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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2258 hours. We pick up the beacon at Lajes, the U.S. base in the Azores, on the ADF. The signal is faint but the direction is positive, and we are exactly on course.

2305 hours. Ocean Station Delta is transmitting again, but again the signal has changed. We check its position on the grid—much too far for the ship to have traveled since we last heard her. A mystery. But again we are drawing abeam of her, almost have her, in fact.

2320 hours. We are abeam of Ocean Station Delta. The clouds are piling up now in great soaring peaks, reaching almost to our new altitude; the floor is breaking up—the skyscape now looks like a series of vast, scattered mountain ranges with great, dark open spaces in between. Our cabin is bathed in the warm red glow of the instrument lights which shine down from the ceiling onto the panel and make the radium dials glow.

We call Ocean Station Delta, and receive a strong answer from MATS 3306, a Military Air Transport Service plane, asking if we need any assistance, sir. We are flattered by this form of address and ask him for his weather, whether he has heard from Santa Maria and, if so, how he reads them. He replies that he is two hours out of Lajes and that the weather for Lajes is expected to stay good. We ask him what his altitude is. "We're at 14,000 in the clouds," he says, and it develops that there is a front between us and the islands. Once through it, however, he says we should be in the clear. "By the way," says Max in that low, slow, careful voice of his, "we were talking to somebody called McKinley, it sounded like, some time ago—do you know where or who McKinley is?" Back comes the strong voice from MATS 3306: "Sounds like Bermuda to me, Kindley Field in Bermuda." We thank him and sign off, and MATS 3306 wings on his way. A friendly fellow, and it is a comfort to think of him, big and powerful, 14,000 feet up, and homeward bound.

2340 hours. We call Santa Maria to give our position, and Clipper 154 answers. He sounds crisp and efficient as all hell. He relays, then comes back with the request that we try another frequency. O.K., say we, and ask where he is. He gives his position—behind us quite a way, at 21,000 feet. "He'll be catching us and passing us before long," says Max, "and we probably won't even know it."

We are drawing near that front now, and a few small bumps remind us that it is time to tighten our seat belts. I peer ahead into the darkness—a darkness dimly but surprisingly well lit only by the stars. It is a diffused, all-pervading sort of dimness, less a light than a lightening of what otherwise would be total blackness—and by it I see the front ahead—a great, dark, towering bank of cloud reaching right across the horizon, a looming cliff of blackness with a grandfather's fringe of tufted white along the top, blowing with the wind.

If MATS 3306 is at 14,000 feet and still in that we can't possibly climb over it. We can't fly around it either. For us there's only one thing: keep on going, straight ahead.

2350 hours. The temperature is rising—it's above freezing outside now. We have entered between two layers of cloud, one blotting out that awesome range below, the other shadowing the ominous sky above. The front still looms ahead—it is awe-inspiring, like flying almost blindly toward mountains that we know we cannot climb. This is what pilots call weather—a silent, implacable enemy that can only be met on his own terms. Behind it lie the Azores—but what lies in between?

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