"Unable niner thousand."That voice! I recognize it. It's that new guy over in Marketing -- what's his name? Purdy, I think. He gave a presentation last week. Hey, somebody told me he was a pilot. Million dollar voice.
Whereas I cannot remember what I had for breakfast this morning, the words "Unable niner thousand" return vividly to my mind whenever I think of Bronson ("Bob") Purdy. Or hear his voice.
Icing conditions prevailed in a belt across the waistline of California that Sunday night in 1968. Freezing level at 8,000. Returning south from a family weekend in Paso Robles, I was taking the long way 'round over the Pacific Ocean -- down on the deck, barely keeping my wheels dry under the lamp-black overcast. I had switched to 125.5 to monitor Los Angeles Center for traffic. My guess is, this guy Purdy is on solid instruments somewhere over the Grapevine, a sinuous cut in the Tehachapi range. If so, he's got problems.
"Three-One Bravo, say again?"Something is not quite routine, there. The controller's phraseology, "Roger that," is more than an acknowledgement. It's commiseration. Purdy is flying a Cessna Cardinal, with its rakish fuselage, a sports car in the sky. Oh, right, and the Cardinal features that strutless, laminar-flow wing, which is slippery as hell but cannot carry enough ice to cool a martini. If Purdy goes up to 9,000 feet, he'll be flying in visible moisture where ice forms on the foil, screwing up Bernoulli. Less lift, more drag. The stuff is heavy, too.
"Cardinal Three-One Bravo, climb, maintain eight thousand."From his words over the radio, I can tell that Purdy's plane is already loaded up with frozen slush. I can tell something else, too. This guy Purdy is one cool son of a bitch! If it were me up there, with my eyes prying through the windscreen into the murk, with engine in full rev, rime ice on the wings, mountains on either side of my course, altimeter stuck at 7,000 -- hell, if it were me, I'd be in full panic mode. But Purdy's voice is smooth and steady. He's as nonchalant as a dinner guest declining a second cup of coffee.
Monday morning and Purdy showed up for a meeting on some forgotten subject. I gaped at him from across the room, looking for any signs of the previous night's torment in the sky. To request my landing instructions at Torrance Airport, it had been necessary to switch frequencies. When I got home I had listened to KNX News into the night, half expecting to hear a bulletin about yet another light plane missing in the Tehachapis.
After the meeting, I accosted Purdy. "Last night was piss poor for logging instrument hours."
He always wears a smile, even when puzzled. "You a pilot or what?"
"That was you in the Cardinal, wasn't it?"
"Bronson Purdy," he said, offering me his hand. "My friends call me 'Bob'."
"You got ice over Gorman. I was scud-running along the Coast. I heard you on the radio."
Purdy poured a cup of coffee. "How did you know it was me?"
"I figured you might have no more than 30 minutes aloft -- even if you turned back toward the San Joaquin Valley."
Purdy grinned and shook his head. "There wasn't any ice."
It was my turn to be puzzled, but I wasn't smiling. Purdy explained that he stayed below the freezing level all the way into the San Fernando Valley. "It was a piece of cake," he said. "What are you flying?"
"But you were given 9,000," I protested. "What was all that 'unable' shit?"
"That's just what I told that guy at L.A. Center. I had no intention of getting up into the overcast."
"But you were IFR, weren't you?"
"Under 'Instrument Flight Rules,' you're supposed to take the altitude they assign you."
"Heck, I was flying a different kind of IFR." Purdy paused for a sip of coffee. "'I Follow Roads'," he said. "Last night it was Highway 99, keeping headlights on the left and tail lights on the right."
"Anybody ever tell you that you have a distinctive voice?"
That day began a friendship that lasted more than three decades until his death in 2001. I called Purdy on the phone about his invitation for me to give another lecture in his MBA class at Berkeley. I got his answering machine. That voice again. I left a message. "Give me a call when you get on the ground, Bob. Don't forget to put your wheels down. Otherwise it takes full power to taxi." Purdy won't be returning my call.
Bronson Purdy and I had many business interests in common, swapping referrals and references over the years. The man had plenty of admiring friends, but I like to think that he and I shared a unique passion for flying. It was Bob who first taught me the three most useless things for a pilot: "the runway behind you, the altitude above you and the fuel not put in your tank." Metaphors for life, I think. So I'm especially glad I was wrong about the 30 minutes -- that instead he got 30 more years aloft, smiling and speaking in that million-dollar voice, always as cool as the other side of the pillow.
Hah! I remember something else, too.
When I moved to Connecticut in 1970, I decided to leave my plane in its hangar in Torrance, California. Bob consented to keep the battery charged for me. How's that for friendship! He must have flown the thing 300 hours before he finally made an offer to buy Two-Four Fox -- taking a deduction, of course, for all those added hours of tach-time.