Monday, April 7, 2014

Flight Plans

It was my first solo cross country flight. The little red and white Cessna was washed and shiny. As I was working at the local airport  as a young teen in exchange for discounted lessons, I made sure she sparkled. The weather was good, all the "what if's" gone over with my Instructor.

 It would be an easy trip, just head south, down a deep valley with mountains on both sides and lots of room to turn around, land, get my log book signed by someone at the airport to confirm my landing, and come on home after lunch and a pit stop.  I had soloed quickly and was doing well with my studies. This was going to be a piece of cake, I told myself.

I plotted out the course with the E6B. flight calculator. Short of the Star Trek episode that actually saw Spock use one to calculate warp drive trajectory or something, I've not seen one in years and  don't know if they even make them any more.  The only flying I've done in the last few years is the occasional local flight in a small aerobatic plane, just enough for currency, and given the cost, I'll probably leave the 'G' forces to the youngsters and just go putt around in a Cub.  But on that day, I was ready.
The takeoff was normal, my instructor waving from the ground. He had seven mostly grown children, all boys, a carpenter by trade. This was just time away from the house that made extra money for him. I headed south, my movements a familiar litany of rudder, aileron and throttle, the tiny two seat craft bobbing on the air as if it was attached to a gossamer line on a tiny fishing pole, held by a child. I didn't mind the minor turbulence, this was normal with the eddy and flow of air around the ridge lines, even when the wind was light.

Scanning for traffic, I got a really good luck at the mountains under which Dad's home was perched, a view so different than from below. It was winter, and although clear underneath the high overcast, I could see ice down below on the lakes, pushing up from the current, upended into minor dislocations and faults, tiny recreations of the mountains around, themselves formed through the chaos of earth and the finger of God. I think of the poem High Flight, which any young pilot worth his or her salt can recite, the words "touched the face of God".

 I can see how that airmen felt that, so long ago, when the skies erupted in war.  Looking at the light and shadow of cloud and earth, the ice that shimmers beneath the blue of the sky, the prop slicing into it as dawn cuts the darkness, I can see the places where hovers the God of light and darkness and creation. I imagine He was there on that very first flight, watching his creation take to the skies as birds, testing the limits of self and of machine, that self that is always our defining point.
Checking my watch against the paper fight plan, I could see I was at my first check point a bit early, more of a tail wind than I'd planned. I'd have to remember to adjust my calculation on landing, and plan on buying some extra fuel, even though I could make the round trip on the full tank's I left with. I wrote it on the flight plan, there next to "get logbook signed"  and "eat your sandwich".

I wasn't quite sure how I ended up here I'd always been fascinated by trains and cars, anything machined that moved. I took that first lesson on a whim, daring myself to dare, and I was hooked. When I got the job at the airport, I heard my Dad say "she won't last a week" the work as physical as anything I'd ever done, driving a big gas truck, hauling out the hoses to the plane, climbing ladders up and fueling. We won't mention to OSHA that float plane I fueled with a ladder on top of a picnic table to reach. But I lasted a week, and then some, sitting in my room at night with my books and my study guides saying "I'm going to be a pilot" as a mantra to parents that love but don't always believe.
Underneath the plane now, was the outskirts of the big city, and I got on the radio to communicate with the controllers, as I flew throw an area that would not result in a meet and greet with some large jetliner inbound. The city sprawled below, so much bigger than I'd pictured, even all the times the family would drive there to shop.  With a great handoff to the next sector by the controller, flight following was terminated as they were busy, but I stayed on to monitor just to make sure there wasn't someone in my area at my altitude. 

Just two more cities and it would be my destination  There's one little city, looking a whole lot smaller, than I expected. The light dusting of snow made everything look pure and clear, and also exactly the same.

I checked my map, checked my time.  I should be at my destination but what I'm seeing is just a expanse of open ground.  I hear my instructor say, don't just use pilotage, use the VOR, an instrument that tunes into a ground based station and lets you track to or from it.  There we are, I'd passed it, but only by a couple of miles.  Well this is embarrassing, I hope the folks on the ground weren't watching me fly right overhead, then turn around. 
Listening for anyone on the frequency at the little country airport, I made my announcement, downwind to base to final.  I was feeling rather proud of myself. Ok, I made a little error in pilotage, but one thing I could do was fly this thing, I told myself.  I could just picture greasing it on, then walking into the terminal, red ponytail flying in the breeze and presenting my logbook for signature, as someone said,  "student pilot? Well the way you nailed that landing, we're surprised!"

Oh, the dreams of the naive and young.

Coming up over the numbers on the end of the runway, I reduced the power, flaps out at full, carb heat applied, waiting for the soft and gentle birdlike  "chirp chirp" of the wheels on the pavement as from the terminal, people made small polite golf tournament clapping.


No, it wasn't Canadian geese flying over head but the sound of my wheels impacting, let's just say "firmly," at which the airplane bounced   Yes.  Bounced. Not bouncing so high, I need to abort the landing, but bouncing like a baby Kangaroo on crack. All I could do was make sure the nose was up, and on the centerline, using power to gently ease it on down, not once, but twice (maybe three, I'm pleading the Fifth). The little training Cessna's are built for the occasional kangaroo landing, doesn't make it any prettier.
Oh, THIS is embarrassing.

I taxi gingerly up to the fuel pumps.  If this airplane could put it's head down in shame, it would.  I knew the bounce was neither high nor hard enough to do any damage to anything other than my ego, but still.

I get out and two young, good looking guys are standing out by the fuel island.  It just keeps getting better.  One of them says "Student pilot!  Here I'll sign your logbook".

Gee, how did they know?

The flight home was uneventful, the wind dying down a bit, the air smooth, time to think back over to the first leg.  My little bird just scooted on through the sky, the clouds that made up the high overcast earlier drifting further apart, shafts of light between like fence posts behind which watched the rear guards of fate.
My previously swelling ego seriously bruised, I realized what my instructor told me time and again "it's when you think you're getting good, that you're going to kill yourself, that' when you have to be the most vigilant".  He was probably fifty years old, ancient in my eyes, and had likely been at that crossroads of destiny and free will more than once, that junction that can easily be permanent, but like most  teens, I didn't listen half of the time.

I thought to my other job, there at the funeral home, one that my friends teased me about, but less than when I did career day with the forensic pathologists.  I just did simple office things, tidied up and made coffee for the families, but the environment was not either scary or depressing for me. I was young and full of life, and everyone that was brought in here, was, you know,  OLD.

 Besides the business was successful, a brand new facility, and they paid more than minimum wage.  Then one day they brought in two bodies, making sure I was in the office, as although I would sometimes fetch things for them as they prepared someone's family member, as such sights did not bother me, they said this one was one I did NOT want to see, and locked the door.  It was two brothers, high school students, not classmates of mine, but of another school,  killed in a head on collision on a late night.  Alcohol was not involved, simply youth, bad timing and poor choices.  On that day, I realized, that there are some lines, that if you cross, you can never come back.
I didn't know on this fight back, that thirty years later, I'd drive past that funeral home, the structure now empty for several  years, the economy taking a toll, the form of a place where the dead were once prepared and grieved not the sort of place one wants to buy and turn into a Chuck E. Cheese. It was as grey and desolate as a tomb, the faded Realtors sign in front the only sign that anyone had been here in years. There is nothing inside, no future, no life, nothing but the echoes of shades within, impervious to time or alteration by their very weightlessness, no bodies left to be buried, just the shapes of memory, recollections that lie as dust by those that drive past, unseeing. 

I didn't, know, that as we left it behind us in the rearview mirror, that I'd think of this flight, thankful for a God that watched out for a young airman, one who had some serious lessons to learn.
As the little Cessna neared the airport, I didn't yet know of such things, I just knew that I was even miles out from the airport and I needed to ready myself and my craft.  I thought of old pilots and bold pilots, and how easy it is to assume that grown up trait of being convinced of your own ability simply by your own silent superiority.  I thought of the sound metal makes as it bends, and the sound eyes make as they weep.

"Acme Airport. Unicom, N714 Golf Juliet on the forty-five to downwind"

From below, a sound of a voice that had suffered much, and learned as well, a voice I'd best listen to a little closer in the future.

"N714 Golf Juliet, no reported traffic, welcome back B."


  1. My first solo X-Country took me to Rifle, CO. The FBO was a former WAAF who had two English sheep dogs. Came out to the C-150 from using the facilities to find puddles by both main tires. She allowed me to worry a bit before pointing out the dogs were responsible for the puddles.

    Yeah, made sheepish by sheepdogs.

  2. While I truly love any machine that will fly, I will never forget my first cross country. what learned in or I should say what taught me the hard facts of a new confident student. the dreaded Luscombe. I was a natural floater until you finally got it on the ground then it became a switcher. end for end that is. The ever present ground loop that was seeming built into that airframe. When I taxied up the pump, there was only one, the weather beaten old man at the pump (maybe 45-50 looking back) looked at me without a smile and said "If you came to preform in the air show, it ain't till July" I am nearing 70 now with about 22,000 hrs time and the good Lord has smiled on me each time I got into one of those wonderful machines, and I'm still learning.

  3. O that first solo x country flight.
    Mine was a little different, I am a third gen. wing nut. By the time i did a solo xc I had been driver semi all over the state and had flow most of it with my dad before. The best long xc was a flight my dad & i did in a DC-3 full of engineers. I was 19 just soloed a cub, in the right seat. the real copilot is in the back with the passengers, ever body is asleep including pop. Great trip that day. Got to log that trip as duel, my instructor was the copilot. get shots of the EAA museum. DS

  4. Good thoughts.

    Besides, any post that has a Mossie in it....well that'll instantly up the rating, lol.


    They're still made in metal, and now in the ever present electronic versions and apps.

  6. Murphy - glad you liked it.

    Well Seasoned Fool - ha! There was an FBO in Tillamook, Oregon that had an airport "duck", and it was a cranky old thing that charged more than one seat of wheel pants. But if you tossed it a few grapes, it was instantly your best friend

    Old Richard - Oh, the Luscombe You have that beast described spot on. I taught in one briefly after high school. With no intercom and me seated behind the student, and it being a bit "loud", I was tempted to give up yelling and just bring a baseball bat.

    diesel smoke - DC-3? Lucky you!!

    Greg T - well thanks you, and thanks for stopping.

    Off to the coal mines (but I'm bringing chocolate cake I baked for the guys last night).

    c-90 - good to know. My last cross country was delivering a Sabreliner to the Middle East with a buddy, no E6B, but we did have a few toys.

  7. You know, I am glad I didn't know you then. I would have worried about you, just as I did when my eldest son was flying Cessnas !
    Lovely story though !

  8. That first cross- country... sigh... TXK-DTN-3F4-TXK Thanks for the reminder! :-)

  9. While I never had the itch to fly as a pilot, I still was bitten by the aviation bug. I spent most of my working career with the airlines, working for several or a ground handler, just to be around the planes. Just yesterday, I was able to be near them by being at the airport for just a short time, dreaming of days gone by, wishing I could go back in time and relive it all over again.

  10. Got some looks here in the library just now from my "whew". This belongs on Facebook.

  11. We had a little airport , where I grew up. I often said I am going to fly there some day. Mom would say over my dead body , and brother would say you " ll never make it .

    Well..... I did fly soloed when I was in college , and Mom wasnt dead , and Bro I did make it.

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

    I still fly but only now for my soul , and oft I feel so healed after a flight.

  12. What is that stubby little blue thing with the Rotax(???) engine?

  13. Wonderful story. :) I so enjoy your writing.

  14. Jane - I am sure your son is a very good pilot and I'm glad you've gotten to go up with him.

    Old NFO - You're welcome!

    Rob - I have no regrets for the career change, but it was certainly a great time.

    Mathew - thank you, feel free to share, as I'm not on facebook.

    mjrb - my Dad was not thrilled, but he wasn't paying for the lessons so. . . but he let me, even though I was a minor. And he was very proud when I got four stripes on my shoulders and my own bird later on.

    og - not a Rotax, though that is what I thought from a distance. It's a German Hirth 2 cylinder. That is the Stits Baby Bird, designed by Don Stits in 1980, it's a tiny, high wing monoplane that was to be the smallest in the world. Don’s father, Ray Stits, designed the Sky Baby, which had held the title for smallest biplane since 1952.

    The Baby Bird was constructed of steel tubing in the fuselage and a wooden wing of only six feet, three inches. The fuselage is only 11 feet long and the engine swung a ground-adjustable wooden propeller of 44 inches in length.

    By the summer of 1984, the Baby Bird was ready for taxi tests, which were completed by pilot Harold Nemer, a retired Navy pilot of appropriate stature. In August of 1984, the Baby Bird was deemed airworthy and took to the skies and Harold completed a total of 35 flight in it. With a gross weight of 425lbs. and an empty weight of 252 you could not put on a lot of person OR fuel.

    In 1984, the Baby Bird was registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Smallest Airplane in the World" and Don generously donated it to the museum in 1989 where it sits by his Dad's creation.

    I thought, from an engineering standpoint it was really cool.

    Lois - thank you! That's how I feel when I look at all your wonderful crafting and photos.

  15. First XC solo was ALO-FOD-MCW-ALO. Downwind, ready to turn base at FOD, when asked to extend by an incoming commuter. He didn't want to wait for the old TraumaHawk. Everything was perfect up to that point :) It all worked out. I can remember more than one "three-bouncer" in that beast.

  16. "it's when you think you're getting good, that you're going to kill yourself, that' when you have to be the most vigilant".

    Flight instructors are evilll!!! Especially when they are family. Me: "How'm I doin' boss?" Flight Instructor/Grandmother/FAA Safety Inspector: [raised eyebrow] Cessna152 on next landing: [kaBAM, rattle, rattle....squeeeeaakkkk] Me: [look of sheer terror] HER: That'll learn ya for gettin' cocky.


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..