Soul on Board

By the time Friday came, I had asked a dozen couples if they would like to ride along. It is a shame to fly with empty seats. For most people, the notice was too short. Others were not too keen about crossing the Great Mojave Desert at night in a single-engine airplane.

My not unpleasant duty was to ferry Three-Seven Romeo to McCarran International. I would not be alone, however. Muffin accepted my invitation.

Getting my desk cleared for the weekend took longer than usual. It was after eight before I was packed and headed for John Wayne Airport.

"We won't be landing until eleven," I told Muffin as I unlocked the plane. He wagged his tail to show he didn't mind.

Whoever said that dogs don't see well never met this scruffy cockapoo. On any number of previous flights, Muffin sat up and studied distant objects outside the plexiglass. His only problem is on the ground, gauging the size of rivals. Years ago, a territorial dispute resulted in a spinal injury. He lost the full use of his rear legs and control of his bowels. Even so, I figure his resale value increased by a few bucks. Muffin does not jump on the furniture anymore.


Offer Muffin a scrap of cheese and you can teach him calculus. Once, I tried to demonstrate for a roomful of friends how Muffin was recovering.

"He has a new trick," said I confidently. "Watch."

Muffin sniffed intently at the treat in my hand and strained to stand up. A glistening turd dropped to the floor. Applause.

When I filed my flight plan on the phone, I mentioned Muffin to the briefer and wondered if he should be counted as an SOB (not what you think -- "Soul On Board").

"Livestock," he replied laconically. "Goes in 'Remarks.'"

Muffin was in his fifties, so to speak, and we both have mellowed. He does not go after the German Shepherds anymore, and I have quit horsing around in the sky.


    Cycle the prop. Check magnetos. Call the tower.
"Three-Seven Romeo is ready on the left."

"Three-Seven Romeo, Runway One-Niner Left, cleared for take-off. Downwind departure approved."

"Rollin'," spoke I into the microphone. That phraseology has gone out of style, but what the hell.

Perched on top of my flight bag in the right seat, Muffin watched the runway lights spread apart and accelerate past our side windows. The Cutlass lifted off and the scene seems to slow down and fall away. Muffin growled in surprise then chirped with delight.

    Gear up. Turn downwind. Establish a climb. Tune in Paradise VOR. Check engine instruments. Everything is in the green. Scratch Muffin under his chin.
"Three-Seven Romeo, frequency change approved," said the tower. "Have a good flight."

"Thanks." I punched the radio selector and called Ontario Radio to open my flight plan.

"Roger, Three-Seven Romeo, activating your flight plan at :18 past the hour. Muffin enjoying the ride?"

"He's checking for traffic."

    Altitude, 9,500. Close cowl flaps. Trim for cruise. Lean mixture. Read temperature. Correct airspeed. Set course. Dim panel lights. Scan sky.
"Go ahead and take a snooze, Muffin. I've got it."

Night air can be utterly smooth. The sensations of flight vanish in the stillness. Even the steady drone of the engine loses its hold on one's senses. To remind myself of reality, I must dink the controls now and then. Tonight I am numbered among the privileged few in this century who go aloft to float among the stars. For the next hour, high above the desert floor, I have an opportunity to experience the pure contentment of real flying. Far from my mind were all of life's vexations.

Except one: Muffin's spinal infirmities -- and the prognosis.

Muffin held on for only a few months after that flight. Never complained. The scruffy SOB really liked to fly. That's what I'll remember.

The visibility is unlimited in the still air. Ahead, the hills are silhouetted against the lights of a sprawling city. Interstate 15 is marked by its Friday-night string of tail-lights twinkling across the desert floor, through the pass, and into Las Vegas.

    Start descent. Trim for top-of-the-green.
Muffin, rousted by the rise in sound level, yawned and shook himself the way dogs do. Livestock, indeed.

Mr. Mellow might as well do everything right tonight. I turned up the volume on the nav-aid, "di-dah-di-dit, di-dah, di-di-dit." That means Muffin and I have acquired "LAS" and can fly the needle straight to McCarran International.

Over Mesquite Lake, I called Las Vegas Radio and closed my flight plan.

"Roger, Three-Seven Romeo. Flight plan closed. What kind of a dog you got up there?"

"Defective cockapoo."

"Never heard of it."

"Discontinued model."

"Las Vegas altimeter two-niner-niner-six."

Doing better than 150 knots, the Cutlass would soon penetrate the TCA (terminal control area). I changed frequencies to call Approach and received an immediate entry clearance and squawk code. No traffic on the radio at this hour. Other pilots and their passengers are already at the tables.

    Twenty miles to go. Fold chart.
"Nobody knows I'm bringing you, Muffin," I said, stroking his curly coat. I began thinking up a prank to play on the line-boy: After shutting down the engine and all the lights, I could crawl back into the luggage compartment and leave Muffin in the front seat: Pilot-in-command.

Grow up, I tell myself.

Las Vegas, "The Meadows," was arrayed before Muffin and me. There was the famous Strip. The "Downtown" section lay off to the north, a confusion factor for visitors from Manhattan, no doubt. Beyond that is North Las Vegas Airport. Further east is the flashing green-white-white signal of Nellis Air Force Base. The lights get brighter. Everything is as it should be.

"Three-Seven Romeo, confirm you're at 7,000."

"That's affirmative," I replied. A minute passed. What must have been obvious to the controller finally dawned on me: We're coming in mighty high.

"Descend at pilot's discretion, Three-Seven Romeo. Do you have the airport?"

Quick scan.  Needle is centered.
McCarran should be... wait a minute.  Where is the airport? "Uh, negative," said I casually. "Me and my dog are both lookin', though."

"Twelve o'clock, ten miles. Report airport in sight."

A hundred times I've done this: There's Flamingo Road;  there's Tropicana, which runs along the north boundary of the airport, so... "You got it yet, Muffin?"

"This is embarrassing," I mused over the radio. "For some reason, we're having trouble seeing your little airport tonight."

Muffin clicked his paws against the side window. Suddenly, there's McCarran International all spread out underneath me and Muffin. Not ahead, straight down!

The cabin speaker crackled before I have a chance to key the mike: "How we doin' up there, Three-Seven Romeo?"

"I have the airport in sight, if that's what you mean."

"That doesn't surprise me," said Approach, pulling my chain. "You're overhead McCarran. Contact the tower. Have a good evening."

A perfect flight was sullied by my lapse in planning the descent.

    Throttle closed. Drop the gear. Switched radios.
"McCarran Tower, Cutlass Five-Five-Three-Seven Romeo, overhead at 5,000."

"Three-Seven Romeo, Runway One-Niner Right, cleared to land."

The airport is a half a mile straight down. This calls for a long downwind leg, the full length of the Strip. Turning back toward the airport, we would then be making what amounts to a gentle, straight-in approach.

But not tonight.

All at once, I am seized by the whoopee factor.

"This one's for you, Mutt," I rasped. Muffin growled amiably. I put the flap handle in the full down position and picked up the microphone.

"Mind if I make my base from here?" asked I over the radio.

"This, I must see," said the tower controller.

One minute, you have a befuddled old throttle-codger groping around in the dark talking to his wretched pooch. The next minute, you got Mr. Hot Shit and his wonder-dog, about to execute a sophisticated 'deep-stall' approach. At night! So much for 'mellow'.

Hauling the control wheel back, I forced the plane to slow up, like reigning in a flying horse. The airspeed drops off to a whisper. Then back still more until the stall warning sounds. Muffin cocked his ear and barked.

"Duly noted, Muffin. Just remember which one of us goes around snarling at pit-bulls."

The plane trembles and starts to mush. I can feel the air boiling over the wings. For now they are nothing but aluminum ornaments. Down we go like an express elevator in the black sky, descending through the height of two Empire State Buildings.

    Ailerons flat. Easy on the rudders.
Shuddering down, ears popping. About five stories above Tropicana, I relaxed the back pressure to break the stall. The nose drops toward the ground. Muffin takes notice, wide-eyed.
    Sixty-five knots, Pull back and flare. Runway coming up. Ching-ching.
"Not bad, Three-Seven Romeo," chuckled the guy in the tower. I hear applause and cat-calls in the background. "Turn right at taxiway Uniform."

Muffin yawned and shook himself the way dogs do.

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