Hold on, young man
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
While I was doing my ground job at Cold Lake, Alberta, I had a wonderful boss for a while. Unfortunately, he was about to retire after many years of service. Somehow, he had been able to arrange one last swing through the Canadian bases in Europe, just a few days before he was finally released from the service.
This was back in the days when the RCAF operated a couple of DeHaviland Comet jet transports on their longer runs. Ed had managed to wrangle a flight on one of these from Ottawa to Europe and back. All he had to do was to get to and from Cold Lake to Ottawa. I stepped into the breach and offered to fly him in a T-33 two-seat jet trainer. The flight to Ottawa was uneventful, and I saw him safely aboard the Comet.
I promised to be in Ottawa a few days later to meet him when he returned. It was critical that he got back to Cold Lake on schedule because there was a large retirement party planned for him in the officers’ mess that evening.
This was a tightly scheduled operation, so I flew down to Ottawa the day before the Comet was due just in case he arrived a bit earlier than expected. When I arrived, I found they were unable to hanger my bird for the night, and it was the depth of winter with temperatures dipping way below zero.
The T-33 did not like sitting out in the freezing cold for hours on end; they would get "cold soaked." What's more, the weather situation for our flight back was terrible. It was going to be almost impossible to be able to file a "legal" instrument flight plan to Winnipeg, our fuel stop.
Ed’s Comet arrived on time and within a few minutes, he was strapping into the back seat of the T-33. I noticed he was carrying a briefcase, which he stowed behind the head rest. I closed the canopy and found it hard to lock, which was not unusual in a cold soaked airplane. Finally, the locking lever went "clonk," and the canopy was locked.
Then I smelled a slight whiff of alcohol, which was not entirely unusual. The plane had a little valve in the cockpit that enabled the pilot to inject a shot of alcohol if a warning light indicated an ice build up in the fuel filter, so it didn't worry me unduly. I started the engine, got taxi clearance, headed for the runway and took off.
Our flight plan was via airways to Winnipeg, which itself had only marginal weather conditions. For an alternate destination, I had filed Duluth, Minn., which had much better weather. However, it would not have been possible to fly to Winnipeg, make an instrument approach, climb up again because of bad weather and fly to Duluth, as the regulations required.
I planned to make a decision over Lakehead. If the weather at Winnipeg had improved as was forecast, I would continue as planned. If it was still dicey, I would air-file a change in flight plan direct to Duluth.
The T-33 with a full load of fuel was not the quickest plane out of the box. We lumbered down the runway into the air and started to climb to our assigned altitude — in this case, 1000 feet above all cloud.
It was not long before I noticed that our cabin pressurization was not working properly. The cabin pressure was getting above where it was supposed to be. We climbed and climbed, and it was not until about 38,000 feet that we came out of the top of the clouds.
The T-33 does not like flying at that height. The band of airspeed between the onset of compressibility and the stall is very narrow. If you let the nose drop a couple of degrees you begin to feel compressibility buffeting. If the nose comes up a couple of degrees, the speed drops just a few knots and you begin to feel the onset of a stall.
Therefore, one is faced with doing some accurate, highly concentrated flying. We certainly had no autopilot in those days.
The cabin pressure was way above where it was supposed to be, and I was starting to feel a bit dizzy so I turned my oxygen regulator to 100 percent. As I flew on, the dizziness increased, my fingers were white and my nails starting to turn blue — signs of anoxia. I turned the oxygen regulator to "emergency," in which mode it actually forced oxygen into my lungs.
By now, we were about halfway across Lake Superior, and the weather at Lakehead was still well below weather limits for us to land there. I was feeling groggy and in a cold sweat. I kept saying to myself, “Hang on, young man. Hang on. Hang on.”
Eventually, after fighting these symptoms for what seemed an eternity, we passed over Lakehead. Now we were able to contact the Winnipeg Air Traffic Control Center on the radio, and they gave me the news I was hoping for; the weather there was improving rapidly. I asked for and received clearance to start an on-route descent.
As we began to descend, the anoxia symptoms gradually disappeared to the point they were completely gone as we came in for a landing. As we taxied in, I said to Ed in the back seat. “Christ! I thought I was going to die up there.”
He replied. "Yes, I thought I was going to as well." I was mystified until we got out of the plane. I got out first and as I looked up at Ed, I saw he was holding a briefcase with something dripping out of it.
The difficulty I had latching the canopy at Uplands was because Ed's briefcase was caught in it. The whiff of alcohol I smelled came from a shattered crock of Scotch that Ed had in his briefcase, not from the aircraft's fuel filter de-icing system. The reason that we did not get the right cabin pressurization was because the briefcase prevented the canopy from sealing properly.
With all of the alcohol fumes we inhaled on that trip, we were lucky we didn't crash. If we had, would the autopsy have found so much alcohol in our blood that they would have thought we were drunk?
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