the Missing Hours and Fate
A short story by Chuck
Ellsworth. In his dealings with fate the hunter,
Chuck recalls an intuitive decision that could have been his last.
Finally after over a week of
just plain tough flying weather the stars came out and we would depart
Johnston Point on Banks Island for what should be an easy flight. This
flight would turn out to be remembered forever as one of the closest calls
I have ever had in almost fifty years of flying.
The year was 1975, late February. We were
flying supplies to a cat train that was shooting seismic lines for oil
exploration on Banks Island in the high Arctic. Johnson Point, an oil
exploration base camp with a paved runway, was the main airport for
supplying the western Arctic. In these very high latitudes winter means
total darkness for months and navigating in that very hostile environment
is difficult at the best of times.
We had just gotten our first twin otter
equipped with a new navigation aid called Global Navigation System. G.N.S.
was based on very low power radio transmitters located in various parts of
the world. In order for the computer to be able to navigate it had to
acquire at least three G.N.S. transmitters. Latitude and longitude had to
be entered, for both our departure and destination points, in the
computer. This entry was done with little wheels to select the numbers and
other information for each trip. A further limiting factor with G.N.S. was
that we had to have accurate positions for the computer to navigate to
wherever we set it.
Cat trains are always on the move,
consequently requiring a navigator with each train to take celestial shots
whenever he could to accurately keep track of their new location. Once the
G.N.S. stations were acquired and the trip was set up it was so accurate
we could fly several hundred miles and then return to our parking ramp at
the airport without a hitch. To us G.N.S. was like having died and gone to
heaven. Being able to navigate so accurately in the high Arctic, where the
magnetic compass always points strait down, was a “god send”.
This particular trip to the seismic train
was uneventful with no cloud cover at all just the stars from horizon to
horizon. After the last week of flying all our trips from takeoff to
landing on solid instruments while relying on two radar altimeters one in
front of each pilot for our landing decision height this one had been
easy. The only visibility restriction we had was the complete loss of
forward visibility in the snow which blew up when we went into reverse to
stop on the short runway, which had been ploughed for us, on the ice.
Sometimes these strips were not much over 1000 feet long due to the
location of the cat train at that time. Therefore, reverse was a necessity
to stop before we ran off the landing strip.
With clear weather and no rush to get back
to Johnson Point we went to the cookhouse, had a leisurely meal, listened
to the tape recorder playing music such as North to Alaska, which
we of course changed to South to Alaska. Finally, off to the
airplane we went where we decided to hell with waiting to reset the G.N.S.
Instead, with such a clear night, we would fly back to home base using the
astro compass. After lighting up the two P.T.6’s we taxied back to the
runway and lined up with the flare pots. We got the almanac out and shot
Arcturus. It is one of the easiest stars to identify and shoot due to its
position and brightness in the sky. Arcturus is the first bright star out
from the handle of the Big Dipper.
We read our heading on the astro compass, set our
direction indicators (gyros) and off we went for Johnston Point. Once
leveled off in cruise there was nothing but the sound of the engines and
the big canopy of stars that ended in a faint white blur which was the
endless Arctic snow just barely visible below us in the faint starlight.
Sitting in the warm cockpit with only the
sound of those dependable turbine engines and no sense of movement through
the dark night I slowly became aware that something was wrong but could
not quite figure out what it was. I remember asking the co-pilot to see if
Johnson Point was showing up on the A.D.F. After a few minutes he had no
luck, now I came wide awake and said, “This doesn’t look right."
Once more I gave him the time and he read
the almanac to set the astro compass. Again there was no change in our D.I.
settings. Suddenly a possibility came to me and I asked him what time he
had. When he read his watch we both knew we were in trouble as there was
almost three hours difference between our watches. I will never forget the
feeling of real fear when I realized that we had departed the cat train
with a D.I. setting that was almost forty-five degrees in error.
The realization of just how dire our
position was made it very difficult for me to convert the position of the
stars versus what I figured they should look like. Now there was no doubt,
in my mind, that we were far off our track for Johnston Point; so far in
fact I knew we might never be found. Time was now critical. We had to
decide which watch was right. Making a quick position guess based on
nothing but the time we had flown on this heading and instinct we turned
ninety degrees to the right starting a slow cruise climb for better fuel
In this part of the high Arctic, at night,
there is absolutely nothing but endless white, to try to recognize any
feature below you is hopeless. Both of us were really worried, and the
questions and doubts started. Whose watch was set wrong? Had we turned the
right way? Why had we not noted the runway heading after landing? Why had
we not written the heading down so as to be able to confirm our star shot?
Why did we not check both of our watches, especially since the airplane
clock did not work in these temperatures? Radio reception was so poor we
could not raise anyone on H.F. or V.H.F. Then, all of a sudden, the A.D.F.
came alive and there was the Johnston Point N.D.B. strait ahead. Soon we
could see the lights of our destination on the horizon.
For some time I had been quite concerned
about our fuel state. Seeing the lights in the distance was just too good
to be true. However, to be on the safe side we stayed at eleven thousand
until we could definitely make the airport. Distances can be so deceiving
at night in the high Arctic. Descending through one thousand feet the low
fuel light came on telling us we had eleven minutes of fuel left in the
front tank. I really don’t remember how much fuel remained in the rear
Of course, how much fuel there was in the
rear tank is now a mute point. It really doesn’t matter, because like in
Earnest Gann’s great book “Fate is the Hunter”, that night so many
years ago the hunter did not find my young co-pilot, whose name I cannot
even recall, and me. Had we turned left instead of right we would have
been so far off course it is possible no one would have ever found the
airplane or us in those millions of square miles of ice and snow. After
landing and going into the ATCO Huts, that were our accommodations, we
finally found out it was my watch that was wrong.
To this day I do not really know why I chose
to make the decision it was my watch; even stranger the damn thing worked
just fine after what should have been an uneventful trip. That just leaves
fate as the best explanation for my decision to turn right that night. Isn’t
it strange how words like Arcturus, Missing Hours and Fate can have such
chilling meaning when flying airplanes?
Note from the Editor.
Story by Charles Ellsworth. Charles trains pilots and companies on how to
operate and fly the PBY Canso. You can contact him
directly at Chuck@pbyflighttraining.com By
the way, has anyone ever noticed that Arcturus is on my self-made horizon
Top of this story.
Editor John S Goulet
Last modified on
March 05, 2006 .
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.