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.