Adventures in Personal Flying
Learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself.
-- Old Aviation Saying
Think of your favorite moment. You probably have many, of course, but think back to that one priceless instant -- an interval, however brief, held aloft above all others in your memory. I invite you to reflect upon a special time when the things you care about most seemed to come together and fit. A moment of personal fulfillment.
Here, let me show you what I mean.
On the Central Oregon Coast at a latitude about the same as Bangor, Maine, is the Town of Florence, hard by the mouth of the Siuslaw River. The local airstrip, streaked with sand, lies in a valley near the shoreline. On final approach one mile out is a gray steel bridge, its riveted arches and spires shaped in the deco style of the thirties.
"You're the main reason we're here," I told him, grinning at the double meaning. I stood beside the plane, studying his features. My daughter, eyes glistening, studied mine. Apart from our family group, the airport was devoid of people. I took a deep breath.
"Before that fog blows back in for the night," I said, "maybe you and the good doctor would like to take a ride."
"Barry and I were hoping you would ask," Victoria replied, her enthusiasm for the sky undiminished by decades and motherhood. "Let's go before his-nibs wakes up."
Son-in-law Barry, a tall and bearded man in his early thirties, flung his arms in the air and called out to my granddaughter: "Come along, Amy. Grampa is going to take us up in the sky."
Amy was sifting sand through her tiny fingers in the shade of the empennage. She drew near and squinted into the afternoon sun low in the sky. Her blond curls danced in the Pacific wind. "Can we show Grampa the Sea Lion Caves?" she asked, not quite ready to talk directly to me.
Our plane for this trip was the Skyhawk, a high-wing four-seater, which the Cessna people embellish with the stylized image of its namesake, replete with painted plumage in gold and black. For three lazy days, Beverly and I had flown in short hops from Orange County in Southern California, which is at about the same latitude as Charleston, South Carolina.
"Do you mind?" I asked. Beverly took the sleeping baby out of my arms and smiled wanly. In relinquishing her place in the Skyhawk, the Redhead showed altruism of the highest order. She had raised three daughters of her own before we met. Now she celebrates life aloft with more enthusiasm than any ten aviators since Kittyhawk.
"Better not stay up too long," she warned, nodding at my daughter. "You have the baby's milk supply on board."
The four of us clamored eagerly into the plane. I sat up tall in the seat, flipping switches and twisting knobs with surgical precision. My son-in-law, the doctor, saluted. I started the engine and released the brakes. We waved as I ruddered the plane around to taxi along the narrow runway. Beverly turned her back to the blowing sand. I stole a quick glance over my shoulder at my granddaughter in the back seat. Talkative and bright, the little girl reminded me of another. Twenty long years came off my age.
"Like old times, Dad," said my daughter over the sound of the engine.
You get the idea.
Your favorite moment probably involves loved ones, a fond encounter, a warm reunion. Then, too, yours might well be centered on some especially meaningful event or a major achievement. Any favorite moment for me would have to include the fulfillment of my childhood dream.
Thus, while guiding the Skyhawk low along the Oregon beach that day, I might as well be John Glenn in his capsule, feeling the admiration of the world. Or Chuck Yeager, breaking the sound barrier. Hah! Why not that Little Leaguer, now grown, pitching in a World Series. Try to imagine this: The instant my daughter touched my shoulder, I knew how a Nobel Laureate must feel when the telegram first arrives from Oslo.
Certainly not that fogbank up ahead.
Breakers thrash the beach directly below us. Amy has not spoken for awhile. She continues to scan for the Sea Lion Caves, eyes heavy. Her afternoon nap won't be postponed much longer. The sky is clear to the east, and with more altitude we might be able to see Eugene forty miles inland. But there's a diffused white wall on our left that hides the blue Pacific. Now it is slanting across our flight path and rising above the coastal hills before us.
Where is Florence?
Exactly what we don't need: The fog has blown back on shore. Surely the river will be visible, I thought to myself. I squinted at the horizon, shutting out all else. Minutes pass. There, in the distance ahead, a meandering blue ribbon, the Siuslaw River. Opon our return, we will have been aloft no more than half an hour. Is that long enough for the fog to reach the airport?
Only the inland part of the town can I now see and none of the airport. The nearest alternate is Eugene, 20 minutes by air. More than an hour by car. My favorite moment is being savaged.
Daughter Victoria recognized the situation. "Barry, did you show Beverly where you always hide the keys to the van?"
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Victoria.
I looked across at Barry. He smiled sheepishly, dangling a ring of assorted keys on the tip of his finger. That settles it, I thought to myself. I headed the plane toward the bridge.
Take heed, pilots: The correct decision was to divert. We could simply rent a car in Eugene and drive back to Florence. Beverly is a resourceful lady; she would hear our engine fading toward the east, then set out on foot to acquire a supply of nourishment for the baby.
On arrival at Eugene, the four of us would doubtless find our car already reserved and a message from the Redhead saying that now I owed her three ballets, two operas and a flower show. A few hours of inconvenience later and we would be re-united. No story to tell.
So much for retrospective logic.
Long ago, as a low-time pilot, I would have done the sensible thing. But I'm an old-timer now, and with thousands of hours in the sky, I chose to embrace the doubtful proposition that accumulated skill can make up for a momentary lapse in judgment. Fogbank or no fogbank -- to preserve my favorite moment -- I am determined to put that Skyhawk back on the ground. At the Florence Airport, damn it.
In the Oregon sky that afternoon, I suspended all other considerations.
Beep!"What's that sound?" Barry asked.
"Stall warning," answered my daughter calmly.
Suddenly, after passing the bridge, with our left wing stroking the gray-white wall, I sighted a gap below the overhanging fog. I took aim above the treetops and forced the nose down, slicing into the shallow valley. The gray image of a runway gradually appeared on our left. I jinked into the crosswind, crabbing sideways toward the sandy pavement.