Two-Four Fox

"Skylane," said the voice on the phone. "Top-of-the-line model of the Cessna 182. "

"Did Don over at Sky Roamers give you my name?" I asked.

"This year's demonstrator. No other like it. Blue and white."


"A hundred hours. Hardly broken in. Trues out at 160."

"Look, I'm not really in the market right now, Mr. --"


"Okay, Larry. I don't even have a pilot's license, and --"

"End of the 1966 model year, you know. This one will go fast."

"Wait'll I get my hands on Don."

"When shall I bring it by for you to see?"

"'Bring it by'?"

"Isn't your office near the Santa Monica Airport?"


"What are you doing for lunch?"

Anyone who aspires to success in selling might learn a few things from Larry. 

For starters, Larry understood the necessity of educating his prospect. You need to do that with an airplane, much as you would with, say, a Cuisinart -- more so than with a Pontiac. 

People buy what they want, not what they need. Larry applied that axiom: he sold flying, which is something a person doesn't need to do, really, but -- hey, who doesn't want to fly? 

You can exult about specifications until your ailerons droop and not sell an airplane. For the would-be buyer, Larry converts each 'feature' into a 'benefit.' 

  • Flaps become fishing trips in Mexico, where the runways are short.
  • Horsepower gives you weekend skiing in the Sierra Nevada, where the hills are high.
  • Speed means a dinner show in Las Vegas and then paying off the babysitter before midnight.
Selling an airplane to a non-flyer is a special art. Your prospective customer must...
  • overcome basic fears, 
  • endure months of strenuous training, and 
  • pass rigorous examinations. 
Larry had an extraordinary gift: He made brilliant use of self-deprecation.  In retrospect I am convinced it was a studied affectation. The prospect thinks, "If that scatter-brained son-of-a-bitch can do it, then by God, so can I."

Larry stepped out of a gleaming creature of the sky named Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot. "Oh, I left the spec sheet back at Burbank," he said with a little laugh. "My mind is such a sieve."

"Thanks for dropping by," said I.

"Gorgeous, don't you think?" asked Larry with a sigh.

I tried to shrug but nodded instead. Alarm bells began clanging inside my head.

Skylane Two Eight
                    Two Four Foxtrot

Central casting made a mistake. They sent over a fellow who could never play the part of an airplane salesman. No bushy eyebrows and tattoos, no stogey and paunch, no jeans and flowered shirt.  A slender man in his thirties, Larry was attired in a fresh-pressed, three-piece business suit. To conceal the intensity of his efforts, though, the man smiled easily and avoided aviation jargon.  Often when Larry finished an explanatory sentence, he would suddenly gasp for air, put his hand over his mouth, and -- well, he laughed with an infectious amusement.

I walked around the plane frowning and pointing. "Antennas?"

"This one's for transmitting, the other receiving, I think -- I can never keep them straight (laugh)."

"How about Luggage?"

"Enough room in the Skylane for all your fishing gear plus your catch. I don't fish, myself (laugh)."

I stuck my head into the cabin. "Instruments?"

"Plenty of toys for long trips (laugh)."

"How far can it go?"

"With the long range tanks, you can take your family to San Francisco and back without stopping," said Larry. "Although, you would probably want to (laugh). Your wife will adore weekend shopping trips to San Francisco."

I looked at my watch. "How about a sandwich here at the 'Flight Line Diner'?" I asked.

"How about Catalina?"

"Catalina?" Clang, clang clang! What the hell.

Larry had me sit in the left seat. "Pilot in command," he said. We took off and climbed out over the shoreline. Larry gave me the illusion that I was doing everything myself.

Sitting with his legs crossed, Larry chatted about going places with my family: San Diego and Santa Barbara were each 50 minutes away. Big Bear Lake was closer. "Forty minutes going up, thirty coming back," he said. "All downhill (laugh)."

"What a day!" I exclaimed in spite of myself.

Larry punched my shoulder. "Severe clear," we call it. He broke into song, off key, "Twenty-six miles across the sea / Catalina Island is the place for me (laugh)."

I swallowed hard.  "My kids and I have ridden bikes all over this island."

"Bet you never thought you'd go flying over for lunch on a weekday," said Larry, picking up the microphone. "How would you like your buffalo burger?"

I gaped at Catalina spread out before us. "Medium."

Larry keyed the mike. "Catalina Unicom, he said in a voice an octave lower than his speaking voice. "Two-Four Fox inbound; make that one medium and one well, please."

I allowed myself to grin for the first time since taking Larry's phone-call that morning.

"Now, I'm going to let you do the whole landing," Larry declared with mock finality. "Try pulling the throttle back a smidgen until that gauge there reads 15. Ever wonder where the word 'smidgeon' came from? (laugh)"

The airport on Catalina is famously frightening. It is located atop a mountain. "Larry, I don't know -- " The plane got quiet and started descending toward that mountain.

"They like us to make our turn about here," said he, slumped in his seat smiling, with his legs still crossed. "Time to do our little banking turn now (laugh)." I tried to followed Larry's instructions but merely shoved and rocked the control wheel this way and that with complete incompetence. Larry casually uncrossed his legs and put his feet on the rudder pedals, his only apparent concession to safety.

"We'll put down those big old flaps now," said the consummate airplane salesman. "That just makes the landing softer (laugh)."

Banking toward the runway, I found myself gazing up -- not down, up! -- through the plexiglass, astonished to see the airport at a strange angle in the sky.

Demonstration Flight in 24

Suddenly, I became intensely aware of height and motion. It was for such a time that the expression 'holy shit' was coined.

Larry opened the glove compartment. "Notice, you have room here for sunglasses, flashlight, window-cleaner, --"

"Uh, Larry --"

"-- just about everything except gloves (laugh)."

The airport gradually tilted around in front of us. It grew to fill the windshield.

"Just pull the nose up a scoche," said Larry. "The word 'scoche' is Scottish, I think.  You'll find that the tricycle gear makes landing..."


" easy as pie. I'll bring your flaps up for you."

Our buffalo burgers were waiting.

Ever hear of a deal that was too good? Not too good to pass up -- too good, period. In buying my first airplane, I negotiated such a deal. And it might have done me in.

Remember, I did not need to own a goddam airplane. I reminded myself of that and told Larry as much. Never mind that I wanted Two-Four Fox more than anything since puberty. And never mind that I drove 50 miles to meet Larry at the Burbank airport that Saturday morning.

"I will not pay the asking price, Larry, and I intend to insist that the deal include a second omni, a year's insurance, all applicable taxes, licenses, and -- now get this -- flight training."

Larry nodded solemnly and ushered me into a conference room where he introduced me to his boss. I recited my offer again, emphasizing the part about flight training. The general manager of Pacific Airmotive was summoned to the meeting. He traded glances with the others. "Will you excuse us, please?"

Outside while studying the tops of my shoes, I heard muffled laughter. A year later, I would ask Larry what was so funny. He remembered the scene and, of course, laughed. "That day, you were, as we say, 'pecking the ground.'"

Caucus adjourned. The sales manager was first to shake my hand. "You got yourself a hell of a deal."

In a matter of days, I would learn that the deal was too good.

The next morning, I took my first lesson. I did not even know the name of the instructor Pacific Airmotive had assigned to me until he arrived with my airplane at the Torrance Airport and taxied up to our meeting place. He had flown Two-Four Fox from the Burbank Airport to save me a long drive. Part of the deal.

"My name is John. I need a dime for the phone."

The fellow was no more than twenty-five, stocky, one of those short-necked people who always look uncomfortable in a tie. We found the pay phone. John dialed impatiently, referring to a number scrawled on his aeronautical chart. Assuming that the call had some routine purpose such as closing a flight plan, I listened in on the conversation.

"This is the pilot of Two-Four Fox. Are you the tower supervisor?" he asked. John put the phone on his shoulder and both hands in his pockets. "Yeah, but you guys told me to land on Two-Niner Left, and . . . I know, but . . . That is the frequency for the left runway, isn't it?" John nodded contritely. Obviously this was not a routine call. He looked my way and, seeing my quizzical expression, shrugged. "Okay, I understand -- no, sir. Sorry. Goodbye."

John hung up the phone. "Your first lesson," he said to me. "Never change frequencies in the pattern."

At the plane, John handed me an owner's manual and a reference book on flying. "Read those and you won't need ground school," he said. Next he took me through a brisk preflight inspection: "Wings, make sure they're on tight; feel the prop for nicks; elevator, it's for up-and-down; check the hinges on the rudder; get in; fasten your seatbelt."

"Old hat for you, I guess," John said, closing his door. "Somebody told me you already flew this thing over to Catalina or something."

"Hardly -- hey, it was that salesman Larry who did the flying," I protested. "Look, John, I won't be insulted if you accidently teach me something I already know."

John told me to start the engine -- but not how. I remembered some of what Larry showed me. When I operated the key-switch, the engine cranked but did not catch. John scanned the panel then pointed to the red mixture knob. I nodded and pushed it in. With the engine running, I asked John if we shouldn't be using checklists or something. He handed me the microphone.

"Get us a taxi clearance," he said. "I don't want to talk to those guys again today."

My first flight with John might be generously characterized as an orientation. We hopped around to a couple of nearby airports: Meadowlark in Huntington Beach for coffee, then we flew along the coast to San Juan Capistrano for sandwiches.

"Shouldn't we be doing maneuvers or something?" I asked John when we got back to Torrance.

John looked at his watch. "Maybe next time."

That week, I studied the books. We arranged to meet again the following Saturday. The second lesson was much like the first. A couple of different airports: Carlsbad and Whiteman Airpark. I could tell, John really enjoyed flying, but his training method consisted of merely telling me to do something then hollering, "Hold whatcha got, there."

On my third lesson, John had me doing touch-and-go landings at Burbank, one of the busiest airports in the world at the time.

The pace picked up. John began bringing the plane every evening to the Santa Monica airport near where I worked. More touch-and-go landings, now at night. The following Saturday, John soloed me at Fox Field in Lancaster.

On the way back to Torrance, John instructed me to land at Burbank. We taxied to Pacific Airmotive. "Why don't you take your airplane home," he said. "Meet me here tomorrow at three." He got out of Two-Four Fox and strolled away toward his car.

Call it what it is: pride. Just imagine the audacity of a student pilot with a handful of hours and negligible training taking off at Burbank Airport in a fast airplane, flying from the San Fernando Valley, over the Santa Monica Mountains, past Los Angeles International, for a landing at Torrance Airport on a busy Saturday afternoon.

We all know what pride goeth before.

From the time its wheels left the pavement at Burbank, Two-Four Fox got ahead of me. I was barely more than a passenger. The trip went undeservedly well -- until I called Torrance for landing instructions over Manhattan Beach.

A 'Santa Ana' wind condition had developed during the afternoon. At the time of my arrival, the controllers were engaged in "turning the airport around," a not uncomplicated procedure. RunwayTwo-Niner Right became One-One Left, and I became totally disoriented.

I was like a mongoose invading the chicken-coop. Over the radio, I heard planes being sent away to do 360's, others were told "use caution; there's a blue and white Cessna, hot-rodding the wrong way in the pattern."

Before I was ready, Two-Four Fox aimed itself toward One-One Left. The tower reminded me that I had been given the right -- the shorter -- runway. I acknowledged the call while I should have been reducing power -- then veered to the right while I should have been putting down the flaps. High and fast, Two-Four Fox touched down beyond mid-field. I skidded my head-strong, blue and white speedster to a stop and opened my eyes. There was no runway beyond the spinner.

Torrance Ground Control gave me a phone number to call.

The next day, Sunday, I drove eagerly to the Torrance airport for my return flight to Burbank. I parked the car and stood agog before Two-Four Fox. Having my own plane -- having that plane -- went beyond the fulfillment of my childhood dream.

After the run-up, I switched to tower frequency. My new friend, Don, cleared me for immediate take-off. He was the supervisor on duty the previous day. "Come on up for some coffee," he had said over the phone. "We'll go over our procedures here at Torrance with you."

"Have a good flight," he said.

"Thanks, Don. Uh, which way is Burbank from here?"

"Take a right at the coastline." It was the first of a hundred such bantering exchanges between Don and me over the next five years.

Two-Four Fox dashed out ahead of me. Before the day was over, I was in for another humbling experience.

"We'll do a cross-country today," John proclaimed while buckling himself into the right seat.

"What do you call what I did yesterday, John? Torrance was really hairy," said I. "The wind had shifted, and -- "

"When we come back," John interrupted, "I better show you some stuff you will need to pass the 'written'."

We flew to Twenty-Nine Palms, Bakersfield, and Santa Barbara. John and I arrived back in Burbank just after sunset. I was getting the feel for the plane, but not for flight planning. Computing groundspeed gave me trouble. I needed more study. John took me into the pilot's lounge and showed me a teletype machine. It was clanking away, printing lines of arcane abbreviations.

"That will be the latest 'sequence report' for the Los Angeles area," said John. "For practice, check over those numbers before you take off. See you on Tuesday." John left for home.

As instructed, I studied the coded printout for two airports, BUR and TOA, referring to a yellowing 'Rosetta Stone' tacked to the wall. I could barely decipher the altimeter setting, wind speed and direction. What I had no grasp of was the significance of these readings. In particular, there is something called the 'spread' -- the difference between temperature and dewpoint, a subject to which I shall return. In more ways than one.

The reported visibility at Burbank was three miles, just barely 'visual' conditions. I went out into the dark and started up Two-Four Fox.  The Skylane rose up from the runway and began its climb into the moonless night sky.  A sparkling celestial canopy shone above the windscreen. I leveled off at 3,500 and pointed the nose toward Los Angeles.

The lights of the city were concealed in a glowing blanket of fog. The previous sentence deserves an exclamation point -- better still, it deserves to be repeated: The lights of the city were concealed in a glowing blanket of fog! The aptly named 'Basin' was filled with the stuff.

Shucks, I thought to myself. Guess I'll just have to go back and borrow John's car. I flew on for several minutes, captivated by the ghostly spectacle. I banked the plane and pulled back the power. Two-Four Fox came around to the north. Not shucks anymore. Shit.

There's fog in the San Fernando Valley, too! Where the hell did that come from?

Weather, I learned that night, does not always come from someplace else. Clouds can form in situ. Let the temperature go down after sunset and water vapor, which is transparent, condenses into droplets, which are opaque. On your rosebush, it is called dew. Suspended right there in the air, the proper term is fog.

"Burbank Tower, this is Cessna Two-Four Fox. Returning to land."

"Two-Four Fox, Burbank visibility is now less than one mile, over."

The fog is getting worse by the minute. I can barely see lights in the Valley -- and then only those that are directly below me. My throat suddenly went dry. "I'm a student pilot," I rasped. "I will take all the help I can get."

"Roger, what is your position and heading."

"Heading three fifty. I think I'm about five miles west."

"Two-Four Fox, stay on this frequency and maintain heading three-five-zero. Say your altitude."

"I'm at 2,500."

"That's fine for now. Turn right to zero-three-zero for radar identification -- that's zero-three-zero, just plain 'three' on the compass, over."

"I got that, thanks."

"Two-Four Fox, are you familiar with 'Four Stacks'?"

"The power plant, yes. But I don't see it."

"What can you see on the ground?"

Visibility was contracting to a circle of fog the size of a city block, hiding everything beyond. The circle moved along with the plane. "I just saw a Thrifti-Mart sign!" I exclaimed. "But now only streetlights."

"Two-Four Fox, radar contact, seven miles northwest of Burbank, turn right to a heading of one-two-zero."

"Okay. The visibility is getting worse."

"Are you steady on one-two-zero?"

"I am now, yes."

"Two-Four Fox, begin a gradual descent and keep the streetlights in sight."

"How low can I go?"

"Let's see how you do at 1,500."

Suddenly four red lights flashed in unison. "Four Stacks just ahead!"

"Two-Four Fox, you're doing fine. Now turn right to one-five-zero and continue to descend."


"That will line you up with Runway One-Five. You should see the strobe lights about now."

A brilliant streak of lights -- the HIRL -- flashed up through the fog into my eyes, beckoning me to the runway.  "Got 'em!"

"Two-Four Foxtrot, you're cleared to land."

Utterly benumbed by the experience, I tied down Two-Four Fox and carried my briefcase back into the Pacific Airmotive building. Several people came rushing out the door.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Some poor bastard is trying to land in the fog," said one. "Probably a student," chuckled another.

Inside, I picked up the phone, trembling. John was just sitting down for dinner.

"You should have checked the temperature-dewpoint 'spread'," John admonished. "Once the sun goes down this time of year, water can squirt out of the air in no time." For John, that was a thorough explanation. "Give me an hour," he said.

"Meet me at the control tower, John. I want to shake some guy's hand."

The envelope finally came from Oklahoma City, headquarters for the FAA's certification branch. I only missed one question on the written examination.

To celebrate, I took Two-Four Fox out and crashed it.

It was at Fox Field in the Mojave Desert that next Saturday. And it was on my first landing for what was intended to be a series of touch-and-goes.

Touchdown was on target. Rolling on the runway, I brought the flaps up. Then I shoved the throttle to the fire wall and listened to the engine come up to full RPM. Half-way down the runway and lifting off -- trouble!

The engine reached its peak RPM and started slowing down. The sound -- "woo-AH-oo-oh" -- has echoed in my memory ever since. Four slurred syllables, "woo-AH-oo-oh." Without waiting for the engine to slow down further, I pulled the throttle and aborted the take-off. There was runway remaining. Not enough.

Two-Four Fox touched down again on the main gear. I blew both tires braking. The plane rolled off the end of the runway between threshold lights and chased jackrabbits through the sagebrush. The nosewheel dropped into the sand. For an instant I was sure the plane would flip. Dust filled the air.

With the plane stopped, the engine continued to run, nice as you please. I shut it down and got out.

The nose gear was bent back at a slight angle. I could see wrinkles along the belly of Two-Four Fox. Thinking in terms of an engine-failure-on-take-off, I was too grateful for grief. A few seconds longer and there would have been no runway left.

A jeep full of parachutists rattled across the desert from the opposite direction. I walked back toward the runway for a look at the skid marks. By the time the dust had settled, I was merely a member of the curious crowd. The parachutists found an empty airplane.

"Where the hell's the pilot?" one of them shouted.

Another trembling phone call. John was out with a student. I described my problem to the dispatcher at Pacific Airmotive and hung up. A local mechanic overheard my conversation and became the first of many experts bewildered by Two-Four Fox's symptoms.

  • Fuel contamination was ruled out immediately: The engine ran fine from Torrance.
  • Carburetor ice was likewise eliminated from consideration: It was a warm day -- in the desert, for crying out loud.
In the coming months, while Two-Four Fox's front end was re-built, the engine was inspected from spinner to firewall. Nothing was amiss.

Three years would go by before the mystery was solved. After hundreds of tense but trouble-free take-offs, there was this one time with my daughter and two of her friends in the plane at Torrance Airport, when all of a sudden -- holy shit, not again! -- "woo-AH-oo-oh." But that's another story.

The phone rang. John was pissed.

"One of two things," he proclaimed. "You didn't check for water in the fuel or you got ice because you didn't apply carburetor heat."

"John," I said. "It's time we had a talk."

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Santa Catalina

One of the Channel Islands in Southern California, Catalina is a popular resort. An irregular coastline encloses 75 square miles of rugged hills, where indeed buffalo now roam. The only city on the island is Avalon, with a population of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. First sighted in 1542 by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Catalina was purchased in 1919 by William Wrigley, Jr., whose family still owns much of the island.

My fondest memories include summers at a YMCA camp on the lee side of the island. We used to paddled to Avalon in a ten-man war canoe -- hah! -- make that a twenty-kid canoe. After exhausting ourselves diving for coins tossed from the steamer, we would scarf Hershey bars and suffer the consequences on the return trip, heaving around at the end of a tow-line attached to the mailboat. {Return}

Flight Training

Modern flight training follows a syllabus of mandated topics taught both in the air and on the ground. Simulators play an increasing role and so do expertly developed video presentations.

As with other high-content or practice-intensive subjects, from mathematics to music, you are well advised to set aside several days per week and concentrate -- not to stretch your training out too long

Best to budget several thousand dollars, too -- certainly more than the minimum. Figure on taking extra lessons for topics you have trouble mastering. And look askance at any airplane purchase that proposes to include the flight training. That kind of a deal may turn out to be too good. {Return}

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