In the days of commercial sailing ships the Sargasso Sea was notorious for its endless calms and glassy waters, on which boats could wallow for weeks under blazing skies and in suffocating humidity. Its western edge lies just east of Florida and extends east to the 40W meridian. This vast stagnant mass of water sits on the Tropic of Cancer, and is the origin of many frightening tales of lost, drifting ships and their skeleton crews.
Aircraft have gone missing there, too, and crews have often reported strange optical phenomena. Almost at the heart of the Sargasso Sea lies the island jewel of Bermuda, where nearby strange happenings gave rise to the legend of the Bermuda triangle.
I had always been a sceptic about mysterious and unexplained phenomena, as long years of high altitude cruising in commercial jets had not given rise to any inexplicable event or sighting, or a formation flight with a UFO. During one late night departure in 1994 however, that opinion changed.
It was a warm, humid evening as we crossed the tarmac at Bermuda’s Kindley Field Airport, towards the waiting DC-10-30. We were due to depart for London just before midnight. Our departure would take us straight out over the sea and more than 3,000 miles of ocean lay between us and our next landfall in England.
Taxing checks were completed and there were a few moments to look out at the dark moonless night, the strobing light of St David’s Head Lighthouse momentarily illuminating the rows of parked US navy patrol planes. Then, a brief check with our flight engineer: “Ready to monitor the clearance, John?”
“Go ahead, Skipper”
With Joe In the right-hand seat steering us towards the threshold, I braced myself for the machine-gun style clearance delivery that was the norm at Kindley Field.
“Speedbird 272 ready to copy clearance.”
“Speedbird 272 cleared to London Via HENCH, BLUFIN, 25N50W,30N40W,40N30W,45N20W, 50N15W Airways B22 LND UN25SAM climb 16,000 expect FL310 by Henrich, when airborne climb on runway heading to 5,000 before turn on course. Contact departure 123.5. Read back.”
Delivered at lightning speed it was impossible to copy down this blizzard of information accurately, and old Bermuda Hands soon realised it was always identical information on our flight logs. A few verifying ticks and an almost equally fast read back had the job done.
“Speedbird 272, read back correct, call tower 118.25.”
A final wind check with the tower indicated a flat calm, and Joe was soon making the final turn on to the runway.
“Speedbird 272 cleared for take-off”
A confirmation that all checks were done, and I was advancing the three thrust leavers as Joe lined us up and called for take off power. With all three engines spooling up nicely, John eased the throttles up, under my grip, as he trimmed to the rated power.
The heavy DC10 moved reluctantly down the runway. Soon, the inky blackness beyond the runway end was rushing towards us as we steadily picked up speed. As the lights of the terminal flashed past, I made the speed calls: “V1”- a pause – “Rotate”.
Joe eased the nose up and soon we were airborne, climbing without visual reference into total darkness.
I leaned across the throttle quadrant and moved the gear lever into the up detent. As I did so, small yellowish pin pricks of light caught my attention at the top of the windscreen. Sure enough, some way above and ahead the lights of an opposite direction aircraft were visible.
“Looks like inbound traffic,” commented John. “Bermuda, Speedbird 272 changing to 123.5. Goodnight.”
There was no rush to call departure frequency as we had some way to climb before the turn. “Flaps 5, please.”
With some concern, I noted that the opposite traffic was now lower and closer. Four landing lights were clearly visible, and red and green navigation lights could be discerned against the glare.
“Departure, Speedbird 272 with you, passing 2,500 feet. For information, we appear to have opposite direction descending traffic.”
“Roger Speedbird. We have no known traffic in that area, keep us advised.”
Something had to be done- and quickly...
John leaned forward for a better look.
“Seems like he’s descending right on top of us.”
“It looks that way.”
“Bermuda, the traffic is still straight ahead, descending. Do you have him on radar?”
“Negative, there’s only you out there. Nearest traffic is 80 miles away near Bowfin.”
Our aircraft TCAS system remained quiet and blank. The approaching aircraft was now substantially, and threateningly, larger. Clearly, something had to be done- and quickly.
“Bermuda, we are turning right 40 degrees now and will stop our climb at 4000 to avoid traffic.”
Joe pitched the aircraft down and initiated a right turn. As I watched the intruder aircraft approaching, it too appeared to turn away from us, angled and elongating now, as it filled most of the top left of my A screen.
“Speedbird 272 now passing clear of the traffic.”
“Roger Speedbird. For your information the only traffic of any kind in your vicinity, is a US Navy Warship.”
As this information was given, the mystery aircraft moved down to our left and appeared at the bottom of the left ‘B’ Screen. Cruising below us was a large Navy supply vessel, deck lighting blazing and navigation lights twinkling.
Stunned silence followed.
We had been manoeuvring at 4,000ft to avoid a collision with a ship! We had been climbing at an attitude of around 15 degrees and the ship had appeared at an elevation of at least twice that.
“Bermuda, we can confirm the traffic was a ship.”
The terse reply spoke volumes. I wonder what they were thinking?