Gone Missing – Part 5 of 8

The Atlanta Air Traffic Control Center had handed the Beech Baron off to the Memphis Center and now Memphis Center was making the last hand-off, to Houston.

A crisp voice on the speaker told my brother, who was piloting the plane, “40 Sugar, contact Houston Center on one two one point twenty-five, good morning.”

Dave scanned his gauges, stopping when he read the fuel gauge.

He had been flying for four hours and 30 minutes. He had 45 minutes of fuel left with about 100 miles to go. He could do it.

Air traffic controller
Air traffic controller

Houston center, this is 40 Sugar level at 10, in bound to Hobby.”

And then came the embarrassing reply:

You are still with Memphis Center, sir. Contact Houston Center on one two one point twenty-five.”

Dave had been awake for 22 hours.  He had forgotten to change the radio frequency.

Fifteen minutes later Houston control directed him to descend and maintain 4,000 feet, the first step in the landing procedure.

Uh…Houston, we would like to maintain ten thousand as long as possible. We are fuel critical and would like to have a steeper decent that usual.”

40 sugar, are you declaring an emergency?”

That is the question no pilot wants to hear.

A “yes” to that question can bring incredible assets to bear on the problem and, usually, results in a safe resolution. At the same time it brings into sharp focus the question of who did what to cause the problem.

No sir, we are not declaring an emergency,” Dave said. “We would just like to hold on to this altitude a little longer if we can.”

In another 15 minutes, the flight was over. They were down, safe. They had made it to Houston with about five gallons of fuel to spare.

Continued tomorrow.

Gone Missing – Part 4 of 8

They met at First Baptist Church –the lawyer, the mother whose son was missing, and my brother — at 11 p.m., said goodbye to her parents, and headed to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Brother Dave’s Bronco.

The weather forecast was good, better than good — it would be pristine for the entire four hour, 15 minute flight to Houston. Even so, Dave had an extra hour’s worth of fuel, plenty of fuel to get to an alternate airport if the forecast was wrong.

Dave's plane
Dave Stith’s twin engine plane

My brother planned to fly his Beech Baron 55, a twin-engine aircraft, from Charlotte to just north of Atlanta and then to Montgomery, AL, Baton Rouge, LA, and on to William P. Hobby Airport in Houston. The Baron had a cruising speed of about 200 miles per hour at 10,000 feet and with no wind.

After the three of them settled into the plane Dave pressed the button on the mike.

Charlotte ground, this is November four five four zero Sugar at Thurston with the numbers, taxi please.”

Translation: The Baron’s assigned number was N4540S, they were at a hanger called “Thurston,” and Dave already knew about the active runway, barometric pressure, wind velocity and direction and was ready to taxi.

A few minutes later Charlotte tower cleared the Baron for takeoff.

Dave pushed two throttles forward as far as they would go, started his stopwatch and noted the time, 11:45 p.m. He had already been awake almost 19 hours.

Hello, Charlotte depart, 40 sugar climbing to 4,000 on two seven five.”

They were on their way.

When they passed the Vulcan VOR, an electronic navigation point in Birmingham, AL, Dave noticed that he was almost 15 minutes behind schedule. There was more head wind that he had been told to expect.

By the time they got to Baton Rouge they were 28 minutes behind schedule –28 of the 60 minutes of reserve fuel had been used — but the alarm bells didn’t go off in Dave’s head. Maybe he was just too tired.

He should have landed and refueled but he didn’t.

Continued tomorrow.