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Cessna 188 Pacific Rescue (wikipedia.org)
205 points by curtis 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

"Vette ... instructed the Cessna to point directly at the setting sun. He did the same, and noted the difference in heading between the aircraft as four degrees. After making an allowance for the differing altitudes of the aircraft, the difference in sunset times between the aircraft and Norfolk Island was also noted. This data allowed the crew to calculate that the Cessna must be southwest of the DC-10 by about 400 nautical miles."

A story for your kids when they think they'll never have to understand this math stuff, since computers do it for them.

Understanding the math and doing the calculations are two different things. Most kids rail against math because they don't see a practical application, not that it's being done for them; everyone knows that in the real world, the vast majority of non-trivial math is done by computers.

If I were a math teacher, it's stories just like this that I would use during a lesson. It has the added bonus it's true and very compelling.

The kids would be riveted! I know I was.

That said, the kids might point out that most pilots these days will have a GPS in the plane, as well as a backup iPad with Foreflight.

Especially if they're doing a cross-Pacific ferry flight.

The Cessna got lost because its direction finder was broken without pilots knowledge, and the other plane with backup equipment crashed en route. A future retelling of the same story would be "While boarding, the ipad fell onto the runway, cracking the screen and damaging the digitiser. The GPS then malfunctioned"

Here's an explanation of the 'aural boxing' technique used by the planes to find each other:


In summary: You assume that the target is stationary(ish) and you know, say, that it is to your front/left.

You fly straight and note when the other plane comes into radio range (i1), and when it goes out of radio range again (o1).

Now you turn 90 degrees left and note when it goes into range (i2) and out of range again (o2).

Now you connect i1 and o1 with a segment S1, and draw a perpendicular to it, P1, through its midpoint (the "Line segment bisector"). Similar, with 1 replaced by 2.

The intersection of P1 and P2 is where the target is.

This works because the edge of the radio range is (basically) a circle that you're intersecting with your segments, and the perpendicular bisectors go through the centre of the circle.

Cool technique. It doesn't even depend on your turn being exactly 90 degrees. It does depend on the pilot on the other radio jabbering on non-stop, and you knowing where you are - without GPS etc.

Frankly, the navigators of early last century, before GPS and inertial navigation system - respect. They knew how to reckon. (Here, the guys in the jet had INS, apparently, but still, hats off!)

Seems like a good place to share a few amazing plane related survival stories:

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Elder Lauren Elder survives 1976 plane crash

- https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17476615 Juliane Koepcke: How I survived a plane crash

- http://clear-prop.org/aviation/haynes.html The Crash of United Flight 232 by Capt. Al Haynes

Oh my, Lauren Elder's story is quite something. She survived the crash, climbed down from the mountain including a 100' descent straight down a dry waterfall, and made her way into Independence, California with a broken arm, looking for help.

And people shunned her!

Because she looked a bit disheveled.

From the Wikipedia's article:

> People saw her disheveled appearance and were afraid; Charles Manson had recently been put on trial in the town, and his female followers spent a lot of time hanging around it.

The full context makes people's reactions to her much more acceptable and understandable.

Very true, and I didn't mean my comment to be critical of the people in the town. Of course they had reason to be fearful after what they had recently experienced.

I was looking at it from her point of view: she barely survived a plane crash where the other two people died, almost lost her life again on the way down the mountain, and then when she thought she'd reached "safety"...

Just an awful experience for everyone involved.

United 232 is one of my favorites. The Gimli Glider deserves a mention here too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimli_Glider

I'm fascinated by the great skill demonstrated by pilots handling crippled aircraft.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesna_Vulovi%C4%87 Vesna Vulović fell 10km and survived.

There are strong doubts about that story: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jan/13/flight-attenda...

I'm reminded by the fictional movie Cast Away from 2000 starring Tom Hanks [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast_Away

> Gordon Brooks was the flight engineer on Air New Zealand Flight 901 and was killed when the DC-10 crashed into Mount Erebus, Antarctica, on 28 November 1979. Vette published a book about the Flight 901 disaster, called Impact Erebus.

And then Wikipedia leads me to this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_New_Zealand_Flight_901

What a series of unfortunate events.

There's an entire website for that. It's much more comprehensive than the wiki page. Also it has that nostalgic early 2000s feel.


> He touched down on Norfolk Island after being in the air for twenty-three hours and five minutes.

How is that possible? The Cessna 188 has a cruise speed around 110 mph (at 75% power) and a range of 370 miles. That implies a bit over 3 hours of time aloft. Stall speed is 60 mph. I'm not understanding how you get to 23 hours of flight time.

It's covered in the Bakula movie - they stripped the plane down to the extreme and installed fuel tanks so huge that they could barely take off.

That's also why he was on his own - his oppo crashed on takeoff due to the massive fuel load.

It looks like the full movie with the explanation is on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4_f3T8AzJo.

Forgive my ignorance, but could you say what "his oppo" means? Thanks!

(Update: after reading the Wikipedia article I see that it probably refers to "his colleague", but I wasn’t familiar with the use of "oppo" here.)

"Oppo" is British naval slang for colleague, I heard it alot from the older navy staff at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

https://www.hmsrichmond.org/dict_o.htm https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Australian_English_m...

> OPPO > Naval slang - short for opposite number - for the person doing the same job as one's self in another watch or ship. In the former case, since you relieved each other (in the old two-watch days), it behoved you to become friends; thus the word Oppo came to mean Chum. On a two-watch watchbill, the name of a man's 'opposite number' in the other watch was shewn against his own name in the opposite column.

Ah, roger that, thanks!

I see that this is a British English word, so it brings to mind the old saying: "Two peoples divided by a common language."

If it helps, I grew up in England and never heard this word either -- sounds like use outside aviation/Navy is rare.

It's archaic, apparently an abbreviation of opposite number. We might use work buddy today, where colleague is too wooden.

Was pretty common to hear amongst the wartime generation, but has declined pretty rapidly since the 80s. Never once heard it used for "sweetheart" as Webster's seems to think.

Coincidentally, not sure if the brand https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppo was inspired by that, but it certainly fits.

Blocked in NZ. Ironic.

Curious as to what's being censored here? From NZ too but thought we were pretty onto it with not censoring content

It's a full-length movie uploaded to YouTube. I'm guessing ContentID got it.

For ferry flights over the ocean, they'll install extra fuel tanks in space normally used for passengers or cargo.

Remarkably, the flight endurance record was set in a Cessna 172 and stands at 64 days. It was refuelled daily from a moving truck. https://disciplesofflight.com/flight-endurance/

Bu the Cessna in the article wasn't being refuelled - it was over the ocean the entire time. The question was about fuel endurance, not mechanical or lubricants endurance, as in your example.

Another story of a ferry pilot with a Cessna - though this time, the Atlantic - http://www.cessna150-152.com/transatlantic.htm (wayback with images: https://web.archive.org/web/20160306022257/http://www.cessna... )

> Leon meanwhile was too busy making final preparations to show concern. An extra "L"-shaped 66-gallon fuel tank had been made. It took up most of the baggage and right hand passenger area. The airplane was then flown to Moncton, Canada for transatlantic clearance.

Tangentially related is the "how do you get a Boeing 717 (range 2,060 nautical miles) to Hawaii (SFO to Hawaii is 2084 nautical miles)?" - https://www.reddit.com/r/aviation/comments/8scjkk/ever_wonde...

There are a number of videos on YouTube of people ferrying small planes across the north Atlantic. Usual route is via Iqaluit, Nunavut on to Greenland.

The hops required to fly over the northern Atlantic are surprisingly small, and quite manageable even in small single engine planes; they're ferried back and forth somewhat "routinely". You might still need ferry tanks, and definitively wear a dry suit while in flight (you don't have time to put it on when you are going down...), and you need a life raft. In case of engine failure, if you (and the life raft) get out of the plane and you get into the life raft within a minute or so, your chances of survival are quite decent. (The cold water will kill you in very short order otherwise.)

You can go Senegal to Recife, Brazil, if you prefer warmer water, but the hops are larger, and there's basically only one island in the middle with a military airport that you can't land on except in an emergency.

The Pacific, in contrast, is this vast ocean (as it were) of water - it's insane. Google Earth shows this beautifully. There's the very northern route via Alaska and Siberia - but while you are over land there, there are virtually no airfields.

Alternatively, you can hop via Hawaii, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, CMNI, Guam, Philippines/Japan, but still, the distances are enormous. And then the South Pacific - look at it in Google Earth. It's just water. Probably better off taking a boat there than a plane :-)

75% is a big waste of fuel if you’re trying to cross an ocean. Maximum range is achieved at Vg. I’m told maximum endurance can be had at 76% of Vg, though I haven’t checked the math on that myself so don’t quote me on it. :)

There’s another optimum at the reciprocal, Vg * 1.316, that gets you maximum speed per unit of fuel burned.

The Cessna 188 is an agricultural aircraft with a 200 gallon hopper, usually for carrying pesticides. I expect that this had been used as an extra fuel tank. The standard fuel tanks take 37 gallons. My dad was an agricultural pilot in the UK and in the early 1960s they would fly Piper PA25's from the UK to Sudan to spray cotton. That was made possible by using the hopper as a fuel tank.

Flying at a lower speed than cruise speed will allow you to save fuel (per unit of time, not distance). The plane looks quite lightweight.

Perhaps the plane was equipped with long-range fuel tanks? I agree that it sounds like a very long time for this kind of plane.

This BBC article about Atlantic ferry pilots might also be interesting: "The pilots who risk their lives flying tiny planes over the Atlantic", https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34484972 (HN Discussion at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17685358).

Here's another one: "The Parachute That Saved a Plane", https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/01/amazing....

Oh god. The group discussion about that "engineering solution" must have great.

"that breather line needs to be supported"

"no it doesn't"

"you can't just have fuel hoses where people can walk and trip on the"

"yes we can"

Then they all pretend like it's the greatest thing since sliced bread while the FAA guy looks it over.

Tangentially related: there is a website that gathers info about solo flights around the world, with links to personal websites and blogs, people who found this article interesting may like it: http://www.earthrounders.com/

Edit: there is also another website specifically related to solo flights around the world completed before the advent of GPS: http://www.soloflights.org/index.html

Potentially of interest: A free celestial navigation course:


Considering insuring the plane and pilot as well as the ferry and fuel fees. wouldn't it be cheaper to crate and ship a plane that size than to fly it over the open Pacific for 4 days?

My understanding is that crating and shipping an airplane requires disassembly. Then you have to reassemble it at the other end and reprove airworthiness as it has been rebuilt. The price, not to mention time consumed, is higher than just flying the thing to its destination.

I'm intrigued as to how the DC-10 had enough fuel to take such a massive detour?

A Cessna 188, even loaded to the gills with extra fuel, can stay in the air for 24 hours?

Probably. Throttle way back and fuel consumption drops dramatically.

"Vette wanted all the passengers to be involved, so he asked them to look out of the windows and invited small groups to come to the cockpit."

Can't imagine this happening in this century, given 9/11. Mind you, regardless of airplane security being more or less secure nowadays, and regardless of the chance of such a near accident/rescue happening plus the chance of having a terrorist on-board; rather because of the strict rules and the fear associated post 9/11.

As a kid/teenager last century, I was frequently let into the cockpit of airliners in flight, and sometimes even invited to sit in the jump seat and fly along for a while - at least once even for the landing. Glorious. Innocent days.

Since I saw this episode of "Air crash"[1] about Aeroflot Flight 593 when a kid invited in the cockpit crashed an Aeroflot Airbus I'm pretty happy that kids aren't any longer invite to the cockpit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1kPAWVI5UA

haha, yeah, I'm aware of that. I should say though that they let me sit in the cockpit, but they didn't let me "drive" :-)

Interesting use of the instruments.

Aside from the clear compassion and helpfulness, I wonder how much of it was thanks to careful training versus a creative use of the available tools?

Wellll..... it seemed to be a long list of ....

1. Tried this incredibly cunning and creative trick... 2. It didn't work. 3. Try another incredibly cunning and creative trick... 4. goto 2.

And then just before the end, Get Very Very Lucky with something that had nothing to do with cunning or creativity.

Not really, the Wikipedia page is a bit short on provinding the whole picture...

They used Magnetic Heading difference, with the difference between the setting sun angle, to determine general direction of the Cessna from the DC-10.

Then they used VHF boxing to pinpoint the Cessna. AT this point he was told to Fly NW. This direction alone would probably have saved him.

However Navigation at dark over the ocean is an iffy thing so always work it till you get home. So that is what they did. Since the Cessna could not see the fuel trail made by the DC-10 since it was higher up and the pilot could not see through his canopy, they used sunset settings times to further locate the Cessna.

Now with this additional directional confirmation Vette could have told the pilot a more exact heading and then, the oil rig location confirmed it.

If not for the initial course correction to fly NW the Cessna would have never seen the oil rig and would be somewhere in the ocean today.

> I wonder how much of it was thanks to careful training versus a creative use of the available tools?

The two kind of go hand in hand, though. First, because coming up with well-reasoned, highly-technical, creative uses for the available tools is a lot easier for well-trained people with a very thorough understanding of how the tools work. Second, because being able to stay calm and collected enough in an emergency to actually put those ideas into practice is itself the result of training and experience.

This is reminiscent of the Frederick Forsythe short story "The Shepherd", in which a Vampire (early British jet bomber) suffers instrument failure flying westward to Canada on Christmas Eve.

I highly recommend the audio of the classic reading by Alan Maitland of CBC's "As It Happens", available on their website. They rebroadcast it every December.

There was a made for TV movie about this in the late 80’s...it was one of the things that first got me interested in aviation. Wish I could find the name of that movie - any help?

From the article:

> The incident was dramatised in the American 1993 made-for-TV movie Mercy Mission - the Rescue of Flight 771. It starred Scott Bakula as Jay Prochnow and Robert Loggia as Gordon Vette.

The article mentions "The incident was dramatised in the American 1993 made-for-TV movie Mercy Mission - the Rescue of Flight 771." Maybe that is what you are referring to?

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