My System

How can I put this delicately? You see, I don't travel very well. That is, my system doesn't travel very well. And everywhere I go, of course, my system goes along. At some point, my system -- well, stops going along, if you catch my drift. That's when travel for me gets dicey.

Away from home, my system scoffs at apples and bran. By the third day, I sense deep down, my system is preparing a surprise for me. I get to thinking, maybe a glass of prune juice from room service... Naah, the guys are waiting for me in the lobby. Drat that. Gotta pack up and check out.

We had flown into Las Vegas on a Tuesday in the late sixties for a trade convention. Four of us in the plane. The big guy, Gerry, is French Canadian. It will be his turn in the front seat for the return trip. I know he's still nervous about flying in light aircraft and will be asking a lot of questions for the next two hours.

"What is he say-ING?" he queries, every time something comes over the speaker. Like so many other first-time passengers, Gerry feels that his personal safety depends somehow on his own comprehension of each radio transmission. To put fledglings at ease, I have added a tutorial to my start-up procedure.

"This instrument shows how high we are," I told Gerry, while checking cowl flaps and circuit breakers.

"But we are still on the groun'," he observed. "Why is it say-ING two t'ousand feet?"

"On the ground, Gerry -- but not at sea level."

After starting the engine, I looked across at Gerry to make sure he had solved that minor mystery. He saluted and tried to grin back. As I ruddered the plane onto the taxiway, Gerry noticed I was not using the 'steering wheel,' He craned his neck and gazed through the windscreen, no doubt wondering why we were taking our share of the road from the middle.

"We always drive with the nosewheel on the yellow line," I explained. "It keeps us from scuffing up our wingtips."

My other two passengers were seasoned birds. Hal, the balding marketeer, couldn't care less about aviation. At the convention, he logged many hours of booth duty in the daytime and acquired copious casino calluses at night. Hal unbuttoned his vest in preparation for a snooze. Sei, the consummate engineer with white socks and pocket protector, has flown with me several times. He studies the Airman's Information Manual and plans to take flying lessons. Sei is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Today is Friday. Still nothing from my system.

There's an upper-level low over the desert, according to the briefing. "Moderate turbulence below 15,000 feet." This is one of aviation's least emphatic descriptions. It means "rough as hell." The expression "severe turbulence" is reserved for when the atmosphere is likely to disassemble the plane aloft.

McCarran Tower answered my call. "Two Four Fox, cleared for take-off."

"What is he say-ING?" asked Gerry.

"He just gave us permission to fly home, my friend."

"That is what I t'ought."

Roiling bumps rocked the plane during our climb over the desert. Gerry gripped his seat with both hands. Hal nodded off. Sei scrutinized his product literature. Initial groundspeed calculation confirmed the forecast: 30-knot breeze on our nose.

Half-way to Baker, my system -- you have probably guessed -- my system gave notice.

Flight calls for the collaboration of several systems: propulsion and fuel, navigation and control, electrical and hydraulic -- each having its own primacy, each a sine qua non. Management of airplane systems is the solemn responsibility of the pilot. 

So much for generalities.

The pilot himself or herself likewise comprises systems: cardiovascular and pulmonary, lymphatic and alimentary. Not all as vital, perhaps, as control cables and unencumbered fuel lines but potentially troublesome just the same. Difference is, none of the human systems appear on preflight checklists. For me, they do now. The difficulty for that day was one incidental system -- one of my incidental systems. 

So much for theoretical analysis.

Getting back on the ground suddenly became the highest priority. Thinking back, I suffer from undiminished chagrin. My actions throughout the rest of the flight would be more appropriate for a cockpit fire than for a mere digestive embarrassment. 

So much for retrospective logic.

"Where are we go-ING?" asked my French Canadian inquisitor as I banked the plane around to face the sun.

"Gotta see a man about a horse, Gerry," I hollered, forcing a smile. I pushed the nose over into a powered descent above Mesquite Dry Lake.

Gerry pursed his lips. I had given him another minor mystery to solve. Increasing airspeed intensified the turbulence. My passengers noticed that. So too, unfortunately, did my system.

"The horse, it is so impor-TANT?"

"Tighten your seatbelt and hang on," I replied. Airspeed indicates top-of-the-green, and I am not about to slow down.

Hal, jolted out of his slumbers, made peevish remarks. He probably used the s-word. Sei's brochures lay scattered on the cabin floor. He kept his thoughts to himself.

After an eternity and a half, I had the airport in sight. Approach Control handed me off to Tower. McCarran was still using One-Niner Left. The right runway, however, is a whole lot closer to the general aviation buildings.

"Las Vegas Tower, Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot, requesting One-Niner Right."

Thanks to the turbulence, my radio diction was embellished by the microphone banging against my teeth.

"Two-Four Fox, make left traffic. Will advise runway. Uh, do you require assistance?"

"Yeah, a restroom."

"Roger that."

Occasionally you will overhear a pilot reporting an ear-block on board or a sinus-squeeze. Controllers commonly give special consideration to these in-flight annoyances. Nobody wants to declare an emergency, though. Too many forms to fill out. The guy working my case transmitted instructions to another plane then came back to me.

"Two-Four Fox, I've got a blue Apache for you to follow. He'll be entering downwind from the east for One-Niner Left. Stay south of the airport and report him in sight."

"Looking," said I, still munching the mike.

Our altitude is over 4,000: I have to throttle back or else Iíll wind up sprinting for a latrine at Nellis Air Force Base on the other side of Las Vegas.

Hal pointed over my shoulder from the rear seat. "Looks like Sky King -- hey, the Songbird, am I right?"

Sei spoke up with authority. "It was a Cessna T-50 -- not an Apache."

"OK, what was the name of that guy's daughter?" Hal hollered.

I squinted into the sun. "We're closing on Sky King," I told the controller. "Can you do anything for me?"

"Niece," said Sei. "Penny was his niece."

Just then, a slow-talking Bonanza called in to chat amiably about his intentions. My system had become a constant distraction. I did not pay attention to the Bonanza's transmission.

My friend in the tower slowed his verbal pace to match the Bonanza. "Follow a Skylane, wing-up, turning from a high crosswind to the downwind." Not waiting for the Bonanza to key his microphone, the controller then advised me to keep outside the Apache.

The Bonanza, in-bound for a weekend at the craps tables, is somewhere back there looking for us, thought I.  Don't have to worry about him. Still descending, we passed to the right of the Apache.

Though event-filled decades have intervened, every detail of the next 100 seconds is engraved in my memory.

The tower controller called with some good news. "Two-Four Fox, change your runway to One-Niner Right. The Apache on your left is landing on the left."

"Yo! Thanks!"

"McCarran, we're downwind out here for a full stop landing," drawled the Bonanza. "We're lookin' at the tail of a twin something-or-other...over." The guy didn't mention the Skylane -- my Skylane.

"The Skylane is landing on the right," said the tower. "Continue your approach and follow the Apache for the left runway." Abeam the Tropicana Hotel, I dropped flaps and made a wide base.

The guy in the Bonanza sounded confused. "Uh, that'll be fine, Tower. We'll take the right runway, then."

Right runway? I reached for the microphone, but before I could speak, the tower spoke again in a cheery voice. "Two-Four Foxtrot, you are cleared to land runway One-Niner Right -- long landing approved."

That's what I've been waiting for since Tuesday. I dropped the mike.

While turning from base to final, I saw something that nearly solved my bowel problems for all time. It was the nose-gear of the Bonanza. The tower was already on the air with emergency instructions, waving him off.

"Go around! Do not acknowledge, go around!"

"What is he say-ING?" asked Gerry.

Fascinated, I gaped at the tire suspended above our cowling. Any closer and we would have treadmarks on the windshield. I shoved the yoke forward. Hal let out a grump and a gasp. Sei's papers fluttered toward the ceiling. We dropped to 100 feet over the runway. I could not see the Bonanza -- could not be sure he had pulled up. I applied power and jinked right. All 230 horses in the Continental labored to arrest our descent.

We mushed along beside the runway. I could see a shadow of an airplane on the pavement, growing. Soon it was joined by its owner, the Bonanza. He executed a routine landing. On the wrong runway. On my runway!

"Sorry, Two-Four Fox," said the tower controller. "We have no contact with the Bonanza."

My system will not put up with another trip around the pattern. We have plenty of runway, though, and I have been cleared to land, haven't I?

What the hell, chop the power. Quick bank left, haul back and flare. Time for one eager glance at that hangar on our right. I nodded my head.

"That, Gerry, is where I am go-ING!"

Mains chirp against the concrete. I mashed the binders and brodied onto a taxiway. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the Bonanza serenely rolling out on the runway.

"Two-Four Fox, turn right onto the tarmac," said the tower, as if the Bonanza never happened. "The place you want will be straight ahead."

We taxied at freeway speed. So arrest me.

"Anybody else want to visit the facilities," I asked.

Gerry cleared his throat. "I will wait until you are t'rough."

We would both laugh about that later. I yanked the mixture as our plane approached the hangar. With propeller stopped, Two-Four Fox coasted the last furlong between rows of executive jets. I jumped out and ran toward an open door past a line boy, who was waving his arms.

"You can't park here!"

"Tell the pilot back there. Heís French Canadian."

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