Squawk 7600 for lost communication

This is a C-310 very similar to the one in the story

This is a C-310 very similar to the one in the story

It was February 1974 and I had no immediate job prospects after my short stint flying for Wheeler Flying Service so I decided it would be a good time to pursue my Airline Transport Rating or ATR (Later changed to Airline Transport Pilot, or ATP).

Only part of my GI Bill eligibility was used completing my Bachelor degree at Embry-Riddle, so I had enough remaining to pay for the ATP training at Raleigh-Durham Aviation's flight school.

Raleigh-Durham Aviation was also a Cessna dealer. I was trained in a brand new Cessna 310Q  (C-310Q).  Immediately after my ATR check-ride in N69596, the aircraft was sold to a car dealership in Richlands, Virginia.

A day or two later, Harold, the salesman who had sold the C-310 called to ask if I would be interested in a job flying a Beech Baron also based in Richlands, Virginia.

I said I was interested. So he told me I was to catch an early flight the next day to Tri-Cities, TN where the pilot leaving the job flying the Baron would meet me.

I was on the first flight to Tri-Cities the next morning and arrived quite early.  It was a small airport, so I easily found the Baron pilot.

He was a nice guy a couple of years older than me.  He had come to the United States to attend flight school and build flight experience before returning to Denmark to fly for the country’s airline.

We departed Tri-Cities with me at the controls and headed for Richlands.   I had not taken the time to familiarize myself to the area so I simply followed his instructions.

As we neared Richlands a short time later, the pilot advised me to begin my descent and start a teardrop turn to the right.  He explained that we had just passed over the town of Richlands, which was below the clouds.  He knew that because he had tuned in to the AM radio station located in downtown Richlands.

He said I needed to maintain a 750 feet per minute descent. That was about 250 feet per minute faster than what I considered a standard, measured rate of descent.  As we entered the clouds he told me to tighten the turn.  That too was peculiar as I was already in a standard rate turn, but I complied. We soon broke out of the clouds at about 1000 feet above the ground with the small town of Richlands in front of us. 

That’s when it dawned on me we had just descended between two ridgelines and into a valley.

That was foolish. 

I asked the pilot if he regularly flew into and out of Richlands using this method and he said he did. 

He told me it was no big deal.  Just cross the AM radio station on a heading of 030 degrees and descend at a rate of 750 feet per minute while making a teardrop turn to the right.  “At greater than standard rate.  Right?”  I confirmed.

It seemed the owner of the Baron had grown accustomed to operating out of Richlands even at night as long as ceilings were at least 1000 feet.

Hmm, not me.  I decided at that moment there would not be any more descents into Richlands through the clouds for this airplane...as long as I was the one flying.

Once on the ground, the pilot told me I was supposed to just hang out and I would hear from Bob, the Baron’s owner.   He wished me luck and departed.

All day I waited to hear from Bob.  Around 5 pm the lobby erupted.  Two men and two women entered, walking fast with the guy in the lead talking loudly.

As they entered, the vocal guy saw me and said, “You must be the pilot from Raleigh.”  I acknowledged I was, so he said, “File for Merritt Island, Florida and let’s get going”

I filed an IFR flight plan to Merritt Island, Florida and we were soon off the ground climbing to our cruise altitude.  Bob’s demeanor was authoritative.  I could tell he was used to being in charge.  He sat up front with me which was fine until he reached up and retarded the throttles right after breaking ground.  I put my hand up to stop him, but he had already pulled them back to climb power.  He informed me the engines would last longer if we didn’t keep them at full power so long.  I told him I had learned most engine failures occur at first power reduction so I preferred to wait until obtaining a safe altitude before reducing to climb power.

 I certainly had no evidence to support the belief that most engine failures occur at first power reduction, but I knew when taking off altitude was my friend and I followed the common sense doctrine that states, "If it's working, leave it alone." It was certainly a debatable point, however. And, it was his airplane, so nothing else was said.

We landed in Merritt Island, Florida around 8:30 pm after an uneventful flight of about three hours. 

I was looking forward to getting to a hotel and kicking back since my day had started before six that morning. 

But it was not to be.  While taxing in to the FBO, Bob said, “Okay, you go back to Richlands and pickup three guys that will be waiting for you and bring them down here.”

I was stunned. That was the moment I decided I would not be taking this job.

That decision was liberating, so I thought I would do as he asked knowing this would be the last time.

I refueled the airplane, filed an IFR flight plan for Bluefield, West Virginia and took off heading north.

I filed IFR for Bluefield, WV because my destination on an IFR plan had to be an airport with an instrument approach and Bluefield was the closest airport to Richlands that qualified. This is common when the actual intended destination doesn’t have an instrument approach, you file to the nearest instrument qualified airport and when arriving, if the weather is good enough, cancel the IFR flight plan and fly visually to the desired destination.

Not tonight.  The weather at destination wasn’t too bad, but it would be late and I would be tired so I called ahead and told my passengers they would have to meet me in Bluefield.

It was a little after midnight when I arrived in Bluefield.  The weather wasn’t too bad but I did have to make an instrument approach.  I was very glad I had made the decision to meet my passengers in Bluefield instead of Richlands.

Putting on fuel and filing an IFR flight plan back to Merritt Island took only a half hour or so and we, my three excited and well lubed passengers and I were off for my final flight of the day.

As I climbed, the tower released me to departure control about the time I entered the clouds.   A minute or two after contacting departure I lost radio communication.  I assessed quickly and determined all engine and navigation instruments were working fine.  Everything was good except my communication radios.  I turned them off and then back on.  I checked the circuit breakers.  No good.  I was without communications.

I couldn’t hear the controllers and I presumed they couldn’t hear me.

My flight plan instructions were to expect clearance to 9000 feet ten minutes after departure, so ten minutes into the flight I climbed to 9000 feet from my initially assigned altitude.  I had already changed my transponder to squawk 7600, the “lost communication” code.

I thought it was a big deal to be unable to communicate with Air Traffic Control, so I assumed the controllers along my route of flight would be talking about the NON-COMM aircraft. I was wrong.  When the radios suddenly starting working after a couple of hours, I contacted Jacksonville Center and was asked twice who I was.

Geez!  Here I thought everyone was concerned about us and they acted like they didn’t know who we were.

Actually the flight was quiet and except for losing my radios for a couple of hours, uneventful.

Later that day, I briefed Bob about the radio problem and he said I could take the plane to Daytona and have it repaired, which I did. 

After two days in Merritt Island, I flew Bob and three others back to Richlands, VA arriving before sunset.  I went with Bob to his office and he informed me how much he was going to pay me to fly for him.  I didn’t tell him what I thought of him or that I wouldn’t be interested in being expected to fly in and out of Richlands as his prior pilot had been doing. I simply told him I wouldn’t be taking the job.

He paid me for my time, reimbursed me for my airline flight and had me driven to Tri-Cities airport for my flight back to Raleigh.

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there.

A few days later I got a call from Harold at Raleigh-Durham Aviation. He told me the Danish pilot, with four passengers aboard, had flown the new C-310 into the side of a mountain just outside of Richlands.

According to the NTSB report (IAD74AI049) the weather at the time was 700 feet overcast, raining with wind of 250 degrees at 12 knots.

I can only surmise he didn’t properly account for how much the 12 knots of wind would stretch his teardrop descent - so much so that his elongated teardrop descent no longer fit within the valley.