High on Hubris

The roadmap was out of date. There is no longer an airport in Portchester. Hell of a time for me to find that out!  I had already accepted the position in Stamford, Connecticut. Escrow on the New Canaan house would close in a week. The nearest airport to my new home was in Danbury -- more than 40 miles away. Everything else about the new job was acceptable: a promotion, triple my salary, but I simply did not check an aeronautical chart before agreeing to move east. Two-Four Fox was in its hangar at Torrance Airport in California. How unhandy.

Several weeks after I arrived, Mark, one of my associates who shared a zeal for flying, arranged a plant visit in Norristown, Pennsylvania. It would be about an hour's flight from Danbury.

"The Reading Airshow is taking place the same day," said Mark with a quick and lingering grin. "A coincidence not likely to be noticed on our expense accounts." He handed me a press release. Among the new planes that year was the much-heralded Windecker Eagle, the first FAA-certificated composite aircraft. Glass epoxies with smooth fillets soon would be replacing bent aluminum and rivets. Continental's high-RPM Tiara engine with its geared prop would be on display, too. Bob Hoover would be there in the Shrike Commander along with Art Scholl with his Chipmunk, dancing in the sky.

"What about Patrick?" I asked. The third member of the team would be meeting us in Norristown. He had to report to the Coast the day after.

"No sweat," said Mark. "We'll drop him off at Philadelphia International on our way to Reading."

The Saturday before our trip, I drove to Danbury and took a check ride in a rented Skylane. The transcontinental relocation had kept me out-of-cockpit for a couple of months. I mention this because -- excuse me, but I'm getting ahead of my story here.

Danbury to Norristown was my first flight on the East Coast. The dawn weather was clear and calm. Mark, an office-bound executive in his thirties, served eagerly as my autopilot. We flew low, along the Hudson River, giving us a sweeping view of Manhattan from 2,000 feet. Mark punched my shoulder. "Fantastic sight!" he exulted. "Better 'n' Yosemite in my book!"

We joined up with Pat at the Norristown factory and finished our official business well before noon. In the taxicab on the way back to Wings Field, I learned that Pat had never before flown in light aircraft. I was delighted. One hopes for such vicarious opportunities to re-live one's own initial experiences in the sky.

"How many motors?" Pat asked. A Harvard-trained financial analyst, Patrick always wore a dark suit, striped tie, and a solemn countenance, adding ten years to his age and twenty to his credibility. I determined to put him at ease.

"Aircraft engines are marvels of reliability," said I. "Take ignition: Dual magnetos and two sets of spark plugs -- all are independent of the electrical system. And you can't beat air cooling for reliabiliy. No radiator to boil over. Our fuel pump is gravity, and -- "

"One motor, you're telling me."

"-- for communications we have two transmitters and receivers, plus two independent radios for navigating."

"What happens if the motor stops?"

Mark chimed in. "Some people think that without its engine the plane will just crash. It isn't so. The plane will glide for miles, depending on how high we are."

"Good pilots," spoke I, mouth operating at full prattle, "make each landing a rehearsal for just that eventuality. You'll see: With the power off, we'll glide onto the runway and touch down at maybe 40 knots."

As our taxicab pulled into the airport, I told Pat that pilots seldom get into trouble because of just one thing going wrong. "Deteriorating weather, say, might be little more than an inconvenience, unless the pilot compounds the problem through poor judgment. A malfunction -- even in the power plant -- won't necessarily hurt anybody if the pilot is well prepared."

The cabbie opened the trunk. "Sure you don't want me to drive you guys to Philly?"

Mark loaded Pat’s luggage aboard Eight-Five Echo, our Danbury rental, while I continued my unctuous monologue. "Safe flight starts with careful planning and includes vigilance in the air.” I invited Pat to sit in the front seat.

"These are the radios I was telling you about," I said. "This one is called an omni. We have two. As I will show you, they guide the plane through the sky, even in bad weather. It is inexcusable to get lost.”

Pat pulled the airline ticket from his vestpocket. "My flight is in fifty-five minutes," he said.

"Even on a clear day like today, using radio navigation is like -- " I grinned at Pat, "like wearing suspenders as well as a belt."

Mark handed me the chart. He had folded it neatly showing Norristown Airport at the top and Philadelphia International at the bottom. I mention this because, as you will see -- oops, did it again, didn’t I.

"Since today's trip is quite short,” I told Pat, “I'll set up both VOR's for Philadelphia." I entered the digits into the omnis and handed the chart back to Mark.

On the take-off roll, I ceremoniously announced manifold pressure, RPM, and airspeed. "Lookin' good," I hollered. "Let's fly."

The following recollections from the flight are exceedingly painful. Not because of any imminent danger. There were no equipment malfunctions, and no adverse weather conditions. The Greeks have a name for it, 'hubris.' That day in the sky over Pennsylvania, I learned that I have more than my share of the damned stuff.

Once aloft, I tuned up the tower frequency at Philadelphia International Airport to eavesdrop on the controller's instructions to other planes. Both omni needles were alive. I pointed them out to Pat and trimmed the plane into level flight at 2,500 feet.

"Sounds like they're using Runway One-Four for light aircraft," I said. "Let me show you a little trick here, Pat." I set the bearing selectors on both omnis to 140 degrees, the runway heading. Then I angled our course slightly to the right onto a southwesterly course. "When these needles swing to the middle, all we have to do is hang a left and follow the beam straight down the centerline."

For the first time, Pat appeared to relax. I reclined my seat and enjoyed the view of the rolling Pennsylvania countryside below.

"Do you expect the meetings in California to last all week?" I asked.

Before Pat could answer, Mark tapped me on the shoulder.

"Is that Havertown?" he asked, pointing to a small city just below.

I glanced at the chart. "Wouldn't surprise me."

Mark frowned out the window. Pat frowned at his watch. The omni needles were pinned to the right. Any moment, though, I was sure they would start moving toward the center, my signal to call for landing instructions.

"If that's the Springton Reservoir, it is not the right shape," Mark said, handing me the chart.

"Lakes change their shape with the seasons, my friend."

"Shouldn't we just about be there?" asked Pat.

Ahead in the distance, I made out the Delaware River. "Keep your eye on the horizon, Pat," I said. "You will see a big old airport soon enough."

Mark crouched forward between the front seats straining his eyes. Nobody talked for long minutes. Undistinguished suburban landscapes crawled past our windows. I looked at my watch and realized that I had neglected to log our departure time.

The most vital navigation instrument is the clock.

Using my fingers as calipers, I began to measure the length of our trip. I guessed at the time aloft. Good heavens! We should have reached our destination ten minutes ago. I performed the operation again and came to the same conclusion.

Just then the omni needles started to move. Whew!

"See anything yet, Pat?" I asked. He peered through the windscreen and shook his head. My confidence had suffered only a momentary lapse. Now, I can play one of my favorite little games. "You think we're lost, I suppose."

"I see what might be a large airport, but -- "

"Well," I said. "Whadaya say we just assume it's Philadelphia and go land on it." I picked up the microphone.

Mark sat back in his seat. "Sounds like a good idea to me."

Pat pointed through the wind screen. "But over there, that doesn't look like --"

I interrupted Pat with my radio call: "Philadelphia Tower, Skylane Seven-Three-Eight-Five Echo, about eight miles north with your numbers. Landing instructions, please."

"Good morning, Eight-Five Echo. Make straight-in approach. Runway One-Four. Report three-mile final."

Pat was perplexed. I winked and said, "Don't worry, we'll get a 'taxi-clearance' right to your departure gate.” I laughed out loud. “Everybody on your airliner is going to wonder what kind of a big-shot you are."

As we approached the airport, I looked over its runway pattern. The river lay a mile beyond. The omni needles were now both centered. I tried to attract Pat's attention, but his gaze was fixed upon the airport scene spreading before our nose.

"Skylane Eight-Five Echo, three-mile final," I said into the microphone.

The tower hesitated before responding. "Eight-Five Echo, not in sight. Continue approach. You're number two for landing behind a Cessna -- black-and-white -- on a mile final for Runway One-Four."

Lo and behold, there was a black-and-white Cessna just ahead of us. My confidence soared. It appeared to be turning from base to final for Runway -- hey, for Runway One-Seven!

"Philadelphia Tower, Eight-Five Echo has the black-and-white Cessna," I said. "You did say Runway One-Seven, did you not?"

"Negative, Eight-Five Echo. Runway One-Four. Philadelphia International does not have a Runway One-Seven, over."

The black-and-white Cessna ahead touched down on a runway with the large numerals "17" painted on it. Furthermore, the pavement angled to the right of our 140-degree course by thirty degrees, just as you would expect a Runway One-goddam-Seven to do.

For such a time, the epithet oh shit is not strong enough. I keyed the microphone, "Uh, do you have me in sight yet?"

"Negative, Eight-Five Echo. We think you have the wrong airport. What do you see on the ground?"

"Some large aircraft -- (gulp) -- some large military aircraft."

"Eight-Five Echo, discontinue approach. Do not land. Climb straight ahead to 2,000 feet. Acknowledge, over."

"Roger, we'll climb to 2,000," I sighed.

The controller issued instructions to an airliner, then spoke to me in a matter-of-fact tone. "Eight-Five Echo, you are at Wilmington, Delaware. You are twenty miles southwest of Philadelphia International. Continue at 2,000 feet until you see a river – a really big river. Remain this frequency and report reaching the river."

My mind imploded, putting my senses through a complete shut-down sequence, vision dimmed, sounds muted, mental rigor mortis was at hand. A certifiable zombie gripped the control wheel. The plane flew itself to the river. Somehow the flaps got retracted. Here at my keyboard, I suffer intense anguish from memories undiminished by decades.

"Have you found the Delaware River yet, Eight-Five Echo?"

"About there," my voice said. I dropped the microphone onto my lap. The navigation chart fell to the floor where it can remain in perpetuity for all I care.

Both of my navigation radios must be tuned to Wilmington not Philadelphia. Either the chart is out of date, which is my error, or I got the wrong frequency off the chart, which is -- well, my error. Thousands of hours in the sky have been vanquished in a matter of seconds. I am reduced to abject obedience, waiting for the next command from a control tower operator far away.

My face glowed with the embers of my ego.

"Turn left and proceed northeast. Keep the river on your left." The controller spoke as if to a demented dolt. During the ten minute flight up the river, neither Pat nor Mark said a word.

There was Philadelphia International. Now the tower had me in sight. I heard the controller talking to an airliner waiting for take-off clearance. "United 22, I'll get you out as soon as I can. I have some guy in a Skylane flying around up there. I want to get him on the ground!"

With step-by-step instructions, the control tower paraded me and my passengers all the way around the airport.

"Eight-five Echo, do you have Runway One-Four in sight?"

"I do now, yes."

"Cleared to land."

We pulled off the runway. A "follow-me" van with flashing yellow light led us to the transient parking line.

Utterly humbled, I thanked the guy in the tower for his help. Getting a taxi clearance to the passenger terminal was out of the question. Pat will miss his plane for sure. I just wanted to shut down the engine and wake up from this nightmare.

Pat and Mark scrambled out of the plane. While Pat grabbed his luggage, Mark struck a deal with the van driver to make a dash to the terminal building, a routine request, as it turned out. I merely sat in the plane, paralyzed with embarrassment. Pat waved as the van sped away across the field.

Mark climbed back into the plane and picked up the chart.

"Here's the problem," he said after a time. "It was really my fault."

"Not possible, Mark," I replied. "Thanks just the same."

"Look at how I had the chart folded. The frequency block for the Philadelphia VOR was not visible from the front. Instead, the one for Wilmington was."

"Let me see that," I said. Mark handed me the chart.

At least I had an explanation. It did not change anything, however. I had been careless in preparing for the flight, sloppy in its execution, and oblivious to contradictory data. On top of that, I had been more than a little arrogant.

Suddenly a realization struck me, and I started laughing. Mark gave me a quizzical smile. Through my laughter, I asked, "How many black-and-white Cessnas are there?"

"Never saw one before, myself."

"Exactly," I exclaimed. "What is the probability that two black-and-white Cessnas would be landing at the same time -- anywhere in the world?"

"Not very high, maybe, but --"

"Awhile ago, Mark, one was landing here at Philadelphia, where I thought we were -- and another, 20 miles away at Wilmington, right in front of us. Who says the gods don't play jokes!"

Mark shook his head. "I don't see what's so funny."

"Later, my friend. Meanwhile, fasten your seatbelt. There's an airshow in Reading this afternoon. We don't want to miss it."

At the Reading Airshow, Mark and I removed our neckties and wandered all over the field taking in the aviation exhibits and cheering the aerobatic performances. It was a fitting occasion for me to make a decision.

"The hell you say!" exclaimed Mark when I told him.

"You're the first to know," said I.

"Just because you botched that hop to Philly? It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe not, but it sure made my decision a whole lot easier."

We strolled back to the plane in the twilight. There were a dozen planes lined up ahead of us for departure. What Mark did not know was that I had recently become a bachelor father. My children were teenagers. They would be moving to my new home in Connecticut after the summer in California with their mother. I had planned a new life of seeing to their needs as best I could: schoolwork, music lessons, the whole shot. Meanwhile, my job would require me to travel all over the world.

"Piloting takes continuous study and practice," I told Mark. "Even if there were an airport in my backyard, I wouldn't have time to maintain my proficiency. You saw today what can happen."

Eight-Five Echo was waiting for us in a grassy field, the temporary parking area for the airshow.

That night flight back to Danbury Airport would be my last as pilot in command.


 
 
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