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Sunday, July 23, 2017

(11) EVEN MORE TERRIFYING WAS THE TURBULENCE THAT SEIZED OUR TWIN COMANCHE.


     Ted invited me for a ride in his Super Cub. Even let me sit in the front (it has tandem seats) and fly it myself. Once I got the hang of the stick control, I felt like my friend, Early Bird Roy Waite, who had little to rely on but needle, ball, airspeed, and the seat of his pants.
     "Hey, Mom, how would you like to try a spin?"
     "No, thank you."
     "Aw, come on, it's exciting. Think of how impressed your friends will be. It's like a roller coaster, only better."
     "No, no, and no," I said.
     "Just a little one. You don't want Dad to think he has more nerve than you, do you?"
     "What do I hang onto?"
     "Atta girl! Stay with the controls and follow through when she begins to spin."
     "I think I'll just hang onto my seat."
     Ted stalled the Cub and rolled into a steep bank. The plane's nose pointed directly at the earth, the horizon disappeared. Why had I agreed to this madness?  When Ted finally pulled out of the spin, he said that was just an itty‑bitty one; next time he'd show me some real spins, the way he did with Dad. My eyes hadn't yet returned to their sockets and he was talking about real spins.
     I stopped at the office to make an appointment with Bruce.  The next day at 1:30 was the only time he had available.
     "Well . . . I have a hairdo appointment in Boston."
     My instructor made it clear that anyone who would sit cooped up in a beauty parlor when she could be flying in a plane like Ted's Super Cub must be out of her mind. "What's wrong with your hair, it looks fine!"
     "Okay, okay, I'll be there." Miss June squeezed me in between customers, so I arrived in Norwood on time, breathless but beauteous.
     Bruce's greeting: "Now, isn't this a better way to spend your time than having your hair done?"
     "It so happens," I said "that I had my hair done."
     "Oh‑oh," said Bruce.
     Someday I’ll walk in there wearing one of those beanies with a propeller on top and a rotating beacon—that would get his attention.
     Bruce enjoyed the lesson as much as I did. Some of my first takeoffs would have to be seen to be believed. The Cub had a will of her own—let up for an instant and she put her head down and made for the woods. I finally began to catch onto her wayward personality, coaxing the wheels down on the snow covered runway, brooking no nonsense from the rudders. Stick forward, tail up for the takeoff, watch her nose—don't let her drift to the left—easy on the right rudder or you'll have too much of a good thing. Now I could feel her flapping her wings impatiently; back with the stick, and up she went.
     "That's the way!" I heard Bruce shout over the roar of the engine. "Now you've got it!"
     Deelightful!
                                                                                                                                             
     For weeks Ed had been saying he was going to take advantage of the long holiday weekend and visit his father in the Keys. Solo, he said. Without me.
     How did I react to being left behind with the housework, the laundry, and the snow shoveling? I told Ed it was a great idea; it would be good for him to spend a couple of days relaxing with his folks. “No, I won't be lonesome, I'll get along just as I do when you’re away on business.”
     He next announced that I was to go with him. He could live without me during the day when he was busy fishing with his father, "but what am I gonna do at night?" He'd even steal a couple of extra days so we could have almost a week. It hardly seemed like a good time for an argument.
     I flew the first leg to Wilmington, North Carolina. It was getting dark when we arrived, and I dislike flying at night, but since I wasn’t speaking to Ed, I couldn't protest against continuing. I wasn’t speaking to him because he was critical of my landing. I told him (before I stopped speaking) that if he'd kept his hands off the wheel we'd have bounced only once instead of three times.
     As we flew on through the darkening sky I began worrying about how, in an emergency, we would find a safe place to land among the winking lights on the black-carpeted earth. There were numerous airports along our route, but few with lighted runways, and how could you spot one in a hurry? Suddenly Ed grabbed the flashlight and exclaimed, "What the devil's wrong here!"       
     "Wh‑what do you mean, what's wrong!"
     As Ed jerked at the throttles, the red rays from his flashlight gleamed on the nose of our plane, suffusing it with a glow that looked like a fire under the hood. Oh, great.
     "I don't know," he said, directing the beam toward our altimeter. "For a minute I thought we were losing power, but I guess we were just in a climb."
     "Automatic rough," they called it. This condition affected a smoothly running engine only at night, changing the sound waves en route to the pilot's ear from a purr to a sputter. I informed my husband that four more hours of automatic rough would make me an automatic ex-pilot, and would he kindly land at the next airport.
     Charleston was ten minutes ahead of us, a very long ten minutes during which I was either casting suspicious looks at our airspeed or gazing morbidly at the unpromising vista beneath us: sparkling cities surrounded by black voids.
     As we neared Charlestown, Ed was told by a regretful voice, "Sorry, sir, our lights are not operating at the present time; we're in the midst of installing lights on the other runways."      
     How far to the next airport? Seventy miles? I was contemplating a nervous breakdown when the man spoke up again. He had just learned runway lights would be available.
     Ed made a perfect landing, but I decided to overlook it. He probably wasn't being intentionally disagreeable. This morning he flew down to the Keys to go fishing with his father, will be back tomorrow night. I have forgiven both him and the Comanche for being so difficult.
Fort Lauderdale
circa winter 1963
     Ed had to take a day from our vacation to jet back to Boston on business, so I decided to fly to Gainesville for a visit with my brother and his family. After we had lunch together, Dick, Dixie, and the little Dickenses drove me back to the airport.
     Noting that the skies had changed from broken clouds to overcast, I stopped in at Flight Service to check the weather between Gainesville and Fort Lauderdale. Locally we had a ceiling of 1000 feet with scattered rain showers, but in the direction I would be heading, I could count on improved visibility and rapid clearing.
     Should I stay at 1000 feet or on the ground? The Flight Service Specialists were helpful, but they wouldn't give advice.
     I waved goodbye to my brother and his family and took off. I had flown only a short distance when buckets of rain began splashing against my windshield. It was hard to see where I was going with a bucket of rain in the way. I regretted not being able to welcome Ed back from Boston, but decided to return to Gainesville. The young men at Flight Service congratulated me for not being too proud to change my mind. "Some pilots think that once they've left the ground, they're committed to go on, come hell or high water. They'd rather die than turn back—and sometimes they do."
     I took a cab to the nearest motel. I would have felt lonesome and sorry for myself if I hadn't had Moppet to keep me company. It rained all night and all morning. By 2:00 p.m. I was stir-crazy despite Moppet's efforts to divert me with finger-biting, sandal-chewing, and staring contests. One could take just so much of sitting in a motel room, staring at a poodle. So I called Ed, to whom I cheerfully had said a few hours earlier, "Oh well, c'est la vie, I'll probably be able to fly out this afternoon," and I said, "How come you haven't called me to see what's happening, I might have to spend the rest of the week here, boo‑hoo, why don't you get on a jet and come rescue me?"
     Two boo‑hoos later Ed promised to come as soon as he could climb out of his swimming trunks and into a taxi. He left the house at 6:00, caught a flight that took him from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to Tampa to Gainesville, landed at 10 minutes past midnight. "Could've walked faster," he said grumpily.
     We got up at 5:30, took off an hour later, were in instrument weather for five minutes, then beautiful VFR skies the rest of the flight.
    "Now if you had your instrument rating. . . " Ed said.
     Our next flight was a little too adventurous.  We were on our way home from Florida, flying via the instruments through a layer of stratus clouds over-hanging the tobacco fields of North Carolina. We had seen little of the ground since our departure two and a half hours earlier. Ed was in continuous contact with the Air Route Traffic Control Center, but I wondered if the fellows down there had a clue as to what it was like up here. Rain had turned to sleet that was clattering with a relentless din against the windshield; beads of ice lined our wings; the bumps were getting bumpier.  Moppet left my lap and crawled under the seat.
     As we continued on into worsening weather, the Comanche lurched and rolled like a ship in a typhoon. Streaks of lightning flashed all around us.
     "Honey, I don't like this," I said, wishing I could join Moppet. Did she remember when we were both thrown out of this plane?  "Let's turn around."
     "I don't like it either," Ed said "but we can't deviate from our flight plan without getting a clearance."
     "Well, for Pete's sake, get a clearance, then!"
     At that moment my eyes fell on the airspeed indicator. It had gone out of its mind, the needle racing around the dial so fast it looked like a miniature propeller. I couldn't have been more stunned if our automatic pilot had started singing Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat.
     My vocal cords inoperable, I could only point at the whirling needle. Ed, attempting to raise the Center, grimly nodded his awareness, his hand already reaching for the pitot heat. Quickly scanning the rest of the panel, we found some reassurance in the normal appearance of the rest of the instruments.
     "Washington Center, this is Comanche seven zero five zero Yankee, requesting permission to descend to four thousand feet."
     And now my heart stopped again as one of our engines coughed and stuttered . . . carburetor icing!  Ed applied carburetor heat; for a minute the oxygen starved engine continued to run raggedly, then falteringly took hold. Meanwhile, the airspeed indicator had stopped spinning and was back on the job.
     "Do I understand you wish to descend to four thousand feet?" a voice inquired languidly
     "Good Lord, yes!" I said.
     "Affirmative," Ed said calmly.
     "Stand by, five zero Yankee."
     We "stood by" while all hell broke loose. An avalanche of sleet battered us from every direction. The ice bordering our wings had thickened, the added load reducing our airspeed to 110 knots. Forked bolts of lightning illuminated the gloom beyond our wingtips, followed by ear‑ and nerve-shattering salvos of thunder.
     Even more terrifying was the turbulence that had seized our 3600-pound Twin Comanche and was shaking it as a ferret would a rabbit. I had been doing enough reading on meteorology lately to have some knowledge of the destructive force of mature cumulonimbus cells that sometimes lurked in stratus clouds.
     Wondering how long the plane would hold together, I leaned back in my seat, half resigned to our fate. The Comanche plowed on through the storm, her remaining engine still sputtering erratically. Lightning flared again, this time so close we could see its jagged outlines through our frost‑ coated windshield.
     "Ed, it's getting worse!" I came to life and sat upright. "To heck with the rules, let's get out of here!"
     "Washington Center, this is five zero Yankee. How about that clearance, I've got thunder and lightning and everything else up here."
     Permission granted at last (had we been waiting an hour or was it only sixty seconds?), we began our descent. As we broke through the overcast, never did tobacco fields look more beautiful.

                                      ED CHECKS GAS ON TWIN COMANCHE; CO-PILOT SUPERVISES.   
                                                       
     We landed at nearby Salisbury, waited an hour for the local thunderstorms to move eastward, took off into blue skies and VFR weather. Pretty tame, we agreed. We liked it that way.

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