Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fancy cars
By Hagai Cohen

Mao Tse Tung said once that even a trip of a thousands miles starts with one step. Well maybe it is true but, in modern aviation, this proverb should be paraphrased: Even a trip of one mile starts with a thousand steps.

There are many people involved in the process of making an airplane fly, and although I have forty years of flying experience, an airplane in flight to me is still a miracle. There are so many reasons why an airplane should not fly that, every time it does, I am surprised.

We were assigned to fly a Boeing cargo 747 from London to Amsterdam. The average flight time is about 40 minutes. Yet, for the crew it is a full five hours work.

A short flight by itself is always a challenge to a competent crew. The takeoff and the departure procedures overlap the approach and landing in a very hectic manner. Multiple tasks are performed simultaneously the crew proficiency should be of the highest.

Upon arriving at our operations Office in London, we were handed the flight papers. The cargo consisted of only three pallets weighing togather about six and a half tons. “There is more cargo waiting for you in Amsterdam for delivery to New-York and Los-Angeles,” they told us.

Checking cargo before a flight is extremely important and is usually done very thoroughly. On a flight as light as this one, we pay even more attention, as the cargo could shift in flight which could cause a dangerous lack of control
Our cargo consisted of three fancy vintage sports cars on the way to an old car show and auction in Los-Angeles. The cars were Masseratti 1947, 1948, and 1949 models. The cargo papers said that each car was insured for 1.2 million U.S. Dollars. The cars looked as if a comics’ book illustrator designed them: two-seater convertibles. The seats were about seven inches from the road and the total height of the car was the height of a bathtub. The thing looked more like a hovercraft than a car. The engine took up the front half of the car. The seat and the fuel tank took up the rear half.

We all got into the driver seat ‘just to feel the sensation’ and realized you do not get into this car, you just put it on. With the deep bucket seat, it was impossible to see the road - not to mention the difficulty of getting out of the car.
The age of the cars engendered a lot of nostalgia. If only we had had a car like this when we were younger, it would have made a big change in our social status.
“With such a sexy car, even Quasimodo or Linda Trip could find a date” I said.

We were in a good mood when we climbed into our cockpit to prepare for the departure.
The cargo was so light, the takeoff run did not last more than twenty seconds. We made the usual five thousand feet per minute at an angle of 17 degrees. A piece of cake! We all relaxed.

As we put our plane into that steep climb, I smelled a faint scent. I was not sure what it was. It made me feel good. It reminded me of a perfume of some kind. The scent brought back old memories of my days as a young man in the airforce and reminded me of the old propeller airplanes and piston engines. "The old good times, when sex was safe and flying was dangerous."

The smell was getting stronger and becoming unpleasant.

“Gee,” I said, “this is a Gasoline smell - the ‘aromatic’ fuel that was used for piston engine aircraft. The purple gasoline. 115/135 octane, highly leaded for turbo supercharged engines. The cars, it must be the cars. Post war, high performance engines. They must be using aviation fuel.”

The first officer went to check the main cabin. As he opened the door at the top of the stairs, a blast of the gasoline fumes hit him. He almost lost his balance and instantly became nauseous. He closed the door and went to his oxygen mask. “Oxygen mask and regulators” he cried. We put on our masks and discussed the situation through the interphone on the masks.

The empty, pressurized hull was now full of the combustible mixture. It felt like being inside the combustion chamber of an engine, waiting for the spark plug to set it off. Anything could do it. A synthetic T-shirt, a plastic garbage bag, electrical relays, switches, light bulbs or flying into clouds. A tiny spark could blow us into pieces and with the help of gravity send us to the bottom of the North Sea.

My assessment was that, when we made our sharp-angled climb, the fuel leaked through the filling neck of the cars which was very low.

Instinctively, we wanted to declare an emergency and to land immediately, but on second thoughts, it was decided to climb to an altitude where a flame could not be sustained and the volatile fumes could be ventilated.

We all agreed it was better to stay high, delay our landing and land with a ventilated hull.

We continued our climb at a very shallow angle to 23000’ in which a flame cannot ignite, depressurized the airplane and stayed on oxygen.
Half an hour later, I went down to the cabin to assess the situation. This time I took the portable oxygen bottle and was very happy to discover that only a slight smell was left and all the gasoline had evaporated. We decided then to come out of the holding pattern and to commence our approach.

Of course, we landed safely but very angry. We made sure that no crew took the cars until the investigation. Someone whose responsibility was to drain the fuel before loading the cars did not do his job. Then there was someone responsible for disconnecting the car batteries, someone responsible to supervise and so on. The result of the investigation was typical. It was found that twenty people were involved and no one was guilty.

The mechanic said he came to drain the fuel but the gauges showed zero. He did not know the battery was already disconnected. The electrician said that he can identify a negative electron from a positive one but he does not know the difference between water and gasoline. The conclusion at the end of the investigation was that it was the crew’s responsibility to ensure that the work was done.

I felt during the investigation that many were trying to cover their negligence. I did not feel comfortable with that and decided to make an investigation of my own.

In an old-cars’ catalog, I found a car that uses the same kind of fuel. I wrote down all the details and called the auction company in Los-Angeles.

“I have this 1948 Alfa Romeo convertible with turbo supercharged six liter engine in mint condition and I want you to run an auction for me,” I said to the manager.

“Look, sir, I am ready to do it for you, but I want you to know that the market is very low here in California. You cannot drive a car like that around. The fuel is not legal and the highway patrol has this portable emission test probe. If they catch any car with high leaded fuel, the fine is hundreds of dollars.”

“Can you get me enough fuel to show the car around?” I asked.
“No sir, we are unable to do it for you. You must bring the car with enough fuel to show it around. Also you will have to pay for the insurance while the car is with us and for any tickets the police hand out.”

I notified the ‘flight safety officer’ of my findings and he had conducted his own investigation. The person who was paid to smuggle the illegal fuel on board was never found.

Like a wise person, I learned from experience. Since that incident, whenever I fly fancy old cars to Los-Angeles, I do not sit in the cockpit. I sit next to the black box and hold it tight just in case my aircraft ‘disappears from the radar screen.’ I will make sure to tell them that, this time, it was not ‘pilot’s error.’ And since the black box is what they will be looking for, I can be sure they will find me too!

Flight is a calculated risk: some people do the calculations, others take the risk!

The end

1 comment:

Roger said...

Hi hagai
You are very proliferic these last months...
Hotel Arabela is a good story Mr Shamir. I am waiting to see the big towels you tried to sneak out of the room....Ha Ha Ha