Unusual Attitude
Two-Four Fox was established on Victor 111 east of Monterey and Cannery Row at 8,000. We had just passed over Big Sur near the Hearst Castle, unseen below. More than two hours on solid instruments, the longest ever for me. My son was asleep in the right seat.
    Station passage: TO flag replaced by FROM. Log time. Correct course to 292 degrees. Another dog-leg over the ocean. Turbulence becoming gradually stronger. Rain hissing on the windscreen.
While computing our groundspeed, I became distracted from the instruments. When I looked back, things had gone to hell.

Unusual attitude.

No more than twenty seconds ago, I was straight and level. Now I am shocked to see that the plane has entered a left turn, already 30 degrees off course, and the angle-of-bank is increasing. The altimeter reads 7,600 and going down. The airspeed is 10 knots higher than our cruise speed and increasing.

Correction is simple enough: level the wings and pull up. Practice pays off.

Save for prompt remedial action by the pilot, however, watch out: As the plane begins to descend with altimeter unwinding, pulling back would seem to be the correct thing to do, but there's a catch. Pulling back is not exactly the same as pulling up. Instead you would be tightening the turn, banking still more.

There is a special name for this perilous maneuver: "The Graveyard Spiral."

    On course and level at 8,000 feet again. La-dee-dah. Oakland Center probably didn't even notice my dippy side trip.
All at once -- and for the first time in my life -- an avalanche of sensations, a crush of irresistible feelings... Vertigo!
The Bonefish was a converted PBY-5A, the Catalina Flying Boat of World War II, named after the 'bonefish', also called 'banana fish' or 'ladyfish', which inhabits shallow coastal and island waters in tropical seas and is admired by anglers for its speed and strength.  The plane was manufactured in 1943 by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1830-94 ('Dash 94') Twin Wasp radial engines, 1,200 hp each, and boasted a cruise speed of 125 miles-per-hour (109 kts) as outfitted.


This unique aircraft had been lavishly customized and detailed in a pale yellow, hence its name. Onboard was a galley with full-sized refrigerator and range. Amidships was a dining compartment convertible to sleeping quarters. Best of all were the two observation salons. They were enclosed within plexiglass bubbles adorning either side of the inflected hull.  The two gigantic powerplants occupied nacelles on the wings held high on streamlined struts. At the tips of the wings were retractable pontoons. In-board under the wings were slung two runabouts -- a matched pair -- electrically winched into fairings for flight but ready to be lowered away into the water for -- well, for running about.

The Bonefish was the ultimate recreational vehicle. A Kris-Kraft with wings, a Winnebago in the sky. And it was for sale. The plane was on display in San Francisco. Agents for the owner distributed a four-color brochure, which a friend had sent me. I studied it for hours, dreaming...

"We could operate a luxury charter service," I told my two teenage children at dinner during a parental visit.

"Baja!" Victoria exclaimed. "Special trips to see the whales."

Harv leafed through the brochure. "How many people will it carry?"

"Sixteen originally. As equipped now, eight."

"Does the Bonefish need a co-pilot?" asked Harv.

"That beauty grosses out at 36,000 pounds. According to the regs, any airplane that weighs over 12,500 pounds must have two pilots."

My daughter smiled brightly. "If Harv is the pilot, may I be the copilot?"

"Or vice versa" I said.

"No way," grumped my son.

My daughter closed her eyes. "Vacationing on a flying yacht. With my friends."

The appointment with the agent was scheduled for that Saturday. I was in a hurry, thinking the Bonefish might be taken before I could get there. At the last minute, I invited my children to come along. Victoria was on a sleep-over. Getting my son to give up a Kung Fu movie with his buddies was a tough sell.

An all-night drizzle and ground-fog continued into the morning. Drenching rain was predicted to last through the weekend. Solid instrument conditions to 25,000 feet, with freezing level at 12,000. "You can have the copilot's seat both ways, Harv."

We headed down the Palos Verdes hill into the thickening fog. I idled to a crawl on Pacific Coast Highway. "We have an appointment with the Bonefish," said I, punching Harv's shoulder. "What's a little haze and drizzle?"

"It'll be a zero-zero take-off," my son commented.

Outside the hangar, the two of us paused for a time in the gray silence. Our eyes could make out nothing at all beyond the ramp. Together, we shoved the steel doors along their tracks. Cold droplets drenched our hands. My son and I flicked water at each other. I turned to gaze upon Two-Four Fox, cloaked in the diffused morning light.

A familiar but always fresh excitement seized my spirit.

"Expect clearance at :25," said Torrance Tower. "Time now :20."
Five minutes to wait. Five minutes to meditate upon the upcoming challenge. One might practice simulated zero-zero take-offs any number of times under the hood, but when it is for real and as the time draws near -- well, you know you are about to do something.

"Two-Four Fox, are you carrying passengers for compensation or hire?"

"Negative," I answered, winking at Harv. "Gave 'em all refunds."

"Two-Four Fox," said the tower. "I repeat: Information Alpha is current: ceiling zero, visibility less than one-eighth." The controller paused. "Runway Two Niner Right. Cleeeeared for take-off. Report airborne."

Thus, with that formal exchange recorded on tape, both the tower controller and the government are off the hook.

Peering over the cowling, I taxied slowly onto the numeral '2' and turned just before the '9' painted next to it. One pair of runway lights came into view immediately to the left and right of the plane, the last things I would see on the ground for more than three hours. I straightened the nosewheel and wiped my left hand on my trouser-leg.

"Let's go flying."

    Power up. Airspeed. Lift nose wheel. Tap brakes. Wings level. Reach for microphone.
"Two-Four Fox is airborne."

"Contact Departure Control. Have a good trip."

Ho-hum. Gonna check out that Bonefish.

During my instrument training and during hundreds of hours of 'actual,' I had never experienced vertigo. "Must be immune," I had bragged to myself.

Instrument flying takes my full mental effort. Effort not concentration. Concentration is what I do in my work. The temptation for me is to fixate on one aspect -- maintaining heading or cross-track correction or altitude control or time measurements or groundspeed computation -- and neglect all others.

So, today, all I needed to do is stop a descending left turn, which I have done, but now...

    The plane is turning to the right.
That is, I feel like we are turning to the right. Never mind that none of the instruments confirm the maneuver -- the direction gyro is steady on course, the artificial horizon is flat, the turn indicator is centered. Yet, some errant subassembly inside my skull has set off an irrepressible urge which ramifies throughout my trunk and limbs. "Roll the plane to the left," it commands.

According to the books, vertigo does not last long. We shall see. Right now, my conscious mind has but one priority: Believe only what I read on those numbers and needles. All else is perjury. Focus on the artificial horizon, flat and true and credible and -- holy shit, I need to bank left!

Whenever I look away from the panel for but an instant, my left hand does the devil's bidding, obeying an impulse to tilt and pull the control wheel, restoring the plane to an attitude craved by my innermost spirit.  That day over Woodside, I became a turn-aholic.

So, this is vertigo, is it? And it will pass quickly, they say. All right, then, damn it, pass! I have other things to do here. Oakland Center will be handing me off soon. I must scan my San Francisco approach plate then set up the radios and review the ILS procedures.

Though cruising at 160 mph, Two-Four Fox was for all intents stationary in the wet, opaque sky, only intermittently level. Inside, I was engaged in an all-out cerebral war. Minutes crawled.

Rational thought -- that's our best hope. I must force my brain to understand itself. Reflect about the inner ear, the vestibular canals. Picture the little hair-like sensors influenced by fluids sloshing around inside, unable to detect gradual inputs, deceived by abrupt changes, creating a counterfeit status quo. Think, too, about the eyes, about peripheral vision and a lifetime spent viewing a natural world, with its abundant, real horizon, always level, always reconciled with downhood and thus 'which way is up'.

I cursed that un-generous instrument, there, that skimpy, abstract -- artificial -- horizon. How unsatisfying -- how unavailing to peripheral vision!

Better still, imagine. Imagine a real horizon. Pretend it is out there, though at a great distance. Imagine sky-above-earth, visible through that puny porthole in the panel. Imagine well and live! Nice try, brain. Shit.

"Two-Four Fox, you're five miles south of Woodside and a mile west of your course. Turn right, heading 310 and contact San Francisco Approach, 134.5."
At that point San Francisco was less than 20 miles away. I fumbled for the microphone and acknowledged the call, swerving again to the left.
"Bay Approach, Two-Four Fox is with you, level 8,000."

"Good Morning. Radar contact.  Uh, say your heading."

Little did I know that I would spend another 60 minutes in the air, jinking about the sky trying to comply with rapid-fire instructions interspersed with calls to airliners inbound from all over the world.

My memory of that hour is a clutter of four-minute holding patterns, altitude changes, and radar vectors, taking Two-Four Fox all around the San Francisco Bay, while I fought round by round with vertigo.

The rain steadily pounded the windscreen and fuselage. At one point, we were actually cleared for the ILS approach to Runway Two-Eight Left. Six miles from touch-down, Approach cautioned me to keep our speed up. A jet was closing behind us.

Harv woke up and yawned. "How ya doin', Dad?"

"Funny you should ask -- "

The cabin speaker crackled.

"Two-Four Fox, radar contact lost. Make climbing turn to intercept the Woodside 038 degree radial. Report reaching 5,000."
As I powered up for the climb and commenced a wobbly turn, the clash of impulses worsened. The control wheel lost its meaning in my hand. My head tilted drunkenly about the cockpit, a pathetic gesture like a just-conked circus clown. I reached for the microphone.
"I can't -- "
The words coming out of my mouth startled me. No! Damn it. I can't say I can't.
"Uh, roger."
A thought seized my mind and made me shudder -- that I would spend the rest of my life dizzy and confused. I will never be able to fly again. How can I -- how can my family and friends accept that?
Another zig-zagging half-hour put Two-Four Fox once again on a final descent. Still dizzy, I braced myself against the back of the seat and picked up the microphone.
"Two-Four Fox, outer marker, inbound."
"Keep a lookout for the runway, Son. Our minimum descent altitude is 800 feet."

Harv is gawking straight down.

Descended through 1,000.
The the view out the windows for the whole trip has been like the inside of a milk bottle. Now, for the first time all morning, the scene outside is changing. The sopping, gray-white gloom pulsates irregularly, the effect of descending at 100 MPH through breaks in the clouds. My son cried out with uncharacteristic animation "Tally-ho!" when he first saw the water of the Bay, three football-fields below.

I glanced away from the instruments and the vertigo vanished.

    Bigger breaks ahead. Flashing approach lights.
"Hey, Dad, the HIRL!"
"Two-Four Fox has the runway in sight!"
My exclamation into the microphone was embarrassing.  Regaining my composure, I lowered my voice to an airliner croak.
"Landing assured."
The controller chuckled.
"OK, Two-Four Fox.  This time, you are cleared to land."

The Bonefish

On our arrival, we learned that a syndicate had already made an offer on the Bonefish.

We stood under the wing in a drenching rain. The agent invited us go aboard. My son took a seat in one of the side bubbles. "Cool, Dad."

Home Page
Table of Contents
Contact Author