SI Vault
Percy Knauth
July 06, 1959
Flying the ocean has become so routine these days that it scarcely merits a "safely arrived" postcard from the other side; but to a select small group it is still a major adventure, and occasionally an ordeal. These are the transocean ferry pilots of small airplanes, and their unofficial leader is Max Conrad, songwriter, ex-high-jumper and grandfather, who at 56 has amassed, in 30 years of flying, the astonishing total of 36,000 hours in the air. A man who in the jet age still epitomizes the traditions of the Lindbergh era, Conrad, at various times a barnstormer, mail pilot, one-man-airline operator and proponent of a national youth program for flying and fitness, began his transatlantic ferry career in 1954 with the delivery of a twin-engined, five-place Piper Apache from New York to Paris, the first nonstop, solo flight over this distance since Lindbergh's historic feat in 1927. Last month he set a new distance record for small planes in a single-engined Piper Comanche (SI, June 15), of which he tells on pages 64 and 65. The adventure of an ocean Right with Conrad starts below, as told by Sports Illustrated Editor Percy Knauth, who not long ago flew as copilot in an Apache from Boston to Paris.
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July 06, 1959

Adventure With A New Lone Eagle

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The minutes pass. No good. She is too far away.

We raise New York at 1920 and give our position. We try Santa Maria, too, for the first time—and here is Santa Maria, loud and clear. We are now about five hours out. The time has just sped by; it hardly seems possible that we have been going that long. We have Argentia, Newfoundland, on the ADF, bearing about 280�. We are moving slowly toward land's end in North America; soon we will have these friendly beacons no more. As far away as they are, they are a link, nonetheless, like milestones on the road—towns and villages which we pass unseen and unheard but which are as real to us out here over the ocean as though we could in fact see their houses, churches and stores sliding past in the darkness of distance, brief glimpses of light in the long vista of our journey.

There is another ship, seen through a great hole in the cloud floor to our left. The third one so far; tiny, remote so far below. It would be nice if we could talk to it.

At 1950 hours we try Ocean Station Delta once more. The ADF shows a weak signal; Max can't improve on it, so we let it go. In the past, on occasion, he has asked for a continuous beacon to navigate by; this time we don't need it, at least not yet.

2005 hours, and I see a strange and beautiful rainbow effect on the thick, gray, endless floor of clouds ahead of us—a pastel-colored rainbow, an elongated elliptical pattern of lavender, purple, pale red, pale blue. On this silent landscape of great, piled-up layers of clouds it is lovely. Is it ice crystals, perhaps?

The skyscape is immense, darkling, limitless and lonely. The sky is slowly turning a deep blue-purple overhead, the sun's rays are weakening behind us and I have a strong feeling of night coming, and cold. It is one of those rare (so far) little moments of apprehension, when I realize with a brief stab of clarity where we are, how small we are in this vast air-water world, how vulnerable we are. I don't allow the thought to grow, and there is no reason to. We fly untouched by any of these risks and perils—two engines which have never even had a catch in their beautiful and reassuring rhythm, a warm cabin insulated against the coming night, a friend who sits now hunched over his radio, the headset incongruously framing his unruly gray hair, glasses perched on his nose, his face intent on the little, red-glowing windows of the ADF set, which reaches out with unseen voice and ears to bring signs of other men, friends of passage, far away in the darkening world outside.

Yet the sense of loneliness at this moment is inescapable and inevitable, for we are flying in an utterly fantastic world, a world so vast and strange that in it we seem the merest microcosms, aliens tolerated by the silence because of our total insignificance in its infinite expanse. It is an enormous cold gray world of huge and tumbled clouds reaching as far as the eye can see beneath the chill dark sky. In this lonely landscape now and then a pool appears, a pond or a lake—openings of various sizes from small to miles across like pools in a landscape of unending snow. And now a thin, thin veil is drawn across these openings, the finest of gauze, and the almost forgotten, final rays of sunlight make beams of light across the peaks and valleys of cloud. In this veil the pastel rainbow appears and disappears, shimmering like a pale will-o'-the wisp, rising and falling across the hills and gorges. And every now and then, through some such lordly chasm, the sea appears below, cold, cruel, wind-whipped and sable gray.

2020 hours. Almost six hours out of Boston, and Argentia is abeam, a faint but still musical signal bearing 270�. We tune in Torbay, land's end for us on the tip of Newfoundland near St. John's; it comes in even more faintly, and almost on the same bearing as Argentia. There is perhaps a spread of 12� between them; projecting this on our weather chart, we find we are somewhat farther south than we had thought. We correct our heading a bit and steer 115�. We are losing our contact with the land.

2050 hours. We call New York, get no reply. We call Santa Maria. Silence. We call again: " Santa Maria, Santa Maria Approach, this is Apache Delta, Gulf, Alpha, Romeo, Yankee...." We get an answer, loud and clear, from Gander. Max gives Gander our position and our estimate for our next call at 2215.

The sun sinks lower, and our pastel rainbow grows in size, diminishes in light, moves ahead to the horizon and finally disappears, merged into the gray and lavender of the eastern sky. Behind us the sun goes down in a blaze of red and orange. Outside temperature is 15�, air speed a steady 130, power settings unchanged. The light grows dim; soon it will be dark. The moon, too, has moved behind us; it will set not long after the sun, and we will be alone with the stars.

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