Around the world in 1964

Inspired by meeting Matt Guthmiller, the youngest pilot ever to fly around the world, I’ve decided to dip into the classic around-the-world aviation literature. Three-Eight Charlie has been a $ 100 collectible until the 50th anniversary of this 1964 flight came around and now it is a $ 3 Kindle book. Jerrie Mock did the trip in 1964 in a Cessna 180 taildragger with no deicing gear. Mock had a Private certificate and a fresh instrument rating. Her 11-year-old plane was equipped with an autopilot but no deicing gear. What about the single engine in an age before CNC machine tools made everything mechanical more reliable?

It never hurts to have an extra. Except for engines. On a long flight, where the plane is overloaded, if one engine of a twin were to quit, a second one wouldn’t do much good. The average light twin isn’t much good at maintaining altitude when it’s loaded down …

The Cessna’s cabin tanks were full of gas, and the plane must have weighed almost 3,400 pounds—a lot more than the 2,500 pounds that it was normally licensed for. My ferry permit, from the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency, made the flight legal, but not necessarily safe. …

The autopilot does not seem to have been digital…

It was a funny feeling to sit there in the middle of the clouds, with nothing to look at beyond the red nose of the Cessna and know that the gyroscopes and pneumatic valves and bellows in the autopilot would take me safely to my destination.

Radio communications and navigation were in some ways the same 50 years ago and also completely different. Voice-over-VHF was used when reasonably near an airport, e.g., 50 miles away. Finicky HF was used when out over the ocean. VORs were new and ADFs were standard. The idiot-proof GPS and moving map was 30 years in the future. Mock was thus often lost:

[when flying from the Midwest to Bermuda on the first leg] I turned on the ADFs (Automatic Direction Finder) and tuned them to the Bermuda beacon. I was surprised and delighted to pick up a weak signal. I had hoped for long-range reception, but hadn’t really thought I could get a station this far away. But now what? The needles of the two sets were pointing 60 degrees apart! Which one was giving me a true bearing to the station?

Well, the number-one ADF hadn’t been disturbed, as far as I knew, so I decided to trust it. I wondered which direction the wind was blowing the plane. I knew I had a westerly tail wind, but was it from the southwest, west, or northwest? I was to have received that information from Kindley, but that was impossible without the HF radio.

Mock makes it to the Azores:

Then I noticed that the plane seemed to be slowing up. The airspeed had dropped off a little. Not much—but why? Was the plane climbing? No, it had lost altitude! I pushed in the throttle for more power. Was something wrong with the engine? Did I have carburetor ice? No. The engine instruments showed the proper amount of rpm and manifold pressure. And I was using enough carburetor heat to keep the Richter carburetor air temperature gauge in the green, indicating ice couldn’t form. Maybe I had forgotten to retrim the plane. I shut off the autopilot to see if that made any difference. No, the autopilot was OK. But something was certainly wrong. Even with the increased power, the plane didn’t want to hold altitude. And then I had a frightening thought. Ice! I found a flashlight and turned its beam on the strut outside my door. Ice! About an inch of it clung to the leading edge of the strut. Undoubtedly, as much, or more, would also be on the wings, although I couldn’t see them from inside the plane.

Where was Santa Maria? Ah, the beacon! “Three-Eight Charlie is over Sierra Mike Alfa.” I was cleared to make an ADF approach. I hoped I could remember how to do it. As I was making my procedural turn and starting inbound to the airport, I had a vague feeling that the headings were off a little. The compass maybe? Fortunately, the beacon was on the airport.

“Three-Eight Charlie. Don’t hit the mountains.” The controller sounded a little nervous.

If the Air Force men had been up all night, waiting for me, they showed no signs of weariness. I wished I looked as wide awake. One of the officers was General Boylan, and he explained that they had flown over from Lajes Air Force Base, on Terceira Island, about 150 miles away. He had a message from Gen. Robert Strauss at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus. So! All this special attention from the Air Force was Bob Strauss’s work! General Boylan informed me that the ceiling had been one hundred feet when I landed. I didn’t tell him it was the first instrument approach I had ever made without an instructor.

So far I’ve only followed Mock to Casablanca but I’m enjoying the book as a reminder of just how adventurous some people were back in the old days.

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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