Two days after arriving, I depart St. John's. A low overcast covers the city. As I climb through the clouds, the ground and sky dissolve into a white glow. All sense of motion, of up and down, are lost. My senses tell me I am suspended in an immense milk bottle.
My world shrinks to the single square foot of the control panel as I fly by instruments. The artificial horizon confirms my wings are level. The airspeed indicator is steady at 100 miles per hour. The altimeter shows I have reached 1,000 feet and am climbing. Good.
I pay particularly close attention to the artificial horizon in the middle of the panel. Inside, a tiny gyroscope spins four hundred revolutions a second. Just as a child's toy gyroscope returns to its original position when nudged, the gyroscope inside this instrument never moves regardless of what the plane around it does. Attached to the gyroscope is the instrument's face, a symbolic representation of the invisible horizon outside the windows.
As I start a climbing turn to the left, the instrument horizon falls away and drops to the right, just as the real horizon is doing somewhere outside. This tiny instrument has given me a three-inch window into the world outside the clouds.
As I level the wings, my body says the gyroscope is wrong. That it has somehow malfunctioned. I am not level, I am diving to the right. The physical sensation is almost overwhelming. But I believe the instrument, which says all is well. This is vertigo and almost every pilot experiences it at some time.
No pilot can fly by the "seat of the pants" in clouds. Here, your normal senses of feel and balance are useless - and deadly - if believed. You must fly the instruments, not what you feel.
A 1930s Army flying manual makes the point with a story. A military and civilian plane are both flying in a high, thin haze that obscures the horizon and ground below. The pilot of the fast military plane, seeing the civilian plane plodding through the muck just ahead of it, decides to play a joke and rolls inverted. The civilian pilot, seeing the military plane fly past upside down, and not completely sure of which way is up or down himself, promptly rolls his plane inverted.
Today, the Air Force is more formal and calls instrument flying "maintaining visual dominance over spatial disorientation." Pilots simply call it "flying the gauges."
The pilot who does not believe his instruments usually survives less than a minute before his body tricks him into a lethal spiral. A wing drops and the plane begins a shallow turn. The turn steepens. The confused pilot feels his body being pressed down into his seat. A dive! Scared, the pilot pulls back on the control wheel, unintentionally steepening the turn. The g-forces build quickly. If the pilot does not recover quickly, the wings snap, sending pilot and plane spiralling down.
At 5,000 feet I climb out into clear, blue sky. "On top" now at 6,000 feet, I head due west. In less than four hours, I will be in Moncton, New Brunswick, the most difficult part of the day's flying behind me.
To the south lie St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last remnants of France’s hopes of a North American empire. The tiny islands were somehow forgotten when France abandoned Canada for Louisiana after the Seven Years War. Unknown to most Americans, the islands still seat two representatives in the French Parliament.
The 275-horsepower Jacobs radial engine sounds strong. Jacobs engines powered twin-engined trainers in World War II used to train crews for the big B-17 and B-24 bombers. My engine never saw service during the War. It was pickled in cosmolene, a preservative grease, in 1946 and sat in the dry Arizona desert. When I ordered a new engine, it was unpacked, overhauled, run-in, and shipped as a "brand-new," fifty-year-old engine.
An hour and a half out of St. John's, I notice a problem with the fuel. The gauges show the left tank is down more than twenty gallons, but the right tank has not moved at all. I check the fuel selector. It is on Both, which means the fuel should be flowing evenly from both wing tanks.
Something is wrong. Maybe a fuel line is clogged or maybe the right gauge is simply stuck. I must find out. It is impossible to reach my destination on one tank. If the right tank is not flowing fuel, I need to land soon. The closest airport is Stephenville, more than 100 miles ahead.
I flick the gauge with my finger. No change. The only way to be sure is to switch completely to the right tank. If the lines are clogged, the engine will sputter and probably quit, but from my altitude of 6,000 feet I should have plenty of time to switch back to the left tank and restart the engine.
Glimpses of the coast are visible through holes in the clouds, rugged and unlandable. I make the decision to ditch in the water along the coastline if I cannot restart the engine.
I switch to the right tank. If it is clogged, the engine will start to die in less than thirty seconds. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty seconds...a minute. Slowly, I start to relax. Must be the gauge. After an hour, I switch back to both tanks. Moncton is now only an hour and a half ahead over the waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.