Disappearing 9000 feet over the Caribbean.
My first inkling that something wasn’t right was when the Trinidad Radar Controller asked me to “recycle my transponder”. In a deadpan monotone voice he explained to me that I was “No Radar Contact”. Evidently I had mysteriously disappeared off his radar scope, and he was no longer receiving my position, altitude, and unique squawk code.
“Recycling” the transponder is not a completely uncommon request in the aviation world. Sometimes an old transponder (like mine), will glitch, and stop transmitting signals, kind of like how an old PC locks up. The solution is simple. Reboot! Nine times out of ten the transponder will come back to life, and everyone goes on their merry way. So I turned off my “squawk box”, counted to 30 and turned it back on.
Two days earlier, as part of our preparation to fly our little missionary airplane up to Puerto Rico, I had my transponder tested, and recertified. I knew that it was critical to have this function well, especially since I would be crossing into U.S. Airspace at Puerto Rico. The maintenance shop in Guyana performed the test, and the avionics technicians assured me that everything worked great, and we were good to go.
So!! I mused to myself. Why was it acting up now?
About this time the Trinidad controller told me to change frequencies over to Grenada, and I dismissed it from my thoughts. We landed safely at St. Vincent and topped off our fuel tanks so we could push all the way into Puerto Rico by sunset.
As I took off from St. Vincent and started up the chain of islands, my nagging doubts began to resurface. Maybe it wasn’t a glitch after all. Maybe there was something wrong with my transponder. Hmmm. I knew I wouldn’t have long to wait. French Martinique was just around the bend, and they had a very nice radar system.
I held my breath as I switched radio frequencies and checked in with the Martinique controller. There was a pause and then the controller responded, acknowledging my transmission, and then asked for a position report. I groaned inwardly as the reality hit home. They couldn’t see me. The problem hadn’t gone away.
9000 feet over Caribbean Ocean is not the ideal place to do aircraft maintenance, but contrary to what you may think, there are a few tricks you can try. Sometimes, over a long period of time, the natural vibration of an airplane could potentially shake a transponder loose from it’s tray. To solve the problem you must firmly push the unit back into it’s tray… So I tried it. No luck.
Also, over long periods of time the electrical contacts can corrode causing the transponder to work intermittently. This is usually solved by pulling the unit out of it’s tray and trying to “reseat” it. But when I tried doing this, the face plate came partially off, revealing the electrical guts of the radio. Oooh! Not good, I thought as I quickly snapped it back into place.
On rare occasions the transponder may partially work, but on different settings. So I tried all the settings hoping that another one may do the trick. Nothing…
What was strange was that the little green “identify” button was blinking happily indicating that the transponder was working normally, or at least attempting to work. So in one last ditch effort I pushed the green button, hoping against hope that the transponder would come to life and send off at least one “ident” signal. “Just one signal Lord, just one, Pleeeeease!!!” Zip, Zero, Nada.
By this time I could hear a little frustration in the French Martinique Controllers voice as he was desperately trying to figure out exactly where our invisible plane was. He wasn’t alone in his frustration. I was at my wits end to try and be seen, but my best efforts to make my little squawk box even chirp were utterly in vain.
I wasn’t too worried about French Martinique since I was simply one of many aircraft in transit, but ever since September 11, 2001 the United States has greatly heightened the security of it’s borders. They take a dim view of unidentified aircraft flying towards their borders. By the time you reach the border of their airspace you are required to transmit a special identification “squawk code” so that the U.S. Controllers can clearly see who you are, and where you are going. To not do so, is an open invitation to be “visited” by a couple of USAF F-16 jets. Not a pleasant experience!
I took a deep breath and keyed the microphone. “Martinique Approach, could you call San Juan Center and request for us to continue through U.S. Airspace to our destination”. There was a long pause, “Stand by while we make the request.”
By this time we had turned slightly left, and were headed out over the vast ocean directly towards Puerto Rico. My GPS informed me that that we had a little over an hour before we were to cross “ILURI” the intersection demarcating the boundary of U.S. Airspace. The weather was picture perfect. Far below us were little islands of white clouds, evenly scattered over the azure ocean. Above us was a dark cobalt blue sky.
As the minutes ticked by I began to think of my alternatives should San Juan refuse our request. Most likely I’d have to divert to Guadaloupe, since it was the closest island to San Juan’s airspace. But what would I do when I got there? Where would we stay? How could I get the transponder fixed? Or did they even have an avionics shop? How much would it cost? Did we have enough cash on hand to cover this unexpected expense? Nothing sounded too good.
As I stared into the deep blue sky; I felt my heart turn to the only one who could help in this situation. It was a simple prayer. Nothing fancy. I just needed a divine favor, because I was stuck in a small single engine airplane, out over the deep ocean, and not a lot of options. After I finished praying, it seemed that the Lord’s presence was very near, and that He was about to do something truly amazing.
My thoughts were punctuated by Martinique Approach: “N8704T, contact Guadeloupe Approach on frequency 121.3”
Now I was really frustrated. I was still in limbo waiting for a response, a mere 45 minutes from “ILURI” but no closer to a resolution. Do I continue? Do I divert? Or do I turn around?
After I checked in with the lady controller at Guadeloupe Approach, I explained our dilemma and asked my burning question “Do we continue on? Or do we need to divert”. She immediately responded by saying, “N8704T San Juan Center has approved your request, you may continue your flight into U.S. Airspace.”
Amen!!! Hallelujah!!! Thank you Lord!!!
In that moment I knew that God had stepped in. Somewhere hundreds of miles away, in an air traffic control center in San Juan City, some unnamed controller (who I may never meet) received a telephone call. And in that very moment the Lord must have impressed him or her to grant the request and permit the flight to continue as filed.
This experience dramatically reminded me again that God always sees us wherever we are, and he hears all our requests. While we may disappear off of man’s radar, we are always the center of God’s attention. The bible is crystal clear:
Ps. 34:15 “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their cry.