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I'll Take You All the Way PDF Print E-mail

Joe Perkins was a happy-go-lucky pilot; he loved flying. Any excuse to get into the air was eagerly accepted. Crop-dusting, flying under bridges, outrageous aerial maneuvers were common for Joe, but real, paying jobs were scarce. When he married Sarah, he realized the necessities of responsibility, especially when she became pregnant. Naturally she wanted him to “settle down” to a regular job with regular hours, and regular pay.


Then an opportunity presented itself that would pay well—$US4000 for a few days work. The assignment was to ferry two tiny crop-duster planes across the Pacific to Australia. Joe and Sarah needed the money badly, so, against Sarah’s better judgment, Joe accepted.


He and a mate, Frank, would fly the Cessnas from San Francisco to Sydney. The route would be in four stages, a day per stage: San Francisco—Honolulu; Honolulu—Pago Pago; Pago-Pago—Norfolk Island; then Norfolk Island—Sydney. Extra tanks were put into the fuselages to increase their range, and basic navigation instruments were added so they could find their way. An ADF (automatic direction finder) was taped to the fuselage beside Joe.


With the modifications in place and the tanks brimming with fuel, Joe and Frank squeezed into the tiny cockpits and made a final check. Given the all clear, they trundled onto the runway then opened their throttles wide. The two overladen crop-dusters lumbered down the runway, so grossly overladen they needed every metre before struggling into the air.


Despite the obvious inadequacies of their planes and instruments, they reached Honolulu, Hawaii; then after refueling and a rest, it was on to Pago Pago, Samoa, where they landed without incident.


It was Christmas Day when they taxied back onto the Pago Pago airstrip bound for Norfolk Island, a tiny dot on any map in the Western Pacific, and an estimated 14 hours flying time away.


Joe took off first, then Frank. No-one knows exactly why, but it can be assumed that his slightly out-of-tune engine lacked the little extra horsepower needed to lift the overburdened plane into the air. After taking off, Frank’s plane faltered....then, unable to gain speed or altitude, came crashing down into the lagoon at the end of the runway.


Frank survived the crash and swam safely ashore, but with so much fuel on board, Joe was too heavy to land. As he circled low overhead, Frank radioed him to continue to Sydney alone. It’s worth $4000, he reminded him. So, conscious of the need to conserve fuel, Joe quickly made up his mind and turned his tiny Cessna westward toward Norfolk Island.


Although his regular instruments were functioning well, Joe was unaware that the glass window in his ADF was damaged, and was pressing against its indicator, causing Joe to see a false reading. Oblivious however to the problem, Joe followed the flawed ADF until 14 hours later he began to look for a sighting of Norfolk Island. A half hour more passed, but there was no sign of the island. Even after making a generous allowance for a crosswind early in the flight, Norfolk Island was not where it should have been.


Now Joe had no idea where to look—north or south, ahead or behind. But it had to be somewhere, and soon, for his fuel indicators were showing empty. Making things worse, the sun was only just above the western horizon. Crop-dusters are not equipped for night flying, so he knew that once the sun had set, he would be in extra deep trouble. He scanned the ocean 3000 feet below, but could see nothing but water; above him, the sky began to lose its brightness.


He clicked on his radio and dialed in some numbers: “Auckland tower, this is Cessna, Flight 771, en route from Pago Pago to Norfolk Island. I have an emergency!”


Hundreds of kilometers to the south, an operator at the Auckland International Airport tower logged his call and initiated the first step toward rescuing the lost Flight 771.


There was just one other plane in the Norfolk Island area, and Air New Zealand Boeing 767 Flight 308, commanded by veteran pilot Captain Greg Vettie, flying home from Fiji with 88 passengers. Auckland control alerted Captain Vettie to look for the Cessna and requested he render whatever assistance he could.


But how does a huge airliner flying at 30,000 feet and at almost 970 km/h go about finding a tiny Cessna 25,000 feet below in the vastness of the Pacific?


Captain Vettie had been flying for 38 years and knew a lot about his trade; now he would need everything he’d learned about navigation to find Joe in his little Cessna. The difficulties were immense and the chances dismal. But Captain Vettie was determined. He alerted his passengers to be on the lookout, then altered his course and began a gentle descent in the direction he assumed Joe to be.


To determine Joe’s location, Captain Vettie tried various radio fixes; next, while still at high altitude, he dumped fuel to create a vapour trail that he hoped might be visible to the Cessna somewhere below. The sun was just about to set and total darkness was imminent; still there was no sign. Joe radioed a preference for ditching while there was still light, hoping he would be picked up by a boat.


But Captain Vettie was not about to give up; he could find Joe. Joe still had enough fuel to make it to land, or, at least, nearer to land where rescue was closer by. He gently persuaded Joe to stay in the air. Then someone had a brainwave.


Joe was to fly due west at a fixed altitude until the sun actually dipped below the horizon then radio the exact time it disappeared. By comparing this time to that of sunset in Auckland, an exact calculation of Joe’s position—latitude and longitude—could be made. But it meant that if Joe still could not be found, he would have to ditch in darkness, with its extra hazards. Joe stayed flying; then, as the sun set, he radioed the time. The calculations were quickly made and his position radioed to Captain Vettie, who turned onto a bearing headed for an intercept with Joe.


After a few minutes, through the gloom and a buffeting tropical storm, Captain Vettie sighted the Cessna dead ahead, and radioed contact. His next task was to get Flight 771 to safety.


Decision time! They were 200 klms from Norfolk Island and 325 klms from Auckland. Norfolk Island was covered by the storm and darkness, and it would not be an easy or safe landing. On the other hand, Joe didn't know if he had enough fuel to reach New Zealand.


Captain Vettie invited him to follow the Boeing, its lights blazing through the night sky, to Auckland and safety, but, he radioed, “It’s your call.” Joe had to choose: Norfolk or Auckland?


“Take me all the way,” Joe’s voice crackled over the radio.


“Then follow me,” Captain Vettie responded, “I’ll take you all the way.” He slowed his big jet to virtually landing speed, its flaps down, nose up and throttles back. With the diminutive Cessna in tow, the Boeing headed away from the storm toward New Zealand.


When they finally had the lights of Auckland visible, the control tower took over and began to talk Joe through his final approach.


Suddenly, 10 klms out, Joe’s motor began to misfire as his tanks siphoned dry. Two klms out, with the runway lights clearly visible, the motor coughed once more, then died. There was no point in trying to restart it; Joe feathered the prop, pulled his harness a bit tighter, shut down his electrics, then glided the rest of the way onto the runway where he rolled to a stop surrounded by jubilant workers aboard gleaming emergency vehicles.


He’d been in the air for 23 hours and 5 minutes.


Joe and Captain Vettie became great friends after the events of that Christmas Day. Joe went on to become a commercial jet pilot while Captain Vettie enjoyed retirement. But both always remember the saga of the rescue of Flight 771 and the life-or-death decisions they’d had to make.


Someone once said, “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a destiny!” Our life and destiny is made of the many decisions we make. But how can I make the right decisions? How can I make decisions without regret? How can I know what God’s will for me is?


Like Captain Vettie to lost Joe, God gives us the course He wants us to follow to safety: “Follow Me,” He says; “I’ll take you all the way.”