We leveled off at 6,500 feet above sea level, tuned our transponder to the assigned code, and switched radio frequencies to Jacksonville Center. My friend made contact with someone sitting in a dark room on the opposite side of the state of Florida and informed him of our course, altitude, and confirmed our transponder code.
The sky was clearing by the minute and the moon shined through the breaks in the clouds more often than not. The west coast of Florida was on our right. Through my right side window I could see the white caps leading the waves below, still crashing in the aftermath of the thunderstorm, which was nowhere in sight.
As a new pilot my friend was particularly diligent as he closed the cowl doors, checked the carburetor heat, leaned the mixture, adjusted the prop’s pitch, and continually scanned the instruments in a prescribed pattern. He was my father’s flight student and had learned his lessons well. It was going to be a clear night and a pleasant ride home. The sky wrapped around us like a black and white translucent security blanket, I crossed my arms and smiled to myself.
Eighty miles north northeast of Tampa, one second we were cruising, the steady hum of the six cylinder two hundred thirty horsepower Continental engine filled the cockpit, and the next instant an explosion slammed the airframe, threw the nose first up, and then down. The propeller stopped for seconds that seemed like an eternity, oil covered the expansive windshield, and for a short time we were partially inverted and the only sound was a second explosion and radio static in our headsets.
I immediately took the controls, pushed the nose down, and righted the wings. The propeller freed and began to turn without my assistance. I pushed the mixture full rich and pumped the throttle. The engine started roughly and with the guttural sound came a third explosion followed by a ball of fire, which erupted from the engine cowling directly in front of the windscreen. Every few seconds thereafter the pattern repeated itself. An explosion, then a ball of fire, which we could somewhat see through the heavy dark oil film that completely covered the Plexiglas. We had no forward visibility, we had lost 1,500 feet of altitude, and we were 24 miles west of Crystal River, Florida with 20 miles of rough water between us and the coast. It was eleven o’clock, Saturday night August 19, 1989. We three were alone.
Monday: Chapter Three, “There Is No Way We Can Survive”
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