So You Want to Fly?
As I look out on the distant high Sierra Mt. Alamos, foreground framed by masses of hot pink bougainvillea, bright blue swimming pool a trap for drifting blossoms, I wonder how a wintery thought could possibly bubble up in my head. It’s climbing to 100f degrees out there. After lapping up gulps at the fountain, our dogs have listlessly flopped in the shade. Local birds flutter and blither at the outrage. It’s their watering spa, and they do not like to share with those oafish beasts.
Seeing that mountain, I’m reminded of thickly frosted forests cascading downslope to a beckoning airport. There’s a town over there…at a distance, a grid of streets stands out against a few white traces of winter. We’re flying south from winter to a Texas visit, touring as we go.
“Know what?” said my attentive navigator. “The Luray Caverns are just over that ridge. Not far from the town.” He had been paging through the AOPA airport guide, a handy compendium of airports and good nearby stuff.
Luray Caverns? Notations were that those were the eastern US’s beauty challenge to the west’s Carlsbad Caverns. Here too were vast caves dripping with spires of stalactites and stalagmites. Okay then… That would certainly be a good take for our boys, now huddled for warmth in the back seat. The heater in our little Cessna didn’t have great output. They were bunched up under a pile of thick blankets, peeking out of hooded polar jackets. And making breath ice pictures on the windows, scraping out lines of tic-tac-toe.
Reducing power to drift down into the valley, I dropped to just above treetop level and slowly swept towards the airport, admiring the white frozen forest below. Although it was south and Virginia, the weather could be harsh. A quickly passing snow squall had happened overnight at the higher altitudes… the ice line dramatically melted to pine tree green when the outside temperature rose. Frosty outlines of trees evenly etched against a fresh blue sky glittered in the sunlight.
They say it’s just not true that southerners are nicer, but I can swear that south of that Mason-Dixon line, people are indeed nicer. Full of warmth and honey. At least at first impact. Nicer than the cold suspicious Yankee. We were greeted with warmth and helpfulness when we touched down and rolled out at the Luray Caverns airport.
“Well, hello there; where you all comin’ in from?” And then, “How long y’all gonna be with us?” And “Will you be needin’ fuel?” Our line guy arranged a ride to the Caverns.
Those words – and a big crinkly southern hospitality smile – made us welcome. The line man was right there to help with whatever we needed. And it wasn’t because we were fancy. Our plane was a weathered old Cessna 172, in the years before we repainted her.
“Put your money into new radios… you don’t need to get her a new dress.” Practical advice from our local airport manager/CFI. So we did that – a nav/com and a Loran, the day’s state-of-the-art navigation system (now passé and replaced by the GPS, global positioning system). Howard Cadwell, mentor of my glider towing and commercial pilot rating, the man who after 17,000 hours of flying would grin and say, “Aren’t we lucky?… Look at those miserable ground-huggers down there. They’ve no idea how beautiful it is up here.”
Of course when we flew to any new place, we would hide our bedraggled bird on the back line. Yeah, we were proud. One day, the new paint would make her into a beauty. But Howie was aviation through and through. He knew what was truly important. R.I.P. old friend.
The Caverns. Besides the eons agreeably outfitting the underground vault with arresting mineral formations of gleaming spindles and spires – someone had ingeniously rigged little hammers to tap out melodies on them, ones such as the hauntingly beautiful “Shenandoah.” (Historic Luray is in the Shenandoah Valley.) As that reverberated through the high cavern, we hummed along with “Oh Shenandoah, far across the wide Missouri.”
The boys were intrigued with it all. It was a good stop. Luray could be a bucket list destination. Who knew?
THE DALHART INCIDENT
Flying the wide span of west Texas plains can shake your confidence. Not from the endless empty square miles of land (embellished only by the odd cattle tank and small shed – where are people?) but from the fast, frightening growth of towering cumulonimbus storm clouds, popping up like colossal cauliflowers. Their energy plainly threatens your future. One can tear you apart. The horrendous updraft draws you in, sucks you up, breaks you up and spits parts out the top. We remember iconic test pilot Scott Crossfield, pilot of the X-15, and his shocking demise in a ripping thunderstorm over Georgia. When the storm passed, parts were found scattered over a ten mile area.
Clammy palms come with visions of torn wings and spiraling fuselage, images that ooze into your mind as you reroute yourself to dodge them. FSS had said, “Possibility of scattered showers.” Right. Weave between? They’re well-spaced. Rule of thumb: “Give a 20-mile berth.” Well, they’re probably forty miles apart. But swiftly expanding.
Dalhart is now nearby. We flight-planned for it, we’ll make it. We had called FSS to extend our flight plan. Unplanned off-track wandering had added time.
We touched down in the scruffy terrain of a yet mostly unimproved west Texas desert community. One runway was weedy and unused. Thing is, pilots generally take the strip facing into the wind. The other, not favoring the prevailing wind, was neglected and overgrown.
Dalhart’s surrounding landscape since has filled with queer-looking platters of green… see those? The result of circular irrigation. We are bemused. Back in the day of our adventure when flying west for a niece’s San Diego wedding, it was still very rough country. Only a few of those whimsical round fields.
We had a welcoming committee. The airport manager and a curious side-kick came out with raised eyebrows and scolding words.
“Flight Service has called looking for you – you are an hour and a half overdue!” Typical Flight Service. A lazy government worker had taken his time passing along my flight plan extension. The service was so infamously inefficient that pilots rarely used it. They didn’t get much traffic at Dalhart – the odd rancher and whatnot. We stirred them up, brightening their day. Only a few other planes, bleaching on the periphery.
So – dinner and an overnight. We’d be off before dawn with much distance yet to cover. Eschewing iffy enchiladas, we had steak. Why not? It was Texas. Should be safe. But later in bed, I felt my gorge rise, and I miserably off-loaded it. So much for strange places. Hal battled his back. Not smart.
Next morning in the dark predawn, we taxied cautiously towards a possible runway – the weedy one, it turned out, our taxi light giving faint guidance. In rolling for takeoff the propeller mowed a path, hurtling bits of loco weed or whatever past our windows. Putting on flaps for a quick boost up into ground effect, we left the weeds and climbed into the pale dawn, heading towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains. They were a glorious sunrise red. Hal felt lousy and didn’t care.
As we passed westward over more dry flat lands, the sun came up. He made use of a de facto H.E.R.E. bag – the pilot’s cockpit Human Element Range Extender – in this instance, a ziplock bag lined with a paper towel. That helped a little. It went out the window onto a rattlesnake-infested land. Probably wasn’t the first. Maybe it’s still there, decomposing in the tumbleweeds. Maybe scorpions like plastic.
Soon we were looking for the nearest airstrip for the rumbling bowels. Turned out Sandia was right there, off the nose. “Sandia,” to me, meant mysterious Air Force activities, hearkening back to my A.F. brat youth. Deferential comments like, “He’s off to Sandia.”
Never mind that. We landed, rolled onto a taxiway – and found a fly-in community. A woman came out onto her porch and called offering help. It was still very early, before most people were up and about. I bellowed my husband’s problem, she swept wide the door, and he trotted over. The “trots.” So embarrassing.
However, the issue wasn’t there resolved. Poor guy cowered in bed for all the wedding festivities. He got “atta boys” and kudos for the try, though. That, and for the wedding check.
Did you know that sandia means watermelon? Sniff.
So much for the cryptic reference to secret Air Force R and D activities.
FLYING THE OMEGA
As I peer out at sturdy fan palms and frilly guasimas thrashing in the desert winds, their branches hanging onto trunks for dear life, I’m plenty glad to be on the ground. A few minutes ago a fierce gust blew a mess of doves right out of where they were roosting. Ugly surprise. Yep, I’ll bet it’s rougher’n a cob, up there – an old cliché for bad turbulence.
Another old saying goes like this:
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
It’s a saying I can confirm, looking back on fifty years of piloting. There are times of blood-racing happiness, like peering out over the panel into the vastness of the air around from several thousand feet up. I sit and remember more these days than I actually get exercising the privileges of my license. Such great memories can be as good as being there. Let me tell you about flying in the jet stream.
As you probably know, jet streams are the mighty steering currents for the world’s frontal systems – those bulging air masses of warmth or cold that flood our continents with interesting weather, making for interesting flying. They stream the upper altitudes a bit like the sinuous rivers in the oceans – the Humboldt current, the Gulf Stream, and so forth. But jet streams shift around coyly, operating on physics that keep meteorologists busy with their better-than-educated guesses. They diligently study rapidly shifting techie graphics, trying not to embarrass themselves with bad forecasts. If a G A pilot gets lucky, when one of those streams sinks to a lower altitude, he can snag onto the flow and get himself some phenomenal tailwinds. It doesn’t happen often in a comparatively slow single engine aircraft, but the big “heavies” glom onto them all the time, right up there in the upper flight levels. Their coast to coast-to-coast ETAS count heavily on those head- or tail-winds.
So one day, heading eastward out of San Antonio for Orlando, usually a two-day trip for our mama bird, we planned an overnight at Lake Charles, LA. But soon, at cruising altitude, we found ourselves already clipping swiftly over the coastal southland. Checking our ground speed, pop-eyed with amazement as we screamed along ever faster, faster, we suddenly realized something wonderful. At a mere 17,500’, we had incredibly snagged the jet stream. The 1,500 mile trip would finish in a scant 4.8 hours. No need for either a rest or fuel stop. Our daughter would find us on her doorstep a day earlier than expected. Navaids were whizzing by almost faster than we could identify them.
The far misty horizon sped towards us, then passed under us, in a splendid 180 degree geography lesson, the blue Gulf of Mexico stretching out to our south, Corpus Christi and Houston sliding by to the north, that megalopolis growing to include Galveston passing by on our left. As the sun changed its angle on our route, the coastal plains flashed silver lace edges and threads of rivers tracing watery routes inland. The Gulf itself shone as a plate of gold.
The interesting thing about this particular jet stream was that it looped down from its usual tropospheric altitudes in an omega pattern, like the Greek letter. That is, it swung down southward from western Canada like a jump rope, and then after looping west to east, snaked its way back north in a most accommodating way. We were going on to New England after a couple of days, and if the Omega held, not only would get we get the push towards the east, but we’d still have that tailwind to boost us northward all the way home. It rarely gets as lucky as that. We could hardly believe it, and crossed our fingers.
It worked out. We’ve talked about it ever since, bragging of course.
We got into it another time, clocking a groundspeed of 326 knots from west of Columbus OH to home base Fitchburg MA. The mid-continent controller came up on the frequency and asked: “Did you say you’re a Centurion?” We allowed as how that was right. He came back with “Good thing you’re not going west.”
We had 150 knot tailwinds from that dipping Jetstream. The plane’s airspeed was a reliable 180 knots. Going the other way? Traffic on the ground would have beat us by half again.
We joked about it with ATC….he’d had us pegged as a fancy high-speed Citation. We said we’d take that upgrade if he was giving it out. Smiles all around. I think he was bored. Not much traffic that day. Folks who didn’t have the equipment stayed on the ground.
We had a new tale for our logbooks.
FIRST TIME OUT ALONE
“Oh please God, I’m lost,” I whimpered.
As I write this, I’m a student pilot again. Remembering, my palms go cold and slippery with sweat.
It was solo time again – this time to fly away from home. I hoped.
Puffed up with bravado, I pleaded with my instructor to let me loose to go someplace else, all by myself, please, to leave the monotonous pattern of “circuits and bumps,” and range away from home base. “Another field, please? A change of scene? How about Lawrence? I’ve been there often and know it well.”
“Circuits and bumps” is the tongue in cheek expression for take-offs and landings, going around, and around, and around, the landing traffic pattern rectangle. Ah, the Circuit. The takeoff and climb-out followed by turning left to parallel the runway, going back to land on it. Throttle back on final, drift and trim for an elegant touchdown (the bump). Roll out, add power, scooting down the runway to do it all over again. Around and around, up and down. Practice makes perfect. All those left turns. Took ages before I could tolerate a right-hand pattern.
After a while, I sincerely wanted to go over to the neighboring airfield and practice there for a bit.
“Oh come on, Dodge, let me go,” I whined to my baggy-eyed instructor. “I’ll be absolutely fine. You know I will. I’ve landed there lots with you in the cockpit.”
Unable to find a good reason to say no, he signed my logbook. Super-hyped, off I went, aircraft keys in hand. I was ready to lift off without a plane.
But there was just one interesting little thing. He had not checked the visibility.
Smug with my new freedom, I carefully did my preflight, listened to the ATIS Bravo (Automatic Terminal Information Service alpha-beta’d rather than numbered) contacted ground control and taxied out. I paid no mind to the visibility advisory. Ceiling 5,000, visibility three miles. So? That was VFR – but marginal. No problem. I, hotshot student pilot, was going flying!!!
Hanscom Tower: “Three Seven Two Two Juliette cleared for takeoff runway One One.”
The air, turned out, was pure murk. As up and away I climbed, the bright green land below dimmed to appallingly indistinct. Slant range visibility from the plane was low, three miles at most. So? Hey – I knew the way. Big deal. On I puttered, confidently turning to my outbound heading.
But now seven miles from home, looking back, Hanscom had vanished into the grayness. No big wide runways in sight. Where was I? Where was I? I didn’t recognize a thing. Front, back, sideways – nothing. I clutched at the yoke. Peering through thick summertime pollution, sunlight blocked by overcast, all roads and hills looked the same. Where were familiar landmarks?
Looking at my outbound compass heading, I turned to fly the reciprocal to just go home. Unnerved, I decided that had to be what to do. And so, demoralized, I started limping back. But…where was my airport? No airport! Desperately I strained to see my way. Was I headed in the right direction? I trundled along, muttering. Praying.
“Please God, help me. I’m lost,” I whimpered. (There are no atheists in the cockpit.) Seven miles from home – and lost? So much for the hotshot pilot.
Completely rattled, I realized I couldn’t just pull over to the side and stop to figure things out. The plane had to continue flying…or it would stall and crash. Oh foolish woman, stupid student. How dumb I was.
Intently I peered through the gloom for another aircraft that might show me the way. A plane I could follow – and avoid hitting. Oh look! Up ahead were a few in a line passing in front of me… and wouldn’t you know, they were on the downwind to the runway I had only just left.
I was saved. Just in case the ATIS had changed, I listened for it. Yep, still Bravo. In a confident deep voice I keyed my mike: “Hanscom Tower, November three-seven- two-two Juliette five miles east, Bravo, landing Hanscom.”
“Roger Three-Seven-Two-Two Juliette, join downwind traffic runway One-One.”
Oh. He had me on radar. I imagined I could hear the smirk in his voice, as the student pilot limped back home. I fell into line, warm relief replacing cold fright, and touched down smoothly.
“See?” grinned I to myself – “You’re pretty good after all.”
Inside again at the flight school, they looked blankly at me. “Back so soon?”
“Yeah, the visibility was lousy,” said I. “Another day.” They nodded.
No smirks. They knew what it could be like.
Dodge sniffed and ignored me.
The Close Call Cat
“What’s that?” asked my son.
He was in the right passenger seat, peering through cupped hands at the plane’s generator warning light in front of him. We were flying over the sound, from Martha’s VIneyard to the mainland. I leaned over, saw nothing.
“You have to hold your hands around it, then you can see a tiny light in the middle,” he said.
My sweet straight-tail, stick-flaps 1959 Cessna 172 – a honey of a bird – had just come out of annual inspection, so when we landed I asked its mechanic about it. I was leaving the boys with a friend over night; they tootled off, and I waited to question the mechanic.
Mechanic (the one who had done the annual): “Hm. I don’t know. Next time you’re in, I’ll get under the cowling and check it out. Loose wire maybe. You’re certainly good to go now.”
Me: “Well ok then – see you about it tomorrow or the next day.”
I scooted back to the Vineyard for dinner with Hal, the pets, and the packed car. I would leave in the morning with the pets. He would drive – I would meet him back at home.
A melancholy moment – the last summertime dinner behind picture windows looking out towards the mainland. The sunset was still two hours off. Earlier, I had flown the boys to a friend in our home town to make the seasonal closing of the house easier; we would retrieve them tomorrow. A coin-flip decided who would fly. I won, and would take off in the morning before a front came through.
But what was this? Looking out at the view, chewing our steaks and enjoying our last vacation moments, our eyes tracked lovely shell-pink scud… speeding across the sky. Lowering.
The front had upped its arrival time without telling anybody.
Whooff. I grabbed the phone to talk to flight service for an updated weather briefing. But I knew… It was just what it looked like – my get out of town notice. Right NOW. We raced to the airport.
The dog scrambled into the plane… the cat, not. Prying claws and paws off my shirt, I put him in the back. He didn’t care for moving vehicles. In a car, he yowled piteous wora-wora-woras and hid under a seat. They both settled down, cowering in corners. Lulled by the rumbling engine, they would soon sleep.
I blew bye-bye kisses over the now dull cherry red generator warning light and away I taxied. Hal had seen that glowing cherry, and had fussed. I shooed him off, convinced the mechanic was right; it would be ok. It was more convenient to believe that.
But that warning light. Relentlessly, persistently, glowing ever brighter on the panel. I considered it. If I didn’t go now, the plane would have to sit on the island, awaiting sometime off in the vague future to finally fly back to home base. I tossed it about in my mind – would the battery last? Pooh – of course. Anyway, I would have at least an hour’s worth of left of battery power, if needed. Plenty. Away I flew.
The light nagged from the corner of my eye. I climbed out over the sound, leveled off. As I passed by New Bedford, ATC transmissions began crackling in my headset. The Tower had bid me safe flight, and released me to Cape Approach. Well… the mechanic notwithstanding, the radio went dead, in only twenty minutes! Next the lights dimmed and shut off. I immediately turned off the master (electrical switch) and muttered “Oh S—t” – cockpit vernacular for “Heavens to Betsy.”
The ceiling was coming down on me. City lights to the west had disappeared into mist and rain– where the front was moving in from. But lights ahead and to the east sparkled clear, with welcoming airport runway lights here and there, not far off, shining in parallel lines. No brainer.
If the visibility hadn’t been so good to the east, I wouldn’t have continued.
So… It wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. After all, the engine was running smoothly. It didn’t need a charged battery, except to start. The worst? I might have to stay overnight in the plane at one of those airports, snugged up with the cat ‘Apache’ and dog ‘Sal’. In the rain.
I lie – that wasn’t the worst. I could be hit by an airliner who couldn’t see me! And I couldn’t tell anyone that I was there. No radio, no contact with ATC.
Here, I began to panic.
Not good… never panic. Clammy fingers clutched the yoke. “I should go up…” I said to myself, and went up a few hundred feet. “No… can’t go into clouds. I should go down,” I said – and descended again. So there I was, yo-yoing up and down, trying to call a quavering “mayday” into a dead radio, turning the master on and off as it regained a bit of juice in between uses, enough to pop on position lights.
I was foolishly panicky, silly twit, unsettling the pets.
Well lookee here. Awww… I felt a gentle touch stroking my arm. Kitty was reaching his paw out to stroke my arm as if to say “there, there, things will be fine…” I grinned to myself, and patted him back.
That cat totally set me right. He was doing just as I always did to comfort him, when he was frightened. Humbling. I took him into my lap; he curled up and stayed. No wora-wora-wora yowling. Such a fine, clever cat.
So on I flew through the misting night almost at cloud base, passing by my home airport because it needed mic radio clicks to key on the runway lights – I was unable to do that. Droning on a few miles further to the one with lit runways, I landed, cracked the door to shine a flashlight on the taxiway line, making sure the pets didn’t jump out. It was now drizzling.
Those were pre-cellphone days… I dug through pockets to find a quarter for the pay phone. My dear friend came to get us – her second airport trip that day.
What did I learn? Trust your instruments. And something else – cats are smarter than you think. And they have empathy.
Why did the electrical system fail? The generator brushes were totally worn down. In doing the annual, the mechanic hadn’t inspected them. Required.
I was relieved to be home. Could’ve been worse. Could have had to spend the night in the plane.
Better to trust the instrument than the mechanic.
We were cruising south over the eastern coastline, leaving bouncy fair weather in New England, merging with a system of low ceilings over Virginia and North Carolina. Massively wonderful tailwinds scooted us rapidly over the huge distance of the barrier beaches. Well, in our Cessna 182 the push was massive. It’s not a very swift plane. We were flying a window in the bad weather forecast, eyes on passing airports – just in case.
Each year on Dec 17th, the anniversary of First Flight, the day in 1903 that the Wright Brothers made their historic virgin flight on that desolate beach, the First Flight Society puts together a superb event. The tongue-in-cheek “Man Will Never Fly” Society holds a dinner of comedy speeches and great joviality, the night before. The motto embroidered on their badge says “Birds Fly, Men Drink,” a rousingly funny apothegm… the first time you hear it. Well – we still like it, even if it’s a little tired.
Manteo is the preferred arrival airport, a short hop over to Kill Devil Hills – we had tracked the ADF for surest guidance since we were getting into snockely mist, doing the IFR approach. But no dramas – the airport materialized through decent visibility. Some of our Aero Club group had scrapped the trip, sure that the weather wouldn’t work. Our morning research forecasted better. We patted ourselves on the back, pleased that all the plan B airstrips had disappeared behind us. A cheerful line guy greeted us and helped with parking. He was having a busy day, but we got a slot.
Nearby beach motels perch on dunes, peering at the Atlantic over a large protective ridge of sand. The sea would encroach if it could – sometimes it does. In the hot Carolina summer the warm sands are crawling with kids and distracted parents. Being December now, it was off-season with lovely empty beaches.
But that night it poured chilly rain, making for lively puddle-hopping in and out of our banquet building. An event where the main speaker was from Australia, touting the aerodynamics of the boomerang, with balsa handouts for the crowd to hurl. Stand-up humor had us wiping tears of laughter – a comedienne popular on dinner circuits and wife of one of the pilots. The farthest distance fly-in (Alaska) got a rousing cheer from the room, and a plaque. (Our trek from Massachusetts didn’t even make the finals.) People flew in from Canada, Mexico – everywhere.
The buffet food was… ho-hum blah. Who cared?
The next day dawned clear and bright. Good thing, because a kettle of us hawks intended to circle the Landing Place in our planes, before landing and going through the history museum of information and displays. Did you know that for the small population who lived along that coast, that gangly contraption of the Wright’s was the first ever motor vehicle they had ever even seen? No cars, down there. They saw an airplane before a car.
The festivities continued, a gathering of aviation aficionados filling bleachers, waiting to see, and possibly meet, modern icons of aviation. They came to make a few short speeches, take a bow, and mix with the crowd. And show off new inventions.
It’s such an American thing – not exotic or foreign, not hot-spice show biz. But it’s wonderful. Oh – they drive in, too. It’s a pilgrimage, a worthy trek of the faithful, the devotees of aviation. Or just the admirers. If it’s not on your to-do list, it could be.
You would never regret it.
The young dragon lady looked up officiously, coolly – challengingly? – from her seat of authority. “You will have to bring your bags in here to have them inspected,” she haughtily pronounced.
“Of course,” I smilingly responded. “We have six bags – I will need a worker and a cart to do that.” She glared at me. Her superior, a good-looking mustached man, thick eyebrows and pleasant face, tapped her shoulder and bent down to speak to her, quietly. She looked up and quite melted, even cowering a bit. He turned to us… “You may push the traffic light button over there on the post,” he said, “and if the light is green you may pass through.” I laughed and exclaimed… “It’s a lottery!” I chirped gaily, smiling at him. I like to weave a pleasant tapestry with the Mexicans – they have a wonderful sense of humor and gaiety. “Yes! Exactly!” he exclaimed, and we all crossed our fingers as I timidly reached to push that button. “Yay!” I sang out, as it shone a lovely steady green. And we all clapped. (I think he might have rigged it.)
Always brings a bit of angst, flying into a Mexican border crossing. The language, the paperwork… You better have your papers in order – you can never know for sure, what to expect. Rigid adherence and exaggerated insistence on fine details (your insurance form is almost out of date…)? Or a laissez-faire attitude. It will depend on the heat, the numbers crossing, the mood. The officials are usually courteous and amiable, even helpful. But don’t let that fool you. They take their work very seriously. Often one must process through five desks with five officials – officials that staff their posts with helpful but no-nonsense attitudes (each desk often tiresomely found in different buildings) .
The Mexican government is a huge employer of the Mexicans. In the USA, airports are arranged for the convenience of its pilots – their customers. In Mexico – all is arranged for the convenience of the employee – a shock to the US pilot. And the government, being the government, has an innate passion for paperwork, and whoops it up with rules and paper stamping. The Mexicans love to stamp papers. You’re not important unless you are the wielder of a rubber stamp. Thud, slap, thud, slap, thud, slap… uh-oh you missed a desk? Go back to that other building, find it, get that paper stamped by that other official. One of those fine, tiresome details. Quixotically, things change randomly. For the workers, that can be a huffy ego thing. Having been blind-sided by a rule change, they must pretend to know what’s correct. For the pilot, it’s exasperating.
And oh, yes, they do indeed use a pseudo traffic light to decide if you get inspected or not! Press a button – red means unload and open the bags, green means you get a pass. Everyone hopes for green, even the wokers. Nobody likes hoisting and dragging in the heat. I was mighty glad to have passed.
BROTHER MATTHEW FLIES AGAIN
The Abbey rose among the swelling green hills of central Massachusetts, a handsome sprawling stone compound echoing medieval Europe, a beautifully mystical place of monks chanting in the dimly lit chapel their morning lauds and matins, the afternoon none, evening vespers. There were also tolling bells calling contemplatives to prayers, ringing sweetly out through the halls and over the walls. Lay people were invited to attend these chanted prayers, and come they did – sitting silently in a chamber off to the side of the Abbey chapel. The Abbey itself was off-limits to the public. Think Mont Saint Michel, and you wouldn’t be far off.
Matt was a monk, a Benedictine brother. I met him at the Abbey’s store when I was browsing through their delicious Trappist jams and jellies, goodies they simmered up in huge vats in their great kitchens, items to sell to support themselves – my favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb walnut delight. (Today, they also produce a top-notch beer made in the manner of their oldest traditions.) Also, I was searching for a reader-friendly book on meditation. He was a kindly fellow who worked doing errands and maintenance for the plant – yes, a plant, this very large Abbey.
The brothers and fathers were members of a contemplative order that maintains silence for a good part of the day, a part dedicated to prayer and meditation – hours when our brother went off in a truck on errands – first shedding his monk’s robe for workman’s blue jeans and shirt. Brother Matthew, interestingly enough, had been introduced to the heavens on an earthly plane – literally. He’d taken flying lessons when he was a teenager, and had never gotten over it. Personally, I saw no reason he should have gotten over it. This predilection, however, stood in the way of a priesthood for Matthew – he had earthly attachments he couldn’t give up, at least not in his heart. In practicality he had. But as you know, to dedicate one’s life to the priesthood, the heart and mind must be free and ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit – not taken up by any aching for man’s heaven with wings.
Through conversations – mostly irritating ones about how I should dump the jam, eat only small portions of fruit and raw vegetables, and not drink water while eating (a cultish point of view that quite put me off) he divined that I was a glider tow pilot at an airport not far from his supply route. And so he showed up, during the Fathers’ hours of silence, while out scouring for Abbey supplies. One day he rolled up in the pickup – and hel-looo… there he was. “Was he looking for a ride?” you ask. Danged straight he was, and into the back of the tow plane he hopped at my grinned invitation. Wiry guy, rank with whiffy BO from sweaty labors, he clambered in. And so began a friendship that lasted for years, years of cheerful flights (my talisman?) and occasional stop-offs at our house. Usually for a drink of water. Remember, his mantra was “No water with food,” and so he got thirsty.
When he could spring loose, Brother Matthew came to our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. He wisely learned to leave me alone about the strawberry rhubarb jam – for me, a staple to any feast.
And water with food.
Do I fly over, under, or around…???
That morning had dawned “severe clear,” right up to Flight Level God. We were happily, confidently, on our way from Alamos to Tucson. But suddenly it wasn’t so clear any more. We had drawn out the departure – and now up the road, things were “building.”
Our usual airport departure routine: underwing prayers with the charismatic preacher-airport-manager, then climb in and lift off. It was splendid weather. We waved adios to our helper hombres from home. A half hour later we slipped into Cd. Obregon to document departing the country. It was such tiresome government paperwork.
An hour after that, we were two-thirds of the way to Tucson, beyond the point of no return.
As forecasted, pretty piles of cumulo-nimbus were popping up ahead, hints and promises of storms on a grand scale. So far they seemed innocuous – but we had to get beyond them before that changed. Still nothing on the “fright finder” – the sensor on the panel that registers data on electrical storms up to 200 miles ahead. But this was the monsoon season, and we knew it was only time before they soared high to burst their crackling fury.
I had planned to stay the course, deviating just a bit to go between build-ups, and proceed directly to ARVEY intersection, on route to TUS. My favorite cockpit mate, said “Hmmm, why don’t you just go below those, you’ll be able to see the mountains – the highest is only 5500’ in this sector.” I mused, decided no, it would be bumpy underneath. But the impatient suggestions kept coming to “Just go below.” Those played with my head.
So I pulled on the speed brakes, added some flaps, took off some power – and started down. Then I waffled, thinking better of it. On with the power and up with the air brakes, leveling off. Let’s just stay at this altitude, I muttered. But the clouds were piling higher and thicker. Nuts.
Into the descent profile again. Nose down, power back, flaps to angle the forward view better – and speed brakes going up on top of the inner wing, spoiling a bit of lift and slowing us down.
I was being a danged yo-yo, I muttered to myself. Stupid.
And down, and down, and down…. still not below the ceiling. Ooof. This was not working out.
Peering through the windscreen, I noted large purplish shadows hiding sharp lumpy ridges – and serious rain billowing down from slate-bottomed cloud bases. Thick, mean, curtains of rain. Nope – not going under there. So much for suggestions. But sometimes you don’t know till you take a look.
A course change.
Looking off to the west, I could see my way clear to a run up the valley to Nogales. Cranking ninety degrees left, off we shot westward. Once around the buildups on a mere ten-mile jog, a sharp right turn around that menacing pile of energy put us back on course.
A jagged bolt ripped cloud to ground, off to our left. Immediately off the right wing appeared the deep misty blue of heavy rain. A lovely grand thunderstorm; the one we had just circumnavigated while it was building – it had grown fast. Those can blossom upwards by thousands of feet per minute, and this one had. Ok, not lovely. Frightening.
By now I’m with Tucson approach, who is advising us of bad weather. We said oh we knew, cells were in sight – but from where we were, we practically could see him through good visibility. Just bad in the cells. The smile was in his voice when he asked “What are your observations, zero-five-alpha?” I reported cloud bases at 8,000’ and dropping, and where there was precipitation, zero visibility. He cleared me down to 4’000 direct to the airport. Soon we were on the ground taxiing to customs – and scampering into the office before the rain came.
But it was a drenching that didn’t come. That one stayed in the foothills. Later on came monsoon misery to poor Tucson, with microbursts and floods. There are days when you’re glad to be on the ground inside something strong. And your wings nicely hangared.
So. I signed up for flying lessons, got an instructor (old cigarette-breath baggy-eyes), and eventually struck a neat deal with the flight school. They had a “discount club” that got you scrip to use for payments, instead of real money. All were encouraged to join. $80 bought $100 in scrip; play money, we called it. The guys who’d been around a while pointed out to me that when the bills were due for the company – once a month – the boss would do anything to get more cash – including giving “club members” a better scrip swap for dollars. Naturally we waited till the moment when he was scampering desperately down the back stairs to avoid creditors coming up the front ones – and there snagged him for a better deal. I got 100 scrip for 50 real. Not bad.
This company CEO was a round, bowling-pin -shaped fellow. Short, with feet that pointed outward like a penguin, and wore coke bottle thick glasses. Those enlarged his eyeballs like bulbous fish eyes. But they also enabled him to fly, with a waiver. He could settle a plane on the runway just like thistledown. Not seeing well, he did it like this… First he slowly descended almost to the end of the runway, just a 100 hundred feet up so he could see the big runway numbers, then fully extended the flaps and slowed the plane to a walk – and peering out over the panel he cut the power, sank gently to the concrete – and tip-toed it on. I can still see him leaning forward, pointing his nose with those thick glasses on them, to see through the windscreen and down onto the runway.
Penguin had high ambitions about a large flight school and charter business. To this end he had rounded up 12 aircraft, mostly single engine for training, most on lease-back (“buy this Cessna, Donnie – lease it back to me to use, and you can pay for it with the income from rental and lessons! Just put it on our flight line… Fly it whenever you want!”) – and thus he had a bunch parked behind the maintenance hangars. Apparently he overextended himself with promises, believing rentals and training would indeed pay their bills. That was Cessna’s leaseback sales mantra, and he believed. And they might have – had the aircraft continued to be airworthy. You know – a workable set of wings, usable propeller, nice upright tail. Well, in his eagerness, he took his eye off the ball. He gave orders for tie-downs – but he neglected to make sure that happened.
There is a reason to tie down an airplane. A strong wind, all by itself, will lift it right up – and not nicely. When disaster came, five were merely set with parking brakes, awaiting the ropes. You know how workers can be… You have to remind them, maybe be on their case. The Penguin wasn’t. He liked to analyze, give orders, sit back – and wheel and deal. It was summer, there were storms. One afternoon while he was leaning back in his office chair, ear to the phone with his mind on his dreams, a shocker of a squall line suddenly whapped through with 80-mph winds punching over everything upright. Buildings shuddered, people grabbed supports, cars wobbled.
From way off you could see it coming, the black clouds ferociously bucking in, with serious force. But he hadn’t been looking out of the window. Behind the hangars, those loose airplanes got flipped into total ruins. Baggy-eyes and I looked at the sad aftermath and clucked. What would he use for a trainer? That scrip was going to be useless. Poor Penguin.
An old wheeze from the field: “How to make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a big one.”