Flying in the Fog (Part 1)

Jul 26, 2019 by Beth Ruggiero York, in Books

Trees in heavy fog “What would you like me to call you?” I asked the uncomfortable question, unsure if it was even okay to ask. Should I call her Mrs. Onassis, or Mrs. Kennedy, or something else?

“Jackie,” she said. Her response took me off guard.

I said nothing more and helped her out of the small twin-engine prop plane now parked on the tarmac at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. She wore the signature kerchief over her head and dark sunglasses. 

Our flights were becoming almost regular. Every week or two, I picked Mrs. Kennedy up at LaGuardia Airport in New York and flew her to the Vineyard, or occasionally Fisher’s Island. It felt as though I was flying royalty, a far cry from the freight I’d been carrying around for most of my flying career. I longed to have a conversation with Mrs. Kennedy but I could do that no more than I could call her Jackie. As nothing more than her limo driver in the sky, it wouldn’t be right. So I remained quiet and respectful, spending my time ensuring the flights were as smooth as possible p..

I carried her small bag across the tarmac to the terminal. Once there, her actual limo driver took the bag, and she nodded politely to thank me. I took that as my exit cue.

Back at my home base of New Bedford, I prepared for the next flight of the day with Congressman Gerry Studds. Now that summer had arrived, he was on the schedule for a regular Friday flight to Provincetown.

The lineman fueled the airplane while I completed pre-flight paperwork in the office above the hangar. When I saw the Congressman’s limo pull up to the airplane, I scrambled down the stairs to greet him. 

“Good afternoon, Congressman.” 

“Good afternoon,” he said without looking at me.

We boarded the aircraft and taxied out for takeoff.

About ten miles from New Bedford, air traffic control instructed, “Baron Six-Seven-Delta, contact Boston Center on 128.75. Good day.” They handed me off for the next segment of the flight. 

“Roger, contact Boston Center,” I confirmed and dialed in the new frequency.

“Why did you file a flight plan?” My passenger asked over the intercom as we passed through two thousand feet. “It’s certainly clear enough.” It seemed he was questioning my judgment.

“Not on the Outer Cape, sir,” I responded. “The fog is rolling in. Flight Service said Provincetown is six hundred feet overcast right now. Hopefully, it will stay that way. Minimums are two hundred feet.”

Something else that comes with a summer on the Cape is fog, unpredictable, dense fog that rolls in silently. Its arrival is a caution signal for both pilots and fishermen, and today, low clouds and fog were predicted for the entire Cape. There was silence in the cockpit as we proceeded on the short flight at the assigned altitude of five thousand feet. By the time we were over Sandwich, we were in the clouds, and I was flying on instruments. 

“Baron Six-Seven-Delta,” the controller radioed, “continue on heading zero-three-zero.”

“Roger, heading zero-three-zero,” I repeated.

Approximately twenty miles from Provincetown, Boston Center again instructed, “Six-Seven-Delta, continue to fly heading zero-three-zero until intercept. You are cleared for the approach. Contact Unicom and report on the ground to close your flight plan.”

Unicom is an informal method of communication, separate from Air Traffic Control, and there is never a guarantee that someone will be there to answer. As an uncontrolled airport, ground information for Provincetown such as visibility, ceiling, wind direction and speed is based on reports made by other pilots.

“Provincetown Unicom, Two-Three-Six-Seven-Delta twenty miles out looking for airport advisories,” I announced over the static. 

“Roger, Six-Seven-Delta, it’s pretty calm here,” the familiar voice responded. It was Henry. He drove the fuel truck at the airport, and when he wasn’t busy making his rounds, he manned the radio. Henry had become accustomed to my weekly arrivals at the field with Congressman Gerry Studds. “Runway Seven is active. Last pilot came in about thirty minutes ago, and he reported the ceiling right at two hundred feet, but you know how fast that fog moves.”

“Roger,” I confirmed. “We’re twenty miles out, inbound for the ILS approach to Runway Seven.”

The Congressman folded his newspaper and laid it on the backseat. “Are we going to get in?” he asked me. Although this was our third flight together, we had arrived the previous two times under sunny skies. 

“As I said earlier, sir,” I answered, “the minimum ceiling for the approach is two hundred feet, so as long as it doesn’t drop below that, there won’t be a problem.”

I turned to intercept the instrument approach path. It was a straightforward approach that guided airplanes over the bay until ending at two hundred feet over the beach, presumably with the runway in sight. At least I hoped it would be in sight, but if not, I was required to declare a missed approach and try again or go to an alternate.

The glide slope led us in the gradual descent. The air was still and made for a smooth ride and a quiet cockpit. At eight hundred feet, I lowered the flaps to ten degrees, and at six hundred, I lowered them again to prepare for landing. Wheels down now, we continued to descend. The visibility was still zero, without even a short glimpse of the terrain below. 

At five hundred feet, my passenger glanced over at me as if questioning if we’d soon be out of the fog. 

At four hundred feet, I added the last bit of flaps. At this critical stage of the approach, with only two hundred feet to go before seeing the runway, my eyes moved quickly between the instrument panel and outside, back and forth anticipating the runway coming into sight. 

At three hundred feet, it still was not in sight.

At two hundred fifty feet, with no thinning of the clouds that engulfed us, I prepared to abort the landing.

“Prepare for a possible missed approach, sir,” I alerted him.

Two twenty-five, two fifteen, and then two hundred feet. No runway, no visibility. I retracted the landing gear and flaps and pushed the throttles to full power for the climb back out. 

The Congressman sat forward with heightened attention.

“Boston Center, Six-Seven-Delta is climbing out on the missed approach at Provincetown…”  

My words were cut short by the sound and force of a sputtering engine.