GOD: FOOLS AND DRUNKS – the saying goes that He looks after them.
In the midst of this giant pandemic isolation, I sit with my wings now folded, watching the sky’s constantly changing cloudscapes – and reflect.
The time came last year for this eagle to go to roost. It was a grand half-century of joyous adventure, a time of learning and honing special skills, a time of thrilling to being a part of this eccentric occupation, flying. The mamabird is gone off now to younger fellows; I pray they’re as cautious and clever as I was.
Well… maybe I wasn’t always so careful. In remembering the glory days, inglorious moments relentlessly pop up. It wasn’t all “atta girls.” Oh the shame, the embarrassment…
We’re not drunks, but there was a time or two when I was foolish. And perhaps something on the Other Side moved on my behalf.
Flying, piloting. Having been a female poking her intentions into what was a particularly male occupation required me always to be on the qui vive and not make mistakes. At least not often, and never glaring ones. I was not about to be mocked and derided. I would not give anything to those sly, lurking railbirds to pounce on.
The lessons proceeded, and I learned to be nearly perfect. But it didn’t matter how good I was. I was still the teasing brunt of it – those airport rats even put together a hilarious audio tape of would-be hard landing sound effects – the clattering of clanging rims bouncing along a runway stand out in my mind. Supposed to be my landing – NOT. How gleeful they were, the snarky ground huggers.
They cackled and slapped thighs, eyes watering with mirth as they played it for the gang. What could I be but a good sport, and laugh with them? Yeah, well. I had to be as at least as good as the guys – but that was easy. And really, they were just boys pulling my pigtails.
So, when did I truly embarrass myself?
One day, smoothly purring along aloft, we became lulled by the continent’s landscape sliding past beneath us. Valparaiso next, right? Columbus had been left behind. We were at the same time thrilled by the kick of cruising above 18,000’ in Class A airspace basically reserved for the Big Ones. We got clearance from ATC and muscled our way up out of what the Heavies smirkingly called “Indian Country” – the airspace down where we smaller fry prowl, SELs and twins with names like Cherokee and Aztec. But suddenly our vision grayed, colors disappeared. Instrument lights faded out… What!!! We froze, thinking our brains were closing down. Fading vision, fading hearing… no engine sounds… What was happening to us? My God, the cockpit was definitely graying out.
Trembling, I whimpered a panicky MayDay into the mic.
Huh. Duh. Come on stupid. The cockpit was dimming because the engine had quit, winking out the electricity. Whew, it wasn’t a brain thing. Wait – The engine had quit???? OH no!! Why ever would the engine quit? The dreaded malfunction, an engine freeze? Emergency landing ahead?
Ah, no. It quit because we weren’t paying attention – we ran a tank dry. Yumpah dee dah indeed.
Oh the foolishness, the embarrassment – I had actually may-day’d ATC before doing a panel check. The red-faced confession of stupid carelessness right there in front of God and everybody.
I jerkily moved the little lever onto both tanks and switched on the pump, restoring the comforting roar of the Continental.
We sensed snorts of derision coming over our headsets, those snickers of “You dumb bunny,” yet also some comforting “Yeah, been there, done that” echoing along the air waves. Because in aviation whatever you’ve done, somebody else has done it before. Doesn’t help to know that when it’s happening to you. Because you know some have not survived.
As my command pilot Daddy, early days test pilot, member of the famous Caterpillar Club (those who’ve parachuted with the silk out of defunct aircraft to save their keesters) once said about landing gear up, “There are those who’ve done it, and there are those who are going to do it. Nobody gets a pass.” That can apply to about anything in aviation.
However, in my plus fifty years of flying, I did get that gear-up pass. But almost not.
En route west, descending into Boise between towering purple, crackling TRWs, dodging one on final, I wondered why that stall warning horn was so loud. At a scant 6 feet off the ground, my navigator (husband) bellowed “the wheels, the WHEELS!!!” – just as I recognized the blare of the gear warning system. Morphing into fast-time, I added power, hit the gear lever, spun nose trim full up, and held her off the ground while the wheels lowered at full stall just at the moment of a gentle, three-wheel touchdown. As I taxied in, I noticed my clammy palms.
Never want to do that again.
This ragged old eagle is now at rest, on the roost, like an old hen now, tamping out fires – literally. The other night our stove caught fire while we slept. The smoke so thick it sickened. That story next time.
Close calls in the air? What makes you think you’re safe on the ground?