - but with minimum fuel reserves. There is nothing else.
I fly for an hour. Below are occasional small fishing villages. No roads lead into them. They must be accessible only by sea. Ahead, clouds obscure the horizon.
I am now over a continuous layer of low stratus clouds, less than an hour from St. John's. How far down do the clouds go? Does this stuff cover St. John's and maybe even Gander? As if reading my thoughts, Gander Center calls: "November 3485 Victor. St. John's weather is 1,500 scattered, visibility 15 miles, wind 260 at 20 knots..." I thank him for the call and relax a little.
The overcast below breaks as I make my approach. St. John's is bigger than I had imagined, more than a small fishing village. But the harbor is tiny and is entered via a strait only 600 feet wide. On both sides of the tiny passage, hills rise over 500 feet. It was from these hills that Marconi made the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission and Lindbergh last sighted North America as he began his Atlantic crossing over almost 2,000 miles of water.
St. John's tower vectors me out over the ocean. I fly out almost three miles and start my turn inbound. Then I see them. Icebergs! Three of them. So white! A brilliant white against the dark ocean. Majestic. And huge. One of them must tower a hundred feet above the water. And so much more is underwater. What do they say, eighty percent? No wonder one of these sunk the Titanic. Silent giants stalking the Atlantic.
In seconds they are gone. Behind me.
The runway is half a mile ahead. Strong crosswind from the left. There's the runway threshold. Now, flare gently. Keep the left wing down. Don't let it drift with the crosswind. One bounce, a second smaller one, and I am on the ground. A mediocre landing, but I have just set down at a tiny spot jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean that was only a remote point on a map this morning.
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